Category Archives: Pulitzer Prize

The Education of Henry Adams


Today our Great Books club discussed The Education of Henry Adams written by John Quincy Adams’ grandson (John Adams’ great grandson). It’s a memoire of Henry Adam’s youth with tales of a boy, who like many, didn’t see a lot of benefit to schooling.

Throughout Adams’ includes reflections on how he first thought everyone had presidents in their family, that that was no big deal. He spoke of how around his home his father Charles Adams, a diplomat, would discuss high-minded ideas with virtuous men. As you’d imagine his family socialized with the best and the brightest.

One story I liked was how one day while visiting his grandparents, little Henry refused to go to school. His mother was having no luck with the feisty Henry. Suddenly, the door to his grandfather’s office opened. John Quincy Adams put on his hat, took the boy by the hand and without a word delivered the boy to school. After that, Henry went to school though he didn’t feel it improved him much.

At one point his family moved from Massachusetts to Washington, DC. He was shocked an appalled by the state of things in this slave state. The streets were dirty, the place smelled and the poverty was shocking. He was overwhelmed by the injustice of slavery all around him.

When he was 16 he went to Harvard, of which he thought little. There were no admission standards at the time and the school was something of a club for the elite. He wrote of himself in the third person:

Adams debated whether in fact it had not ruined him and most of his companions, but, disappointment apart Harvard College was probably less hurtful than any other University then in existence. It taught little, and that little ill, but it left the mind open, free from bias ignorant of facts, but docile. The graduate had few strong prejudices. He knew little, but his mind remained supple . . . what caused the boy the most disappointment was the little he got from his mates. Speaking exactly, he got less than nothing, a result common enough in education.

According to Adams, and I generally agree, is that the more people you pack into a class, the less you’ll learn. I’m no fan of the lecture courses with 100 or more students, which is what Adams had at Harvard. I do think one on one or small group interaction. Adams was lucky to be born into a family and circle that had so many great thinkers I wasn’t surprised that Adams learned more at the dinner table than in a classroom.

The book was lively and a wonderful glimpse into an important era in U.S. history. Adams’ style was brisk and engaging.

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Posted by on December 18, 2017 in 19th Century, American Lit, non-fiction, Pulitzer Prize


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Upton Sinclair’s Birthday

Cover of "Oil!"

Cover of Oil!

I do like Upton Sinclair’s work. The Jungle, Oil! and The Money Changers are still all too current. Here’s what the Writer’s Almanac has to say about today’s birthday writer:

Today is the birthday of Upton Sinclair (books by this author), born in Baltimore, Maryland (1878). A precocious child whose heroes were Jesus Christ and Percy Bysshe Shelley, Sinclair entered City College of New York at the age of 14. He paid for his tuition and housing by publishing stories in newspapers and magazines. And by the time he was 17, Sinclair was doing well enough to pay for his own apartment and still had money left over to support his parents. But after he married and had a child of his own, his income was no longer adequate. He self-published his first novel, Springtime and Harvest (1901), with the help of a loan from his uncle. Several more books followed, and although some of them got decent reviews, they didn’t sell well.

Sinclair was deeply troubled by the disparity between rich and poor. He witnessed the income gap in his own extended family: his grandparents were extremely wealthy, and his parents were destitute. Sinclair eventually joined the Socialist Party of America, and his political philosophy became linked with his writing as he became inspired by investigative journalists. Sinclair said, “The proletarian writer is a writer with a purpose; he thinks no more of art for art’s sake than a man on a sinking ship thinks of painting a beautiful picture in the cabin; he thinks of getting ashore — and then there will be time enough for art.”

In 1904, a socialist newspaper hired him to write an exposé of the meatpacking industry and the exploitation of its immigrant workers. So Sinclair moved to Chicago’s stockyards district for seven weeks. He took detailed notes on the miserable working conditions there, and then returned to the East Coast to transform his investigative journalism into fiction. The Jungle was serialized in the paper, as planned, but six different publishers declined to publish the manuscript in book form unless he lost the “blood and guts.” Sinclair decided to self-publish once again, and he began taking advance orders. Encouraged by his brisk sales, Doubleday agreed at the last minute to publish the book on the condition that its claims could be verified. The publisher’s lawyer traveled to the Chicago stockyards to witness for himself the dreadful state of affairs, and The Jungle caused an almost instant sensation when it was published in 1906. Sinclair received $30,000 in royalties in the first year alone.

Although Sinclair had intended to highlight the mistreatment of the workers, readers recoiled instead to his descriptions of what exactly went into their food supply. “I aimed at the public’s heart,” Sinclair remarked, “and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” President Theodore Roosevelt received a hundred letters a day demanding the reform of the meatpacking industry. Sinclair and Roosevelt began a correspondence, and while the president was critical of socialism, he hastened to add, “But all this has nothing to do with the fact that the specific evils you point out shall, if their existence be proved, and if I have power, be eradicated.” Roosevelt was true to his word, and he passed the Pure Food and Drugs Act, and the Meat Inspection Act, in 1906.

Although none of his later books matched the success of The Jungle, Sinclair continued to write books with socialist agendas, like Oil! (1927), about the Teapot Dome scandal; and Boston (1928), about the trial of anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. His 1942 novel, Dragon’s Teeth, about the rise of the Nazi Party, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

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Posted by on September 20, 2012 in American Lit, classic, Pulitzer Prize