The Education of Henry Adams By Henry Adams Summary and Analysis Chapter XII-XIII - Eccentricity and The Perfection of Human Society

Summary

After devoting several chapters to diplomatic tensions in London, Adams alters the tone to consider British personalities and the social scene. He sees a propensity for eccentricity in the English character and asks whether this is strength or a weakness. It seems to Adams that eccentrics support the Confederacy. Socially, Henry finds no personal improvement. He challenges the veracity of an acquaintance's observation that the London dinner and the English country-house are "the perfection of human society." Henry sees little of merit in London other than the opera, but he does appreciate the people of Yorkshire.

Analysis

The change of tone allows Adams to direct his attention to English character and social life, which continue to upset him. His prejudices are strong throughout the book, and he does not hesitate to stereotype entire nations. His wit tends toward paradox. Early in Chapter XII, he states that the "English mind was one-sided, eccentric, systematically unsystematic and logically illogical. The less one knew of it the better." This echoes an even harsher observation in the previous chapter, where he contends that the "British mind is the slowest of all minds," as evidenced by the time it takes for the significance of victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg to sink in. The old-world view of Americans, according to Adams, is equally stereotyped; Europeans think of Yanks as having no mind at all. Instead of brains, they possess economic calculating machines.

Another Adams absolute soon follows: that the greatest defect among the English is the enormous waste caused by eccentricity. London intellectuals, especially, are literally the opposite of concentric; they are off balance, seldom centered in the same spot on any two issues. They take delight in being odd or unconventional. It seems a compliment at an English club or dinner table to say, "So-and-So is 'quite mad,'" as if being deranged were indicative of greater genius.

With his penchant for being contrary, Adams challenges this point of view. He poses the question of whether eccentricity is strength or a weakness. Adams feels that many Americans, especially Bostonians, are overly impressed with the English and falsely see eccentricity as a sign of intellectual vigor or even courage. Eccentric English adore the nonconformity of rebellion, most particularly that of the South because it represents revolt against the economic dullards of the Union who had the audacity to cast off British leadership in 1776. Adams maintains that eccentricity is weakness because it is ineffective. It does not get the job done, as evidenced by the failure of the Confederacy and the English eccentrics' bungling attempts to aid the South. Eccentrics also tend to underestimate opponents, especially levelheaded New Englanders. The events of 1863, the battles of the Civil War, as well as diplomacy in England, prove his point: "The sum of these experiences . . . left the conviction that eccentricity was weakness. The young American who should adopt English thought was lost."

Socially, Adams is disappointed to the point of resentment. The official assistant secretary of the Legation, Benjamin Moran, mentions Henry frequently in his diary of the period, suggesting that young Adams strikes a pose of disdain only because he is not accepted: "He was there [at a reception] pretending that he disliked it and yet asking to be presented to everybody of note." This is consistent with the tone of the Education, in which Adams first yearns for a place among the aristocrats and then, not receiving it, says that the "greatest social event gave not half the pleasure" that he could purchase for ten shillings at the opera. When John Lothrop Motley, a historian and later Minister to England, refers to the London dinner and English country-house as "the perfection of human society," Adams sets off on a rant of condemnation toward the English. They would not know a good dinner if they could find one in London and would not know how to order one anywhere. Conversation is eccentric, and any woman who dresses well must be "either an American or 'fast' [of loose morals]." He does like the folk of Yorkshire for their independence and plain good sense. As for the rest of his social experience, he concludes that it adds nothing to the shifting search for an education that he never finds in England.

Glossary

obtuse not sharp or pointed; blunt.

hustings here, a political campaign.

crank informal word for an eccentric person.

sententious expressing much in a few words.

décousu (French) unconnected, disjointed.

toilettes (French) here, dress or costume.

interregnum an interval between successive reigns; a period when a country has no leader.

Patti Adelina Patti (1843-1919), a famous coloratura soprano.

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