Cover image for The literary vocation of Henry Adams
The literary vocation of Henry Adams
Decker, William Merrill.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, [1990]

Physical Description:
x, 323 pages ; 24 cm
Reading Level:
1600 Lexile.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
E175.5.A2 D43 1990 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks-Non circulating

On Order



In the mid-1880s, Henry Adams committed himself to a posture that has since been associated with his name: neglected patrician, doomsayer, literary man whose bereavement at his wife's suicide confirmed his abandonment of an active public life. Adams (1838-1918) defined himself as other than contemporary Americans. Yet he also cast himself as the Republic's last true patriot, and beneath his reticence lay the firm belief that he was the one man who could save America -- if only his voice were heard.

This insightful book focuses on the relationship between Adams and his audience, emphasizing Adams's rhetorical strategies in his effort to shape a dialogue with his readers. Throughout his literary career, Adams struggled to redefine America's role as a nation of millennial promise. All the while, he was faced with mounting evidence that his country was rapidly squandering its opportunity to act as a redemptive force. William Decker explores Adams's ambition to impress this view of the Republic on the national mind and his persistent desire to create a text that would direct, both by its rational persuasiveness and by its symbological appeal, the course of an America destined to become a great world power.

After his wife's suicide in 1885, Adams increasingly felt the burden of what he perceived as a historical and cosmic opposition to the millennial America in whose advocacy he had originally taken up his vocation. He revised his authorial ends and means, assuming ever more clearly the part of the voice crying in the wilderness. Although he would routinely despair of his country's public destiny, his pen would remain active as long as he lived, narrowly affirming the redemptive historical possibility.

The Literary Vocation of Henry Adams is a comprehensive reading of Adams's works, giving careful attention to texts that have generally been considered minor as well as to better-known works like U.S. histories and Mont Saint Michel and Chartres. Discussions of Adams's most widely read and appreciated work, The Education of Henry Adams, frame Decker's arguments. He examines the Education as the valedictory statement and enactment of Adams's ambitions as an author--and as the ultimate measure of his success.

Originally published in 1990.

A UNC Press Enduring Edition -- UNC Press Enduring Editions use the latest in digital technology to make available again books from our distinguished backlist that were previously out of print. These editions are published unaltered from the original, and are presented in affordable paperback formats, bringing readers both historical and cultural value.

Reviews 1

Choice Review

Henry Adams (1838-1918) remains an enigmatic figure. The literary historian is challenged by both the complexity and the range of his writing--from muchraking articles to political novels, the monumental History of the United States, the meditative and heavily symbolic interpretation of the Middle Ages Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, and the ironic, problematic "autobiography" The Education of Henry Adams. To overcome limitations imposed by interpretations of Adams as alienated American artist, Decker offers a careful analysis of the means by which Adams sought in a variety of modes to establish a relationship with his readers. Given Adams's rhetorical sophistication and the fact that a significant portion of his work was anonymous, pseudonymous, or initially privately printed, this method poses significant challenges. Its application in this study clearly delineates the tensions in Adams's "dialogue": appeals to a present and a future readership; practice of both "scientific" history and literary symbolism; belief in entropy as well as hope for national renewal; isolation and desire for community; and a pose of detachment accompanied by a wish to establish a national forum. Effective, too, is the analysis of the shift in Adams's rhetoric after the 1885 suicide of his wife, with his public writing increasingly assuming the strategies of his brilliant and voluminous correspondence. Although somewhat flawed by insufficient vigor in stating its major conclusions and by a final chapter that is a rather pedestrian survey of Adams criticism, this is a stimulating book and it repays careful reading. Recommended for upper-division undergraduates, graduate students, general readers. -H. J. Lindborg, Marian College of Fond Du Lac

Table of Contents

Prefacep. ix
Abbreviationsp. xii
Introductionp. 1
1 Retirement from Authorshipp. 10
2 The Education of Henry Adams Return and Valedictionp. 42
3 The Paradoxical Spirit Of Private Conversationp. 68
4 The Romance and Tragedy Of Statesmanshipp. 108
5 The Democratic Oceanp. 157
6 The Eternal Womanp. 204
7 Henry Adams's Bequestp. 258
Notesp. 289
Bibliographyp. 311
Indexp. 317