A Sceptical Patrician. A review of The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography
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[ 41 A Sceptical Patrician1 A review of The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography London: Constable, 1918 Pp. x + 519. The Athenaeum, 4647 (23 May 1919) 361-62 Colonel Smith was a person of consideration in the Massachusetts Bay Colony; somewhat against his wishes, his daughter married John Adams, said to be descended from a bricklayer. John Adams, the second President of the United States, had, by his wife Abigail, John Quincy Adams, the sixth President of the United States. John Quincy Adams begat Charles Francis Adams, Minister at the Court of St. James’s under President Lincoln; and Charles Francis Adams had, by his wife Abigail, Henry Brooks Adams, the author of this autobiography.2 Henry Adams was furthermore well connected; his grandfather Brooks was the richest man in Boston, and his uncle was President of Harvard College. The Unitarian pulpits of Boston were held by other relatives or connections.3 Henry Adams was born in 1838, and by 1905, when he wrote, he had known a surprising number of people in America and Europe and turned his mind to a surprising variety of studies. It is doubtful whether the book ought to be called an autobiography, for there is too little of the author in it; or whether it may be called Memoirs – for there is too much of the author in it; or a treatise on historical method, which in parts it is. For those who may be interested in different parts of the book the work may be separated as follows. After the first few chapters, which deal with Adams’s life as a boy in Boston,comehisexperiencesandobservationsasanattachéoftheMinistry in London during the Civil War: observations, often illuminating, of the British statesmen of the day, Palmerston, Russell, Bright, and others; some of the men of letters, like Monckton Milnes and Swinburne; and generally on London society of mid-Victoria.4 This part of the story will provide most entertainment for English readers. The personalities are thin, but not always formal: The older daughter of the Milne Gaskells had married Francis Turner Palgrave . . . Old Sir Francis, the father, had been much the greatest of all 1919 42 ] the historians of England, the only one who was un-English; and the reason of his superiority lay in his name, which was Cohen, and his mind, which was Cohen also, or at least not English. He had changed his name to Palgrave in order to please his wife . . .5 [214] The comments of a young man, recollected in septuagenarian tranquillity , are honest, and, though not subtle, are pleasing: Barring the atrocious insolence and brutality which Englishmen and especially Englishwomen showed to each other – very rarely, indeed, to foreigners – English society was much more easy and tolerant than American. [182] Balmoral was a startling revelation of royal taste. Nothing could be worse than the toilettes at Court unless it was the way they were worn . . . Fashion was not fashionable in London until the Americans and the Jews were let loose . . . There was not then – outside of a few bankers or foreigners – a good cook or a good table in London . . . If there was a well-dressed woman at table, she was either an American or “Fast.” [195] . . . The result was medieval, and amusing; sometimes coarse to a degree that might have startled a roustabout [i.e. navvy]6 and sometimes courteous and considerate to a degree that suggested King Arthur’s Round Table . . . [201] These are revelations which are now household words, but it is pleasant to find that they were discovered, in 1862, by a serious young American of the best social position and an earnest desire to study the world and improve his mind and manners. The second part of the book, concerned with the personalities in the quite sordid American politics from the reign of President Grant, is of even greater interest to those who are interested in the subject.7 This is as far as the book can be catalogued and indexed. The really impressive interest is in the mind of the author, and in the American mind, or that fragment of it, which he represents. Henry Adams was an American patrician who had quite sufficient money, the best introductions, and no vocation forced upon him. An English analogy for Henry Adams would have been a George Wyndham;8 he would have found the straight road in politics, and he would have occupied his considerable leisure with writing on history, or archaeology, or numismatics, or even...