Wills (The Rosary, 2005, etc.) may have attempted something beyond even his considerable powers in this overly ambitious examination of the great American historian Henry Adams (1838–1918).
When remembered at all, Adams’s multi-volume, epic history of the administrations of Jefferson and Madison, collectively referred to here as the History, has been criticized (notably by historian Richard Hofstadter) for its negativity. Wills argues that this is a willful misreading derived from considering only the works’ first chapters, which focus on the largely unformed America of 1800. Moreover, Adams’s The Education of Henry Adams looms so large in the Adams canon that all his other works are subsumed in its penumbra of pessimism. Though righting the balance by underscoring Adams’s essential nationalism and optimism, Wills unnecessarily bogs down his analysis with a long recapitulation of his subject’s narrative. In the first third of his book, Wills discusses the elements that prepared Adams to write his masterpiece, including a fascination with the South and extensive travel. Rebutting the charge that Adams was continuing longstanding family feuds with the Democratic-Republicans, Wills convincingly points out that this great-grandson and grandson of Presidents John and John Quincy sometimes displayed hostility to his fabled forebears. And he makes a great case that Adams’s epic is a “nonfiction prose masterpiece of the nineteenth century in America,” one that pioneered the use of foreign and domestic archival sources, blended intellectual, military, diplomatic and economic history, and distilled it all in a richly ironic voice. Ultimately, however, in the last two-thirds of this book, Wills merely covers the same ground as Adams, and pulls from his own “Negro President”and James Madison.
It seemed like a great match: one historian fascinated by the paradoxes of power writing about a great predecessor. But Wills loses his focus—and, oddly enough, even his own familiar provocative voice.