Henry Adams and the Southern Question

Title Details

Pages: 216

Illustrations: 14 b&w photos

Trim size: 5.500in x 9.000in



Pub Date: 04/15/2007

ISBN: 9-780-8203-2956-7

List Price: $25.95

Henry Adams and the Southern Question

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“Strictly, the Southerner had no mind; he had temperament. He was not a scholar; he had no intellectual training; he could not analyze an idea, and he could not even conceive of admitting two.” This judgment, rendered in The Education of Henry Adams, may be the most quoted of Adams’s writings on the South. However, it is far from the only one of his beliefs that helped to shape a national outlook on the region from the late antebellum period to the present.

Thinking about the South, says Michael O’Brien, was “part of being an Adams.” In this book O’Brien shows how Adams (grandson of President John Quincy Adams and great-grandson of President John Adams) looked at the region during various phases of his life. O’Brien explores the cultural and familial impulses behind those views and locates them in American intellectual history. He begins with the young Henry Adams, who served as his father’s secretary in the House of Representatives during the secession crises of 1860-1861 and in the American embassy in London during and after the Civil War, until 1868.

O’Brien then covers a number of topics relevant to Adams’s outlook on the South, including his residency in that deceptively “southern” city, Washington, D.C.; his journalism on the Reconstruction-era South; his biographical or historical works on the Virginians John Randolph, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison; and his two novels, especially Democracy. Finally, O’Brien ponders the vein of southern self-criticism—exemplified by Wilbur J. Cash’s Mind of the South—that embraces the notorious slur so often quoted from The Education of Henry Adams.

No one is better situated than Michael O'Brien to examine Henry Adams and the Southern Question. O'Brien—the foremost intellectual historian of the South—is a warm, if critical, admirer of Adams's famous memoir, The Education of Henry Adams. O'Brien is also a painstaking familial and cultural historian, and a marvelous stylist. His book is a joy to read. It illuminates Adams's complex, and changing, relation to the South and uncovers the rich layers of meaning which ‘the South' can acquire for a person nurtured in an apparently contrary culture.

—William Dusinberre, author of Henry Adams: The Myth of Failure

With his characteristic wit, verve, and analytical precision, Michael O'Brien illuminates Henry Adams as yet another northern observer whose reaction to the South is best understood in the context of a larger perception, of not only the rest of America but the rest of the world as well.

—James C. Cobb, University of Georgia

The writing, sparkling with wit, is vintage O'Brien and insights abound. . . . The reader will learn nearly as much about Adams's crankiness toward New England, counterpoint to that balmier region, as about his deprecations and appreciations of the South. And learn the reader will, on almost every page-and enjoy O'Brien's light-handed but serious instruction.

Journal of American History

O'Brien brings formidable credentials to the task of analyzing the place of the South in the life and work of Henry Adams. . . . Opens fresh perspectives on Adam's engagement of southern culture as well as the curious ways in which he occupied the South as a long-time resident of the nation's capital . . . This is a delightfully written book . . . O'Brien commands impressive dexterity in the turn of a phrase . . . scholars of Adams will turn to it for an enhanced understanding of the varied contexts of Adams's life and times.

American Historical Review

A delightful read . . . This slim volume is well suited for a thoughtful seminar where discussions can range from southern regional identity to Anglo-European travel literature to feminist political ideology in an easy and familiar way.


A short but illuminating study . . . A perceptive reader of Adams, O'Brien also brings to this study an extensive knowledge of southern historiography and Adams's contribution to it.

Journal of Southern History

O'Brien slides onto the shelves another accessible and compelling book worth a look by anyone interested in intellectual, cultural, or southern history.

Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Michael O'Brien has gone a long way in a short book toward making Adams comprehendible, if not almost likeable.

—Larry McGehee


Outstanding Academic Title, Choice magazine

About the Author/Editor

MICHAEL O’BRIEN was Reader in American Intellectual History at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Jesus College. He is founder of the Southern Intellectual History Circle and series editor of the Publications of the Southern Texts Society. O’Brien is the author or editor of several books on southern intellectual history, including the Bancroft Prize-winner, Conjectures of Order.