The Education of Henry Adams

16 April 2005

You may want to skip this first bit and just read the questions at the end of this entry, which I’ve highlighted in bold. Or maybe just skip the whole thing…

For book group this month, I selected the autobiographical The Education of Henry Adams, a book I’ve been intending to read it for nearly a decade. There is much to be valued in The Education of Henry Adams. Unfortunately, it takes several hundred pages to find it.

The first fifty pages describe Adams’ life as a boy in Boston during the 1840s. He was born into a life of prestige and privilege; his grandfather had been a President, as has his great-grandfather. Our boy Henry spent his youth playing boyish games and resenting school, as boys are wont to do. He grew up, studied at Harvard, and then spent a couple of years wandering Europe.

During the next stage of his life — and for the next two hundred pages of the book — Adams found himself in the center of, but not actively participating in, the political turmoil of the 1860s. When the Civil War broke out, he was in London acting as his father’s private secretary. (His father was ambassador to England.) He witnessed first-hand a lot of the diplomacy involved between Britain and both the U.S. and the Confederacy.

The final two hundred pages of the book are devoted to Adams’ developing “Dynamic Theory of History”, and an extended meditation on the past as it relates to the present and, ultimately, the future.

The Education of Henry Adams is a fascinating book. However, the second section is daunting: it’s a swampy morass of names and dates and places, and events only obscurely hinted at. It’s difficult to read. (I longed for a hypertext version, or some sort of annotation.) In fact, only Bernie and I finished the book. Most of the other member barely made a dent in it, swallowed whole by the impenetrable diplomacy of 1860s London.

Because it was my book, and because I realized it was a difficult read, I made thorough notes, and prepared several questions to ask. Fortunately, these weren’t needed. The group was able to enjoy a fine discussion about the nature of education, anyhow.

I was sad, though, that I didn’t get to use the questions I’d prepared:

1. One recurring theme in the book is the contrast between the 18th and the 20th centuries. Adams was born in 1838, but his life — because of his family, his city, his culture — was firmly rooted in the 18th century. Society as a whole, however, was rushing headlong toward the 20th century, a place for which he felt ill-prepared. Think of you own life. What changes have you seen that boggle your mind, that make you feel even a little bit unprepared for what is to come. Could any education possibly help you prepare? (For example, it seems almost like science fiction that I can take a thin computer and, nearly anywhere in Portland, connect to a global network granting me instant communication — written or verbal — to anyone, and access to instant information.)

2. Adams continually professes his lack of education, yet he must be reckoned one of the most educated men our country has seen. He was born to a life of privilege, educated at Harvard, spent his life moving in circles of great men and women — politicians, statesmen, artists, writers, scientists — travelled probably more extensively than any of his contemporaries (he travelled the entire United States, Mexico, Canada, the West Indies, all of Europe — including Scandinavia — Russia, China, Japan, Egypt, and an around-the-world boat trip), and, perhaps most importantly, he was present for some of the most important moments of nineteenth century history. What does it say that a man with this much Education feels uneducated? What is education?

3. The Education of Henry Adams was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. The Modern Library named it as the most important book of non-fiction produced in the United States during the twentieth century. It’s considered an integral part of the Western Canon. Yet William James, the noted psychologist, when asked has to proof the book before publication, found it as dull and tedious as many of us do. James praised certain passages, but disliked the manner in which Adams treated history, his tendency to gloss. What makes this book great? What makes it awful?

4. Throughout the book, especially toward the end, Adams shows a remarkable ability. He is able to project to the future based on the course of the past. For example, in his discussion of the changing role of women in chapter 30, he notes that the woman of 1900 is unrecognizable when compared to that of 1840, and seems to acknowledge (tacitly) that suffrage must occur in the next forty years. He makes similar accurate forward-looking statements regarding the role of automobiles, regarding the course of Russian history, regarding the use of electricity. What do you think our world world will be like in sixty years? What trends, apparent from the past couple decades, will become fully realized? (Note: Adams makes a terrible prophecy in the book’s last paragraph, guessing that in 1938 the world will be a peaceful place. Heh.)

5. Adams seems to believe there are two primal forces in our lives, those he calls the Virgin and the dynamo. When he speaks of the Virgin, he speaks of the power of women in society, both in terms of their sexuality and in terms of their minds (which he finds superior to those of men). Women represent family, society, and unity. When he speaks of the dynamo, he speaks of the power of technological progress, of new technology. The dynamo represents progress, and power, and multiplicity. All other aspects — including the role of men (as in males) — are secondary. He does not make this suggestion in jest. What do you think of this dichotomy between the Virgin and the dynamo? (Adams’ poem: Prayer to the Virgin of Chartres, which includes Prayer to the Dynamo.)

6. To Adams, the Virgin represents order, coherence, and unity, not to mention spirituality. The dynamo represents chaos, change, and multiplicity. He believes that the fabric of society is gradually unravelling. Civilization is disintegrating. He wrote: “Some day science may have the existence of mankind in its power, and the human race may commit suicide by blowing up the world.” Do you think the world is moving toward chaos? Is it moving toward order? Or, all things considered, is it no more ordered or chaotic than it always has been?

7. Henry Adams felt that his eighteenth-century upbringing, with its emphasis on humane letters and strict moral accountability, had ill-equipped him for the twentieth century, with its emphasis on energy, science, and industry. How do you feel your education has prepared your for the world that lies ahead of us?

8. Throughout the book, Adams makes the point that real education does not come by rote, does not come from safe, established modes, but from experience, especially from experience that challenges, that forces him outside his comfort zone. In fact, sometimes — as with his discovery of Beethoven — the learning is accidental. Many other times, the learning comes from moments of emotional crisis or of great passion. These moments seem to teach more than intellectual learning. (Example: his exposure to the genius of Algernon Swinburne.) What experiences have been most educational for you? Which sort of education do you value most?

I have a tendency to pick difficult books (see Proust), but they’re actually the books I enjoy most. I’m sad that the other book group members are unable to persevere, but I cannot say that I blame them!

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