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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   

9. Social

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Authors: Henry Adams (1838-1918)

J. Alexander, Cookie’s Row, Villa No. 3
[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].

Henry Adams Activities
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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.

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