Justin Evans's Reviews > The Education of Henry Adams

The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams
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Apr 03, 12

bookshelves: essays, history-etc, fiction
Read in April, 2012

One of the oddest books I've ever read, and am ever likely to read: an autobiography written in the third person, which tells us almost nothing at all about the author/central character, this seems more like a pre-modernist bildungsroman than anything else. The weirdness doesn't end there- Henry Adams spends much of his time philosophizing about history while the narrator (call him Mr Adams) spends most of his time explaining that Henry Adams is a fool who has no idea what he's talking about; Henry Adams involves himself in politics, the academy, and Grand Tourism but Mr Adams rants about the uselessness of politics and the academy, and rolls his eyes at Henry's failure to understand or properly enjoy any of the things he sees while Grand Touring.
As if that's not hard enough to deal with, Mr Adams' assumes that you've already heard of him and all his friends, and that you know what they were about. Sometimes this works okay (for instance, I know a bit about Swinburne and the presidents he encounters); often it doesn't (Henry, Mr King and Mr Hay were clearly very close friends, but what exactly the latter two did, what they believed, and what impact their actions had on the greater world remains a mystery to me). If you're deeply versed in 19th century American politics, you'll probably find his comments on those men and dozens of others amusing and interesting. I am not so versed.
Despite which, this is an amazing, brilliant book, well worth the considerable effort needed to read it, because Mr Adams and Henry Adams are pretty obviously men you would like to spend time with in heaven. One of them, or maybe both, would amuse you with lines such as:
"Modern politics is, at bottom, a struggle not of men but of forces. The men become every year more and more creatures of force, massed about central power-houses. The conflict is no longer between the men, but between the motors that drive the men, and the men tend to succumb to their own motive forces."

and

"Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds."

I don't know, though, if I'd like to spend much time chatting with Adams himself.
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