“Under the shadow of Boston State House, turning its back on the house of John Hancock, the little passage called Hancock Avenue runs, or ran, from Beacon Street, skirting the State House grounds, to Mount Vernon Street, on the summit of Beacon Hill; and there, in the third house below Mount Vernon Place, February 16, 1838, a child was born, and christened later by his uncle, the minister of the First Church after the tenets of Boston Unitarianism, as Henry Brooks Adams.”
So opens The Education of Henry Adams, a Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography, which was privately printed in 1906 and more widely circulated following Adams’ death in 1918. Though Adams intended the book as a companion to his extended essay Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres—an exploration of medieval society through architecture—it quickly surpassed the earlier volume in renown. In Education, Adams sought to understand the rapidly changing world at the turn of the 20th century, and in particular, the scientific and technological advancements. Perhaps most famously, Adams contrasts the Virgin Mary, the spiritual and serene force of the medieval era, with the dynamo, a late-19th century electric generator, symbolic of massive power and progress, but incapable of inspiring constructions such as the Chartres Cathedral.
Adams was born into Boston’s elite, the grandson of President John Quincy Adams and the great-grandson of President John Adams. He attended Harvard and, when his father was appointed as President Abraham Lincoln’s minister to England, spent considerable time in London. Upon his return to the US, Adams worked as an editor, a journalist, a novelist, a biographer, and finally, as a professor of medieval studies at Harvard, but it was apparent that he was disenchanted with the changing world, and in particular, with the political landscape.
In 1885, his wife, Marian “Clover” Hooper Adams—rumored to be the inspiration for Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady and Daisy Miller—committed suicide. Though Adams wrote his most recognized works after her death, he never fully recovered, traveling extensively and sinking further into disillusionment. He died in 1918 and is buried next to his wife, beneath a statue he commissioned for her by the artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens.