Improvement of the World: A Biography of Henry Adams, His Last Life, 1891-1918

Edward Chalfant, Author Archon Books $55 (0p) ISBN 978-0-208-02232-5
At long last, Chalfant, professor emeritus of English and former codirector of the American Studies program at Hofstra University, presents the third volume of what is sure to be the definitive study of Henry Adams's quintessentially American life (the first two volumes appeared in 1982 and 1994, respectively). Here we read the ins and outs of this man of letters and historian's travels and writing during the final, and arguably the most productive, third of his life. But the meat of the book is the intriguing discussion of Adams's ambiguous (it is unknown whether or not they actually had an affair) albeit intense relationship with Elizabeth Cameron, a senator's wife who initiated the relationship in 1892; it continued for more than two decades until Adams's death. Serious Adams devotees will find much to chew on in this biography, in particular, Chalfant's treatment of Adams's masterpiece, The Education of Henry Adams, which is perhaps the strongest element of this book. Chalfant makes clear that The Education is both the prototype and the pinnacle of a type of autobiography, the story of a life told through the story of learning. The author concludes with a thorough and rather digressive review of the meticulous search he initiated for the ""master copy"" of The Education, which Adams gave to his companion in old age, Aileen Tone, and which is, Chalfant concludes, forever lost. Occasionally, Chalfant may be too generous in his praise of Adams, crediting him for anticipating Einstein and atom-smashing, and the myriad details of Adams's travels (his treks to the Tetons, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Paris and so forth) grow a bit tedious. Still, these are minor complaints about a richly detailed and loving portrait. (Feb. 15)
Reviewed on: 10/30/2000
Release date: 11/01/2000
Genre: Nonfiction
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