The Last American Aristocrat: The Brilliant Life and Improbable Education of Henry Adams

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Release Date: 
November 24, 2020
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“History at its finest, proving clearly how the past is very much part of the present.”

David S. Brown is a history professor, and that training shows in his careful examination of Henry Adams, descendent of two US presidents and a member of the aristocracy of the young American nation. He places Adams immediately in historical context from his childhood to old age:

“He met Lincoln and befriended Edith Wharton, bowed before Queen Victoria, and shared a spartan meal in the unkempt Samoan home of Treasure Island’s author Robert Louis Stevenson; he married into a family with strong ties to the Transcendatalism of Emerson and Thoreau, visited Jefferson’s Monticello with Jefferson’s granddaughter Sarah Randolph, and suffered, so he said, ‘an indifferent, very badly served’ White House dinner with Theodore Roosevelt; from an anxious Paris he witnessed the German invasion of 1914 and enjoyed in his final years the occasional company of a young, attractive political couple—Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.”

This paragraph suggests the scope of the book. Adams knew everybody who mattered in politics and literature. He traveled the world. More than that, he lived at a pivotal age, bridging the colonial and modern eras. As Brown writes:

“I believe that to try to understand much of American history, and more specifically its movement in the late nineteenth century toward an imperial, industrial identity, one both increasingly beholden to technology and concerned with the fate of the white race, is to understand Henry Adams.”

Brown ends up delivering what he proposes: a deep history of American as lived through one man, a man born into Boston’s privileged elite, part of a famiy at the nexus of U.S. politics and culture. As a young man, Adams studied in Germany (after a Harvard education), traveled through Europe, and returned to America as a polished writer, a political pundit before the term was invented. He was safely in Europe during the violent throes of the Civil War, comfortably writing his travel “letters.” His political upbringing blinded him to the hold slavery had on the South. Instead, he was sympathetic to Southern states “unfairly subjugated by a combination of Yankee carpetbaggers, black congressmen, and unscrupulous scalawags. . . . He failed to appreciate the problem of race in America with any urgency, insight, or empathy.”

During the upheavals of Reconstruction, when Jim Crow laws replaced slavery with a new kind of legal oppression. Adams continued to write, to work as an editor for the North American Review, and to teach history at Harvard. In all three positions, he shared his thinking on everything from medieval French architecture to capitalist banking systems. He was a broad thinker despite being trapped by the prism of his privileged upbringing and family history. Late in his life, he admitted these limits himself:

“Growing older, Adams came to regard his inherited Boston worldview as witlessly positivistic, capitalistic, and imperialistic. It reflexively worshiped science and technology, making the heartless dynamo the center of contemporary civilization.”

Brown makes Adams feel like a contemporary in these concerns. By writing so thoroughly about Adams’ intellectual development, the reader is shown assumptions and beliefs that still run deeply through American culture. This is history at its finest, proving clearly how the past is very much part of the present. We just have to know where to look.