In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Henry Adams

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Biographies
  • Editions
  • Letters
  • Political Thought
  • Adams and Science
  • Views on Women and Ethnicity
  • Influences and Influence
  • Intellectual and Social Relationships
  • The Adams Family
  • Marian Hooper (Clover) Adams

American Literature Henry Adams
Philip Eppard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 March 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0103


Henry Adams (b. 1838–d. 1918) was born in Boston into the most prominent political family in the United States. Grandson and great-grandson of presidents, he seemed destined to carry on his family’s tradition of public service. After graduation from Harvard in 1858, he studied in Europe, returning home to be secretary to his father, Charles Francis Adams, a congressman and subsequently American foreign minister to Great Britain during the Civil War. Henry Adams began his literary career sending anonymous dispatches to newspapers from Washington and London. Upon his return to America in 1868, he worked as a reform journalist in Washington, still thinking of a political career. Appalled by corruption in the Grant administration, he saw he had no place in the government and in 1870 accepted a position teaching history at Harvard. He pioneered the scientific approach to the teaching and writing of history. In 1872 he married Marian “Clover” Hooper, daughter of a prominent Boston physician. She was a good match for Henry both intellectually and socially. In 1877 Adams left Harvard and moved to Washington to devote himself to writing. The Adamses’ home became a center for writers, artists, and the few politicians who met their high standards. Adams wrote biographies of Albert Gallatin and John Randolph and worked on a history of the United States during the Jefferson and Madison administrations, which was published in nine volumes in 1889–1891. He secretly published two novels. Democracy (1880), a satirical portrait of American politics, was published anonymously and created a great sensation. Esther (1884), which treated the conflict between science and religion, was published without fanfare under the pseudonym Frances Snow Compton. A tragic break in Adams’s life occurred in 1885 when Clover committed suicide in a fit of depression. He sought solace in travel, visiting Japan in 1886 and later making an extended trip to the South Seas. Adams pondered the forces of science and technology radically altering the world and studied medieval culture as a counterpoint to modernity. His two greatest books, Mont Saint Michel and Chartres (1904), his study of medieval culture, and The Education of Henry Adams (1907) which used his own life as a case study of the impact of modernity, were both privately printed. Initially issued in a private edition, The Education was not published until after his death. Adams seemed to view his life as a failure, but his work, especially The Education, had great resonance in the 20th century as his pessimism about the course of history seemed justified by current events. Increasingly, more attention has been paid to Adams as a literary artist skilled in several different genres than as a cultural commentator.

General Overviews

Because of the varied aspects of his career and the complexity of his thought, Henry Adams presents a challenge to anyone trying to present a general overview. Hochfield 1962 and Contosta 1980 are good, systematic, and easily accessible studies, while Levenson 1957 gives a more detailed and interpretive analysis. Hume 1951 is interesting as an early appreciation of his artistry. Murray 1974 and Bishop 1979 offer general accounts with specific perspectives. Blackmur 1980 represents the thinking of one of the great critics from the heyday of the new criticism.

  • Bishop, Ferman. Henry Adams. Boston: Twayne, 1979.

    A concise close reading of Adams’s major and minor works that stresses the role of satire in his writings.

  • Blackmur, R. P. Henry Adams. Edited by Veronica A. Makowsky. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980.

    A posthumously published version of the book on Henry Adams that Blackmur never managed to complete. Includes his famous 1936 essay “The Expense of Greatness: Three Emphases on Henry Adams” (reprinted in Harbert 1981, cited under Collections) and a longer study of The Education of Henry Adams and Mont Saint Michel and Chartres that stresses symbolism and Adams’s search for unity.

  • Contosta, David R. Henry Adams and the American Experiment. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980.

    A compact introduction to Adam’s life and thought, easily accessible for undergraduates.

  • Hochfield, George. Henry Adams: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1962.

    A systematic discussion of each of Adams’s works, showing the relationship between them and analyzing them as works of art.

  • Hume, Robert A. Runaway Star: An Appreciation of Henry Adams. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1951.

    A pioneering effort to present Henry Adams as a major writer and thinker, perhaps overly exuberant and adulatory in its treatment.

  • Levenson, J. C. The Mind and Art of Henry Adams. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957.

    A comprehensive survey of Adams’s thought and writings, long regarded as one of the best general scholarly treatments of his literary methods.

  • Murray, James G. Henry Adams. New York: Twayne, 1974.

    A short survey of Adams’s thought, suggesting that he shifted from a transcendentalist to an existentialist position.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.