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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Social Realism Henry Adams (1838-1918)

[7663] J. Alexander, Cookie’s Row, Villa No. 3 (1968), courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [HABS, DC, GEO, 105-,DLC/PP-00:DC-2].

From his early childhood on, Henry Adams was acutely aware of his heritage as part of the remarkable political dynasty of the Adams family. Both his great-grandfather and his grandfather had served as President of the United States, and his father, Charles Francis Adams, was a congressman and a diplomat. But while Henry Adams maintained a lively interest in politics and moved in powerful social circles in Washington, D.C., all his life, he found his true calling– and lasting fame–as a writer and a historian. Noted in his own time for his essays, biographies, novels, and histories, today Adams owes his reputation primarily to The Education of Henry Adams, his unique autobiographical study of the forces that shaped his own life and nineteenth-century America more generally.

Born in Boston, Adams grew up steeped in the traditions of his family and surrounded by some of the most influential politicians and thinkers of the day. He attended college at Harvard, traveled around Europe after his graduation, and then settled in Germany to study civil law and history. In 1860 he received the traditional family call to political service and took up a post as his father’s private secretary in Washington, D.C. When President Lincoln named Adams’s father, Charles Francis Adams, as his minister in Great Britain in 1861, Henry Adams relocated to London to serve as part of the diplomatic legation. He thus spent the entire Civil War period in England. He learned a great deal about international politics in the process but was constantly troubled by the feeling that he was missing out on participating in the most significant American event of his lifetime. Perhaps in an effort to involve himself in the political and cultural life of his own country, Adams took time away from his diplomatic work to write ambitious essays and reviews that were published in important American journals.

Returning to Washington in 1868, Adams devoted himself to a journalistic career, composing serious political pieces intended to expose corruption and encourage social and economic reform. Corruption and graft dominated American business and politics during President Grant’s administration, however, and Adams was soon disillusioned by his failure to achieve real results. In 1870 he left Washington to serve as a professor of history at Harvard and as editor of the prestigious journal The North American Review. While at Harvard he introduced academic practices borrowed from German universities, such as the study of primary documentary sources and the use of seminar-style teaching.

Adams made a career change once again in the late 1870s, resigning his positions in Boston and returning to Washington to concentrate on historical research and writing. He published two historical biographies and the critically acclaimed nine-volume History of the United States of America during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. This thorough study mixes diplomatic, social, and intellectual history in its examination of early-nineteenth-century America and is still regarded as a formative piece of historical analysis on the period. While he was at work on the History Adams also found time to experiment with novel writing, publishing two works of fiction, Democracy and Esther, in 1880 and 1884, respectively.

In 1885 Adams’s life was shattered when his beloved wife, Marian, committed suicide. He never fully recovered, but in the tradition of his family, refused to give in to grief and pushed on with his research and writing. In the final decades of his life, Adams traveled again to Europe. While in France he was struck by the magnificence and harmonious beauty of the medieval cathedrals he visited, particularly at Chartres. The experience moved him to write Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, a study of medieval architecture and of the spiritual force that energized medieval culture. He developed a theory that medieval society had been unified by the spiritual power of the feminine force of the Virgin, while modern society had sacrificed this unity in its devotion to the chaotic forces of science and technology. His next book, The Education of Henry Adams, served as a corollary to Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres in that it traced the disorder of the modern world by recounting what Adams thought of as his own “mis-education” and sense of uncertainty and failure. By figuring himself as a displaced eighteenth-century soul, unable to make proper use of his impulses toward harmony and civic virtue in the modern chaotic world, Adams eloquently articulated the plight and frustration of the modern American subject. Although both Mont-Saint-Michel and The Education of Henry Adams were originally printed privately and intended only for Adams’s friends, they soon generated wide interest. The Education of Henry Adams was published and released to the public in 1918 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1919, a year after its author’s death.

Teaching Tips

  • Students often comment on the strangeness of Adams’s use of the third person in a work in which he himself is the subject. Ask them to think about why Adams might have chosen this more detached way of writing his autobiography, and about what effect the third person narration has on the reader’s understanding of Adams as a character. You might ask students to write a journal entry about an incident from their own lives in the third person. Have them discuss the experience of writing about themselves in this way. What difficulties did they encounter? How did the use of the third person change their relationship to their own history?
  • Perhaps because Adams found his wife’s suicide so devastating, he is completely silent about the event as he narrates his life. In fact, he never even mentions that he was married. Ask students what effect this absence has on the autobiography and how the knowledge of Adams’s personal tragedy changes their understanding of him. You might have them examine the chapter entitled “Chaos,” in which Adams vividly describes his reaction to his sister’s tragic death. Might this episode be a displaced description of his reaction to his wife’s suicide? How does this encounter with death affect Adams? What conclusions does he draw about life from this experience?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Adams sees the Virgin and the Dynamo as important symbols of their respected ages. What does the Virgin represent? What does the Dynamo represent? What conflict does Adams see between them?
  2. Context: In 1870 Adams wrote an article entitled “The New York Gold Conspiracies,” detailing the scandalous behavior of men like Jay Gould, who bankrupted the Erie Railroad through corporate mismanagement and became involved in a plot to corner the gold market. To Adams’s surprise, the article was refused by the English periodicals The Edinburgh Review and The Quarterly. He was outraged by the power corrupt American businessmen, politicians, and corporations exerted over the free press, even in England: “One knew that the power of Erie was almost as great in England as in America, but one was hardly prepared to find it controlling the Quarterlies.” How does the corporate culture created by the robber barons affect Adams? How does he respond to it in his memoir?
  3. Context: What does Adams mean when he claims in his chapter “The Dynamo and the Virgin” that “The Woman had once been supreme” but that “an American Virgin would never dare command; an American Venus would never dare exist”? What kind of role did women occupy in America in the late nineteenth century, according to Adams? What kind of critique of sexual politics does he offer in this chapter? How does Adams’s view of the limits of the American woman compare to Sarah Piatt’s or Edith Wharton’s views?
  4. Exploration: How does Adams’s autobiography compare to Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography? What concerns do these two writers have in common? What values do they share? How do their attitudes toward spirituality and science compare? What makes the outcome of their lives, and their view of America’s future, so different from one another?

Selected Archive Items

[7482] Irving Underhill, Bankers Trust & Stock Exchange Buildings (1912),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62- 126718].
During the aptly named “Gilded Age,” the richest 1 percent of households held more than 45 percent of the total national wealth, a percent unequaled to this day, although the past twenty years have seen a greater overall widening of the gap between the richest and poorest people in the United States.

[7659] Anonymous, Henry Adams Portrait (1912),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-116560].
Adams maintained a lifelong interest in politics and moved in powerful social circles in Washington, DC. He found his true calling, however, as a writer and a historian.

[7663] J. Alexander, Cookie’s Row, Villa No. 3 (1968),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [HABS, DC,GEO,105-,DLC/PP-00: DC-2].
Photograph of the entryway and front room of a mansion on Cookie’s Row in Washington, DC. This is an example of the formal Victorian mansions occupied by wealthy residents of the nation’s capital at the turn of the twentieth century.

[7664] Anonymous, Potomac Aqueduct ca. 1865,
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [HABS,DC,GEO,1-14].
Photograph of two men talking beside the Potomac River, with the Potomac Aqueduct in the distance. The aqueduct bridge allowed canal boats to travel to Alexandria without having to unload their cargo onto ships to cross the Potomac. It was one of America’s earliest engineering triumphs.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6