weekend-readsBack to the Future: The Continuing Appeal of The Education of Henry Adams

John Orr

In 1907, as Henry Adams began passing around copies of The Education of Henry Adams to a select group of friends and associates, the United States was in the early stages of its imperium. It had recently fought its first Southeast Asian war to suppress Filipino rebels who, understandably, anticipated that the U.S. defeat of the Spanish empire in 1898 would mean their independence. On July 4, 1902, President Roosevelt declared that the war was won, though guerrilla fighting continued throughout the archipelago for years. In 1907, Roosevelt dispatched sixteen ships of the U.S. navy–later dubbed the “Great White Fleet”–to sail around the world in a show of power designed to announce that the United States intended to be a player in international politics far beyond its immediate sphere of influence. The flagship was the recently commissioned USS Connecticut, a coal-powered battleship.

The ship’s length was 456 feet, 4 inches. It displaced 16,000 tons, and carried a crew of 827.

A century after the appearance of Adams’s masterpiece, the United States appears to be somewhere beyond the apex of its imperium, and it finds itself seeking to extricate itself from its latest intervention into a foreign territory, this time in Iraq. On May 1, 2003, President Bush declared that the mission was accomplished in Iraq, that the shock and awe tactics of the short war had led to victory, though the succeeding years have witnessed persistent guerrilla warfare that threatens to spread throughout the country, if not the entire region. Bush’s declaration was made from the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The ship’s length is 1,092 feet. It displaces 97,500 tons, and carries a crew of approximately 5,000.

What would Henry Adams say?

I do not think that Adams would comment extensively on how history repeats itself, nor would he necessarily agree with Karl Marx who, in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, wryly noted that historical events occur “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” In fact, I am not even sure that the historical correspondences in my introductory anecdote would have particularly interested Adams. I do know, however, that he would be fascinated by the size of the ships, and the “economies of force,” to employ his phrase, represented by the developments in maritime power plants would hold him mesmerized, because what truly interested Henry Adams by 1907 was change and transformation, particularly the way in which the forces that propelled change simultaneously served as indicators of that very transformation. His quest, in many of his books, was to find evidence of change and to chart–beginning at some still point–the process of transformation through the use of data drawn from economic output, coal production, ship size and speed. The still point in The Education of Henry Adams happens to be a character named Henry Adams, and the book projects a trajectory of change as he quizzically watches a world whizzing past him in a process of accelerating transformation.

As I have been pondering the The Education of Henry Adams and its status as one of the major works in the American canon, I keep coming back to the question of what about it still speaks to us as readers. Certainly, it is overly simplistic to argue that the world Henry Adams observed in 1907 was essentially the same as it is today. After all, two world wars, genocides across the globe, the nuclear and computer revolutions, space flight, and gene splicing have rendered our world significantly altered from a century ago. But it is important to keep in mind that each of those scientific and technological advances was either theorized or in its nascent stages of development during Adams’s lifetime. My point is more about affect, the feel of the modern world, and in that sense our experiences are not so different from Adams’s. As was true of the generation of thinkers and writers who read The Education of Henry Adams after its posthumous public release in 1918, Adams continues to provide us with a vocabulary to explain our feelings of alienation and dislocation as we survey a world transmogrifying at increasingly rapid speeds. The sense of displacement Adams felt in 1907 continues unabated a century later. The irony is that the change that so fascinated him is, as Alvin Toffler suggested in Future Shock, the only permanence remaining to us or, to employ more Adamsian terms, multiplicity is the only unity we have. Perhaps that is why Henry Adams still sounds so current.

The reception of Adams and his major opus provides some sense of why a book released to the general public subsequent to its author’s death, a book that does not neatly fit into any generic category, and a book that requires no small amount of secondary reference material in order to trace out its endless name-dropping has continued to be perceived as relevant if not profoundly significant. Indeed, in the past several years, the book was heralded by the Modern Library’s board as the best non-fiction book written by an American. The praise began immediately upon its public release, symbolized by the posthumous Pulitzer Prize Adams was awarded in 1919. By 1927 Henry Commager declared that the book represented the work of “the best mind of its generation.” Robert Spiller contended in the late 1940s that Adams should be considered among “the dozen or so major figures in the literary history of the United States.” Subsequent readers saw in Adams a kind of modern everyman. J.C. Levenson was among the first to voice this reading of Adams, arguing in 1957 that Adams “offers to his fellow Americans the richest and most challenging image of what they are, what they have been, and what they may become,” and Jay Martin, a decade later, referred to the character Henry Adams who is constructed in The Education of Henry Adams as “a symbol for modern man.”

As the year 1907 recedes farther into the historical past, commentators have employed the language of prophecy to describe the insights Adams provides. Harold Kaplan notes that “The Education has great resonance today because of Adams’s prophetic sensitivity to the politics of race, nation, class, and empire and to the apocalyptic motifs of revolution and decadence.” Likewise, Sacvan Bercovitch identifies Adams as an American Jeremiah, noting that he “is not a Victorian sage calling a halt to a rampant industrial capitalism. He is a prophet reading the fate of humanity, and the universe at large,” as he ponders the march of American history.

I do not want to overstate the prophetic nature of Adams or of his book and recreate him as a Yankee Nostradamus, but that concept does identify a crucial element in the thinking of this man who so far as he resided in any academic camp was at one point the dean of American historians. The irony here, as I suggested earlier, is that history interested him in the era of The Education chiefly as a backdrop to gauge the course of the future. As he notes in The Education, he “wanted only to chart the international channel for fifty years to come; to triangulate the future; to obtain his dimension, and fix the acceleration of movement in politics since the year 1200, as he was trying to fix it in philosophy and physics; in finance and force” (423). And that anticipation of a future world and a future reader is part of what continues to give the book its appeal. His is not Walt Whitman’s transcendent appeal to the reader “up there,” but by anticipating a future that is now our past, Adams provides us with unique insight into how one of the best minds of its generation was reading the evidence provided him and puzzling over what the future would hold.

Always more inclined to catastrophism than to Darwinian gradual evolution, Adams had by the early part of the century begun to search for the key to historical narrative–and by extension its projection into the future–to counter the melioristic application of Darwin to human history. His search led him to the physical sciences, and as is clear from the cranky, book-length essay he published soon after the release of The Education–A Letter to American Teachers of History published in 1910–modern physical science offered him a scaffolding better suited to support the human historical narrative and the future that he anticipated. Moreover, the physical sciences and their technological offspring were transforming the world, and no one was more acutely aware of that transformation than Henry Adams. He mentions in “A Law of Acceleration,” the penultimate chapter of The Education, that before the age of six “he had seen four impossibilities made actual–the ocean-steamer, the railway, the electric telegraph, and the Daguerreotype” (494). Yet these developments were relatively comprehensible to a lay person, particularly when seen in relation to the scientific revelations some few decades following. When Adams argues that the “stupendous acceleration after 1800 ended in 1900 with the appearance of the new class of supersensual forces” (486), he anticipates Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by perceiving the new sciences as a kind of rupture or, to employ Kuhn’s language, a paradigm shift, dating “from 1893, by Roentgen rays, or from 1898, by the Curies’ radium” (457). For convenience, he chooses the year 1900 as the onset of the new paradigm, noting that the “child born in 1900 would, then, be born into a new world which would not be a unity but a multiple. Adams tried to imagine it, and an education that would fit it. He found himself in a land where no one had ever penetrated before” (457).

What Henry Adams glimpsed in the dawning twentieth century was a version of technological sublimity, the sense of awe and terror in the face of new inventions. Keep in mind that Adams was essentially in the first generation to experience what has been called the technology gap, in that he was born into a world in 1838 where the most advanced technology was easily understandable and relatively easy to replicate. I often tell my students when teaching the literature of the nineteenth century that if I were dropped into the year 1840, I could explain the steam engine, the gas light, and the locomotive, but if my time travel landed me in the same place only a few decades later, I am much less confident; I scratch my head over the incandescent light, the wireless radio, and the dynamo–the electric generator so fascinating to Adams that he adopted it as a key metaphor in The Education. This is exactly the lived experience of Henry Adams, and what we often fail to recognize amid the witty urbanity of The Education is the profound frustration he felt at not being able to understand the technology that was transforming his world. In response, he set out to educate himself about the new horizons that modern science was opening, and that quest is played out in the final dozen chapters of The Education of Henry Adams.

His sense of frustration informs his assessment that the “average mind had succumbed already in 1850; it could no longer understand the problem in 1900″ (496). But Henry Adams was not the average mind, and he refused to go down without a fight. In typical fashion “he read all the books he could find, and tried in vain to make his lines of force agree with theirs” (396). That last statement is not rhetorical flourish, as I have found in my investigations into his library. For months, I have been combing through Adams’s personal library, housed at the Massachusetts Historical Society, in order to understand what he read and what his comments in the margins of books reveal about him as a reader and thinker. I have found that he did not simply read scores of books on modern science; he experimented on his own, as far as he could. For instance, on page 28 of Despaux’s Cause des Energies Attractives, after a passage about the route that magnetic forces take, Adams wrote at the bottom of the page, “How far? In my magnets, the outer lines of force seem to go into space, on north and south lines.” Likewise after a similar passage in John Trowbridge’s What is Electricity? Adams wrote, “How can an electric current fly out of the South Pole? The current flies out pole N in mine.” He struggled to comprehend ideas, and along the way criticized the authors for their failures as writers. In Sir Oliver Lodge’s Modern Views on Electricity, Adams underlined a passage that reads, “But if we are not satisfied with this vague analogy . . . then we can return to the consideration of a multitude of oscillating and colliding particles” moving with energy that determines the “temperature” of the body. At the bottom of the page, Adams pled, “Does anyone understand what this means? how does it compare with other laws of mass?”

One name missing from the catalogue of scientists in the last chapters of The Education and from his personal library is Einstein, though by 1907, he had begun publishing his paradigm-shifting papers. The ideas, however, were in the air as is clear from the moment in J. B. Stallo’s La Matière et la Physique Moderne when Adams mused at the end of a chapter, “Does this amount to saying that nothing is absolute and universal except relativity? Is it the creation of a new Universal, or the assertion of Multiplicity?” At certain moments he was reduced to sheer silliness, and I think that it is important to see Henry Adams being silly, since that is not the picture that most people have of him. In the last page of Balfour Stewart’s La conservation de l’énergie, Adams sums up his attempt to understand the argument with this ditty,

“Dear me!
What can matter be?
          Dear me?
What can motion be?
          Playing all alone
By their little selves?
          First motion dances
Then matter advances
          Then both prances
All by their selves.
          Dear me!”

We are not the only ones driven to absurdity by the machinery of the modern world; just like Whitman on the Brooklyn Ferry, Henry Adams has been there and felt what we feel.

The technological sublime–the amazement, fear, curiosity, frustration we feel in the face of continuous transformation–is one of the primary elements of The Education of Henry Adams that continues to resonate with readers a century later. But what separates us from Henry Adams is the ease with which most of us adapt to new technology without having the slightest inkling of how it works. By and large, we have neither the initiative nor the leisure of a Henry Adams to spend hours trying to understand it. Thus, that gap in our understanding causes us only momentary frustration if we experience any at all. We inherited the world that Henry Adams was attempting to define in 1907, and we have never known a time when we were not routinely dependent on technology that we could neither explain nor replicate. Multiplicity is unity; change is our only permanence.

Let me give an example that will be familiar to virtually anyone over the age of forty. In college, I wrote my term papers on a portable, manual typewriter. Occasionally, my fingers would go too fast and the keys would get tangled. I understood the levers that made the keys work–not terribly unlike the hammer mechanism of a piano key–and I could fix the problem my haste had created. While working on an M.A. in the 80s I discovered the IBM Selectric II typewriter, and I thought that technology was at its apex, since with the push of a button, I could correct that problem that my impatient typing caused. No more correction tape; no more Wite-Out. I never understood how that little ball with all of those symbols on it spun to exactly the right spot when I pressed a key, and I confess that I spent more than a few times typing wildly just to watch the ball spin. Now I am writing these words on my Dell laptop that likely has more computing capacity than the entire bank of computers used to put men on the moon in 1969, yet I still grumble when it takes a bit too long to start up a program. And I have not the foggiest idea of how the computer chip works. What Henry Adams experienced at the dawn of the twentieth century has continued unabated in the hundred years since then, and as he predicted, the curve of acceleration continues. He stared owl-eyed at the dynamo; I occasionally stare owl-eyed at my flash drive, and the sense of a new force of occult power inhabits me every time I pray to my computer to save the file that I have been toiling over just as Adams prayed to the supersensual force of the dynamo.

Recently, I rode in what has been billed as the fastest train in the world, the magnetic levitation train that runs from Shanghai’s Pudong area to the international airport, a distance of some forty kilometers that the train covers in eight minutes. When the speedometer in the coach flashed that we were going 431 kilometers an hour (over 265 MPH), I was slack-jawed at this modern bullet hurtling across the delta of the Huangpu River. But again, the technology is based on the science of Adams’s era: a series of magnets one after another, attracting and repelling through their north and south poles, driving the train to unfathomable speeds, the same magnets that Henry Adams was toying with in 1902 as he tried to establish the lines of force in his new world. He employed a metaphor of mechanical acceleration in The Education to define the felt experience of modernity, noting that the typical American “had his hand on a lever and his eye on a curve in his road; his living depended on keeping up an average speed of forty miles an hour, tending always to become sixty, eighty, or a hundred” (445). I wonder what Henry Adams would say to 265 miles an hour?


Works Cited

Adams, Henry. The Education of Henry Adams. Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Ernest Samuels. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973.

___. A Letter to American Teachers of History. Washington: Privately Printed, 1910. Reprinted as The Tendency of History. Ed. Brooks Adams. New York: The Book League of America, 1919.

Bercovitch, Sacvan. The American Jeremiad. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978.

Commager, Henry Steele. “Henry Adams.” South Atlantic Quarterly 25 (July 1927): 252-65.

Despaux, A. Cause des énergies attractives: magnétisme, électricité, gravitations. Paris: Germer-Bailler et Cie., 1902.

Kaplan, Harold. Power and Order: Henry Adams and the Naturalist Tradition in American Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structures of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

Levenson, J. C. The Mind and Art of Henry Adams. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957.

Lodge, Oliver. Modern Views of Electricity. New York: Macmillan, 1889.

Martin, Jay. Harvests of Change: American Literature, 1865-1914. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1967.

Marx, Karl. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. New York: International Publishers, 1963.

Spiller, Robert. “Henry Adams: Man of Letters.” Saturday Review of Literature, (22 February 1947): 11-12, 33-34.

Stallo, J. B. La matière et la physique moderne. Paris: Felix Alcan, 1899.

Stewart, Balfour. La conservation de l’énergie. Paris: Felix Alcan, 1899.

Trowbridge, John. What is Electricity? New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1896.

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