Henry Adams, the grandson and great-grandson of presidents, produced a huge body of groundbreaking work in his lifetime (1838-1918) on American...

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“Henry Adams and the Making of America”
by Garry Wills
Houghton Mifflin,
467 pp., $30

Henry Adams, the grandson and great-grandson of presidents, produced a huge body of groundbreaking work in his lifetime (1838-1918) on American history, politics and society. The frequently contrarian Garry Wills believes a large portion of Adams’ work has been misread and misunderstood, a circumstance he aims to correct with “Henry Adams and the Making of America.” The result is a rather odd book, both narrow in focus and deep in scholarship. It is aimed at a popular audience, but written in an academic style and peppered with long-held gripes against fellow historians.

Wills, a professor at Northwestern University, focuses on Adams’ works, “History of the United States of America During the Administration of Thomas Jefferson” and “History of the United States of America During the Administration of James Madison,” totaling nine volumes. (Another four volumes bookend these central ones.)

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Garry Wills


The author of “Henry Adams and the Making of America” will read at 7 p.m. Oct. 10 at Kane Hall on the University of Washington Campus. Sponsored by the University Book Store (206-634-3400; www.ubookstore.com).

He will also read at 7 p.m. Nov. 17 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).

He argues that one eminent historian after another missed that Adams astutely analyzed and admired the “national unity and internationalism” created by four terms of Jeffersonians at the start of the 19th century, a political movement usually identified with the opposite aim. No complete study had been made of the nine volumes of Adams’ “History,” according to Wills, something that has clearly infuriated him for years. Those historians who did weigh in (and Wills names several) tended to stop at the first volume, mistakenly concluding that Adams wrote a long-winded attack on Jefferson. Wills maintains they also overlooked the remarkable job Adams did of documenting and using wide-ranging primary sources.

It takes equal parts of ego and original research to write a book prompted by scholastic fumbles in a game most nonacademic readers will have missed entirely. Wills is well suited to such a task; he likes to let the air out of conventional views. A decade after winning the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for “Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America,” Wills made a splash with his best-selling “Why I Am a Catholic,” in which he energetically posits that activist change is historically typical and a positive force within the Roman Catholic Church.

“Henry Adams and the Making of America” examines aspects of a remarkable life, counting on the reader to have a sense of Adams’ intellectual genius, his sprawling political family and its importance in American history. It is an indignant history lecture caught between two covers, offering new insights into Adams and his massive “History,” but choosing not to paint a larger portrait of the man and his times.