Full Name Henry Brooks Adams
Born 16 February 1838 in Boston, Massachusetts
Died 27 March 1918 in Washington, District of Columbia
Buried Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, District of Columbia
Elected 4 June 1892 at age fifty-four
Archivist’s Note: Brother of Charles Francis Adams
Henry Adams was so little known to the general public— even of those who had read his early writings—that to them the frank self-portraiture in his autobiography, privately printed thirteen years ago but publicly issued only last September, came as a curious discovery. His personality, as therein set forth, was in fact as unusual in this American world of ambition and aspiration as it was anomalous in the son of the celebrated envoy who upheld the rights of our government abroad, during the Civil War, and the descendant of two American presidents, each an aggressive power in the country’s earlier history.
How far these reminiscences are an accurate picture, it is not easy to say. For better or worse, any man’s judgment of himself is bound to be mistrusted. In the experience of most of us, self-depreciation is taken with at least as much reserve as self-appreciation. To Henry Adams, looking out on the busy activities of his contemporaries and looking back on the achievement of his ancestors, both presented themselves to his mind through a veil of amused and tolerant cynicism. In that mental attitude he did not spare himself. “He never,” so writes Adams of himself and his own career in life, “got to the point of playing the game at all; he lost himself in the study of it, watching the errors of the players.”
Whether or not this lack of enthusiasm and aspiration was the key to future absence of the highest achievement, Henry Adams characterizes his own subsequent career unsparingly. Instructor at Harvard, he informs us that “as a professor, he regarded himself as a failure.” Editor of the North American Review, he recalls that “as a writer he was totally forgotten by the time he had been an editor for twelve months.” Later still, at the age of fifty-four, “in Paris and London he had seen nothing to make a return to life worth while; in Washington he saw plenty of reason for staying dead.’’
Now all this studied self-depreciation, however much it may explain his want of ambition with its effect on individual achievement, will hardly be accepted as the complete picture of a personality by those who knew him. We have better evidence in other ways of what the real Henry Adams was. The man whose personal affiliations with such other men as John Hay, Clarence King, Augustus Saint Gaudens and John La Farge continued intimate and unbroken through a lifetime, could have been at heart neither a cynic nor a misanthrope. We know, from the testimony of those unerring judges of the quality of friendship, what value they placed upon his. To such associates the genuineness of Adams’s hospitality, his unostentatious kindness and generosity, were as much a part of the man as the unusual flavor which marked his conversation on history and art and life.
Even of the shortcomings of his professional and editorial career, on which he himself insists, one may fairly say that these only prove the incongruity of committing to a young man, with such a personal background in the great things of American politics as that of Henry Adams, the task of enlightening Harvard undergraduates on the events of mediaeval history. No result was more inevitable from so odd an experiment than that, even while expounding to his pupils the Crusades and the Holy Roman Empire, the unavoidable tendency of inheritance should have brought him into literature as the biographer of Gallatin and Randolph and the keen historical reviewer of Jefferson’s administration. Of this last-named work, a historical critic of high authority has said that the praise, which at the time the work was published placed it “at the head of historical writing in the United States, has since suffered no abatement” and that “for the period covered, it has said the last word.” But Adams was after all a dilettante, in literary production as in other things, and there is little doubt that he took more pure enjoyment in circulating privately among his friends his autobiographical Education of Henry Adams, than in the publication of any of his formal works. Not a personally familiar figure with the Century membership—being in fact a Washingtonian and not a New Yorker—he was intellectually altogether of the type which has given the Century its best.
Alexander Dana Noyes
1919 Century Association Yearbook