Although Henry Adams may not attract quite the attention he once did, he remains a subject of interest to literary scholars, students of American studies and philosophy, and historians. Reading what these various people have to say about Adams brings to mind the story of the blind men and the elephant: everyone, it seems, has their own idea of who Adams is and why he is important or not as important as other people might think he is. This collection of essays by Natalie Fuehrer Taylor fits neatly into that pattern. She has brought together nine essays that share the assumption that Adams "was engaged in political life," although she hastens to add that the definition of politics employed is far broader than political activity (p. 1). To Adams, "the political life entailed a consideration of how human beings ought to live and what form of government would best promote human flourishing" (p. 1). In short, these essays explore Adams as a political thinker and philosopher, not as a political actor, and do so in a way that is largely admiring and very much on his own terms.
Taylor's introduction alternates between praising Adams as a thinker and defending him against recent work that has explored his career in politics and how his writing reflected his political experiences and thinking. Rather than grappling with that scholarship, Taylor hastens to dismiss it nearly altogether in her eagerness to make the case that Adams's writings "reveal him to be one of our most profound political thinkers, authors, and even statesmen" (p. 8). Her selections come from like-minded scholars, carefully avoiding most recent historical scholarship (as the bibliography reveals); she rests content to reprint Henry Steele Commager's 1937 essay on Adams, a quaint artifact offering an understanding of Adams as intellectual that is no longer in vogue among most historians.
The selections in this volume thus are best understood as making an argument that we should celebrate Adams much as he would have [End Page 493] wanted to be viewed by the end of his life-as a philosopher who balanced hope and skepticism as he viewed the American prospect much as he weighed faith and science in his effort to understand existence. In an essay first published in 1990, Russell L. Hanson and W. Richard Merriman explore how Adams detailed the decline of the republican tradition; in a selection that first appeared the following year, B. H. Gilley looks at how Adams explored political leadership in his 1880 novel, Democracy. Michael Colacurcio's 1967 essay on how Adams wove considerations of pragmatism into Democracy and Esther (1884) is included, as is an excerpt from James P. Young's absorbing investigation of Adams as political thinker, in this case an explication of The Education of Henry Adams (1918).
The essays prepared especially for this volume include Denise Dutton's revisiting of how Democracy addressed the notion of democratic virtue through several characters in the novel as well as Taylor's treatment of how Adams explores science, art, and religion as potential threats to the ethos of American democracy in Esther. Richard Samuelson examines Adams's pursuit of a scientific approach to history as a way of understanding to help solve social problems, while Patrick J. Deneen discusses Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartes (1913) as Adams's celebration of the mindset of the Middle Ages, particularly its ability to integrate multiple themes. The volume concludes with some reflections by William Carey McWilliams on the intellectual and civic virtue as manifested through Adams.
Those readers looking for sympathetic treatments of Henry Adams as political thinker will be pleased by this volume. While it offers a rather incomplete overview of how people have explored Adams as a political figure through his writings, it is a passionate case for the defense prepared by devoted admirers. [End Page 494]
Brooks D. Simpson, ASU Foundation Professor at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, is the author of several works on American history, including...