Henry Adams's autobiographyThe Education of Henry Adams is widely considered among the best works of English-language nonfiction of the 20th century, though the author is hardly remembered by the general public. Historian David Brown sheds light on this great-grandson of John Adams and grandson of John Quincy Adams and his contributions to American culture.
... [a] thoroughly researched and gracefully written biography ... or Mr. Brown, Adams’s Education is a wonderful source. Its prose is carefully tooled and provides him with epigram after epigram. For Adams’s early years, it is irreplaceable. Mr. Brown’s challenge is to keep Adams’s self-chronicling from taking over the show. With rare exceptions, he does so most ably. And even when Adams runs on, his gift for words makes the lapse forgivable. In fact, sometimes Mr. Brown could allow Adams more running room. He summarizes many of Adams’s articles on politics and other subjects, and for the most part the summaries are judicious and laudably brief. But now and then the reader wants more ... [Adams's memoir] still bears reading. Modern readers will miss a reference or two, although Mr. Brown’s book can help as a guide.
The title The Education of Henry Adams recalls novels like The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. But its structure reverses the classic formula of a charismatic nobody rewarded, in a final turn, with his rightful wealth and pedigree. 'Probably no child, born in the year, held better cards than he,' Adams writes of himself. Just like that, one very useful narrative structure, that of adversity overcome, is ruled out. Instead, Adams tells the story of failing up: he notes, with each unearned success, the bankruptcy of the very distinction between winning and losing ... The pace of the book in its early chapters implies an even distribution of these life incidents across its length, as in a conventional autobiography. But The Education is not conventional, and not even quite an autobiography. Adams usually refers to himself in the third person, adding a grand study of failure to the library of volumes written about his family’s legendary statesmen. Adams saw himself as a passenger in his life, riding his own name ... And so we have, in his book, the eerie double exposure of a person from the distant past almost stepping on our toes as he describes the technological future. 'After so many years of effort to find one’s drift,' Adams writes, 'the drift found the seeker, and slowly swept him forward and back, with a steady progress oceanwards.' When I read the last chapters of the book, I always think of another great work that ends with a delegate of historical time gazing at his own obsolescence: Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Henry Adams, who considered himself 'a child of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,' who washed ashore in the twentieth, knew that he’d glimpsed our world.
The Last American Aristocrat a marvelous new biography by David S. Brown, reveals how dynastic burden shaped the personality and career of the brilliant, bitter and thoroughly unlikable man who brought the prominence of the Adams family, and expectations for the endurance of political legacies, to an ignominious end. In the process it provides a compelling account of America’s transformation in the space of one man’s lifetime, from a Republic where the Adams name meant everything, to an industrialized behemoth that had left him behind ... It’s a tribute to Brown’s talent as a biographer that he enables the reader to feel empathy for a man who expressed so little for anyone else.