Written exclusively in the third-person by a narrator who repeatedly refers to “Henry Adams” as “passive,” “submissive,” and “a helpless victim” in relation to the “forces” in the world that form him, The Education of Henry Adams attenuates both author and subject by valuing environment over eponym. The critical literature on the text has focused primarily on the formal or psychological bases of such practice in order to argue that Adams is behind, and thus exempt from, the book's paradoxical self-effacements. But for Adams the rationale for the impersonal, evacuated form of The Education is more ontological than personal, the necessary consequence of his quietistic belief in a materialist determinism so absolute as to reduce persons and history alike to “sum[s].... of the forces” of “nature.” This belief, one shared by many of his contemporaries and most fully evolved in Adams's “dynamic theory of history,” entails, in the context of The Education, making the distinction between auto-biography and autobiography, between a text generated by an “automaton” and one written by a person. Routed through a discussion of de Man's and Kierkegaard's conceptions of irony, this essay explores the relevance of such a distinction to both the humanism of Adams's age and the posthumanism of our own.

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