This is a marvelous book. And I must say, that's not hyperbole in the least, despite the fact that beyond a few remaining strongholds of stodgy academia it's barely known. And that is despite the fact that it's a Pulitzer prize winner consistently reaching the pinnacle of lists of "Best Non-Fiction of all Time".
It is perhaps a tough read in certain respects. At least, if you go into it expecting a clear and direct account of precisely what Mr. Adams thinks about 19th and early 20th century America, you'll most likely toss the book across the room before getting through the first few chapters, frustrated by what seems egregiously scattered thought and woefully ambiguous attitudes towards everything he mentions. Don't read it that way. It's ironic, and obviously so, as long as you're alerted to the fact (I came into it alerted, fortunately).
It's superficially an account of Henry Adam's attempts to educate himself, yet its underlying aim is to delve into the heart of what America really means, to provide an account of the purpose of this country during a time when various attempts at consolidation of Senatorial power and the growth of utilitarianism throughout the western world was challenging the Founders' original conception of its purpose. Did I say challenging? The entire structure of academia and the practice of government at the time directly contradicted the idea that we're a government not of liberty for license but of liberty for excellence; that the Declaration of Independence was affirming not freedom from traditional structures, but recognizing the contemporary European attempts (especially in England and France) to collapse the boundaries between Church and state as antithetical to one of the most essential tenets of Christianity since the late Roman era (see Pope Gelasius' declaration of the necessary separation of Church and state all the way back in 492 AD: "There are two powers by which chiefly this world is ruled: the sacred authority of the priesthood and the authority of kings."). Puritains, Cavaliers, Non-Conformists, Scottish Presbyterians, Irish Catholics all came to America to evade the tradition-squelching bulldozer of the modern homogeneous nation-state, in particular the Leviathan state of the British parliament (which drew into itself first religious, then royal power before absorbing the Scottish and Irish parliaments).
America, Adams argues (though not explicitly till after the chapter "Twenty Years After") is the land of those free to abide by their traditions, not of F.J. Turner's frontiersmen, stripped of their tradition by their encounter with the State of Nature, not of Benjamin Franklin's utilitarianism that would have us all be finding happiness as nice, comfortable, productive machines (traditions? holidays? Holy Days? Ritual? what useless bosh!). It is a deliberately UNprogressive place, he holds, though his younger self whom he sometimes mercilessly parodies in the earlier chapters at times seems to find the Progressive model of history appealing in its claims to bring about "The Perfection of Human Society".
At the risk of sounding a bit self-important, I must say I think some of my earlier posts might be helpful if the idea of liberty for excellence seems extremely alien, so I've been linking to them throughout (plus they help to round out what must necessarily be a skeletal account of things if it is to avoid being far too long for a blog post). It's not a popular idea nowadays, as Henry Adams already discerned all the way back in 1918. If you really want some good stuff on that idea though, I recommend Cicero's De Officiis (how we can understand man's natural rights in terms of his moral obligations), Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, John Paul II's "Veritatis Splendor" (intrinsically evil acts), or Elizabeth Fox-Genovese's account of women's experiences in slavery (Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South).
This is a book that I will almost certainly keep writing about from time to time. However simple its main point may be, it is rather brilliantly complex on a more detailed level, making its point in a hundred different ways, using a thousand different images for what he means. And any of the chapters that relies heavily on a concept that you may not be familiar with (as I was not familiar with the overall meaning of Wagner's oeuvre while reading "Teufelsdröckh") automatically becomes a bit more difficult as it demands that you do a bit more leg work to get at his meaning than you may be accustomed to (unless you're a classics major or something).