About The Education of Henry Adams


Sometime after he began writing the Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, Adams decided to create a companion piece, which became the Education of Henry Adams. (For thorough discussions of the inception of the Education, and the history of the text, see Jean Gooder's "Note on the Text," Penguin Classics edition and Samuels', The Major Phase.) The work was completed in 1906 and a private edition of one hundred copies was printed late that year but dated by Adams's "Preface" as February 16, 1907. The avowed purpose of the volume was to provide balance for the Chartres, which considers medieval philosophy and the unity found in the architecture and icons of the cathedrals. The Education deals with the necessary education, scientific method, and modern multiplicity of the early 1900s.

Copies of the book were sent to those discussed in the text, with a request that each strike out anything found objectionable. According to Ernest Samuels, three copies were returned. In a letter dated February 9, 1908, William James, the prominent psychologist and philosopher, and an occasional correspondent with Adams, responded to the work in detail. Although he found the boyhood section "really superlative," he complained that there was a "hodge-podge of world-fact, private fact, philosophy, irony, (with the word 'education' stirred in too much for my appreciation!)." He protests, as many readers have since, that much of the history is merely hinted at, so that the reader is at a loss as to Adams's meaning. Finally, he questions the efficacy of the dynamic theory of history. Perhaps, he concludes, the approach is more suitable to a study of physical existence. No other readers appear to have had the insight or the courage to write so bluntly to Adams.

Charles W. Eliot, the Harvard president who hired Adams as an assistant professor of history in 1870, is treated well in the Education but was annoyed by Adams's condemnation of the institution. He returned his copy, but his comments have been lost. In the company of another professor, he later called Adams and the Education "[an] overrated man and a much overrated book."

When Adams decided to allow posthumous publication of the book, after his stroke in 1912, he sent a corrected copy to Henry Cabot Lodge, president of the Massachusetts Historical Society (to whom Adams gave the copyright), requesting that Lodge look after the text and supervise the publication. Adams included an "Editor's Preface," ostensibly written by Lodge but actually Adams's brief apologia for the work. In it, he states that this is the "author's" sequel to the Chartres and quotes the section of Chapter XXIX in which Adams discusses the two projects. There, Adams finds himself at the "abyss of ignorance," which is his term for the starting point of a new theory of history. Adams sees two dominating points of view in the past several hundred years. The first is unity. The time in history that best exemplified the concept of unity, he says, was the period from 1150 to 1250. It was dominated by Christianity and represented by the works of Thomas Aquinas, the icon of the cross, the exemplar of the Virgin, and the architectural symbolism of the cathedral. He feels that he can best explore this unity by examining two cathedrals of the thirteenth century, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres. A second concept is twentieth-century multiplicity. This is essential to the new scientific methods that Adams admires even as he expresses concern about them. The Education is, he says, the point of relationship from which he can best examine multiplicity. Adams's "Editor's Preface" concedes that Chapter XXIX is preliminary to his theory of history, which he will develop in the closing chapters of the Education. The elaborate ruse of the "Editor's Preface" is typical of Adams, who consistently loved complexity and paradox and went to great lengths to make himself a little more mysterious. How much simpler it would have been for him to ask Lodge to write a preface, or for Adams to write a new preface, replacing or supplementing that of February 16, 1907.

The original preface, accompanying the 1907 private printing, provides the ground rules for the literary experiment that the reader finds in the Education. This is not so much an autobiography as it is the biography of an education. Adams employs some of the techniques of a novelist when he speaks of Henry Adams in the third person and uses symbols, themes, and metaphors to develop his topic in a sometimes-cryptic way. The first important metaphor, which Adams explains here, is the manikin. Adams emphasizes that this book will not be an exercise in ego. The manikin persona simply serves as a three-dimensional geometric figure, according to Adams. Throughout his life, Adams maintained that there was no legitimate place for "I," the "perpendicular pronoun," in respectable writing. In fact, in the Education, he makes no pretense of presenting a complete human being that is himself or anyone else. Rather, the figure called Henry Adams is merely a manikin on which the clothing of education is to be draped, outfit after outfit, to demonstrate whether the attire fits or not; that is, whether the education turns out to be useful. The crucial object of study is not the individual, the manikin, but the clothing, which represents various attempts at education. Consistent with this approach, Adams simply skips over twenty of the most important, personally charged years of his life (1872-1892), never directly mentioning his marriage or his wife's suicide. The reader apparently is to assume that this has nothing to do with "education," but Adams uses the term in such a broad sense that this assumption is impossible. Each reader must decide how detrimental the gap is.

Adams tells his readers that any young man seeking education should expect no more from his teacher than the mastery of his tools. Leaning on the scientific approach that he develops in the Education, he suggests that the student is merely a mass of energy. The education he seeks is a way to economize that energy. The training by the instructor is a manner of clearing obstacles from the path of the student.

The metaphor of the manikin and the motif of education being draped in the manner of clothing are reminiscent of Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, a significant influence on Adams. That essay, published in the United States in 1836, anticipates the Education in its theme that mankind's deepest beliefs have abated and must be replaced by new concepts that fit the times. This is precisely Adams's point in Chapters XXVIII and XXIX when he argues that the height of knowledge is, in fact, the abyss of ignorance. As if to offer a clue, the previous chapter (Chapter XXVII) is titled Teufelsdröckh, "devil's dung," the name of the professor in Carlyle's work. In the Education, Adams is saying that the unity of the Middle Ages has waned; it must be replaced by a dynamic theory that takes into account the multiplicity of a new age.