The Education of Henry Adams
KNOWLEDGE of human nature is the beginning and end of political education, but
several years of arduous study in the neighborhood of Westminster led Henry Adams to
think that knowledge of English human nature had little or no value outside of England.
In Paris, such a habit stood in one's way; in America, it roused all the instincts of native
jealousy. The English mind was one-sided, eccentric, systematically unsystematic, and
logically illogical. The less one knew of it, the better.
This heresy, which scarcely would have been allowed to penetrate a Boston mind -- it
would, indeed, have been shut out by instinct as a rather foolish exaggeration -- rested on
an experience which Henry Adams gravely thought he had a right to think conclusive --
for him. That it should be conclusive for any one else never occurred to him, since he had
no thought of educating anybody else. For him -- alone -- the less English education he
got, the better!
For several years, under the keenest incitement to watchfulness, he observed the English
mind in contact with itself and other minds. Especially with the American the contact was
interesting because the limits and defects of the American mind were one of the favorite
topics of the European. From the old-world point of view, the American had no mind; he
had an economic thinking-machine which could work only on a fixed line. The American
mind exasperated the European as a buzz-saw might exasperate a pine forest. The English
mind disliked the French mind because it was antagonistic, unreasonable, perhaps hostile,
but recognized it as at least a thought. The American mind was not a thought at all; it was
a convention, superficial, narrow, and ignorant; a mere cutting instrument, practical,
economical, sharp, and direct.
The English themselves hardly conceived that their mind was either economical, sharp,
or direct; but the defect that most struck an American was its enormous waste in
eccentricity. Americans needed and used their whole energy, and applied it with close
economy; but English society was eccentric by law and for sake of the eccentricity itself.
The commonest phrase overheard at an English club or dinner-table was that So-and-So
"is quite mad." It was no offence to So-and-So; it hardly distinguished him from his
fellows; and when applied to a public man, like Gladstone, it was qualified by epithets
much more forcible. Eccentricity was so general as to become hereditary distinction. It
made the chief charm of English society as well as its chief terror.
The American delighted in Thackeray as a satirist, but Thackeray quite justly
maintained that he was not a satirist at all, and that his pictures of English society were
exact and good-natured. The American, who could not believe it, fell back on Dickens,
who, at all events, had the vice of exaggeration to extravagance, but Dickens's English
audience thought the exaggeration rather in manner or style, than in types. Mr. Gladstone
himself went to see Sothern act Dundreary, and laughed till his face was distorted -- not
because Dundreary was exaggerated, but because he was ridiculously like the types that