The Last American Aristocrat: The Brilliant Life and Improbable Education of Henry Adams

Scribner. Nov. 2020. 464p. ISBN 9781982128234. $30. BIOG
Three years before his death, historian, writer, and frequent traveler Henry Adams (1838–1918) observed, “I’ve outlived at least three quite distinct worlds since 1838.” In this masterful biography, Brown (history, Elizabethtown Coll.; Paradise Lost) appreciates Adams’s strengths and understands—and explains—his shortcomings. Two of Adams’s ancestors served as U.S. president and his father served as ambassador to the UK in the turbulent days of the American Civil War. By Henry’s time, though, his family’s influence in national politics had waned, nor was Henry suited to political life. The author successfully shows how Adams’s life and experiences were influenced by a newly industrialized and democratized nation. His writing apprenticeship began early; as a teenager, he helped his father edit the ten-volume Works of John Adams. Brown effectively shows how his subject’s views evolved over time, from writing the award-winning The Education of Henry Adams (1918) to working as a journalist in Washington, DC to holding a professorship at Harvard. Yet, he doesn’t shy away from dark times, such as the travels after the death of his wife.
VERDICT This is a model of critical biography that will be appreciated by all lovers of history or biography.

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