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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 299


This is the grave of Henry Adams.

Born in 1838 into one of the nation’s most elite families, if not the single most elite, young Henry was the son of Charles Francis Adams, grandson of John Quincy Adams, and great-grandson of John Adams. Like all of them, he attended Harvard, graduating in 1858. He then took the Grand Tour of Europe, living the life of extreme wealth. He returned to the U.S. in 1860, at the outbreak of the Civil War. He briefly tried the law, but didn’t care for it. However, his father had a big role to play in the upcoming war. Charles Francis asked Henry to be his personal secretary, which brought him to London as his father became ambassador to Britain, where he played a critical role in keeping the British neutral in the war. Henry returned to the U.S. in 1868 where he started working as a journalist. Adams also, wisely, wished the traitor Lee had been hanged, a sentiment far too rare in the U.S. at that time.

Unlike his famed ancestors, Adams did not head for a life in politics. He was more comfortable as an intellectual. And based on that, Harvard named him a professor of medieval history in 1870, despite his lacking any real training in the field. He only stayed for nine years, retiring in 1879 to write. Despite his hiring, he actually became known for his histories of the early United States, particularly his 9-volume History of the United States from 1801 to 1817, covering the Jefferson and Madison administrations. He wrote a couple of novels that as far as I know are totally unread today, did a bit of travel writing, and basically lived the life of the old money Gilded Age elite, summering in Paris and wintering in Washington and traveling in elite circles wherever he was. This was very different from the new money Gilded Age elite, with the ostentation that old elites such as Adams felt nothing but contempt for. He became president of the still pretty new American Historical Association in 1894, which attempted to professionalize the field, a common aim of this time in many fields.

In 1907, Adams published The Education of Henry Adams. Initially just written for friends, this is probably the best vision into the old money elite’s response to the Gilded Age. Some old elites embraced the rough and ready capitalism of the Gilded Age, even if they were uncomfortable with part of it. Think of Theodore Roosevelt’s father as an example, and then the son he raised. They were as old money as you could get, but they adjusted to the potentials and problems of the new world. At least one alternative to this was Henry Adams, who turned inward, recoiled at what the United States had become, and preferred to long for a cultured past that faced Europe. Adams is fairly open about this and he is good at criticizing himself. The point of the book is that he, from the nation’s most elite family and with every advantage open to him, was found completely incapable of understanding and operating in what the nation had become. His traditional education was effectively worthless; only life could truly educate about the Gilded Age. This wasn’t all a bad thing. Adams found the technological advancements of his life utterly amazing, particularly talking about things such as X-rays and radio waves. It’s a strange book. The first half is on his young life, concluding in 1872. It does not pick up again until 1892, with a more mature, bemused, slightly bitter, and utterly out of place Adams. This also allows him to avoid any discussion of his marriage and his wife’s suicide. Many have named this one of the greatest books of the 20th century or greatest books written by an American. I had a professor who thought it was perhaps the single greatest book in American letters. It’s certainly a valuable look into a changing world from a particular perspective and Adams is refreshing in the sense he scours himself and not just not society. But I also found the book more than a little trying and ultimately, it made me sympathize with basically everyone else in the Gilded Age more than this old money man who doesn’t understand his new world.

It probably doesn’t help my opinion of Adams that he was one of the worst anti-Semites in the history of the nation. His noted and open loathing for Jews comes through in many of his letters. Not that this was particularly uncommon among the nation’s elite classes in the Gilded Age, but for Adams, it is really, really bad. I won’t quote any of it here; you can find it online with ease.

In 1912, Adams had a stroke upon hearing of the sinking of the Titanic, as he had a ticket for the return trip to Europe. It wasn’t a major stroke, but his scholarly output basically ended at this time and he focused on writing letters to friends. He died in 1918.

Henry Adams is buried in the monument he designed to his wife Clover in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, DC.

If you would like this series to visit other Gilded Age writers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. William Dean Howells is in Cambridge, as is William James. In fact, probably half the famous Gilded Age writers are there! Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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