The Education of Henry Adams By Henry Adams Summary and Analysis Chapter XIV - Dilettantism

Summary

President Lincoln's re-election in November 1864 confirms the strength of the Union as well as the firm position of the American Ministry in England. In order to improve the health of some of the Adams family, physicians recommend that they spend the winter of 1864-1865 in Italy; Henry serves as their escort for a visit of about six months. The Civil War ends on April 9, 1865, when General Lee surrenders to General Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. On April 14, John Wilkes Booth shoots President Lincoln, who is attending a play at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D. C.; the President dies the next morning. The tourists remain in Italy for the season. Concerned with the Reconstruction and facing a hostile Senate, President Andrew Johnson decides to leave the London Ministry as it is and concentrate on other matters. After his return to England, Henry wonders about a future career and dabbles in the arts.

Analysis

Adams barely mentions the end of the Civil War and spends less than half a page on the death of Lincoln. The first topic was of more interest to him in its earlier progress; the second was, he suggests, of little educational value at all.

Initially, the cursory treatment of the death of Lincoln seems especially odd. Keep in mind that Henry is half a world away from Washington and has not been in the States since the beginning of the war. The one time that he saw Lincoln (Chapter VII), at the Inaugural Ball in 1861, he was not favorably impressed. If Lincoln showed any sign of greatness, Henry missed it. Adams saw "a long, awkward figure," plain, apparently absent-minded, seemingly concerned only about some white kid gloves. It bothered Henry that the new President showed "the same painful sense of becoming educated and of needing education" that Henry possessed: "[N]o man living needed so much education as the new President but . . . all the education he could get would not be enough." (106) Lincoln was a frontiersman, rough-hewn, not at all the aristocratic, sophisticated type of leader that Henry had been raised to respect. It does not yet occur to young Henry that Lincoln might turn his need for education into an asset, continually growing in office. Adams later realizes that his negative assessment was incorrect, but Lincoln is never a man with whom he can identify. Henry does briefly contemplate the assassination, but the narrator of the Education rarely shows passion about emotional matters. All things considered, it is not so surprising that he shows none here.

Such education as he has achieved has eliminated two possible careers for Henry. His father agrees that the young man is not cut out to be a lawyer. As for diplomacy, Henry feels that nothing could ever match the intensity and excitement of his time in London during the Civil War. Writing seems to be the one remaining profession for him — or perhaps editing for the press. However, his experience with the rough and tumble realities of newspaper work has been disillusioning. He will have to wait to see what his return to the States brings.

Meanwhile, Henry's pursuit of education causes him to explore the world of art; but he finds that he has neither the talent nor the taste to be anything more than a dilettante, an admittedly superficial amateur. His pursuit of a small drawing, possibly by the Renaissance painter Rafael (Sanzio, 1483-1520), convinces him that even the so-called "experts" often don't know what they are doing. He decides to dabble in art for amusement and pleasure but with no more serious purpose.

Glossary

brevet a military promotion to higher honorary rank but without higher pay.

Turner Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), English painter.

bric-à-brac small, rare, or artistic objects placed about a room for decoration.

anachronism anything out of its proper time in history, especially earlier than its time.

deferentially in a courteous or respectful manner.

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