October 15, 2008
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The Education of Henry Adams

by Henry Adams

The Boy was, I am sure, a ton of fun and a terrific companion when the grandfather John Quincy walked him to school. A few years later, The Boy became The Private Secretary and he helped save the Union no end of trouble, and his father no end of bother, in England during the War of the Rebellion. The Old Man can still see the Boy clearly, which is remarkable, and he is still seeking an Education. And he still knows what the Boy knew: he's no good at his math lessons.

This, it seems to me, is the tragedy of The Education; Adams was seeking a mathematical or physical model of psychology and, indeed, of history — and he is trying to do this without actually learning mathematics or physics. I don’t think this can be done, and I’m not sure it should be attempted. Adams, I think, intuitively sensed that there were good ideas in calculus and (perhaps) in linear algebra, and so he’s constantly looking for physical anthologies — manifestations of force, expressions of work (or energy, or momentum: it seems any will do pretty much interchangeably ) — in the affairs of men.

He was wrong, just as he was wrong when as a youth he mistook the real positions of Russell, Palmerston and Gladstone. He was always happy, it seems, to realize that he had got everything wrong and that he should need to start his education afresh. Perhaps not entirely happy; Adams does return often to the contrast of his 18th-century temperament and 20th-century circumstances. And, if he expected the end of history to occur around 1950, what is 39 years in the sweep of annals?

Most of all, Adams was likable, and that fine sociability survives in his prose.