The Education of Henry Adams has long been for me one of the great chronicles of society in our literature. In a book which is devoted to society in the imagination of some key American writers between the end of the Civil War and the end of the century, and which will therefore deal largely with social novels, I can begin with the autobiography of an historian because this remarkable but singular book illustrates the dilemma in this period of a literary artist who was not a novelist.
Adams was an unusually subtle writer; among the American historians who still regarded themselves as writers, history as a branch of literature, he stands out as the last and the best. Although he was to offer himself as the prophet of a “scientific” approach to history, it will be seen that he wrote “science,” as he had always written history, from a confident and even arrogant literary instinct. He was an extraordinarily accomplished writer, but by the time he came to write Mont-Saint-Michel at the beginning of the twentieth century and The Education of Henry Adams in 1905, he was to show himself to the friends for whom he privately printed these books, as he had already shown himself in his letters, to be an original one. Both his much-vaunted science of history and his sense of historical truth were to become casualties of his literary virtuosity.