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Upon graduation from Harvard (1858) As a journalist in Washington (1868) Professor Adams (1875) Private citizen, Washington (1883/4) At age 76 (1914)
 



A Chronology of Henry Adams's Life

Henry Adams, Globe Trotter
in Space and Time

born Boston, February 16, 1838
died Washington, March 27, 1918

The boy's first journey, to Washington and Mt. Vernon in 1850, as recollected in The Education of Henry Adams

American Roads in 1800, as presented in Adams's History

 

Henry Adams, who was perhaps the first American cosmopolitan, came from the most prominent family of the country — a grandfather and a great-grandfather had been presidents, and the father was Congressman and Minister to Britain. After graduating from Harvard, Henry spent most of his twenties in Europe and never grew sedentary, even if, after living as a Harvard professor in Boston for seven years, he eventually made Washington his winter home (residing in Lafayette Square, just behind the White House) and built a summer house in Beverly Farms, a resort on the shore north of Boston. Aside from travels in America (like the expedition in 1872 to the Rockies in Colorado and Utah), he returned to the old world for extended visits on his honeymoon trip (which in 1874 led him across Europe and up the Nile to Abu Simbel) and the archival tour of Britain, France, and Spain in 1879/80 (when he also crossed to Ceuta).

After Marian Adams committed suicide in December 1886, the widower became a compulsive traveler. Having been to Japan and Cuba, and on a swing of the American Far West, Henry embarked, in 1890, in San Francisco on an eighteen-month journey across the globe, to Hawaii, Samoa, Tahiti, Fiji, Australia, Java, Ceylon, Aden, Paris, London, and back to Washington. He could claim, had he been inclined to do so other than tacitly, that he had seen all five continents and more of the United States than almost anybody else. (For a more detailed account of Adams's travels, see LINKS, Chronology.)

In keeping with his family background, Henry Adams liked to travel in style, after some adventures in his early twenties like the madcap criss-crossing of the Alps, in a two-week outing by coach from the Swiss town of Thun to Milan and back by way of the Stelvio, while Austria was at war with Italy in Summer 1859. When journeying by vettura in Italy in his late twenties, as he chaperoned his family, he learned that traveling leisurely and in comfort was indeed pleasurable, preferable certainly to rushing along and accepting all inconveniences when on the road. He came to favor trains over horse-drawn carriages, especially when by the early 1880s Charles Francis Adams, Jr., had risen to the presidency of the Union Pacific Railroad and permitted his younger brother Henry recourse to the directors' luxurious Pullman coach.

There always were exceptions, when there were no rails. In Cuba and Mexico, Adams would resort, grumbling, to horses and mules; for he would opt for as much comfort as could be obtained under the circumstances. A case in point is the 1894 expedition on horseback to Yellowstone, undertaken with John and Del Hay—conceivably because they wanted to inspect their friend Theodore Roosevelt's hobbyhorse.

Adams's ruminations, the tours of the ways and by-ways of America and the world, became significant because they formed the backdrop of much of his writing, whether in extended travel letters from the South Seas or in Tahiti, the oral history he recorded following the notes he took as Marau Taaroa, the last queen of the island, told him her memoirs. When Adams wrote of his travels, they always became journeys in time as much as in space. In Jefferson and Madison the historian scholar presents, on a broad canvas, a large epic in lively detail (see, e.g., LINKS, "American Roads in 1800"). In Mont Saint Michel and Chartres the historian whom the critic Gregory S. Jay calls "Outlaw Virgin" tells a more intimate story of his views of Norman culture between the 10th and the 13th century. The letters Adams wrote around the turn of his century — and there was no better letter writer in American literature than Henry Adams — reveal him to be an advocate of politics on a global scale, enjoying and exploiting the privileges of an inside observer. John Hay, Theodore Roosevelt, and Henry Cabot Lodge, all three close friends of Adams, were running American foreign politics as the United States bumptiously entered the global race for imperialist glory and colonialist exploitation.

By 1902, Adams withdrew from politics. A convert to the amenities of an 18 horse-power Mercedes-Benz, he spent more and more time away from Washington; instead, he explored France in his new motor car, inviting friends like Edith Wharton and Bernard Berenson to join him on his cultural peregrinations. After he had seen the mural paintings in the caves of Dordogne, his money made possible the systematic investigation of the caves.

Henry Adams summarized his notions of travel in a 1902 letter to one of his nieces: "My idea of paradise is a perfect automobile going thirty miles an hour on a smooth road to a twelfth-century cathedral."

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