Most Washingtonians are familiar with the bronze statue commonly titled “Grief” that resides in Rock Creek Cemetery. The shrouded figure, by American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, marks the grave of Marian Hooper Clover Adams, wife of celebrated historian Henry Adams. Not so familiar is the story behind it. Purposely absent from the autobiography “The Education of Henry Adams” is any mention of Adams‘ wife, their marriage or her death. In this beautifully written biography, Natalie Dykstra gives us the arc of Clover’s life and “some measure of her full humanity.”
To observers, Clover Adams had “all she wanted, all this world could give.” A Boston Brahmin, cultivated, athletic and bright, Clover had a great facility for foreign languages, a passion for art and a soft heart for those less fortunate. Like many, she recognized the way to a secure future and home was through marriage. Henry Adams, weighed down by the daunting mantle of political ancestry, probably was not the best choice.
Undercutting their union was the fact that both suffered from depression, or, in the parlance of the time, “hereditary melancholia.” On the Adams side, the achievements of earlier generations had been followed by a history of alcoholism, suicide and breakdowns. On Clover’s side was a trail of death: One aunt drank arsenic, Clover’s sister walked into the path of an oncoming train, her brother threw himself out of a window. Clover’s mother died when the child was 5; the tragedy drew her close to her father.
Initially in the marriage, all seemed rosy. Together, Henry and Clover shared a love of “literature and landscape.” In 1877, they moved to Washington, D.C. (dubbed “the city of conversation” by Henry James) attracted by its lively variety of politics and culture. Their house at 1607 H St., on the exclusive northern edge of Lafayette Square, offered views of the White House and the leafy canopy of the park.
Bored by the inane company of Washington society, by conversation punctuated by the sighing mantra “This too shall pass away,” Clover disdained the custom of entertaining callers (“a nuisance,” she wrote her father). She began hosting daily 5 p.m. teas with select friends, such as historian George Bancroft. If Henry James, a frequent guest, thought Henry Adams “a trifle dry,” he was quite taken by the shining intelligence, curiosity and witty conversation of his hostess, “a perfect Voltaire in petticoats,” and by the warmth and liveliness she brought to the home.
For his part, Henry Adams was the type to treat “light things seriously and serious things lightly.” Recognizing his wife was no beauty (her intelligence and sympathy, he told friends, were what held him) he boasted of making “it a rule to be friends with all the prettiest girls.” To the self-conscious Clover, this must have been particularly unnerving. She never had her portrait painted, though she could have engaged John Singer Sargent if she so wished.
The normally reserved Adams‘ open flirtations with young females, most especially his infatuation with celebrated beauty Lizzie Cameron, wounded Clover deeply - but perhaps not as much as his reaction when her own beloved father lay dying. Instead of providing reassurance and love, Adams withdrew, detaching himself from the role of comforter by finding solace in work. Robert Hooper, the “safe harbor” Clover cherished for his humor and courage and with whom she had shared such an easy and supportive friendship, was gone. The loss was overwhelming.
Too intelligent to be satisfied by endless rounds of parties, horseback riding, travel and opera, Clover had earlier taken up photography, showing “a richness and subtlety of feeling” in every image she took. But even this was not enough. One day in 1886, engulfed by despair, she committed suicide by drinking from a vial of potassium cyanide used to develop her photographs. She was 42. On her death, Henry Adams commissioned the monument at Rock Creek, where he also is buried. Decades later, Eleanor Roosevelt, herself crushed by FDR’s affair with Lucy Mercer, found solace sitting at this site.
Natalie Dykstra handles the story of Clover Adams with balance, nuance and maturity. Not one to take sides, she never lets her interpretations become intrusive. She has carefully combed the archives, examined private unpublished family papers and pored over Clover’s photographs. Pasted together in deliberate sequence, they convey loss and also Clover’s “queries about life’s meaning and a woman’s place.” If Ms. Dykstra’s praise for the artistry of these pictures is too high, her handling of the history of the new medium is nonetheless fascinating and well done.
Taking a cue from Henry Adams that the best way to tell history is through vivid narrative, Ms. Dykstra does something more. She writes like an artist, and her debut into biography with “Clover Adams” is a solid and shining achievement.
Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the author of “Mencken: The American Iconoclast” (Oxford University Press, 2005).
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