Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 31. Mont Saint Michel and Chartres; The Education of Henry Adams

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XV. Later Historians

§ 31. Mont Saint Michel and Chartres; The Education of Henry Adams

Then began the second period of his literary life. Settling down to a quiet life of study, and following his taste, he delved long and patiently in the Middle Ages. The result appeared in Mont Saint Michel and Chartres (1904, 1913), probably the best expression of the spirit of the Middle Ages yet published in the English language. It was followed by Essays in Anglo-Saxon Law (1905), The Education of Henry Adams (1906, 1918), A Letter to American Teachers of History (1910), and Life of George Cabot (1911). Two of these books, the Mont Saint Michel and the Education, deserve to rank among the best American books that have yet been written. The first is a model of literary construction and a fine illustration of how a skilled writer may use the history of a small piece of activity as a means of interpreting a great phase of human life. Through the Education runs a note of futility, not entirely counterbalanced by the brilliant character-sketching and wise observations upon the times. But the Mont Saint Michel redeems this fault. It shows us Henry Adams at his best, and under its charm we are prepared to overlook the aloofness which limited his interests while it depressed his spirits.

In the Education Henry Adams defined history in these words: “To historians the single interest is the law of reaction between force and force—between mind and nature—the law of progress.” He thus announced in his maturity his allegiance to the most modern concept of history. In his early historical writings he dealt with the relations of men with men, as Parkman, Lea, Mahan, and many others dealt. In his revised opinions he conceived that the story of man’s progress as affected by natural forces was the true task of the historian. It is a concept to which the best modern thinkers have been slowly moving. Adams grasped it with the greatest boldness and in the Mont Saint Michel gave future historians an example of how to realize it in actual literature.