The book opens with the birth of Henry Adams, "[u]nder the shadow of the Boston State House," in the third residence below Mount Vernon Place on February 16, 1838. Adams briefly refers to his heritage as the great-grandchild of one United States President, John Adams (1735-1826) and the grandson of another, John Quincy Adams (1767-1848). Presenting his early childhood in a series of impressions, he contrasts Boston, where he spent winters, and Quincy, the nearby (seven miles south) summer home and residence of his paternal grandparents. Three events strike the narrator as especially significant: a bout of scarlet fever beginning December 3, 1841; an incident of discipline from the "President" (his name for his paternal grandfather, John Quincy) when the boy was six or seven; and John Quincy's paralyzing stroke on February 21, 1848, which brought the grandfather's death later that year.
The Education of Henry Adams is not an autobiography as much as it is the biography of an education. The narrator, in his late sixties, refers to his younger self in the third person. In his "Preface," he introduces the metaphor of a manikin, which represents Henry Adams. The various garments draped across the manikin represent his education. The reader will find wit but little passion and less private information in the book. In fact, the narrator will simply skip twenty years (1872-1892) during which Adams was married and his wife committed suicide. In this opening chapter, the reader is introduced to the initial educational impressions of a boy who seems exceptional only by birth.
"Probably no child, born in the year, held better cards than he," Adams writes. Yet the reader is almost immediately told that the world which Adams enters is rapidly changing. It is a world of contrasts. Contrast will prove to be a favorite device of the narrator throughout the book. Here, he sets Boston against Quincy in terms that a child understands. Boston is winter, unity, restraint, rules, confinement, and discipline. Quincy is summer, liberty, diversity, sensual delight, hope, and a touch of outlawry. Quincy is the home of his beloved paternal grandfather, John Quincy, who quietly but forcefully takes six-year-old Henry's hand one morning and marches him to a summer school session that the boy resists, a lesson in responsibility even in Quincy.
Vigor contrasts with illness. Shortly before his fourth birthday, Henry develops scarlet fever and nearly dies. He blames it for his diminished physical stature (barely five feet three inches tall as an adult) and delicate nerves. Shortly after Henry's tenth birthday, his grandfather John Quincy suffers a stroke. His death effectively ends the first chapter of the boy's education. Henry has learned the joy of sights, sounds, and summer play, along with the grim realities of illness and impending death.
The reader begins to suspect that he will not find, here, a traditional definition of "education." Adams lets on that it has little to do with schooling. He describes a schoolmaster as "a man employed to tell lies to little boys," foreshadowing his lifelong criticism of formal education, including that offered by a college as prestigious as Harvard.
troglodytic like prehistoric people who lived in caves; also, a person who prefers seclusion.
ennui boredom, as from inactivity.
Cromwellian revolutionary; after Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), English political leader.
Cain Old Testament son of Adam & Eve; he killed his brother Abel (Genesis 4).
imbued permeated or inspired, as with emotions, ideas, and so on.