The Last American Aristocrat: The Brilliant Life and Improbable Education of Henry Adams
A certain kind of American pedant — and it’s hard exactly to define, but it is definitely a type — will, given long enough leash, inevitably find themselves (himself, usually, but not exclusively) staring down a Henry Adams preoccupation. The old prick practically lurks in the shadows of eaves in back alleys of American intellectual life, going “Psst! Hey kid! Wanna try some historical pessimism?!”
Like most retail dealers, he’s a lonely type, and few want to linger long with him, even if they take him up on his various offers. From the time of his death in 1918 to our own time various people have taken their shots at defining Adams’s work, his limited but enduring appeal, what the whole artifact of “HENRY ADAMS” means. Arguably, the first intellectual who took the diversion into Adamsiana (a used bookstore in Boston has a section called “Adamsiana” — sure, you can get your Johns and John Quincys and Abigails there, but the real star for the sort of people attracted by that kind of thing is invariably Henry) was Henry Adams himself, as he self-consciously constructed the edifice of HENRY ADAMS.
Perhaps some biography is in order for those who have not made the life choice to learn about this particular intellectual figure. Henry Adams was born in 1838, scion of the Adams political dynasty of Massachusetts which produced two presidents. He had the sort of career made possible by money, pedigree, and the openness of the nineteenth century to men with both (he came to despise money and his times and was quite ambivalent about pedigree, ironically). He assisted his father, who served as ambassador to Britain during the Civil War. He became an important reformist journalist, a novelist, a historian, and an all-around cultural critic. His general theme became the tragic degeneration of American institutions and personalities due to the advance of capitalism and industrialism, which he tied in with the political decline of families like his. He produced his magnum opus, The Education of Henry Adams, a decade before his death — it was only published for mass release posthumously. A statement of historical pessimism and an ambivalent monument to his generation, it entered the American canon.
A little over a century after his death, what does Henry Adams have to offer us? Any intellectual’s legacy risks becoming a whited sepulcher over time, an edifice, an unliving thing. Henry Adams was in the habit of referring to himself as a dead man twenty years before his actual time, and much of his legacy takes the form of unmoving artifacts with few obvious entry points. These include the Adams Memorial in Rock Creek Cemetery, his contributions to the design of the legendarily unchanging exhibits at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and The Education of Henry Adams, distributed to a handful of friends before his death and published posthumously, to be taken or left as it stood.
For an intellectual who came to disdain the academy and made nothing easy for critics, Henry Adams comes to us heavily filtered by generations of academic and critical interpreters. There are not one but two three-volume biographies of the man extant, the first by Ernest Samuels (published between 1948 and 1964) and the second by Edward Chalfant (published between 1982 and 2001). On the opposite end of the reading-time-investment scale, many contemporary readers will have first encountered Adams by seeing his name atop the Modern Library 100 Best Nonfiction Books list, released in 1998 and still circulated around today. The mid-twentieth-century historians and critics of the Consensus School and early American Studies departments, figures like Richard Hofstadter and Digby Baltzell, whose books still bob on the surface of the pond that is the used book market, treated Henry Adams as a touchstone, a symbol every serious reader knew about.
Like many artifacts of American intellectual life, especially those that don’t exactly “move the needle” of contemporary sensibilities, much of what is known about Henry Adams today was handed down directly from the midcentury Consensus School. There’s a vague aura of literary greatness, a remnant of when Henry Adams was a major part of the American answer to early high literary modernism, still around him . . . and a not-so-vague, quite concrete memory of Adams’s bigotry, especially his antisemitism. Midcentury American scholars squared that circle by making Adams a symbol of resistance to modernity, the sort of attitude that could create cultural artifacts of notable depth and power of expression, but that would be undone by its own inflexibility.
David Brown, author of this, the latest biography of Henry Adams, is also something of an expert on those midcentury scholarly types, having written a biography of Richard Hofstadter, the dean of the Consensus School of American historiography that reigned over the profession between the 1940s and 1960s. The Last American Aristocrat is agenda-light. Brown doesn’t seem to be selling much other than that you, the reader, might be interested in this Henry Adams fellow. This reviewer found that position refreshing, but then, he has already invested hours of his life in learning about Henry Adams. It’s hard to tell how much interest this will spark in those coming into the topic cold.
Brown attempts to generate some interest in Adams by presenting him as a prescient contemporary. There are a few pieces of evidence for this. Some are less than persuasive, notably Henry Adams’s late-blooming interest in Russia as a major power and spiritual rival of the west. Arguably, this congrues with contemporary Russophobia (or the minority trend of Russophilia on the far right), but the cultural contexts Adams worked in were so different from Twitter-borne Russiagaters that the prescience involved is trivial. More relevant to the present are the ways Brown presents Adams as a persistent and intentional inventor of a public self. For a person who insisted on privacy as much as Henry Adams did, he went through a number of public personas: the shy inheritor of the family mantle, the rebel against the family mantle, the in-the-know cynical reformer, the amateur man of culture, the bereaved world traveler seeking oblivion, finally the unwilling sage, as presented in The Education of Henry Adams.
Contrasts between the way Adams would retrospectively describe events, especially in The Education, and the way they played out at the time, are a throughline in Brown’s biography. This is perhaps most notable in the way Adams described his time as a history professor at Harvard, where he made an indelible stamp on the institution, as a pointless waste of his and his students’ time. The temptation to ironize a figure like Adams, irascible, self-mythologizing, given both to his own ironization and to ugly blurts that call for retorts, must have been overwhelming for Brown, indeed for any modern who spends much time with the old man, and he admirably resists the urge to overdo it.
This emphasis on self-creation constitutes a relevant take on Henry Adams and an exploration of a notable aspect of his intellectual journey, but Brown’s work shines brightest in illuminating Adams’s world, as opposed to attempting to transpose him into ours. Brown is a deft navigator of Adams’s voluminous correspondence and has an acute and economical way with characterizations of the many characters in his subject’s life: his parents, his brothers, his wife Clover, friends like John Hay and Clarence King. The author describes the political situations in which Adams found himself — Civil War-era Britain, the reform efforts of the “mugwumps” — in ways that break little new ground but that convey the complexities involved, and the ways in which personalities impacted situations in this era of elite politics, with notable aplomb. Readers who enjoy biography as a form will greatly enjoy The Last American Aristocrat irrespective of any previous investment in Henry Adams. He had an interesting life, and Brown captures it well.
It is a happy coincidence that the joys of biography — the immersion in another’s life and times — align with the historiographical lessons Henry Adams still has to impart on future generations. Adams immersed himself in other times and places, most notably in Mont St. Michel and Chartres, his examination of the Norman Middle Ages, a work that still holds value after a century of changes in the historical profession. The great cathedrals of the period he obsessed over were efforts at permanence on Earth. Arguably, so was The Education of Henry Adams, but in only in the most ambivalent way possible: a monument to impermanence. It is an invitation to ponder the universal, the changing, and the interrelation between the two in the scale of a human life. More than any effort at up-to-the-minute relevance could, The Last American Aristocrat delivers a fitting entry point to Henry Adams’s life and intellectual project simply by inviting the reader to engage with — and enjoy — the contrasts and contradictions of one man’s life and work.
Peter Berard, Ph.D. is a writer, historian and organizer in Watertown, Mass. He serves as San Antonio Review’s inaugural Book Review Editor. Read more of his work at Melendy Avenue Review.