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Thursday, September 13, 2012

September 13, 2012: An Education by Henry Adams

[There are few Boston sites that I would more highly recommend for a fall visit—for anybody, from tourists to lifelong residents, students to seniors, and American Studiers of all varieties—than the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. For this week’s series, I’ll be blogging about five topics connected to the Museum and its historical and cultural contexts. Please add your responses, and your suggestions for other unique American sites and experiences, for the weekend’s crowd-sourced post!]
On what we can all learn from Henry Adams’ European adventures and perspective.
It’s difficult to overstate how talented and impressive Henry Adams was. Adams retired from his Harvard Professorship of Medieval History in 1877 at the age of 39, but not before he had pioneered the methods of scientific history that would come to define the profession; later, while doing plenty of other things, he served as president of the American Historical Association (1893-1894) and wrote a 9-volume History of the United States of America, 1801-1817 (1891-1896). Upon that retirement he promptly resumed his pre-Harvard career as one of the nation’s foremost political and social journalists, and during his time pursuing that career in Washington also wrote two complex and important novels (on the second of which more below).  And after his wife tragically committed suicide in 1885, he traveled the world extensively, turning those experiences into some of the most insightful and significant works of travel and autobiographical writing in American literary history, including the amazing Education of Henry Adams (1907).
There’s a lot that all Americans can learn from Adams’ life, career, and writings, but in following up yesterday’s post on the Cosmopolitans, and in light of the week’s overall focus on the Gardner Museum, I wanted to highlight two distinct and equally valuable sides to his European-influenced perspective. In two of those later works, Adams makes a clear case for the value of Europe, on its own terms and for America: Mont Saint Michel and Chartres (1904) brings together travel writing and poetic reflections to argue for what these medieval spaces and the communities that built them have to offer; and Chapter 25 of Education, “The Dynamo and the Virgin (1900),” contrasts the Virgin of Chartres with the most famous feature of the Paris Exposition of 1900, the Dynamo engine, to argue for the value of remembering historical and spiritual ideas in a technological and modern age. In neither text is Adams simply or willfully antiquarian—he admits his own fascination with the Dynamo, for example—, making his ability to highlight and argue for the best of the past and its places, icons, and ideas that much more nuanced and convincing.
Adams’ earlier and less overt European influences have just as much to offer Americans, however. He spent most of the 1860s across the Atlantic, first as a student and then serving as his father’s private secretary while the former was Lincoln’s ambassador to England, and his work and writings in the 1870s and 1880s reflect those experiences and the impact that Europe had already made on Adams. Take Adams’ second novel, the social and cultural romance Esther (1884). Many readers and critics have focused on the similarities between the titular heroine and Adams’ wife Clover, parallels that of course became more tragic after Clover’s subsequent suicide. But in many ways Esther is more broadly representative and exemplary, a type of the “new woman” that would come to dominate late Victorian fiction and society. She did so more in English and European works and conversations than in American ones, however—or at least her rise was not greeted with quite as much hostility across the Atlantic, as compared for example to the brutalities directed at American suffragettes. And so what Adams’ novel really offers is a European-influenced take on a new American woman, one willing to see her with more complexity and balance than many American authors of the period could have managed.
Final Gardner Museum link tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Lessons from Europe, or any international connections, that you’d highlight?
9/13 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two turn of the 20th century pioneers in their respective fields, Walter Reed and Sherwood Anderson.

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