The Education of Shebby Lee
I consider my own education to be woefully incomplete and with the days dwindling down – as the song goes – is taking on a sense of urgency.
Therefore, I rarely re-read books (see paragraph one) but for some reason last winter I picked up a two-volume book I had originally acquired at a flea market and decided it might be instructive. I had first read The Education of Henry Adams (1838-1918), an autobiography inexplicably written in the third person, not long after college. (I’m saving the dichotomy of how pursuit of a higher education precludes the reading for pleasure which brought you to those hallowed halls in the first place, for another time.) I remember being completely blown away by it, not so much by this odd contrivance, but by the author’s worldliness and obvious love of the language. I was curious if my opinion would be the same after more than thirty years.
First of all – inevitably – I wondered what on earth my younger self had been so impressed with. Young Henry Adams was an egotistical snob, a world-traveler with entree into the highest echelons of both society and intelligentsia, who – despite the extreme advantages of wealth and family – spent the entire first volume whining about how all these advantages offered “no education”! By the ripe old age of thirty he pronounced his education to be complete and – as a venerable Black Hills historian famously stated about himself – decided to quit working for a living and become a teacher!
I came near to quitting the book altogether numerous times, but hung in there long enough to recognize an uncomfortable identification with his process.
In the intervening years between readings, I had acquired a great deal of knowledge about Henry Adams, his famous family (yes, those Adamses), his political and personal friends, and his own reputation as a historian. I had also read a few critiques of this odd autobiography, especially the omission of any mention of his wife, or – by all accounts – their successful and enlightened marriage (except for the end: she committed suicide). There was also almost no mention of his distinguished career as a historian or the impressive catalog of books he wrote. His friendships with the famous and accomplished are legion, and have generated books of their own – yet are barely mentioned here.
In fact, the things that he chose to omit altogether were far more interesting to me than all the philosophizing he apparently felt compelled to substitute for biographical data.
The phrase, “older but wiser” is certainly relevant here. But I think it goes beyond the trite. The elegant and intelligent Gilded Age bon vivant I had so admired as a young adult – I now realized – was by his own admission a mirage. It was all there on the pages. All I really needed to interpret it was an education of my own!