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The Education of Henry Adams

Washington (1850-1854)
EXCEPT for politics, Mount Vernon Street had the merit of leaving the boy-mind supple,
free to turn with the world, and if one learned next to nothing, the little one did learn
needed not to be unlearned. The surface was ready to take any form that education should
cut into it, though Boston, with singular foresight, rejected the old designs. What sort of
education was stamped elsewhere, a Bostonian had no idea, but he escaped the evils of
other standards by having no standard at all; and what was true of school was true of
society. Boston offered none that could help outside. Every one now smiles at the bad
taste of Queen Victoria and Louis Philippe -- the society of the forties -- but the taste was
only a reflection of the social slack-water between a tide passed, and a tide to come.
Boston belonged to neither, and hardly even to America. Neither aristocratic nor
industrial nor social, Boston girls and boys were not nearly as unformed as English boys
and girls, but had less means of acquiring form as they grew older. Women counted for
little as models. Every boy, from the age of seven, fell in love at frequent intervals with
some girl -- always more or less the same little girl -- who had nothing to teach him, or he
to teach her, except rather familiar and provincial manners, until they married and bore
children to repeat the habit. The idea of attaching one's self to a married woman, or of
polishing one's manners to suit the standards of women of thirty, could hardly have
entered the mind of a young Bostonian, and would have scandalized his parents. From
women the boy got the domestic virtues and nothing else. He might not even catch the
idea that women had more to give. The garden of Eden was hardly more primitive.
To balance this virtue, the Puritan city had always hidden a darker side. Blackguard
Boston was only too educational, and to most boys much the more interesting. A
successful blackguard must enjoy great physical advantages besides a true vocation, and
Henry Adams had neither; but no boy escaped some contact with vice of a very low form.
Blackguardism came constantly under boys' eyes, and had the charm of force and
freedom and superiority to culture or decency. One might fear it, but no one honestly
despised it. Now and then it asserted itself as education more roughly than school ever
did. One of the commonest boy-games of winter, inherited directly from the eighteenth-
century, was a game of war on Boston Common. In old days the two hostile forces were
called North-Enders and South-Enders. In 1850 the North-Enders still survived as a
legend, but in practice it was a battle of the Latin School against all comers, and the Latin
School, for snowball, included all the boys of the West End. Whenever, on a half-
holiday, the weather was soft enough to soften the snow, the Common was apt to be the
scene of a fight, which began in daylight with the Latin School in force, rushing their
opponents down to Tremont Street, and which generally ended at dark by the Latin
School dwindling in numbers and disappearing. As the Latin School grew weak, the
roughs and young blackguards grew strong. As long as snowballs were the only weapon,
no one was much hurt, but a stone may be put in a snowball, and in the dark a stick or a
slungshot in the hands of a boy is as effective as a knife. One afternoon the fight had been
long and exhausting. The boy Henry, following, as his habit was, his bigger brother
Charles, had taken part in the battle, and had felt his courage much depressed by seeing
one of his trustiest leaders, Henry Higginson -- "Bully Hig," his school name -- struck by
 
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