As an intellectual, however, Henry was a breakthrough success. Even critics who thought that “his influence … not entirely healthy,” observed writer Owen Wister, admitted that “he knew an extraordinary number of things very well – better than almost anyone you were likely to know. to see America – to be with him, to dine with him was a luxury and an excitement. Henry taught history at Harvard and edited one of the country’s leading literary journals, North American Review. He later produced novels, original works of history, and a variety of essays that reflected his unique and ironic sensibility. He also wrote thousands of letters, including many from distant islands that he romanticized as free from the corrupt modernism of the West.
A witness to the economic turmoil and imperialism of the late 19th century, Henry grew increasingly pessimistic about American progress. His critique of the cultural impact of industrial capitalism was most clearly presented in a posthumously published memoir, “The Education of Henry Adams”. Circulated privately towards the end of his life and published a year after the United States entered World War I, the book found a sympathetic audience among readers who, under less traumatic circumstances, might not be able to see it. identify with Henry’s cynicism and thrilling anxiety. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1919 and is consistently ranked among the finest American non-fiction works of the 20th century.
Brown, a historian at Elizabethtown College and author of several previous biographies, argues that given the “eclectic range” of Henry’s experiences, he led a “rarer” life than his distinguished ancestors. Whatever your definition of the rare, it would be hard to beat John Quincy Adams. He designed the Monroe Doctrine, served as president and then led the national anti-slavery movement from a seat in the House of Representatives. But Henry’s life was certainly exciting. He has traveled the world, met royalty and known everyone. Much of the pleasure of reading this book comes from the vivid portraits Brown draws of Henry’s friends, allies and enemies during his lifetime, a network so extensive that he creates, in the skillful hands of the author, a coherent intellectual and political history spanning almost the entire long 19th century. Brown’s ability to conjure up events around the world and gently place them in historical context is remarkable.
For Henry, the call to service never arrived and his efforts at political reform were in vain. After his wife died by suicide, he spent decades in unrequited love with a senator’s wife. Long parts of “The Last American Aristocrat” are devoted to his writing. Brown’s analysis of key works is illuminating, but his claim that Henry was “our best writer, our outstanding 19th century historian,” remains open to debate. Beyond his memoirs, his most significant publications are the nine volumes he wrote on the history of the United States under the Jefferson and Madison administrations. Rightly hailed at the time as masterpieces of research (made possible because Henry’s social connections gave him access to key private archives), they were neither the works of most innovative and influential stories published during his lifetime.
Whether Henry was brilliant is out of the question. His aesthetic taste was very fine, and he wrote beautifully when not consumed with bile. But his caustic criticisms of others revealed an insecurity he never got over. British statesman John Morley summed up the views of many who knew Henry Adams when he concluded: “If A. had ever looked naked in a glass, he would have valued other men a little more gently. It is a tribute to Brown’s talent as a biographer as he allows the reader to empathize with a man who has spoken so little to someone else.