The Last American Aristocrat: The Brilliant Life and
Improbable Education of Henry Adams
by David S. Brown
Scribner (Simon & Schuster)
Published: November 2020
Published six weeks ago, “The Last American Aristocrat” is David S. Brown’s most recent biography. Brown is professor of history at Elizabethtown College and the author of five books including “Paradise Lost: A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald” and “Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography.”
Henry Adams (1838-1918) is not a familiar figure to most modern readers but was a man of great renown in his day. The dour Henry, who descended from two presidents, was a Harvard-educated historian and Gilded Age author/intellectual best-known for his posthumously published (and Pulitzer Prize winning) memoir “The Education of Henry Adams.” His nine-volume history of the United States is considered one of the best English-written histories ever compiled.
A key challenge for any biographer of Henry Adams is to capture and convey his deeply perceptive observations while remaining mindful of his privileged, occasionally biased and frequently caustic worldview. In many ways, this biography of Adams is the thoughtfully distilled story of a shrewd witness to America’s transition from early republic to its “modern” era.
This book begins on a strong note. Its Introduction is excellent- providing an overview of its subject, presenting the author’s thesis and explaining why Adams is relevant to a modern audience. The remainder of the 392-page narrative is articulately written, demonstrates careful research and generally moves at a brisk but not rushed pace. And although some prior knowledge of the era is helpful, Brown frequently injects social and historical context into the biography.
Some of this book’s most instructive chapters review Adams’s famous and most compelling publications. These are often excellent…but are likely to prove more interesting to scholars than general readers. The chapter which explores Adams’s memoir, however, should prove compelling to almost anyone.
The most fascinating aspect of the book, however, is the ongoing attention paid to Adams’s decades-long infatuation with Lizzie Cameron (who happened to be General William Sherman’s niece). Excerpts from his periodic correspondence to her is frequently embedded in the narrative and adds sparkle and spirit to Adams’s otherwise disagreeable complexion.
Grappling with Henry Adams’s paradoxical persona would be a challenge for any biographer. But while Brown does an admirable job fleshing out his subject, the narrative often feels more like a history text than a biography. Brown’s writing style betrays his academic background and, given Adams’s robust social network and extensive world travels, it is regrettable there is not more “on the ground” flair or flourish which would place the reader fully in Adams’s world.
In addition, most readers will come to the view that this biography is either somewhat too lengthy, or far too short. Given all that Adams observed during his long and episodically fascinating life, many readers will be left with the sense that much was left out of this book. Frequent are the moments when a paragraph – or page – will leave the reader wanting to know more. Whether this is due to a shortage of historical evidence, or merely the author’s desire to press on, is never quite clear.
Overall, David S. Brown’s “The Last American Aristocrat” is a revealing review of the life of the last prominent descendant of John Adams. As history this book is excellent and provides a platform for further scholarly investigation. As biography – the opportunity to experience the world fully from Henry Adams’s vantage point – the book is fine, but far from fabulous.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars