The Education of Henry Adams, by Henry Adams, is often cited as the best non-fiction book in English in the twentieth century. I suppose it is given this designation because Henry Adams, as the great-grandson, and grandson, of John Adams and John Quincy Adams, was an heir to the first great American political family,and had the rare gifts to chronicle the end of an era.
The Education is, in a way, a chronicle of the long decline of this family. Henry’s father, Charles Adams, was the Ambassador to England during Lincoln presidency, and played no small role in preventing England from entering to war on the side of the Confederacy. But after him, no Adams would ever play a prominent role in national politics. It simply ended, and Henry Adams was a witness.
This very long and detailed work is a combination elegy of colonial and early American national politics, catty, name dropping memoir, as well as the decline and fall of one man, Henry Adams, who, due to his talents and unique position as an historian and writer, was able to capture the changes in American politics and society from the Civil War and its end to the dawn of the twentieth century. Failure, the theme of the work, is the character Henry Adams most often turns to to make the changes that American has undergone.
This places Henry Adams in a unique and odd place. Of the many members of the Adams family who have been accomplished on the national stage as politicians or scholars of both, three will be remembered. John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and the man who penned their and his epitaph, Henry Adams.