Object of the Month

"The question is whether the historico-literary line is practically worth following"

Letter from Henry Adams to Henry Cabot Lodge, 2 June 1872

Letter from Henry Adams to Henry Cabot Lodge, 2 June 1872


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  • In a letter written on 2 June 1872, Henry Adams reviews the state of historical scholarship in the United States and advises Henry Cabot Lodge, one of his former students at Harvard University, on the possibility of a career writing American history.

    Young Henry Adams

    Born in 1838, a son of Charles Francis and Abigail Brooks Adams, Henry Brooks Adams was a grandson and great-grandson of presidents. In 1872, he was a thirty-four-year-old assistant professor of medieval history at Harvard. Adams had served as his father’s private secretary during the Civil War when the senior Adams represented the United States at the Court of St. James's (making him the senior U.S. diplomat in Great Britain). After the war, the younger Adams tried his hand as a journalist in Washington. Although he had no graduate training in any subject, in 1870, Harvard President Charles W. Eliot offered him a new post in the history department there—an offer that that included the editorship of The North American Review, then one of the most influential journals in the country, to which Adams previously had contributed articles on politics and history.

    Henry Adams later would refer back to his years as a teacher at Harvard as a complete failure. In The Education of Henry Adams, he mused that "teaching affects eternity," but he was not necessarily referring to a positive effect. Adams's bleak self-portrait in The Education is almost completely at odds with descriptions of his dynamic teaching style written by his former students, including Henry Cabot Lodge, but in his letter to Lodge, Adams ignores teaching and devotes himself to the writing of history. Although he had published very little history up to this point in his career, Adams expresses complete confidence in Lodge's—and by implication his own—ability to flourish in the "historico-literary line."

    An even younger Henry Cabot Lodge

    A son of China merchant John Ellerton Lodge and Anna Cabot, Henry Cabot Lodge was born in Boston in 1850.  Although his father died when Henry Cabot was only twelve, the family lived in comfort in Boston and at a summer home in nearby Nahant. Young Lodge spent a year in Europe before entering Harvard College in the Class of 1871. An indifferent student, who selected courses by the hours at which they were taught, as a junior Lodge "stumbled" upon Henry Adams's course in medieval history and his college career—and his life thereafter—were transformed by the experience.

    The day after graduating from Harvard in 1871, Lodge married Anna Cabot Mills Davis—"Nannie" Lodge.By June 1872, the Lodges were ensconced in an apartment overlooking the Place Vendome in Paris, with a new baby daughter, about to return from their year-long honeymoon sojourn in Europe. The "poor Simpson" that Adams refers to in his letter was Michael Henry Simpson, one of Lodge's classmates and Adams's best students, who had recently died of typhoid in Florence. Earlier in his trip, Lodge had spent time with Simpson in Rome, and the latter's seriousness about the importance of public service and his sudden death had a profound influence on Lodge, who turned to his former teacher for career advice.

    American history in the shadow of Beacon Hill

    In his letter to Lodge, Adams writes with self-assurance and the kindly contempt of the young for the old about "the most respectable and respected products of our town of Boston," the so-called Boston Historians. He lists William Hickling Prescott, John Lothrop Motley, Francis "Frank" Parkman, and George Bancroft as members of an elite group of gentlemen scholars, almost all residents of Boston, who then dominated the field of American history, the local literary scene, and the rooms of the Massachusetts Historical Society. They were not only men who, in spite of Adams's reservations about their abilities, had been able to make notable careers as writers, but also familiar figures—older friends from a previous generation—to both Adams and Lodge.

    Their inter-generational friendships would continue. Years later, Adams still would send George Bancroft pre-publication copies of his historical works for review and suggestions. In his Early Memories, published in 1913, Lodge would write glowingly of all the men that Adams described as lacking "extraordinary gifts," especially Francis Parkman and George Bancroft. Lodge shared an enthusiasm with Bancroft and Parkman (in Parkman’s case a passion) for the cultivation of roses. One of Lodge's last publications, written more fifty years after he received this letter, was a celebration of the centennial of Parkman’s birth composed for the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1923 (Lodge was then president of the Society). By then Lodge was prepared to compare Parkman to Thucydides or Gibbon.

    The path not taken

    In spite of the plans Adams suggested in his letter, his next meeting with Lodge was delayed for more than a year. A few weeks after Adams wrote to Lodge, he married Marian "Clover" Hooper and departed for his own year-long wedding trip to Europe and Egypt just as the Lodges returned to America. Adams next wrote to Lodge in January 1873 during the course of a voyage on the Nile, very much in the manner of a college graduate student adviser—a role that he was about to take up again.

    While Adams continued to teach at Harvard for several more years and Lodge would follow in his footsteps for a time, first as his teaching assistant and assistant editor of The North American Review, and later as a history instructor, they both left academic life to follow very different paths. Henry Adams would write essays, novels, and biographies before he turned his attention to his own great enterprise in the "historico-literary line," his history of the United States during the administrations of Presidents Jefferson and Madison. Ironically, while it won him scholarly acclaim and academic prizes, his historical masterpiece did not turn out to be the popular or financial successes that he advised Lodge to aspire to write.

    In 1876, Henry Cabot Lodge received one the first PhDs awarded by Harvard, but following more closely the aspirations of Michael Simpson than the advice of Henry Adams, in 1880 he abandoned academic life for a career in politics. However, he did not give up writing history. Over the course of a long public career representing Massachusetts in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, he produced a shelf full of histories and biographies, often the celebration of great men and great events in American history. In some respects, Lodge had the successful "historico-literary" career that Adams recommended, but wrote much more in the style of an earlier generation of authors—the Boston Historians—that Adams denigrated.

    Sources for further reading

    Adams, Henry Brooks.The large collections of Henry Adams papers held by the Massachusetts Historical Society include his correspondence through 1889 in the Adams family papers.

    And, for post-1889, the Henry Adams papers, 1890-1938.

    Adams, Henry. The Letters of Henry Adams. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1982; 1988. 6 vols.A modern edition of the bulk of Henry Adams's letters. The 2 June 1872 letter to Henry Cabot Lodge appears on p. 138-139 of volume 2.

    Garraty, John A.Henry Cabot Lodge: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953.

    Lodge, Emily. The Lodge Women, Their Men and Their Times. New York: McNally Jackson, 2013.

    Lodge, Henry Cabot. Early Memories. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1913. Lodge prints the 2 June 1872 letter from Henry Adams on p. 238-239 of his memoirs.

    Lodge, Henry Cabot."Francis Parkman." Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 56 (1923), 319-335.

    Lodge, Henry Cabot. Henry Cabot Lodge papers, 1775-1966. The Massachusetts Historical Society holds very large collections of Lodge family papers, including the personal papers of Henry Cabot Lodge.

    Samuels, Ernest.The Young Henry Adams. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967.

    Seavey, Ormond. "Henry Adams & Henry Cabot Lodge—Teacher and Student: A Complicated Interaction," in Henry Adams and the Need to Know. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2005, p. 45-79.

    Wills, Garry.Henry Adams and the Making of America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.