Henry Brooks Adams

views updated May 09 2018

Henry Brooks Adams

The American historian and author Henry Brooks Adams (1838-1918) lived in an era of remarkable change and recorded the implications of the period with great perception. He is best known for "Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres" and "The Education of Henry Adams."

Henry Adams was born in Boston on Feb. 16, 1838, the fourth of seven children of Charles Francis and Abigail Brooks Adams. Henry's mother was the daughter of one of Boston's wealthiest men; his father was the son of John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States, and the grandson of John Adams, second president. The boy grew up in a household which contained Boston's largest private library and in which politics and history were perpetually present.

Entering Harvard in 1854, Adams proved himself an able student, but the proffered reward of high class standing did not tempt him to become a conformist even in this period of rigid college regulations. He wrote for the Harvard Magazine, acted for the Hasty Pudding Club, and at his graduation in 1858 was chosen Class Day Orator. Although he had learned far more than a reader of his autobiography might imagine, he graduated without academic distinction. In the autumn he traveled to Germany, intending to study law at the University of Berlin. When he discovered that his German was inadequate for university study, he entered a gymnasium (secondary school) for one semester. He toured Europe for 2 years, sending reports to a Boston newspaper.

Private Secretary

When Adams returned to America in 1860, he became private secretary to his father, newly elected to Congress, and again arranged to act as correspondent for a newspaper in his native city. The plans of father and son were abruptly altered in March 1861, when President Lincoln appointed the elder Adams minister to Great Britain. By the time the new minister and his private secretary sailed, Southern forces had fired on Fort Sumter and the Civil War had begun. Henry thought of seeking a commission, but his elder brother Charles, himself in the army, urged him to remain in England and advance the Union cause as a writer. Whether or not the reports Henry published in the New York Times and elsewhere contributed to the war effort is an open question, but the 7 years he spent with his father in England unquestionably contributed greatly to his education. He met Sir Charles Lyell and John Stuart Mill and at their urging read the works of Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer; in the course of time these influences would reorient his thinking on politics, economics, and science. During this period Henry Adams published three long and promising articles in the influential North American Review.

The Educator

Adams returned to the United States in 1868 and settled in Washington, where he reported on the political scene for the Nation and for some newspapers. The Adams family was accustomed to wielding power, and he doubtless dreamed from time to time of holding high office, but the political realities of Washington in the "gilded age" seem to have brought him quickly to the conviction that his role would be that of critic and commentator rather than political leader. His brilliant, acerbic articles were soon making him famous and men in and near the White House infamous. In the autumn of 1870 he reluctantly quit Washington for Boston to become editor of the North American Review and assistant professor of history at Harvard.

At Harvard, Adams's teaching assignments were concentrated in the medieval period, but his methods were modern and innovative, emphasizing student participation rather than lectures, and critical understanding rather than the memorization of names and dates. In 1872 Adams married the wealthy and intelligent Marian Hooper and took her to Europe for a year-long wedding trip. This was the beginning of the happiest and most productive period of his life— a period which, ironically enough, he omits entirely from his autobiography. By 1876 he was ready to offer his Harvard students a course on the history of the United States from 1789 to 1840. From that course he developed materials for the books upon which his reputation as a historian rests: Documents Relating to New England Federalism, 1800-1815 (1877); The Writing and The Life of Albert Gallatin (1879), a classic political portrait; John Randolph (1882); and the monumental History of the United States during the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison (9 vols., 1889-1891).

Observer and Critic of Society

Adams resigned as editor of the North American Review in 1876 in an election-year dispute with the loyal Republican publishers. The following year he left Harvard and settled with his wife in Washington, where he could more easily pursue his historical research. In 1879 they returned to Europe, spending much of the winter in London, often in the company of their close friend Henry James. Before their return to America in the fall of 1880, an anonymous novel treating the political and social life of Washington appeared under the title Democracy; Adams's authorship of this sprightly piece was to remain a well-kept secret until 1909.

Living in Washington again, the Adamses established their own little court—a splendid circle of sentimental cynics which included John Hay and his wife, the brilliant geologist and writer Clarence King, and the aging senator Don Cameron and his wife, Elizabeth. Elizabeth, always a favorite of Adams, served as the model for Catherine in his second novel, the pseudonymous Esther (1884). The title character was based on Adams's wife, and it is a tender and touching portrait. In 1885 Marian Adams's father died; she sank rapidly into a manic-depressive condition and on December 7 committed suicide. "For twelve years I had everything I most wanted on earth," Henry Adams wrote to a friend; suddenly he seemed to have nothing.

Six months after his wife's death, Adams and the artist John La Farge set out for Japan. Adams returned in time to stand by his father's deathbed in November 1886. He went to Washington next and completed the History. More travels followed, notably a trip to Polynesia, again with La Farge, in 1890. One of the native women Adams admired provided materials for Memoirs of Marau Taaroa, Last Queen of Tahiti (1893). From the South Seas the writer-traveler journeyed to France.

In 1904 Adams privately printed Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, a classic study of the architecture, thought, and spirit of the Middle Ages (a trade edition appeared in 1913). In this book the Virgin of Chartres stands as a symbol of 13th-century unity. For his next major work he also found a dominant symbol in France: the dynamo he observed at the Paris Exposition of 1900 somehow expressed for him the "multiplicity" of the 20th century. This was the subject of the book for which he is best remembered, The Education of Henry Adams (private edition 1907; published 1918). Customarily called his autobiography, it is really the history of an era.

Adams spent his last years in Washington, surrounded by nieces and visited by a new generation of America's social and political elite. He approved of President Wilson's decision to enter World War I because he hoped it would lead the country into a permanent Atlantic alliance. Adams died quietly in his home on March 26, 1918. He was buried in Rock Creek Cemetery beside the grave of his wife with no marker save the beautiful statue he had commissioned Augustus Saint-Gaudens to execute for her.

Further Reading

Ernest Samuels's exemplary biography in three volumes is the standard authority: The Young Henry Adams (1948), Henry Adams: The Middle Years (1958), and Henry Adams: The Major Phase (1964). J. C. Levenson, The Mind and Art of Henry Adams (1957), is rigorous and thorough. George Hochfield, Henry Adams: An Introduction and Interpretation (1962), is also useful. □

Adams, Henry Brooks

views updated May 17 2018


Writer, novelist, and historian; b. Boston, Mass., Feb. 16, 1838; d. Washington, D.C., March 27, 1918. He was descended on both sides from wealthy and distinguished New England ancestors, two of whom were presidents of the United States. He was raised as a Unitarian, but rejected his Protestant orientation because he felt it was complacent ("Boston had solved the universe ") and unrealistic ("all the problems which had convulsed human thought from earliest recorded time were not worth discussing"). His most significant effort in a lifetime of inquiry was to understand and recover the religious instinct.

At Harvard College (185458) he was influenced by Louis Agassiz to devote himself to the intellectual life. He sailed for Germany to study law, but decided to become a writer instead. He returned to America in 1860, and served as private secretary to his father, Charles F. Adams, who had been reelected to Congress. When the elder Adams was appointed minister to Great Britain, Henry accompanied him to London (186168). To strike the strongest blows for reform, he became a freelance journalist and covered the Washington political scene (186870). He was appointed assistant professor of medieval history at Harvard (1870) and was named editor of the North American Review (187076). In 1872 he married Marian Hooper.

In 1877, Adams moved back to Washington, where he devoted himself full time to writing and to his self appointed function as "stable-companion to statesmen."

The next eight years were highly productive. He started the monumental History of the United States during the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison (9 v. 188991), which has been hailed by some as the greatest work of its kind since gibbon's. He was also an able biographer, author of Albert Gallatin (1879), a study of Jefferson's secretary of the treasury, and John Randolph, a partisan view of the brilliant Southern spokesman. In later life Adams returned to biography, publishing The Life of George Cabot Lodge (1911). Both of his novels were published anonymously. Democracy, An American Novel (1880), a best-selling succès de scandale, was a satire on the Washington of his time, centering on the career of Mrs. Lightfoot Lee. Esther (1884) also features a cultivated and charming heroine, probably modeled on his wife, who makes an earnest but futile effort to accept a religious view of life.

His wife's suicide in 1885 was a severe blow to his psychic equilibrium. Although Adams was by nature an inveterate traveler, his journey to Japan (1886) with his close friend, artist John la farge, was meant, in part, to be recuperative. With La Farge he visited Hawaii, the Pacific Islands, Australia, and Europe (189092). This journey occasioned one of his most interesting and curious volumes, Memoirs of Marau Taaroa (1893), a history of Tahiti from a non-Western perspective, revised and reprinted (1901) as Memoirs of Arii Taimai E. During the 1890s he spent much of his time abroad, traveling from the Near East to Russia and Scandinavia. In his mid 60s he undertook the completion of his two most important booksMont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1902), a study of medievalism rather than medieval history, and The Education of Henry Adams (1906), at once an intellectual autobiography in the third person and a study of 20thcentury multiplicity. Both books were privately printed. "The Rule of Phase Applied to History" (1908) and "A Letter to American Teachers of History" (1910) were collected along with an earlier essay, "The Tendency of History" (1894), in The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma (1919). In 1912 he suffered a heart attack, but recovered sufficiently to go to France, where he remained until the outbreak of World War I. In 1918 he returned to Washington and died there.

Adams was not generally regarded as a literary figure until Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres and The Education won an audience after his death. He prophesied the "darkening chaos of the modern world" in The Education, predicting the moral bankruptcy of a materialistic society. Using the 12th century, presented poetically and passionately in Chartres, as a touchstone by which to judge the 20th century, he looked with nostalgia at the unity of that far time, the Middle Ages, and with fear at the "multiplicity" of the time to come. The Virgin was the chief symbol in his studies of 13th-century unity, "the point of history when man held the highest idea of himself as a unit in the unified universe"; the Dynamo symbolized 20th-century multiplicity, marked by a "great influx of new forces violently coercive" and "rapid in acceleration."

Bibliography: j. blanck, Bibliography of American Literature, 4 v. (New Haven 195563) v.1 contains a descriptive listing of separate editions. Literary History of the United States, ed. r. e. spiller et al., 3 v. (New York 1948) v.3 and its Bibliography Supplement, ed. r. m. ludwig (New York 1959), the best general bibliography. h. adams, Letters of Henry Adams, 18581918, ed. w. c. ford, 2 v. (Boston 193038); Henry Adams and His Friends, ed. h. d. cater (Boston 1947). w. c. ford, ed., A Cycle of Adams Letters, 186165, 2 v. (Boston 1920). e. samuels, The Young Henry Adams (Cambridge, Mass. 1948); Henry Adams: The Middle Years (Cambridge, Mass. 1958); Henry Adams: The Major Phase (Cambridge, Mass. 1964). e. stevenson, Henry Adams, a Biography (New York 1955). w. h. jordy, Henry Adams: Scientific Historian (New Haven 1952). j. c. levenson, The Mind and Heart of Henry Adams (Boston 1957). y. winters, In Defense of Reason (New York 1947).

[j. schwartz]

Adams, Henry (1838-1918)

views updated May 14 2018

Henry Adams (1838-1918)


Historian, writer

Illustrious Family. Born in Massachusetts in 1838, Henry Adams was descended from a long line of distinguished American statesmen. His great-grandfather John Adams and grandfather John Quincy Adams had both served as president of the United States, and his father, Charles Francis Adams, was a congressman and diplomat. His childhood instilled in him a belief in the virtues of public duty and political service, and as a youth he had little reason to doubt that he, too, would advance to national public office as an adult. Adams graduated from Harvard College in 1858, traveled and studied in Europe for two years, then served as his fathers private secretary, first in Washington, D.C., and then in London following Charles Francis Adamss appointment as ambassador to the Court of St. Jamess.

A Passion for History. In 1868 Henry Adams returned to Washington and, appalled by the corruption and incompetence of the Grant administration, wrote scathing essays in the North American Review and The Nation that condemned the crass ambitions of the new American capitalism and called for civil-service reform. These articles and other efforts to organize political reform proved ineffectual, and in 1870 Adams left Washington and accepted an instructorship at Harvard. For seven years he taught courses in medieval and American history and began the research and writing that would earn him a reputation as the foremost American historian of the nineteenth century. In 1879 he published his first major book, a biography of Albert Gallatin, Thomas Jeffersons secretary of the treasury, then began working on the monumental History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, which would be published in nine volumes between 1889 and 1891. A classic of American historical writing, the work was an early model of scientific historiography. Rather than telling an entertaining narrative, Adams elected to arrange the facts of the two administrations in sequence and to invite his readers to form their own conclusions. The objectivity of such a method was not absolute, and Adamss history portrays Jeffersons and Madisons efforts as an admirable experiment in popular democracy that failed because of the incompatibility of its ideals with Americas geographic immensity and its fragmentation of culture and identity into sectionalism. The work ends with questions that Henry Adams saw his own generation struggling to answer: What path will the country take? What common ideals and culture will unite a vast society? What goals will the nation seek to attain?

Later Work. Following the suicide of his wife in 1885, Adams withdrew even further from the public sphere. His last two major works, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1904) and The Education of Henry Adams (1907), were initially privately published and not intended for a commercial audience. The first, which takes the form of a travel guidebook addressed from an uncle to his nieces, is a meditation on two wonders of medieval French architecture, the cathedral at Chartres and the monastery on the island of Mont-Saint-Michel, and the moral lessons they offer about the society that produced them. In eleventh-century Norman culture, Adams found a desirable image of unity: a society that through common passion and faith triumphed over hardship to create the enduring art of the cathedrals. Adams saw no such unity in his own time, and his masterpiece, The Education of Henry Adams, documents his struggles to come to terms with the changing political and cultural character of mid-nineteenth-century America. He perceived a degenerative moral movement in the country from the optimistic democratic vision of Thomas Jefferson to the crassness and decadence of the administration of Ulysses S. Grant. In the process Adams found himself dispossessed of the traditional role of his statesmen forbears and alienated from a world that seemed to have lost the virtues of culture, civility, and public service. Against the Virgin Mary, an older symbol of unity and feminine wisdom, he contrasts the image of the dynamo, a masculine force of energy, power, and motion that he saw as characteristic of his own age. Adamss works are read today primarily as reflecting the philosophical and social concerns of his generation and class at a time when American cultural and political authority was passing from the Colonial-era patricians of New England and Virginia to the capitalists and party-machine newcomers of the Gilded Age. A year after his death in 1918, Adams received the Pulitzer Prize for The Education of Henry Adams


Elizabeth Stevenson, Henry Adams: A Biography (New York: Macmillan, 1955).

Adams, Henry Brooks

views updated May 18 2018

Adams, Henry Brooks (1838–1918) US historian and writer. A direct descendant of John Adams and John Quincy Adams, his best-known work is The Education of Henry Adams (1907), an ironic analysis of a technological society.

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