Henry Adams’s letters are one of the vital chronicles of the life of the mind in America. A perceptive analyst of people, events, and ideas, Adams recorded, with brilliance and wit, sixty years of enormous change at home and abroad.
Volume I shows him growing from a high-spirited but self-conscious 20-year-old to a self-assured man of the world. In Washington in the chaotic months before Lincoln’s inauguration, then in London during the war years and beyond, he serves as secretary to his statesman father and is privy to the inner workings of politics and diplomacy. English social life proves as absorbing as affairs of state.
Volume II takes him from his years as a crusading journalist in Grant’s Washington, through his marriage to Clover Hooper and his pioneer work as a history professor at Harvard and editor of the North American Review, to his settling in Washington as a professional historian. There he and his wife, described by Henry James as “one of the two most interesting women in America,” establish the first intellectual salon of the capital. This halcyon period comes to a catastrophic close with Clover’s suicide.
Volume III traces his gradual recovery from the shock of his wife’s death as he seeks distraction in travel—to Japan, to Cuba, and in 1891–92 to the South Seas—a recovery complicated by his falling dangerously in love with Elizabeth Cameron, beautiful young wife of a leading senator. His South Seas letters to Mrs. Cameron are the most brilliant of all.
Fewer than half of Adams’s letters have been published even in part, and earlier collections have been marred by expurgations, mistranscriptions, and editorial deletions. In the six volumes of this definitive edition, readers will have access to a major document of the American past.
Adams was one of the great letter writers of the English language. Proof is now offered in [this] major publishing event.
Henry Adams has become ‘an indispensable figure in American thought’ during the 60 years, 1858–1918, covered by his correspondence. No mind more richly furnished and widely ranging appeared among his American contemporaries. Treasures of The Letters depend on what the reader is seeking. If it is autobiography, there is far more of that here than in The Education of Henry Adams… If it is the period and its drama of events, here was a reporter with a box seat and inside information. If it should be the life of the mind, Adams read everything of consequence and usually knew the authors. His picture of transatlantic society is filled out by foreign correspondence and residence abroad about half the time. Seekers for the exotic will find nothing richer in travel literature than his diary—letters from the long stay in the South Pacific islands. And the universal taste for love letters is served by the long withheld or doctored letters to Elizabeth Cameron, the beautiful young wife of the senator from Pennsylvania.
This magnificent edition of letters deserves several reviews—as a monumental scholarly achievement, as an illuminating contribution to American history, as a brilliant example of the art of letter writing, and most of all as an extraordinary personal record of an eminent American, the grandson of one president and great-grandson of another… In all, a colossal achievement.
To say that one awaits the concluding volumes of these letters with greedy impatience is to understate the case.
Adams’s letters…reveal an elegant style, a supple intelligence, and a remarkable capacity for observation… His accounts of Samoan life (1890–91) are amazingly precise and sensitive evocations of an alien culture. The letters also show Adams’s sustained capacity for loyalty, tenderness, and warmth toward family and friends. His playful letters to children are particularly touching; they express a sensibility that is almost entirely suppressed in his Education.
Henry Adams’s mind was one of the most interesting, in its foibles as well as in its power, in American intellectual history; one of the most complex, restless, wide-ranging, and supple. And the letters enable one to follow the development of his mind from phase to phase as, of course, none of his books nor even all his books taken together quite do. Only a reader of the letters will quite realize how great was the variety of ideas to which at one time or another Adams turned his mind, or with what agility and boldness his mind played over most of them. Now it is the shallow careerism of Alexander Hamilton, now the particular place of sex in Japanese life, now the vulgar mercantile quality of the architecture of the Valois and Touraine. He glances at Anglo-Saxon poetry, and his quick, offhand remarks might have come from a literary critic of genius; he animadverts on the evolution of finance capital, and seems to have given most of his life to the problem; he finds himself reflecting on the un-self-consciousness of his father and that whole generation of New Englanders, and suggests in half a dozen sentences a sustained and searching essay in psychological history… His letters of travel owe half their power to his ingrained habit of going beyond the mere surface of things, the mere look of foreignness and picturesqueness, and making the difficult effort of social and psychological understanding. It is what the best travel-writers do, of course, but how many have Henry Adams’s acuteness, his malleability, his freedom from the formulated and the preconceived?
Adams is one of the best letter-writers in the language. Whether he is describing the South Seas or the Arctic Circle, a book just read or an idea just conceived, he brings to them all an idiosyncratic and witty alertness that makes one more than ready to forgive his pose of despair.
These brilliant letters [are] an incomparable commentary on politics, literature, science, and the world at large in the last half of the nineteenth century… Henry’s sometimes fiendishly accomplished, subtle, and ironic mind has fascinated readers of The Education of Henry Adams ever since it was posthumously published in 1919… What will always fascinate those with a taste for history is Adams’ personal experience of history and his grasp of events. I know of no other American, except his grandfather, who saw so much of the great world of Europe and America, described everything so closely, and so obsessively called himself a ‘failure.’
The public knew Henry Adams, if it knew him at all, as a historian, and that was only one of the several arts he practiced that he publicly professed. But he was also something of a novelist, a poet, a painter, and an autobiographer. And as [these volumes] amply prove, he was also a master of the vanishing art of letter writing and the arts of friendship that go with it… The letters in themselves—gracefully mixing intimate with public affairs, the profound with the hilarious, filled with humor, pathos, learning, esoterica, gossip, and insider state secrets, and exploding with fury, frustration, and contempt over the stupidities of his times—are an invaluable contribution to American literature and the intellectual history of this period… In short the letters are an indispensable source of information about their author and the large part of his life and work he kept private.
- 2016 pages
- 6-1/2 x 9-3/4 inches
- Belknap Press
From this author
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