three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
20-Jan-Feb-2006
By: 
Garry Wills
user_rating: 
0

A-HenryAdamsMakingAmericaScion of one of America’s greatest political dynasties, Henry Adams is best known in literature classrooms for his dour autobiography-cum-history, The Education of Henry Adams. In this new book, Wills makes the case that Adams’s most important work, the nine-volume History of the United States, has been overlooked. Focusing on the Jefferson and Madison administrations, Wills painstakingly retraces Adams’s thoughts toward the conclusion that our third and fourth presidents, champions of limited government and isolation, were compelled by events such as the War of 1812 to create the strong central, international government we fumble with today.
Houghton Mifflin. 468 pages. $30. ISBN: 0618134301

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"To his rereading of Adams’s History Garry Wills brings a lucid style, imaginative analysis and the talent for historical elucidation that won him a Pulitzer Prize for Lincoln at Gettysburg. He has cogently made the case for Adams as a masterly diplomatic, military, and financial historian." Richard Lingeman

South FL Sun-Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"By showing that the ideologies that dominated at the birth of the nation were already obsolete as early as the end of Madison’s presidency, Adams is useful in exposing the fallacy of a fundamentalist reading of the nation and its Constitution. … This book succeeds in accomplishing its multiple purposes." Max Castro

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Henry Adams and the Making of America is original in both conception and execution. Watching one of our best historians address himself to a masterpiece of U.S. history is especially welcome at a time of gathering historical amnesia in which bad teaching from laundered textbooks has left so many of us bored by our past and ignorant of it." Edwin M. Yoder Jr.

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"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." Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett

Los Angeles Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Unlike a similar dissection of Lincoln’s economical Gettysburg Address, which won Wills the Pulitzer Prize, dissecting Adams’ lengthy historical work requires Wills to spend a considerable amount of time retelling that history. While he does that with great erudition, there is a limit to how brilliant one can be while condensing nine volumes into one. The unfortunate result is that we get neither the best of Adams nor the best of Wills." Zachary Karabell

Newsday 2 of 5 Stars
"It may engender an Adams renaissance and lead a hardy few to the rediscovery of what Wills justly claims to be a neglected classic. But it tells us little about Henry Adams the man (as opposed to the historian) and less about the making of America—a subject Wills has handled masterfully in the past." Josh Ozersky

Critical Summary

Garry Wills is the great elucidator. Whether as biographer, essayist, or parser of historical documents, Wills has an enviable ability to aggrandize the individual. It’s a skill that brought him the Pulitzer Prize for Lincoln at Gettysburg and has made his name a familiar byline on the best-seller lists with works like Inventing America and Why I Am a Catholic. Critics greet his work with mixed reviews, less for his skill as a writer than for his choice of subject. In his attempt to winnow down Adams’s gargantuan history for the general reader, some critics feel Wills has produced an "elevated Cliffs Notes" guide. If that’s the case, maybe it’s worth considering that even educated adults need a helping hand through the many great books they’ll never have enough time to read.