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date: 18 October 2017

Adams, Henry

Henry Adams's paternal great-grandfather and grandfather were, respectively, the second and sixth presidents of the United States. His father, Charles Francis Adams, was among the distinguished diplomats of his time, serving as American ambassador to Great Britain during the Civil War. Henry Adams himself, however, did little public service. He published several books, was a distinguished editor and college professor, and spent most of his life at the center of Washington's social world, living in an elegant mansion almost as close to the White House as he could get without actually living in it. To the general public, however, he was far better known for his name than for who he was.

In The Education of Henry Adams (1907), the book for which Adams is best known, he wrote that “probably no child” born the same year as he “held better cards,” but he “was born an eighteenth-century child,” scrupulous about morals in a world where successful people were more likely to be scrupulous about investments. He watched his country abandon its ethical constraints in a frenzied scramble for material success. In the process, the Adams name, he felt, become a nostalgic memento of the past.

A Child of Privilege

Had Adams's family been almost any but the one it was, he would have had difficulty presenting himself as a failure; but he did, after all, spend his childhood certain that he would someday be president. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, on 16 February 1838, he graduated from Harvard University near the top of his class in 1858, followed by travel in Europe and legal studies in Germany. His maternal grandfather, among Boston's wealthiest men, left his grandson a substantial fortune that eliminated the need for gainful work.

In 1861, Adams's father became the United States minister to the Court of Saint James, a post he held for seven years, during which the son served as his private secretary. Henry Adams's position left him time to travel and to begin a career in journalism. While friends and classmates fought on Civil War battlefields and then began the task of reconstructing the Union, he toured Scotland, Italy, and other scenic places and wrote articles on British economics, Pocahontas, and Darwin. Returning to the United States in 1868, when he was thirty, he wrote and published well-regarded articles on American finance and politics. Two years later, he became an assistant professor of history at Harvard, a position he held until 1877. In 1871, he and his brother, Charles Francis Adams Jr., published Chapters of Erie, dealing with financial scandals in the management of American railroads. In 1877, Adams began to work on a biography of Albert Gallatin, secretary of the treasury under Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and on an edition of Gallatin's writings; both appeared in 1879.

In 1872, Adams married Marian Hooper, the daughter of a distinguished Boston physician. After Adams resigned from Harvard, they lived in Washington at the center of social and political life. Marian became the model for the title figure in Adams's novel Esther, which he published in 1884 under the pseudonym Frances Snow Compton. The book sympathetically portrays the independent or “new woman,” in late-nineteenth-century America, but it also rejects conventional religious and spiritual beliefs. In both social and theological matters, Adams would have appeared deeply controversial to his contemporaries.

In 1884, Henry and Marian Adams engaged Henry Hobson Richardson, a celebrated architect who had been among his classmates at Harvard, to design a townhouse across Lafayette Square from the White House. The house was receiving its final touches on 6 December 1885, when Marian, depressed over the recent death of her father, killed herself by drinking chemicals she used in her work as a photographer. Some have speculated that Adams's distant, ironic nature contributed to his wife's suicide, but there is no direct evidence of this. In fact, all accounts indicate that it had been a strong marriage and that Adams was devastated by her death. He rarely spoke of her during the rest of his life, and The Education does not mention her, skipping from 1871 to 1893, including the years of their marriage.

Adams's other writings during the 1880s are often somber or deeply serious, mingling desire for freedom with a bleak historical and spiritual vision. His major work in these years was the nine-volume History of the United States during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (1889–1891), considered one of the monuments of historical writing. The principal issue with which he dealt is the degree to which individual freedom is possible or permissible. “The Federalist leaders [in Massachusetts],” wrote Adams, “had more difficulty to restrain than to excite the people, and felt themselves strong enough to assume the air of cautious and conservative men.” The freedoms desired for the new nation by the author of the Declaration of Independence were not universally celebrated, and, wrote Adams, “the great mass of Federalists wished at heart no more harm to the country than to overthrow and humiliate Jefferson, and to cripple Madison from the start.”

Men like Jefferson and Gallatin had looked forward to a time when the “vast creative power” of the American people “might rise to the level of that democratic genius which found expression in the Parthenon”; but Adams lived in an era in which he saw all around him a very different kind of democratic genius—one that had, with a greed unparalleled in the history of the Republic, funneled wealth and power into the hands of a few. Adams's History was an obituary for American ideals.

Corruption in the Republic

Earlier, Adams had published anonymously a novel, Democracy (1880), which taught the same lessons but had a much larger readership than the History. In part, the novel's popularity can be attributed to the fact that it is a roman à clef, revealing intimate details of life in the capital that only an insider could know. The novel concerns a wealthy and well-connected widow, Mrs. Lightfoot Lee, who moves to Washington “bent upon getting to the heart of the great American mystery of democracy and government.” She is not merely a student of politics, however; she wants a place in it: “What she wanted,” says Adams, “was POWER.”

Mrs. Lee gets more than she bargains for as she watches the corruption of men in public life unfold before her. One diplomat tells her at the beginning of her quest:

I declare to you that in all my experience I have found no society which has had elements of corruption like the United States. The children in the street are corrupt, and know how to cheat me. The cities are all corrupt, and also the towns and the counties and the States' legislatures and the judges. Everywhere men betray trusts both public and private, steal money, run away with public funds.

As the coauthor of Chapters of Erie who had seen one less-than-sterling president follow another, Adams knew that the diplomat had good reason to speak as he did. In the course of the novel, Mrs. Lightfoot Lee learns how accurate he is, realizing ultimately what power had become in her own day:

Had she not penetrated the deepest recesses of politics, and learned how easily the mere possession of power could convert the shadow of a hobbyhorse existing only in the brain of a foolish country farmer, into a lurid nightmare that convulsed the sleep of nations? … She had got to the bottom of this business of democratic government, and found out that it was nothing more than government of any other kind.

Her conclusion, which Adams shared, was deeply shocking to many readers in the 1880s and undoubtedly would have been even more so had the author's identity been known. Adams had no taste for notoriety, however; he not only published his novels pseudonymously but also printed the books for which he is best known, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1904) and The Education, at his own expense and circulated copies only among friends. Adams was preeminently an aristocrat in temperament, with little apparent wish or need for public acclaim. As a young man living in London, he had acquired a British accent that he never lost, and his reserve and irony made him seem formidable even among friends. His public persona was perhaps his response to a democracy that had despaired of its ideals.

This man of immense reserve and intelligence, living across from the White House and studying its occupants with little confidence in their abilities, was the close friend of some of the most powerful figures of the day, notably John Hay, Lincoln's private secretary and the secretary of state from 1898 until 1905. Adams informally advised Hay on foreign policy, a fact unknown to the public, but in general he had little political influence. The Education in effect is an attempt to explain why.

A Victim of History?

Adams's life, as recounted in The Education of Henry Adams, was a weave of failures and false starts that served him mainly to show how ill prepared he had been for the world in which he lived. He presented himself in The Education as profoundly self-aware and well-intentioned, but defeated by a historical moment ruled by values he did not share. His relationship to his era was, therefore, ironic: he knew many who achieved great power while he himself, burdened with principles, was unable either to enter into the struggle for power or to relish the rewards that accompanied the little power that came his way.

As Adams admitted in The Education, he changed almost nothing in the world of public affairs, yet his significance elsewhere was considerable. Out of his conflict with his age, he developed penetrating, if at times bitter, insights into the motivations behind successful contemporaries. Adams imagined a historical process that ran counter to the notions of laissez-faire capitalism proposed by the economist Adam Smith, who had written that self-interest drove the ambitious to create a dynamic economy through which everyone benefited. As Adams understood it, however, the laissez-faire capitalist benefited primarily himself.

Emerson argued in his essay History (1841): “There is one mind common to all individual men. Every man is an inlet to the same and to all of the same…. Who hath access to this universal mind is a party to all that is or can be done, for this is the only and sovereign agent.” The “universal mind” found its expression in the individual, and therefore, “All history becomes subjective; in other words, there is properly no history; only biography.” Adams's historical works follow that conclusion, focusing strongly on individuals. In The Education, the life of a failed man—as Adams felt himself to be—is shown to exemplify historical process as fully as the lives of those who succeed.

Adams was not an Emersonian (the Adams family, he wrote, “had little or no affinity with the pulpit, and still less with its eccentric offshoots, like…the philosophy of Concord”), but Emerson's view of history, centering on the individual while recognizing history as a transcendent force, is remarkably close to Adams's. Emerson was the most respected American intellectual during Adams's youth, and even if the Adams family kept its distance from “eccentric offshoots,” they could hardly avoid Emerson's ideas: these were discussed everywhere, and it is not surprising to see them reflected in Adams's work.

The Education is not an autobiography, but it uses elements of the author's life to explain a historical moment from which he was largely excluded. History is seen through the example of the author himself; he is not a player in a laissez-faire struggle of self-interested individuals but the representative victim of historical developments through which older, morally guided politics lost their control over public life. Failure though he was in his own eyes, Adams can present himself as what Emerson called a “representative man,” illustrating in his life the history of his times as amply as those who created it.

More important to Adams than Emersonian notions of history was Charles Darwin. Adams read On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) soon after its publication and claimed to be “a Darwinist before the letter.” Although he had not the scientific training to defend or refute Darwinism and felt its conclusions had to be accepted on trust, he followed the general trends in science in the late nineteenth century, which argued that the human will was not a prime mover in the universe. He viewed the dynamo, which he first saw at Chicago's World Columbian Exposition in 1893, as the “moral force” at the core of the modern world. Significantly, that force was not human; its power was abstract and absolute. It was also indifferent to human moral principles.

Adams's grandfather and father, leaders in the antislavery movement, believed in an immutable moral law at work in the universe that ensured that in the end things would work out for the best, but this moral law was inadequate for a generation permeated by corrupt politics and business. Adams retained the notion of history driven by moral force, but he reconceived that force to be something that could as easily serve an individual's greed as lead to human betterment. No government, including a democracy, was likely to change that. Adams labeled himself a “conservative Christian anarchist”—“conservative” reflecting his temperament, “Christian” identifying his values, and “anarchist” freeing him from full commitment to any one political or system, including the one that had passed him by.

An heir to Calvinist doctrines that viewed the world as essentially predetermined, Adams constructed a secular determinism in which history as a force could, with frightening ease, annul the ambitions of individuals. In this way, Adams escaped from responsibility, from his dilemma as one who should have done much but who, according to his own standards, had achieved little. Born two years after the publication of Emerson's Nature—the consummate expression of American individualism—Adams remade Calvinism for a secular world. God, in his cosmology, was essentially historical force.

Adams and the “New Woman”

Adams wrote in The Education that “American art, like the American language and American education, was as far as possible sexless.” He noted that few American artists had “insisted on the power of sex” and singled out Walt Whitman as one of the few exceptions. Obviously Adams was overlooking many writers—his friend Henry James is a case in point—but certainly among American historians, none before him had “insisted on the power of sex.” His own life was apparently for the most part celibate. Adams's biographers discuss his late friendship with Elizabeth Sherman Cameron as if that intimacy, together with his marriage to Marian Hooper, were enough to explain his sexual nature. Yet Adams did not marry until he was thirty-four, and after his wife's suicide fourteen years later, he never again lived with a woman except for his nieces and the other young women who cared for him in his old age. Whatever his sexual nature, for most of his life he had no intimate companion.

Adams, however, viewed the Virgin Mary as a transcendent force that motivated society and gave it purpose during the late Middle Ages. She is the subject of his Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, in which he argued that in the twelfth century, she became a figure more powerful and sweeping in her authority than the Trinity:

Not only was the Son absorbed in the Mother, or represented as under her guardianship, but the Father fared no better, and the Holy Ghost followed. The poets regarded the Virgin as the “Templum Trinitatis”; “totius Trinitatis nobile Triclinium.”… The Trinity was absorbed in her.

The great Gothic cathedrals of medieval France became her royal seat: “Man came to render homage or to ask favors. The Queen received him in her palace, where she alone was at home, and alone gave commands.” The petitioner, Adams showed, survives at the will of the monarch, but the monarch survives at the will of no one but herself. She is the supreme deity, but her power is maternal and sexless.

In the United States, neither the Virgin nor any other woman had such power:

Why was [the woman]…unknown in America? For evidently America was ashamed of her, and she was ashamed of herself, otherwise they would not have strewn fig-leaves so profusely all over her. When she was a true force, she was ignorant of fig-leaves, but the monthly-magazine-made American female had not a feature that would have been recognized by Adam. The trait was notorious, and often humorous, but anyone brought up among Puritans knew that sex was sin. In any previous age, sex was strength.

Adams himself was among those “brought up among Puritans,” and it should not surprise one to find in him the same reserve toward, or fear of, women that Adams found in his compatriots. Edward Chalfant states in his biography of Adams's final years, Improvement of the World (2001), that Adams was a “normal male” who “differed sexually from other males only in having strong wishes and more than usual energy.” Chalfant may be right if by “normal” he means that Adams was not homosexual, but Adams's essentially solitary sexual life remains an enigma, especially in light of his reverence toward women in his writings. Chalfant argues that Adams thought Marian Hooper was “irreplaceable,” but that does not explain away the solitude, broken only by brief encounters with Elizabeth Sherman Cameron, that Adams chose for the last thirty-two years of his life.

Observations like this would be idle were it not that Adams's theories of historical process are tightly interwoven with his notions of sexuality. His Virgin offers release only to those who allow their identities to be subsumed in hers. She requires submission and in this way destroys her penitents, or at least their independence, at the same moment that she protects them. Why, then, did Adams consider the Virgin's power to be desirable, as he clearly did, in his understanding of the Middle Ages? Something in his deepest nature seems to have hungered for the kind of submission he felt the Virgin required.

Chalfant begins his three-volume biography of Adams by saying, “Henry Adams was set apart from other human beings mainly by having always known he mattered,” but in reality, he seldom mattered much at all. American history would not be much different if he had never lived. He was not, as he saw it, in control of his fate, and one may speculate that both his submissive sexuality and his deterministic view of history were entwined with his failure to become what, as a child, he had imagined, or had been led to believe, he should become. At the same time, he needed to explain that failure if he were not to leave the world as a mere descendant of famous men.

Although Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres and The Education see history, or its embodiment in the Virgin and the dynamo, as a power to which one can only submit, the books themselves required a master of language, and in this Adams achieved a freedom from the yielding, deferential, compliant role that he wished to believe history had set out for him. In his writings, he could become the subject of his own rhetoric rather than merely the subject of events.

Art gave Adams a way to deal with the apparently inflexible power of history. The Education transforms history into a personal style and is less a record of what happened than a record of his impressions and how they were formed. The facts of history become material for language: thus, he writes: “[Theodore] Roosevelt, more than any other man living within the range of notoriety, showed the singular primitive quality that belongs to ultimate matter—the quality that medieval theology assigned to God—he was pure act.” Whatever Roosevelt actually did and was, he had become material for Adams's stylistic brilliance.

Adams distanced himself from his readers in The Education by never referring to himself in the first person. His subject is a character named “Adams,” who is born into a world to which he does not belong and who is rarely in control of his circumstances, but Adams the writer was in full control, shaping his sentences with a mastery of nuance that made him one of the great stylists in the language. The biological Henry Adams gave place to a literary construction named Adams. The world thereby shifted, becoming no longer a sequence of events as such but a literary narrative in which the author could both explain away his failures and reveal his mind and insights to be far more brilliant than those of people who had taken a place in the world that, in another age, might have been his. Roosevelt might reveal “the singular primitive quality that belongs to ultimate matter,” but it was Adams who had the sophistication and wit to say it.

In The Education, and to some degree all of his writings, Adams was concerned with history, politics, and economics as essentially aesthetic problems. The Virgin and her nineteenth-century parallel as historic force, the dynamo, gave a culture order, and it was this essentially aesthetic quality that intrigued Adams. He did not study history in order to change it—he was too much a determinist for that; rather, he took pleasure in its design, and that design in turn found its expression in the perfectly modulated sentences of his prose.

History as Art

Adams commissioned the leading American sculptor of the day, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, to create a statue to mark Marian's grave at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C. The statue, which is widely considered St. Gaudens's masterwork, was immediately famous, and many people visited it every day. In The Education, Adams noted that “Like all great artists, St. Gaudens held up the mirror and no more”; people saw in the statue what was already in themselves. Thus, “[t]he interest of the figure was not in its meaning, but in the response of the observer,” and since observers felt they saw in it “the expression…of despair, of atheism, of denial,” Adams concluded: “The American layman had lost sight of ideals; the American priest had lost sight of faith.”

Adams suggested here much about his own perceptions, for that layman who “had lost sight of ideals” was one with those who had most succeeded. Further, Adams aligned himself here with the discourse of fin-de-siècle aesthetes such as Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, who believed that works of art were not themselves moral and that their “meaning” would be whatever the observer found in them. Pater argued in Studies in the Renaissance (1873) that art is understood and interpreted through “one's own impressions,” and one person's impressions are not another's. Aesthetics, in this view, allows one to make of the work of art what one wills. This is the antithesis of the determinist's vision.

History, as Adams understood it, decisively shaped an individual's destiny but, at the same time, remained open to aesthetic perception and presentation. History may have removed Adams from even the possibility of achieving power and position, but he had his revenge, transforming history into art. In turn—this is the lesson St. Gaudens's statue illustrated—as art, history was whatever an individual might make of it, and Adams quite likely made more of it than any other American of his time.


Chapters of Erie and Other Essays (1871)Find this resource:

Title Documents Relating to New-England Federalism (1877)Find this resource:

The Life of Albert Gallatin (1879)Find this resource:

The Writings of Albert Gallatin (1879)Find this resource:

Democracy: An American Novel (1880)Find this resource:

John Randolph (1882)Find this resource:

Esther: A Novel (1884)Find this resource:

History of the United States of America during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (1889–1891)Find this resource:

Historical Essays (1891)Find this resource:

Memoirs of Arii Taimai e Marama of Eimeo, Teriirere of Tooarai, Teriinui of Tahiti, Tauraatua i Amo (1901)Find this resource:

Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1904)Find this resource:

The Education of Henry Adams (1907)Find this resource:

A Letter to American Teachers of History (1910)Find this resource:

The Life of George Cabot Lodge (1911)Find this resource:

Letters to a Niece and Prayer to the Virgin of Chartres (1920)Find this resource:

Letters of Henry Adams (1930–1938)Find this resource:

Henry Adams and His Friends; A Collection of His Unpublished Letters (1947)Find this resource:

The Making of a History: Letters of Henry Adams to Henry Vignaud and Charles Scribner, 1879–1913 (1959)Find this resource:

The Letters of Henry Adams (1982–1988)Find this resource:

The Correspondence of Henry James and Henry Adams, 1877–1914 (1992)Find this resource:

Further Reading

Adams, Henry. A Henry Adams Reader. Edited by Elizabeth Stevenson. Garden City, N.Y., 1958. This anthology of selections by one of Adams's earliest biographers provides an excellent introduction for those encountering his work for the first time.Find this resource:

Blackmur, R. P.Henry Adams. Edited by Veronica A. Makowsky. New York, 1980. Blackmur spent forty years on this sympathetic study of Adams's imaginative thought in Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres and The Education.Find this resource:

Chalfant, Edward. Both Sides of the Ocean: A Biography of Henry Adams, His First Life, 1838–1862. Hamden, Conn., 1982. This and the following two volumes now constitute the standard resource.Find this resource:

Chalfant, Edward. Better in Darkness: A Biography of Henry Adams: His Second Life, 1862–1891. Hamden, Conn., 1994.Find this resource:

Chalfant, Edward. Improvement of the World: His Last Life, 1891–1918. Hamden, Conn., 2001.Find this resource:

Contosta, David R., and Robert Muccigrosso, eds. Henry Adams and His World. Philadelphia, 1993.Find this resource:

Decker, William M.The Literary Vocation of Henry Adams. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1990. Examines Adams's attempts to find literary means to convince his readers of his social and political acuity.Find this resource:

Dusinberre, William. Henry Adams: The Myth of Failure. Charlottesville, Va., 1980. Adams's invention of the persona and legend through which he presents himself and his culture.Find this resource:

Levenson, J. C.The Mind and Art of Henry Adams. Stanford, Calif., 1957. Levenson, editor of Adams's letters, wrote the initial version of this book as his dissertation, but it stands with Blackmur as one of the best critical introductions to Adams.Find this resource:

Samuels, Ernest. The Young Henry Adams. Cambridge, Mass., 1948. Samuels's three-volume biography has been superseded by Chalfant's but remains one of the great interpretative studies.Find this resource:

Samuels, Ernest. Henry Adams: The Middle Years. Cambridge, Mass., 1958.Find this resource:

Samuels, Ernest. Henry Adams: The Major Phase. Cambridge, Mass., 1964.Find this resource: