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Henry Adams (Henry Brooks Adams) Biography

(1838–1918), (Henry Brooks Adams), The North American Review, Life of Albert Gallatin, Democracy, Esther, John Randolph

American historian and man of letters, born in Boston, educated at Harvard. Adams was the grandson of President John Quincy Adams and the great-grandson of President John Adams, and the son of Charles Francis Adams, an ambassador to Britain. He served as his father's secretary in London during the American Civil War. His first published work, on Captain John Smith, appeared in 1867, after which he abandoned any aspirations to political office, and became a writer and teacher of history at Harvard University. Until 1877, he also edited The North American Review and during this period married Marian Hooper, whose later suicide was to throw him into a profound depression. His first major work was the Life of Albert Gallatin (1879), a biography in which judicious quotation is interspersed with interpretative commentary. A short stay in Washington produced the novels Democracy (1880), a satirical study of Washington politics and which later served as the model for Joan Didion's novel of the same title, and Esther (1884), an astringent portrait of New York society life whose theme is the conflict of science and religion. Other historical works include John Randolph (1882) and the monumental History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (18891891; 9 volumes), which explored the dilemmas of attempting to maintain egalitarian government in a political world whose motivation was to consolidate power. After two visits to Europe, he returned again to Washington where the effects of the contrasting images of the huge dynamo at the 1900 Paris Exposition and the medieval iconography of the Virgin Mary came together to give shape to his historical thought thereafter. In Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1904) and The Education of Henry Adams (1907), this was expressed as a contrast between the unity of thirteenth-century ideas as opposed to the dynamism of modern thinking. His application of theories culled from thermodynamics and the dissipation of energy to the study of human history produced some remarkable insights into the nature of historical progress, not least of which is the belief in entropic tendencies in physics and human matters, which undermines the idea of inevitable progress. This notion is continued in A Letter to American Teachers of History (1910), where Adams makes an ambitious attempt to generalize history in terms of the laws of contemporary science in a series of speculative essays (e.g. ‘The Rule of Phase Applied to History’).

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: 110A Piccadilly to Nelson Algren Biography