Man of the Century

But 100 years after writing his classic memoir, the question about Henry Adams remains: Which century?

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Under a silver gray sky, I stared up at a line of elegant 19th-century buildings on the south side of Avenue Foch, a three-minute walk from the Arc de Triomphe. A guide to literary sites in Paris was in my hands.

"Can I help you find something?" asked a passing Parisian.

Well, yes, I said. I was trying to identify the building where, a century ago, the Boston-born writer Henry Adams (1838-1918) had worked on a book. Then in his mid-60s, Adams was straining to make sense of the world as the industrial age was remaking it; the resulting blend of autobiography, reportage, philosophy and science was published as The Education of Henry Adams. "I sit in a garret, while children pound pianos and sing scales below, all day, and their maids rattle boots and chairs over my head all night," he wrote to a friend. That letter, like hundreds of others in Adams' oddly vertical hand, was sent from 23 Avenue du Bois de Boulogne, Avenue Foch's former name.

"Why, I live at number 23," the Parisian said with sudden pride, pointing to a building just to our right. "Maybe I live where your writer did."

In midlife, Adams divided his time between Paris and a house on Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. just north of the White House. Designed by H. H. Richardson, the great American architect of his era, that house, and the one he designed next door for the family of statesman John Hay, were demolished in 1927 to make way for a hotel that took the name Hay-Adams. But the handsome six-story building that had been Adams' Paris pad is still standing.

Education was once a familiar read on American college campuses, but lately I've found that the Social Security set is more likely to have read it than people still stoking their IRAs. That's a shame.

In his copious letters, Adams says almost nothing about the writing of the book, but he seems to have completed it in late 1906. Early the next year, he was circulating privately printed copies to friends who appeared in it, such as Henry James and Theodore Roosevelt, and asking for "assent, correction, or suggestion." Few had any to offer. Having prepared a version for posthumous release, he entrusted it to his fellow Boston blue blood Henry Cabot Lodge in 1916. Following Adams' death two years later at 80, Education was published commercially.

The book sold well; it was still generating about $4,000 in annual royalties when its copyright expired in 1993, according to Conrad Edick Wright, a historian at the Massachusetts Historical Society, former owner of the copyright. It won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1919, and topped a list by the Modern Library, a publisher of literature in affordable editions, of the 100 most important nonfiction books of the past century. Now Wright and Edward Chalfant, author of a three-volume biography of Adams, are preparing a centenary edition. And even as the information age sweeps the world, Adams' book remains a compelling self-portrait of a man trying to keep his feet as the ground shifts around him.

Henry Brooks Adams' great-grandfather, John Adams, was the second president of the United States; his grandfather, John Quincy Adams, was the sixth; his father, Charles Francis Adams, was a congressman and U.S. minister to Great Britain during the Civil War. Education, which Adams wrote in the third person, begins its chronological march with the author's privileged birth on Mount Vernon Street in Boston on February 16, 1838. But it also notes his feeling that his lineage conferred no head start "in the races of the coming century."

Adams sought education but resisted the classroom. One morning during a stay in Quincy, Massachusetts, with his paternal grandparents (who were addressed as "the President" and "the Madam"), Henry, then age 6 or 7, refused to go to school despite his mother's entreaties. At the top of the stairs, Adams writes, the door to the President's library suddenly opened "and the old man slowly came down. Putting on his hat, he took the boy's hand without a word, and walked with him, paralysed by awe, up the road to the town."


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