Reading Jude the Obscure and The Education of Henry Adams for the first time since college, I’ve struggled to reconstruct what it was that once captivated me about these books. Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) and Henry Adams (1838-1918) were exact contemporaries, and the writing and/or publication of what amounted to the authors’ respective swan songs (in Hardy’s case, in prose) nearly overlapped as well, but beyond that, it could seem a stretch to compare the two. Hardy I get, in the context of my adolescent Anglophilia and comparable excitement about Return of the Native and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. About Adams, I can only remember that I wrote a long, turgid undergraduate paper (now lost, as the saying goes) arguing that the author of The Education could be credited with anticipating Einstein’s theory of relativity.
Both readings, in retrospect, stemmed from misunderstandings. Hardy himself was no Anglophile (at least not in the American sense), and even in his most vatic moments, Adams revealed himself as not just backward-looking, but not particularly gifted at hard science. Instead, more than twenty years on, I am struck by the way their very unlike protagonists resolve their love-hate relationships with universities by going it alone and winding up in autodidactic cul-de-sacs.
Outwardly, the protagonists could not be more unalike. Early notes for Hardy’s novel describe “a short story of a young man—‘who could not go to Oxford’—his struggles and ultimate failure,” as if Jude Fawley was originally conceived as a type that would have been familiar in turn-of-the-century England: the kind of working class aspirer with neither the credentials nor the funds to attend university, and for whom Ruskin College would soon be founded. Henry Adams’ subject, by contrast, is a somebody—the scion of one of America’s Founding Families—for whom Harvard College and a year in Berlin were obligatory. Both books get off-topic on an epic scale, but in distinctly different ways, with Jude veering into Victorian hypocrisies surrounding sexuality and marriage, while The Education becomes engulfed in the thankless task of explaining two millennia of history in terms of physical science still so new that the author himself admits to understanding only some of it.
Christminster, the university town on which Hardy’s striver affixes his hopes, is never more than the sum of its architecture and the “ghosts” of its legendary graduates; what Jude calls his “city of light,” in fact, darkens at close range. Hardy never takes us behind the college walls, a wise artistic decision given that most of the novel’s finest writing conveys the delusions of an outsider at the edge of disillusionment, such as when Jude first wanders the streets of a thinly-veiled Oxford and imagines the generations of poets and philosophers sprung from its cloisters as “comrades” engaging him in conversation. He has acquired an unforgiving Latin grammar, started on Euclid, and resolved to save money when life intervenes in myriad unhappy ways. The rejection letter from the university, when it finally comes, only underscores Jude’s inability or unwillingness to grasp the bigger picture; even after he has burned his hard-won library, he can’t help seeing Christminster as anything but “the center of the universe.”
Henry Adams’ Harvard is an entirely intramural experience—more a concept than a physical place—yet an American Jude might be incredulous, having made it to the other side of the wall, how little this consummate insider claims to think of it. Adams writes on the subject with some authority, having been a member of the Class of 1858 and later (1871-1877) a member of the faculty. “Harvard College was a good school, but at bottom what the boy disliked most was any school at all,” he says of the first. “He did not want to be one in a hundred—one percent of an education. He regarded himself as the only person for whom his education had value, and he wanted the whole of it.” (Ironically, he was elected valedictorian.) His attitude seems not to have changed much when he returned as an assistant professor of history—and the earliest recorded American practitioner of the seminar method—leaving when he realized that even under Charles Eliot, Harvard “produced at great waste of time and energy results not worth reaching.”
The flaws of Jude and The Education might make them a hard sell today. Hardy’s pathos often seems to drive the narrative, rather than the other way around. Adams seems unable to subordinate his oracular style to the flow of his ideas, leaving the reader to sort the good ones from the false starts. But I’m not sure you could fix these problems without blocking access to the insights they give rise to. If Jude has his suspicions that the higher education system functions as part of an even more impersonal and inequitable one, he can’t bring himself to give in to them; as late as the novel’s closing pages, he talks about the colleges anthropomorphically, pointing out the “windows with lifted eyebrows, representing the polite surprise of the university at the efforts of such as I.” We could use more anthropomorphic institutions prepared to be surprised that Jude Fawleys, disenchanted and otherwise, still exist. Adams writes that he ultimately “succumbed to the weight of the system” where universities were concerned, only to leave them behind in pursuit of new sources of knowledge more likely to make sense of a new century’s rapidly accelerating complexity—only to conclude that resistance was futile: the new multiplicity “would require a new social mind.” Given his congenital snobbery (and notorious anti-Semitism), Adams’ most enduring insight is also the nearest this fantastic egotist ever came to intellectual humility. We need more of that, too.