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Henry Adams in Washington

Linking the Personal and Public Lives of America’s Man of Letters
Ormond Seavey

BUY Cloth · 404 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813944630 · $89.50 · Oct 2020
BUY Paper · 404 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813944647 · $47.50 · Oct 2020
BUY Ebook · 404 pp. · ISBN 9780813944654 · $47.50 · Oct 2020

A descendent of two U.S. presidents and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Henry Adams enjoyed a very particular place in American life, not least due to his ancestry. Yet despite his prolific writing in the years between 1877 and 1891, when he lived in Washington, D.C., Adams has somehow slipped into the gap between history and literature. In Henry Adams in Washington, Ormond Seavey integrates the diverse aspects of Adams’s writing, arguing for his placement among the major American writers of the nineteenth century.

Examining Adams’s nine-volume History, which Seavey argues demands renewed literary attention, as well as his two novels, Democracy and Esther, and his biographies of Albert Gallatin and John Randolph of Roanoke, Seavey shows how Adams reveals his own character and personality in his writings, particularly his fondness for the personal rather than the public sphere. As a historian writing in Washington, D.C., Adams surely encountered the expectation that public life takes precedence over the personal; in the execution of both his historical writing and his novels, however, he dwells instead on the personal costs of public life and the diminishment of public figures who lack a fulfilling personal life. Revealing Adams to be a missing link between the essential American writers in the time of Emerson and the modernist writers of the early twentieth century, Seavey shows his novels to be considerations of contemporary political issues while also recognizing the novelistic dimensions in his history and biographies.


Seavey convincingly argues that neither literary critics nor historians have properly appreciated Adams’s literature and that Adams is incorrectly perceived ‘as a cynical and negative historian.’ To fully appreciate Adams’s writings, Seavey shows that one must understand Adams himself, the times and the place in which he lived, his associates (particularly his family and his wife Clover), and nineteenth-century historiography. A work of great scholarship.

hn Kaminski, editor of The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution

This deeply informed, vigorously argued, and eloquent book marks a major advance in our understanding of Henry Adams.

William Merrill Decker, Oklahoma State University, author of Geographies of Flight: Phillis Wheatley to Octavia Butler

Adams’s life as a Bostonian in Washington, hiding out in the spotlight, is the focus of Ormond Seavey’s Henry Adams in Washington: Linking the Personal and Public Lives of America’s Man of Letters

The New Yorker

Seavey scores high on presenting Adams as a man of letters.

Washington Independent Review of Books

About the Author(s): 

Ormond Seavey, Professor of English at The George Washington University, is author of Becoming Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography and the Life.

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