That the autobiography of a relatively obscure individual would be considered perhaps the greatest of all autobiographies (by many critics) was intriguing to me. I thought that I might give it a read. What I found surprised me. Henry Adams, a grandson of John Quincy Adams, was a brilliant man who lived a long time, from 1838 to 1914, had great potential and for the most part accomplished very little. He was a writer and historian but was content with what he termed “education” not action. By education he seemed to mean that he was an observer, a learner. He studied life, often from a detached point of view – he seldom entered the contest himself. In the process of educating, Henry Adams nurtured his already inherent pessimism about life, people, politicians and even himself.
So what is the draw of this book? Well, first Adam was an excellent writer. He had the ability to take history and make it fascinating. Also, he lived among, and described well, some of the great leaders of the nineteenth century, from his grandfather to Teddy Roosevelt. And he spoke candidly, for example, when speaking of President Grant he writes, “The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant, was alone enough to upset Darwin” (p. 266). He is the author of the famous quote, “One friend in a lifetime is much: two are many; three are hardly possible” (p. 312).
Adams’ pessimism is illustrated with this comment about his life at age 62 when he still had 24 more years to live, “For reasons that had nothing to do with education, he [Adams speaks of himself in the third person throughout the book] was tired; his nervous energy ran low; and, like a horse that wears out, he quitted the race-course, left the stable, and sought pastures as far as possible from the old. Education had ended in 1871; life was complete in 1890; the rest mattered so little” (p. 316).
I don’t think I would have liked the man Henry Adams, if I knew him, but I did like his autobiography, both for the story of his life and the slice of American history that he unfolds.