Life in the Box: Henry Adams Educates


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I have fallen in love with Henry Adams. It’s not a mutual relationship, however, since Henry’s been dead for a century. I just discovered his lengthy autobiography, “The Education of Henry Adams,” on a 20-hour audio book, and I feel connected to his journalistic soul. Henry Adams documented his life in the 1800s, up to about 1907, and his descriptions are wry, witty, self-deprecating, and insightful.

The book was published upon his death in 1918  and was a best-seller and Pulitzer Prize winner. I didn’t know that when I bought it, and because it’s big and ponderous, I don’t recommend this book for everyone, although I’m told it’s on the “Top 100 non-fiction books of the Century” reading list. You can grab a copy of the eBook for 99 cents, and see for yourself.

Okay, so he was related to two presidents, grandfather John Q. Adams, and great-grandfather John. He assisted his father, Charles, who was an American ambassador. That gives him access to the powerful leaders of his times. But, what I like about Henry is that he was curious about everything. His studies included history, politics, mathematics, art, travel, geology, science, religious symbolism, and, of course, education. The education thread in this book is a bit heavy-handed, but it draws us through a century of civil war, building railroads, westward expansion, and modern civilization descriptions that sound an awful lot like the 21st century.

For a few months, I have been listening to the book in my car, in bits and pieces, and almost always come away with a laugh, a quote to share, or just a feeling of how lost Henry always seems.

I imagine he had a life-long struggle with depression. By reading Cliff Notes (link below), I found out he was married to Marian Hopper in 1872, but the book skips over the 1870s and 1880s, probably because Marian died of suicide in 1885. I confess, since Henry never mentioned any personal love relationships, I had been wondering if he was gay. He never reveals any sexual longings, whatsoever, in the biography. 

What he says he longed for was “education.” He wanted the knowledge he gathered to be useful. He wanted it to fulfill him and to send him into a career. His education rarely met his high standards.

When I look at why I’m so intrigued by this book, I realize there is a brilliant mind here, one that describes a long life with pathos, laughter, intelligence, and some decidedly long boring sections. There is a rambling study of centuries of European and American history. Later in the book, he becomes fascinated with unseen forces, after Madame Curie’s experiments with radium turn “the science of the senses” on its head.

There are personal stories of Presidents, Lords and Ladies, explorers, scientists, artists, and social strictures. There are also many references to people and places I don’t know, but I let those fly out the window as I’m driving. (I’ll pick up a few more in the Cliff Notes!)  There’s still so much substance to enjoy. He makes unusual connections and looks for patterns over eons. 

Henry Adams must have been a charming man, and he certainly led a remarkable life. I’m going to start the book (on tape) again, so I won’t have to let go of this kindred spirit just yet.   

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Nancy Heather Brown is an Emmy Award-winning television producer whose career has included interviewing, writing, and editing for a span of four decades. Today, she uses gems from this treasure trove of life stories to add sparkle to her reflections on the creative process both inside and outside the box. 

Cliff Notes of the The Education of Henry Adams