Henry Adams: The Last American Aristocrat

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The Last American Aristocrat: The Brilliant Life and Improbable Education of Henry Adams by David S. Brown is published by Scribner, which is part of Simon and Schuster Publishing.

Henry Adams is a name that is inescapable in studies of American history. Getting past the name and the innumerable references to him has not been an easy task for me. The question is whether the fault lies with Mr. Adams, with me, or with the education I received.

Adams was the grandson and great-grandson of the sixth and second Presidents. His recent ancestors both suffered defeats at the polls in their efforts to win re-elections, but both had careers of such accomplishments that their Presidencies can be slightly overlooked like a few bad dreams.

Neither John nor John Quincy have ever struck me as people I would want to go back in time to share an evening with. Stuffy, arrogant, uppity, and certainly aristocratic, neither exemplified the traits I would find enjoyable. They were not good ole boys of Southern upbringing.

At the same time that I might personally feel distant from the Adams family, I am continually impressed by the education, moral character, and work ethic of the two Presidents. David McCullough’s biography of John Adams convinced me against my druthers of what a man of character he was.

The pedigree carried clout. Henry’s father, Charles Francis Adams, served as ambassador to Britain under President Lincoln. At a later time, his name was tossed around as a Presidential candidate. But the changes in American campaign politics didn’t provide a venue for the Adams’ style.

Henry Adams became best known as an author and historian. The book that is most often mentioned or quoted in American history contexts is The Education of Henry Adams. After hearing about it for years, I read this somewhat autobiographical account of Adams’ life from the really fine Library of America volume. It was named by the Modern Library as the best English-language non-fiction book of the 20th century.

While the book was enjoyable in places, I found myself continually puzzled by Adams’ cynical, whining, and self-deprecating attitudes and observations. This man had a treasured heritage and upbringing. He was part of the American elite, the heir of a honored name and title, a part of the Boston brahmin class, a definitive WASP, and as the biography labels him, an aristocrat–in a democratic society.

He was able to work alongside his London-based father during the Civil War, which certainly beat having to slog along the roads with Grant’s army. The doors to the best of education were all open to him, but he seemed to disdain the discipline or culture of those settings. Washington, Boston, London, and other parts of Europe were open to him.

Certainly, there were plenty of things for the social critic to fault during his lifetime, but his own personal experiences exceeded those of 99.9 percent of American, and he was a complainer.

Or maybe I just didn’t understand The Education of Henry Adams. For that reason, I welcomed the opportunity to read this biography, The Last American Aristocrat. One can’t help but be impressed by the circles, contacts, and events in the life of Adams. He was well educated and cultured, at home with political leaders, sought after by prominent people, financially able to live the best of lives, but once again, he came across in the book as a dissatisfied, complaining, and unappreciative man.

He was a faithful husband in a challenging marriage. His wife had numerous health and mental problems. He was a successful author. He wrote several novels, usually anonymously. I took it upon myself to read the one titled Democracy, which is also found in the Library of America series. It was a surprisingly good story of the inner workings of Washington politics.

He became best known for multi-volumes on the histories of the administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. (I was puzzled as to why he didn’t write about his own forefathers’ administrations.) These works gave him recognition as one of the premier historians of his day. And, having never been assigned any of the older historians’ works in my studies, I began reading his History of the Administration of Thomas Jefferson. Other events have stalled out that venture, but from the portion I finished, I was once again struck by his abilities.

I believe David Brown’s biography is a good one. I also believe that whatever problem I have with Henry Adams lies deeper than trying to find out about his life or gather a few insights into his literary labors. I would welcome professional or amateur historians to explain to me what I am missing when I try to place Adams in the roll call of great or influential Americans.

Perhaps it is that I am suffering from not having read Mont Saint Mihel and Chartes, which was inspired by his visits to cathedrals in France. My journey, with its unpleasantness and irritations with Henry Adams, is not quite over.

The Last American Aristocrat
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