Henry Adams 1838-1918 Term Paper

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Henry Adams - the Education of Henry Adams

Throughout The Education of Henry Adams the reader gets the impression that the author, Henry Adams, considered himself a failure. That impression is given because Adams believed the education he had received really hadn't prepared him for the changes (technological and social changes) that were going to occur in the 19th Century. Critic Herbert F. Hahn - writing in College English in 1963 - suggests that Adams' book may not be an autobiography as much as it is a metaphor for the frustrations of his generation. That frustration (or rebellion, if you will) was that the world was rapidly changing (away from strict religious and spiritual values and toward a more mechanized) and Adams' generation had not been part of the creation of this world of increasing industrialization, nor was his generation comfortable with it.

Was Adams' book in fact a "cultivated irony," Hahn wonders; it is on one hand seeming to be Adams own personal complaint about his situation, but on the other hand, was it in fact written to represent a whole subculture of people who searched for but didn't find true meaning in this new world of technology? And if Adams was indeed acting out the role of a creative and clever - albeit a stealth - representative of that culture, he sometimes was able to hide his identity, but other times his criticism and cynicism gave him away.

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Hahn writes that indeed Adams' complaint was not really so much about his failure to adjust to the world, but rather "...the realization that the world in which he lived as an adult had changed so much from the world in which he grew up as a child," that in fact the "traditional values of his upbringing had become meaningless and inapplicable."

TOPIC: Term Paper on Henry Adams 1838-1918 Assignment

Adams had a rather simple boyhood and youthful experiences, based on Puritan spiritual values; but now all that had now begun to evolve into a "highly complex industrialized state," Hughes continues. The "bewildering shift" in values apart from the principles which That' generation had been taught was disturbing to the author. He truly believed in the values of his grandfather's world, Hughes continues, and the "rejection of those values by the new world, rather than his own failure to accommodate himself to it," represented the real tragedy he was writing about in his book.

ADAMS' REJECTION OF TECHNOLOGY, PRAISE OF SPIRITUAL VALUES: Hughes' well-taken point can be verified at several places in the book, notably on page 380 in chapter XXV (The Dynamo and the Virgin). While attending the Exposition in Chicago in 1893, and rejecting much of the science on display there, Adams was nonetheless intrigued with the new application of "force" - the dynamos - symbols of infinity (Adams, 380).

Adams began to be as enamored with the forty-foot dynamos "much as the early Christians felt the Cross." He is comparing enthusiasm for technology with enthusiasm for the Church, probably as usual a tongue-in-cheek allusion to his distain for the changing world. Why, even Nature itself would take a back seat to these new machines; "The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel," which did some serious revolving of its own.

Adams' character even began to "pray to it," this new god of the universe, infinite in its power; it was as "interchangeable" a force with steam as the Cross was with the cathedral. These are carefully chosen words by Adams, designed for the maximum effect as metaphors for his treatise on how the church and nature were now the education of the past, and machines and new forms of power were the education of the future. And if a person didn't take those classes, and attend schools that provided learning instruction about the new machine world, he was going to be left out in the cold.

The plight of Adams' character in this chapter (and in much of the book) could be compared with the student in the late 20th century, who learned much about literature and journalism and social studies, history, anthropology and psychology, but knew nothing about computers when time came to purchase his first word processing machine. That student wondered how he would ever figure out software and the Internet with which he would better able to market his writing and research. Yes, the Internet and Google and databases offered him amazing technological tools for doing his research on anthropological and historical subjects, but if he hadn't learned about these tools, they were useless to him. His religion was the fine arts, not the technology of the day.

Again on page 383 Adams juxtaposes the new science with religion; Adams' concept of education was being stood on its head by these new machines, and there had not been such a dramatic break with the past since Copernicus and Galileo broke the news to the world that the earth was round, not flat. Columbus proved something shocking too, but there had not been a "revolution" like the one at the Chicago "Gallery of Machines" ("Great Exposition of 1900) since Constantine (the Roman emperor who became a Christian) "set up the Cross." This kind of astonishing and radical departure from previous society, previous learning - this "mysterious energy" - had not been witnessed since the discovery of the Cross (Adams 383).

On page 383-84 Adams writes about the Virgin (the spirit, one assumes, of faith, as symbolized in Mary, mother of Jesus) as a spiritual force compared with the mechanical force he was witnessing in Chicago. His language is very heavy with symbolism and also with sarcasm. He appears to be even more perturbed at this new field of technology that he, and modern man at that time, must now embrace, than Hughes had described him to be. This journey of learning and understanding for the author would be "the most hazardous of all," he writes. It would be "the knife-edge along which he must crawl." It was going to be like Sir Lancelot seven centuries earlier, who divided two kingdoms "of force which had nothing in common but attraction."

Once he has that juxtaposition set up, he spends several pages describing the sinful new world of women; the old woman was revered for her beauty, the new woman for her sex (Adams 385). The old, trusted woman (Virgin) was the "highest energy ever known to man...exercising vastly more attraction over the human mind than all the steam-engines and dynamos ever dreamed of." But this spiritual energy was a thing of the past, and the new "occult" (energy force) was the machine, and man's bowing down to it mocked how mankind once bowed to the power of the Christian Church.

So, forty-five years of "education" had led Adams to this point of futility (Adams 389). He did not feel comfortable with this new classroom - technology and machines and an abandoning of faith-based power in search of more man-made power. Adams clearly admired the teachings of Jean Jacques Rousseau, as he points out in his Preface. Adams places Rousseau up against the teachers of the 19th Century, and sees that the 19th Century teachers have "declined to show themselves before their scholars more vile or contemptible than necessary..."

Even the most humble 19th Century teacher "hides, if possible, all the faults with which nature has generously embellished us all"; but Rousseau has confessed that he has a lot of faults, and that God expects him to confess those inadequacies which when doing so, men will "groan" at his unworthiness. What Adams is doing here is saying that true grace is a matter of coming before God with a genuine sense of humility, as Rousseau did. And though Rousseau warned against self-centeredness and Ego, in… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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