biographies, book reviews, David S. Brown, Henry Adams, New Release, The Education of Henry Adams
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
J. Jensen said:
This one piques my interest because, as you point out, he was a bridge between two different America’s and had a front row seat to a lot of the politics and major events of the Gilded Age. I’ve read about him in the periphery in many other books from the era and I even own a couple history books authored by him. I enjoyed his history of 1801-1817. While I enjoyed his written history, I am unfortunately starting with a slight slant against him as I quite like Ulysses S. Grant, and Henry Adams most certainly did not, and I still remember some of the many insults Adams hurled at Grant, such as calling him a “primitive” who was “pre-intellectual” and couldn’t even think as good as a caveman.
As much as I enjoyed this book, and despite his own semi-dull personality, I can only imagine a Henry Adams biography written by (I almost hate to say it) someone who is a professional writer rather than an astute historian. Or perhaps I’ll wonder what would happen if Candice Millard and David S. Brown had gotten together to write this? As someone whose life spanned the presidencies of Martin Van Buren through Woodrow Wilson (and included the Civil War, Reconstruction and the Gilded Age), who traveled so extensively, and whose dining table periodically included the “Who’s Who” of American and European society, I can’t help but think of the opportunity not yet fulfilled with Adams’s life story.
Still, this was well worth reading and leaves me wondering what I would think of Garry Wills’s book on Henry Adams (though more focused, I believe, on Adams’s history of early America).
I am a little over 100 pages into this book so I have not even met Clover yet.
The introduction was indeed a masterpiece. Brown’s narrative of Henry’s early life in Quincy was fascinating as well. It is an interesting counterpoint to Logevall’s narrative about the Kennedy clan’s arrival in Boston. The annals of the poor in the immigrant Kennedy’s case and American ‘Royalty’ in the Adams clan.
A few years back I read the one-volume biography (the original 3-volume series received the Pulitzer) by Ernest Samuels who was a writer (English PhD). So far, I give Brown the nod.
Another book on Adams was recently published as well. Henry Adams in Washington by Ormond Seavey. Dr. Seavey is an English professor and previously authored a book on Benjamin Franklin’s life and autobiography.
I keep vacillating on Wills’s Henry Adams.
Your note reminds me that I was intrigued enough by Clover to wonder about Natalie Dykstra’s biography of Clover Adams published in 2012. I had the same feeling about George Custer’s wife and now have a biography of her waiting patiently on a shelf as well 🙂
Patricia O’Toole’s book on The Five of Hearts is also in my radar. It may be Adams overload though.
John Taliaferro’s bio of John Hay (All the Great Prizes) is a great read. The Gilded Age often gets overlooked, but it was a very dynamic period in the nation’s development with many interesting characters.
It’s somewhat ironic that I just ordered Taliaferro’s bio on New Year’s Eve. I’m planning on swapping it into the lineup shortly (or cheating and just adding it in somewhere).