The Education of Henry Adams: A Library of America Paperback Classic

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9781598530605: The Education of Henry Adams: A Library of America Paperback Classic
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"The pleasure of reading the Education is . . . the pleasure of seeing history come alive, of seeing it move, of seeing behind history to the actions and actors. It is the pleasure of seeing revealed the humanity so often concealed in history." -Alfred Kazin

Henry Adams was one of the most powerful and original minds to confront the American scene from the Civil War to World War I. Though a man of the modern world, Adams remained in temperament a child of the 18th century, his political ideals shaped by his presidential ancestors, great-grandfather John Adams and grandfather John Quincy Adams. The Education of Henry Adams is both a brilliant memoir and a profound meditation on the extraordinary developments in science, politics, religion, and society that so transformed the world as he knew it.

For almost thirty years, The Library of America has presented America's best and most significant writing in acclaimed hardcover editions. Now, a new series, Library of America Paperback Classics, offers attractive and affordable books that bring The Library of America's authoritative texts within easy reach of every reader. Each book features an introductory essay by one of a leading writer, as well as a detailed chronology of the author's life and career, an essay on the choice and history of the text, and notes.

The contents of this Paperback Classic are drawn from Henry Adams: Novels, Mont Saint Michel, The Education, volume number 14 in the Library of America series. That volume is joined in the series by two companion volumes, numbers 31 and 32, Henry Adams: History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and Henry Adams: History of the United States During the Administrations of James Madison.

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Many great artists have had at least intermittent doubts about their own abilities. But The Education of Henry Adams is surely one of the few masterpieces to issue directly from a raging inferiority complex. The author, to be sure, had bigger shoes to fill than most of us. Both his grandfather and great-grandfather were U.S. presidents. His father, a relative underachiever, scraped by as a member of Congress and ambassador to the Court of St. James. But young Henry, born in Boston in 1838, was destined for a walk-on role in his nation's history--and seemed alarmingly aware of the fact from the time he was an adolescent.

It gets worse. For the author could neither match his exalted ancestors nor dismiss them as dusty relics--he was an Adams, after all, formed from the same 18th-century clay. "The atmosphere of education in which he lived was colonial," we are told,

revolutionary, almost Cromwellian, as though he were steeped, from his greatest grandmother's birth, in the odor of political crime. Resistance to something was the law of New England nature; the boy looked out on the world with the instinct of resistance; for numberless generations his predecessors had viewed the world chiefly as a thing to be reformed, filled with evil forces to be abolished, and they saw no reason to suppose that they had wholly succeeded in the abolition; the duty was unchanged.
Here, as always, Adams tells his story in a third-person voice that can seem almost extraplanetary in its detachment. Yet there's also an undercurrent of melancholy and amusement--and wonder at the specific details of what was already a lost world.

Continuing his uphill conquest of the learning curve, Adams attended Harvard, which didn't do much for him. ("The chief wonder of education is that it does not ruin everybody concerned in it, teachers and taught.") Then, after a beer-and-sausage-scented spell as a graduate student in Berlin, he followed his father to Washington, D.C., in 1860. There he might have remained--bogged down in "the same rude colony ... camped in the same forest, with the same unfinished Greek temples for workrooms, and sloughs for roads"--had not the Civil War sent Adams père et fils to London. Henry sat on the sidelines throughout the conflict, serving as his father's private secretary and anxiously negotiating the minefields of English society. He then returned home and commenced a long career as a journalist, historian, novelist, and peripheral participant in the political process--a kind of mouthpiece for what remained of the New England conscience.

He was not, by any measure but his own, a failure. And the proof of the pudding is The Education of Henry Adams itself, which remains among the oddest and most enlightening books in American literature. It contains thousands of memorable one-liners about politics, morality, culture, and transatlantic relations: "The American mind exasperated the European as a buzz-saw might exasperate a pine forest." There are astonishing glimpses of the high and mighty: "He saw a long, awkward figure; a plain, ploughed face; a mind, absent in part, and in part evidently worried by white kid gloves; features that expressed neither self-satisfaction nor any other familiar Americanism..." (That would be Abraham Lincoln; the "melancholy function" his Inaugural Ball.) But most of all, Adams's book is a brilliant account of how his own sensibility came to be. A literary landmark from the moment it first appeared, the Autobiography confers upon its author precisely that prize he felt had always eluded him: success. --James Marcus

From the Inside Flap:

'I cannot remember when I was not fascinated by Henry Adams, ' said Gore Vidal. 'He was remarkably prescient about the coming horrors.'
His political ideals shaped by two presidential ancestors--great-grandfather John Adams and grandfather John Quincy Adams--Henry Adams was one of the most powerful and original minds to confront the American scene from the Civil War to the First World War.
Printed privately in 1907 and published to wide acclaim shortly after the author&'s death in 1918, The Education of Henry Adams is a brilliant, idiosyncratic blend of autobiography and history that charts the great transformation in American life during the so-called Gilded Age.
With an introduction by renowned historian Edmund Morris.

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