The Education of Henry Adams is a part autobiographical, part historical, part philosophical narrative by and about the American historian Henry Adams. Set in the years 1838-1905, Adams’s autobiography devotes three chapters to the period of the Civil War — for me, this presented as good an opportunity as any to read more on the subject. Perusing a chronicle of the war, I soon came across mention of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Upon meeting Stowe, Lincoln famously called her “the little lady who started this great war”. Her story about the ordeal of African American slaves had such a tremendous impact on the course of American history that many regard Uncle Tom’s Cabin as the most influential book ever written.
I assume nobody would contest that books wield the power to shape our history. As Benjamin Disraeli once said:
An author may influence the fortunes of the world to as great an extent as a statesman or a warrior. A book may be as great a thing as a battle, and there are systems of Philosophy which have produced as great revolutions as any that have disturbed the social and political existence of our centuries. (qtd. in Otto Bergmann’s The Delights of Reading, 13)
Writing history, however, is like most human endeavours an exercise in simplification, and when we make a book a catalyst of historical narrative, we omit a thousand unseen threads and a million unheard readers. Nonetheless, the impact of books may help us invest our history, the history of humankind, with a purpose and a sense of progress: as authors we can startle and stir our readers; as readers we can turn the next page and, who knows, learn and remember from what has passed. This belief in a history that makes sense, a history striving towards something better, something greater, is vital if as a civilization we do not want to despair. Henry Adams, I believe, was seeking something very similar when, witnessing the Spanish-American war at the dawn of the 20th century, he wrote:
This was history, not education, yet it taught something exceedingly serious, if not ultimate, could one trust the lesson. For the first time in his life, he felt a sense of possible purpose working itself out in history. […] Never before had Adams been able to discern the working of law in history, which was the reason his failure in teaching it, for chaos cannot be taught; but he thought he had a personal property by inheritance in this proof of sequence and intelligence in the affairs of man […] (The Education of Henry Adams, 363)