Volume > Issue > Henry Adams, the Doctrine of Progress & the Virgin

Henry Adams, the Doctrine of Progress & the Virgin


By William D. Miller | March 1989
William D. Miller, Emeritus Professor of History at Mar­quette University, resides in Lloyd, a very small inland town in northern Florida. The father of eight children, he is author of A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement and Dorothy Day: A Biog­raphy (widely regarded as the definitive biography of Dor­othy Day). His most recent book is All Is Grace: The Spir­ituality of Dorothy Day.

Today, when million-dollar publishing con­tracts are given to semi-literates to recite steamy tales calculated to bring down the famous, it seems curious that the book that led the sales for nonfic­tion in 1919 was the very literate and recondite work of an American historian. That year E.P. Dutton published Henry Adams’s The Education of Henry Adams, a work that had been published pri­vately in 1907.

It was a different time then, before the deso­lation of morning talk shows and afternoon soap operas had settled over the land, and something in the air still gave people a will to culture. So per­haps they bought the book simply because Adams had written it. Born in Boston on February 18, 1838, he lacked nothing which might nourish the life of a scholar. A descendant of presidents, a mem­ber of a family in which intellectual precocity was an unexceptional trait, he was educated to the most advanced standards that America and Europe could offer, and became at the age of 32 an Assis­tant Professor of Medieval History at Harvard. At the time of his death, most Americans who had any pretensions to culture recognized him as a per­son who possessed sovereign intellectual and liter­ary gifts. Even though one might not understand his book, having it lying on a living room table sug­gested that a person was dedicated to the things that counted.

If the Education produced only bemusement in the minds of many, they need not have felt they were intellectually backward. Reviewers raved, but seemed not to have had the faintest idea of what Adams was saying. “It is a book of unique richness,” gushed the unnamed reviewer for The New York Times Review of Books, “of unforgettable com­mand and challenging thought, a book delightful, whimsical, deep-thinking, suggestive, a book great­ly worth waiting for.” Publisher’s Weekly rated it highly “for its wise philosophy of life, its deep un­derstanding of human nature, its pervading charm of style and mood.” It deserved “an abiding place among those rare volumes that are a personal joy of cultural minds.” Francis Hackett, in The New Republic, tried to deal with some of Adams’s theo­rizing, but after pondering aimlessly as to what was meant by “super sensual multiverse,” he retreated to join the chorus. The Education, he concluded, was “an original contribution, transcending caste and class, combining true mind and matter.”

It may be supposed that since Adams was a historian and had been the president of the Ameri­can Historical Association, professional historians would have had much to say about him. But most­ly they, like those first reviewers of the Education, found him utterly outside any of the intellectual or professional conventions with which they were fa­miliar. It was not until 1936 that literary critic Professor Richard Blackmur of Princeton, in essays published through the course of the decade that followed, provided an analysis and commentary on Adams’s thought.

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