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Henry Adams

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An unknown photographer took this photograph of Henry Adams, historian, journalist, and novelist, in 1858, the year that Adams graduated from Harvard University.

Who was Henry Adams?

Henry Adams (1838-1918) was a great-grandson of our second president, John Adams, and a grandson of our sixth president, John Quincy Adams. A graduate of Harvard College in the Class of 1858, he was present in London during the Civil War serving as private secretary to his father, Charles Francis Adams (1807-1886), U.S. minister to the British government. He was also a prominent journalist, one of his generation's most important historians, a novelist, a world traveler, and (behind the scenes) an important advisor on some of his day's most significant political and diplomatic issues. For almost a century, readers have drawn on his autobiographical work, The Education of Henry Adams, for insights about the world Adams experienced and the life he lived.


The Education became an American classic almost immediately after the Society published it posthumously in collaboration with Houghton Mifflin Company in 1918. The following year, it won the Pulitzer Prize for biography or autobiography. There was a time when it seemed that almost every American high school or college student read at least a portion of the book. As recently as 2003, a board of critics the Modern Library assembled named the Education the best non-fiction work of the twentieth century. Now, a hundred years later, the MHS has brought out a new version of this classic. Why would anyone re-edit such a book? The answer lies in the hundreds of defects that mar every previously available edition.

The 1907 Edition

Although the Education was not published until 1918, it first appeared in print as a draft in 1907. Adams, who could afford to do such things, had arranged for a printer to typeset the book's manuscript. His plan was to share the text with friends whose judgment he trusted before revising it for publication. A shipment of 100 copies arrived at his residence in Washington, D.C., by 20 February, when he began to mail them to his confidants.

Adams's progress on the final version of the text was slow. We know from various sources that before long he began to make notes for some changes in the margins of copies of the draft, and four of these annotated copies have survived, including a copy in the MHS library. In 1912, though, he suffered a serious stroke and any realistic possibility of completing the work to his own satisfaction ended. Memory loss was one of the consequences of Adams's stroke, and he apparently misplaced the annotated copies. In 1916, anxious to assure the books future, he gave a new copy with a small number of changes indicated to Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, a former student of his and at the time the president of the MHS. In a cover note, he instructed Lodge to have the Society publish the book posthumously. Adams died on 27 March 1918; the MHS-Houghton Mifflin edition appeared the following September.

The 1907 draft had suffered from all the flaws that authors used to expect to find in printer's proofs. Before the days of computers and spell-check software, proofs routinely contained many different kinds of typographical errors. There were misspellings, omissions in punctuation, inconsistencies in the use of italics and capitals; all told, there were perhaps 1,000 errors.


Shortly after Adams's death, Lodge gave the copy of the Education he had received in 1916 to Worthington C. Ford, the Historical Society's editor of publications. Ford quickly determined that Adams's marginalia had done nothing to resolve the typographical problems he was encountering. Moreover, American fashions in writing had changed rapidly since 1907, and the draft Adams had typeset 11 years before looked antique to Ford's eyes. Some of Adams's spelling and punctuation forms posed particular problems as far as Ford was concerned. The edition the Society and Houghton Mifflin brought out in September 1918 was, consequently, substantially modernized and Americanized. We will never know whether or not Adams would have approved of Ford's changes; we do know that almost every page in a book of more than 500 looked different from what the author had expected.

Revisiting Adams's Text in the 21st Century

The objective of the project the Society undertook in 2001 was to produce a carefully edited book in keeping with Henry Adams's expectations when he wrote the Education. There is no way to channel Adams, no way to know in every instance how he would have resolved all the apparent editorial problems in the 1907 printing, but using other Adams publications and his correspondence from the time as guides, the editors-Edward Chalfant, Professor Emeritus of English at Hofstra University, and Conrad Edick Wright, the Society's Ford Editor of Publications-have determined the author's preferences on scores of points. They have identified more than 60 spots where words have apparently been omitted and in bracketed insertions propose corrections. They have also drawn on four surviving copies with Adams's marginalia to insert changes Adams clearly wanted to make. The result is a perfected version of the Education.

Special Event, 15 February 2007

To celebrate the launch of the centennial version of the Education, there will be a reception on Thursday evening, 15 February 2007 at 6:30 p.m., featuring remarks by co-editors Edward Chalfant and Conrad Edick Wright. The event is free and open to the public, and copies of the Education will be available for purchase. It is also available through the Society's distributor, the University of Virginia Press, for $34.95 plus handling. For ordering information, see the Society's website. Please call 617-646-0560 or email to register for the evening event.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Henry Adams manuscripts from the Massachusetts Historical Society, Houghton Library of Harvard University, and the John Hay Library of Brown University are collected in a 36-reel microfilm edition as:

Adams, Henry. Microfilm Edition of the Henry Adams Papers, 1843-1938.

Henry Adams's letters have been published in a modern, scholarly edition as:

Adams, Henry. The Letters of Henry Adams. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1982-1988. Six vols.

A single-volume selection of the letters appeared as:

Adams, Henry. Henry Adams-Selected Letters. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1992.

Letters omitted from the Harvard University Press edition are available as bound typescripts in:

Adams, Henry. Supplement to the Letters of Henry Adams. [Boston]: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1989. Two vols.

Henry Adams's own writings are available in a large number of modern editions. The Library of America has published many of them in three volumes:

Adams, Henry. History of the United States of America during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1988.

Adams, Henry. History of the United States of America during the Administrations of James Madison. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1986.

Adams, Henry. Novels, Mont Saint Michel, The Education. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1983.

Two comprehensive biographies of Henry Adams, each published in three volumes are:

Chalfant, Edward. Both Sides of the Ocean: A Biography of Henry Adams, His First Life, 1838-1862. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1982.

Chalfant, Edward. Better in Darkness: A Biography of Henry Adams, His Second Life, 1862-1891. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1994.

Chalfant, Edward. Improvement of the World: A Biography of Henry Adams, His Last Life, 1891-1918. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 2001.

Samuels, Ernest. The Young Henry Adams. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948.

Samuels, Ernest. Henry Adams: The Middle Years. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Samuels, Ernest. Henry Adams: The Major Phase. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964.

The Massachusetts Historical Society recently published fourteen essays on Henry Adams drawn from a conference hosted by the Society in 2001:

Decker, William M. and Earl N. Harbert, eds. Henry Adams and the Need to Know. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2005.

Garry Wills recently has made the argument that it is Henry Adam's fourteen volumes of writings on American history, rather than the Education or Mont St. Michel that are his most important literary project in:

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