Henry Adams and the Southern Question

Michael O'Brien

A lively introduction to a New England observer of southern thought and custom


"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

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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.

Mercer University Lamar Memorial Lectures

Page count: 216 pp.
Trim size: 5.5 x 9


List price: $25.95

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Michael O'Brien is Professor of American Intellectual History at the University of Cambridge, a Fellow of Jesus College, and a Fellow of the British Academy. He was the longtime 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, which was also a Nominated Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History.