Henry Brooks Adams (1838-1918; normally called Henry Adams) was an American journalist, historian, academic and novelist. He is best-known for his autobiographical book, The Education of Henry Adams. He was a member of the Adams political family. Both his paternal grandfather, John Quincy Adams, and great grandfather, John Adams, one of the most prominent among the Founding Fathers, had been U.S. Presidents, his maternal grandfather was a millionaire, and another great grandfather, Nathaniel Gorham, signed the Constitution. After his graduation from Harvard University in 1858, he embarked on a Grand Tour of Europe, during which he also attended lectures in civil law at the University of Berlin. He was initiated into the Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity as an honorary member at the 1893 Columbian Exposition by Harris J. Ryan, a judge for the exhibit on electrical engineering. Through that organization, he was a member of the Irving Literary Society. Adams's The History of the United States of America (1801 to 1817) has been called "a neglected masterpiece." In the 1880s, Adams also wrote two novels. He is credited as the author of Democracy, which was published anonymously in 1880 and immediately became popular. (Only after Adams's death did his publisher reveal Adams's authorship.) His other novel, published under the nom de plume of Frances Snow Compton, was Esther, whose eponymous heroine was believed to be modeled after his wife. He published The Education of Henry Adams in 1907, in a small private edition for selected friends. For Adams, the Virgin Mary was a symbol of the best of the old world, as the dynamo was a representative of modernity. It was only following Adams's death that The Education was made available to the general public, in an edition issued by the Massachusetts Historical Society. It ranked first on the Modern Library's 1998 list of 100 Best Nonfiction Books and was named the best book of the twentieth century by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a conservative organization that promotes classical education. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1919.
Democracy, An American Novelby Henry Adams
"Democracy" is what "Primary Colors" would have been if the latter had been well-written. Like Joe Klein, Adams published his book anonymously and skewered a number of contemporary politicians (including President Rutherford B. Hayes). But Adams goes two steps further: his novel is a scathing commentary more on the American political system in general than on one administration in particular, and his characters are iconic and recognizable in any era. In "Democracy," the nation's capital "swarms with simple-minded exhibitions of human nature; men and women curiously out of place, whom it would be cruel to ridicule and ridiculous to weep over." But Adams is not hesitant about being cruel in his portrayal of Washington's residents, and he saves his weeping for the true victims in his novel: the American people. The typical American senator combines "the utmost pragmatical self-assurance and overbearing temper with the narrowest education and meanest personal experience that ever existed in any considerable government." The story concerns Madeleine Lee, an intelligent and well-meaning (if somewhat naive) New York widow, who, bored with her cosmopolitan lifestyle, travels to Washington to learn what makes the nation tick. She and her sister are quickly surrounded by a diverse group of politicians, lobbyists, and foreign diplomats, and she finds herself courted by Silas Ratcliffe, a senator with presidential aspirations whose talent "consisted in the skill with which he evaded questions of principle." During one heated (and humorous) argument about George Washington's merits, Ratcliffe sums up his view of politics: "If virtue won't answer our purpose, then we must use vice, or our opponents will put us out of office." Adams's prose is almost Jamesian in its measured pacing (and this may simply bore some readers); the initial chapters are unhurried as he weaves the web of the plot and sketches his all-too-believable characters. Along the way he tosses barbed zingers at every target. The climactic passages are among the most comically riveting, emotionally intense, and morally satisfying finales I've read in a satire: as you might expect, nobody gets exactly what they want, but everyone gets what they deserve.
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