Authors: Henry Adams

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American historian and philosopher

February 16, 1838

Boston, Massachusetts

March 27, 1918

Washington, D.C.


Henry Brooks Adams’s father was Charles Francis Adams, American statesman and minister to Great Britain; his grandfather was John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States; and his great-grandfather was John Adams, the second president of the United States. Henry Adams himself did very well. Despite the burden of family fame, he established himself in literature as a historian and philosopher of history. He became an enigmatic success on his own terms at least partly through branding himself a failure and writing an autobiography that attempted to show the force common to the Virgin Mary and the dynamo. Consequently, he was more than a mere recorder of events and relic of a great political past: He was a creator of literature and ideas. Because of his outstanding performances as a historian and philosopher of history he is now as eminent in his own way as his forebears are eminent in political history.

Henry Adams

(Library of Congress)

Henry Adams was born in Boston in 1838. As a boy he profited from a close and friendly relationship with his grandfather, John Quincy Adams. It was primarily through him that Adams developed a moral consciousness of the seriousness and importance of education and of the use of books in the process of becoming educated. The inquisitive mind and the dissatisfied one developed together in him as they had in his grandfather, so that he became no passive scholar but an active critic of events and ideas. When his grandfather died, Henry Adams was only ten years old, but he was to show the effect of John Quincy Adams’s influence for the rest of his life.

He attended Harvard University (1854–58) after a preparatory education at the Boston Latin School and the Epes Dixwell school in Boston. He then went to Europe in order to study civil law at the University of Berlin, but he concentrated on touring about Europe and studying the languages and cultures of various countries. He spent a short time studying law in Quincy, Massachusetts, and then became private secretary to his father, serving him both in Washington and in London. In 1868 he returned to the United States and became a freelance journalist for two years, writing for the North American Review, The Nation, and the New York Post.

He was married in 1872 to Marian "Clover" Hooper, two years after his reluctant acceptance of an instructorship in medieval history at Harvard. During this time he was also editor of the North American Review. He taught at Harvard until 1877, when he and his wife went to live in Washington, D.C. There he settled down to an intensive writing career. Part of the time he spent abroad, gathering documents in London, Paris, and Madrid and adding to his knowledge and impressions of Europe.

On December 6, 1885, his wife, ill and depressed since the death of her father more than a year before, committed suicide. Adams, although deeply shocked by his wife’s death, mentioned it only indirectly in his important autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams.

Following her death he visited Japan with John La Farge, the American artist and writer. By that time he had produced a distinguished historical biography, The Life of Albert Gallatin; a satirical novel of political life, Democracy: An American Novel; a less important biography, John Randolph; and another novel, Esther. Upon his return from his travels with La Farge, Adams worked steadily on his nine-volume history of the administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. After another journey with La Farge, this time to the South Seas, he produced his distinctive philosophy of history in the two books Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres and The Education of Henry Adams. The first of these books represents a time when he argued society had achieved unity, the twelfth century; the second, a time when multiplicity had divided humankind and societies, his own era. Beautifully written, original in conception, these works are generally regarded as his masterpieces. He died in Washington, D.C., on March 27, 1918, shortly after The Education of Henry Adams, privately printed in 1906, had been republished in a trade edition.

Author Works Long Fiction: Democracy: An American Novel, 1880 Esther, 1884 Nonfiction: The Life of Albert Gallatin, 1879 John Randolph, 1882 (biography) The History of the United States of America, 1889–91 (9 volumes) Historical Essays, 1891 Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, privately printed, 1904, repb., 1913 The Education of Henry Adams, privately printed, 1907, repb., 1918 (autobiography) The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma, 1919 A Cycle of Adams Letters, 1861–1865, 1920 (W. C. Ford, editor) Letters of Henry Adams, 1892–1918, 1938 (W. C. Ford, editor) Henry Adams and His Friends: A Collection of Unpublished Letters, 1947 (H. D. Cater, editor) The Correspondence of Henry James and Henry Adams, 1877–1914, 1992 (George Monteiro, editor) Edited Texts: Documents Relating to New-England Federalism, 1801–1815, 1877 The Writings of Albert Gallatin, 1879 (2 volumes) Bibliography Adams, Henry Brooks. The Education of Henry Adams. Edited with an introduction by Ernest Samuels. Washington, D.C.: Privately printed, 1907. Reprint. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1974. One of the most distinguished autobiographies of the twentieth century. Adams’ best-known work. Adams, Henry Brooks. The Letters of Henry Adams. 3 vols. Edited by J. C. Levenson et al. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1982. Includes bibliographical references and index. Adams’ letters are valuable in that they reveal his thoughts and reflect the times in which he lived. Adams, Henry Brooks. Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres. With an introduction by Ernest Samuels. Washington, D.C.: Privately printed, 1904. Reprint. New York: New American Library, 1961. The best starting point for a study of Adams would be the above works, especially The Education of Henry Adams, one of the greatest autobiographies of all time. Brookhiser, Richard. America’s First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918. New York: Free Press, 2002. Bush, Clive. Halfway to Revolution: Investigation and Crisis in the Work of Henry Adams, William James, and Gertrude Stein. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991. Examines Adams’s theories of history. Byrnes, Joseph F. The Virgin of Chartres: An Intellectual and Psychological History of the Work of Henry Adams. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1981. Discusses Adams’ relationships with women. Concentrates mainly on Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres and Adams’ thoughts concerning the Virgin Mary. Chalfant, Edward. Both Sides of the Ocean: A Biography of Henry Adams, His First Life, 1838-1862. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1982. Chalfant, Edward. Better in Darkness: A Biography of Henry Adams, His Second Life. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1994. The first two volumes of Chalfant’s projected biographical trilogy cover Adams’s life until 1891. Contosta, David R., and Robert Muccigrosso, eds. Henry Adams and His World. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1993. A helpful collection of essays. Decker, William. The Literary Vocation of Henry Adams. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990. Analyzes Adams’s novels. Includes bibliographical references. Harbert, Earl N., ed. Critical Essays on Henry Adams. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981. The editor has compiled essays on Adams by R. P. Blackmur, H. S. Commager, Ernest Samuels, Charles Anderson, Howard Mumford, J. C. Levenson, and others. The essays cover various matters, including Adams’ fiction and his two autobiographical works. Other matters covered include Gene Koretz’s essay, which concludes that The Education of Henry Adams is very nearly the equivalent of Augustine’s Confessions. Levenson compares Adams with William Shakespeare’s famous character Prince Hamlet. Earl Harbert has two essays, one of which examines the autobiographical aspects of The Education of Henry Adams and another which contains details concerning Adams’ trip to Asia. Harbert, Earl N., ed. Henry Adams: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978. This ninety-six-page annotated bibliography contains Adams’ major writings and critical work about him from 1879 to 1975. The introduction contains a compact discussion of Adams’ reputation and major works, a brief survey of important critical articles and books, and a short discussion about the methods used to compile the bibliography and its major contents. Levenson, J. C. The Mind and Art of Henry Adams. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1957. This critical work concentrates on Adams’ life and on his enormous distinction as a writer. Levenson examines Adams’ monumental achievement as an interpretive scholar and connects the historical research with the artistic talent. Major concepts associated with Adams, such as modern man existing within a “multiverse” and Adams’ thesis concerning the Unity found in Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, are developed and discussed in detail. O’Brien, Michael. Henry Adams and the Southern Question. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005. O’Toole, Patricia. The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends, 1880-1918. New York: C. Potter, 1990. A chronicle providing further insight into Adams’ life and the lives of four of his friends. Rowe, John Carlos, ed. New Essays on “The Education of Henry Adams.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Samuels, Ernest. Henry Adams. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1989. A condensed and revised version of his earlier trilogy: The Young Henry Adams, 1948; The Middle Years, 1958; and The Major Phase, 1964. Wasserstrom, William. The Ironies of Progress: Henry Adams and the American Dream. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984. Demonstrates how Adams’s notion of the American Dream influenced American writers.

Categories: Authors