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A haunted, haunting life
by Ben Downing
A review of Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life by Natalie Dykstra
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If you believe in the occult and happen to be staying at the Hay-Adams Hotel in D.C. during the first week of December, keep your eyes peeled for the ghost of Marian “Clover” Adams, which is said to appear each year at that time; it was on December 6, 1885, you see, that Mrs. Adams killed herself, and part of the site currently occupied by the hotel once held the home of her widowed husband, Henry. I myself have never seen the ghost, and I’m not prepared to fork over some $400 for a room in the hope of catching a glimpse. Yet I was unsurprised to stumble on the legend while poking around the Web. For even if Clover Adams doesn’t drift through the Hay-Adams, she’s certainly done her share of haunting—the emotional kind, that is. The vibrancy of her character and the circumstances of her last days guaranteed that not just her family and friends but le tout Washington was taken aback by her suicide. And when, six years after her death, her husband unveiled the beautiful statue he’d commissioned from Augustus Saint-Gaudens to mark her grave in Rock Creek Cemetery, he provoked the sympathetic curiosity of generations to come: popularly known as Grief, the mysterious shrouded figure gives gooseflesh to many who gaze on it, and makes them wonder about the woman it commemorates. Who was she, you think, and how did she die?
Born in 1843, Marian Hooper belonged to a rich and fairly prominent Boston family, her father a doctor, her mother a Transcendentalist poet. Though superbly educated at a Cambridge girls’ school founded by the wife of Louis Agassiz (science classes were taught by the great man himself), she did nothing in particular afterward, and seemed headed toward spinsterhood. Then, in 1872, she crossed paths with Henry Adams, who’d recently begun teaching at Harvard. Sharing a Brahminical background, a dry wit, and a diminutive stature—neither stood much above five feet—the pair quickly fell in love and married. In 1877 they moved to Washington, for which they had an unaccountable fondness, and were soon among the capital’s most sought-after couples. Childless, they were nearly inseparable, and while Clover lacked any vocation equivalent to Henry’s as a writer she made up for it by maintaining close friendships with the likes of Henry James (“a perfect Voltaire in petticoats,” he declared her), reading through Aeschylus in the original, and becoming an accomplished amateur photographer. She seemed, in short, to be reasonably fulfilled.
But then it all fell apart, and with terrifying swiftness. Clover had always been exceptionally close to her father, and his death in April 1885 came as a body blow. Her grief was unsurprising, but no one anticipated the global depression that followed in its wake. Though her maternal relatives were plagued by depression and suicide—Charles Adams objected to his son’s marrying into the family on the grounds that “they’re all crazy as coots”—Clover herself had had only a few depressive episodes, and those relatively mild. Now the floodgates opened. For month after month Clover sank deeper into despair and self-hatred; not even the imminent prospect of moving into the magnificent house on Lafayette Square that H. H. Richardson had built for her and Henry, and of living next door to her friends John and Clara Hay, who’d bought the adjoining lot, provided much comfort or distraction. On December 6, Henry returned from an outing to find that she’d swallowed potassium cyanide and died. When, only a few weeks later, Richardson put the last touches on the new house, Henry moved into it alone, and he never remarried.
Over the years, the marriage of Henry and Clover Adams has been studied by some first-rate writers, including Ernest Samuels, whose three-volume Pulitzer-winning biography of Henry was completed in 1964 (a single-volume distillation followed in 1989), and Patricia O’Toole, whose The Five of Hearts (1990) is an exemplary group biography. (The self-styled “Five of Hearts” were a group of friends consisting of the Adamses, the Hays, and the geologist Clarence King.) Clover herself has been the subject of two biographies, published in 1979 and 1981; I’ve only glanced at the second of these, Eugenia Kaledin’s The Education of Mrs. Henry Adams, but it seems very solid. Why then did Natalie Dykstra feel compelled to write another?
The answer isn’t far to seek. According to the jacket copy for Clover Adams, the “key to the mystery” of Clover’s suicide is to be found in her photographs, and in her preface Dykstra assures us that a proper understanding of these images will not only help explain Clover’s death but “give her back some measure of her full humanity.” A tall order, I murmured to myself on reading this, but I put my skepticism aside. And, to my pleasant surprise, I found I was able to leave it there for some time. Because the first half of the book is really quite good: Dykstra does a capable job of introducing us to Clover’s tormented family, and of evoking the busy richness of her life with Henry. With Clover’s discovery of photography in 1883, however, my doubts came swarming back.
The problem isn’t that Dykstra overestimates Clover’s talent; her photos, or at least the sixteen of them reproduced here, do show a keen eye. Rather, it’s that Dykstra has little of interest to say about them (at one point she discloses that “Clover liked her portraits to showcase the person”) and, more problematically, that she insists on treating them as forensic evidence. Having convinced herself that Clover’s photos are clues to her suicide, Dykstra sets out to connect the dots.
In Dykstra’s view, many of Clover’s photos express her sense of alienation, from Henry in particular. “Clover made clear,” we are told, “that loneliness permeated her life with Henry.” The proof? For one thing, she “took pictures of him, alone, while she remained behind the camera.” (Um, isn’t that where the photographer usually remains?) For another, she never once pasted a picture of Henry alongside one of herself in an album. Q.E.D.! “Even while alive,” Dykstra neatly concludes, “Clover made herself a missing presence beside her husband.”
According to Dykstra, the Adamses’ relationship deteriorated over the last years of Clover’s life. “A creeping sense of isolation . . . had begun to encroach on Clover’s marriage,” and by the summer of 1884 the couple “had lost their way of finding each other at the end of the day.” One thing that came between them was Clover’s love of photography. Henry, it turns out, was “troubled . . . by her increasingly obvious artistic ambitions.” Intent on thwarting them, he persuaded her to turn down an offer to use one of her portraits—of the historian George Bancroft—for the cover of Century magazine. (This he indisputably did, but he himself turned down an offer to write an essay on Bancroft for the same issue, and his argument for both refusals was that he and Clover would be seen as puffing their friend.) In other words, he robbed her of her shot at the big time. “With Henry’s help,” Dykstra writes, “Clover circumscribed her ambition. She had internalized his standards for feminine self-restraint, which her culture emphasized. She didn’t dare stretch the limits in any way that would risk Henry’s disapproval.”
But picture-taking didn’t just cast a shadow over Clover’s marriage, it fueled her depression. “As she expressed in her photographs something of her inner life—her sense of loneliness, of being separate and disconnected—she also expressed it to herself,” Dykstra explains, and these clarified bad feelings were too much for her. Given photography’s role in bringing her to the brink of suicide, Clover’s decision to off herself by means of potassium cyanide—a darkroom chemical—was both logical and poetic; in Dykstra’s words, “It’s no wonder . . . that the chemical that allowed Clover to bring to light in photographs what was too dangerous to put into words was the same one she used to kill herself.” Case solved.
To be fair, Dykstra’s strenuous hypothesizing doesn’t entirely sink her narrative, which remains compelling to the end. It’s ironic, though, that those passages she seems proudest of, the explicatory ones constituting her biography’s raison d’être, are by far the worst in the book: vague, naïve, procrustean, and clumsily written. What all this demonstrates, I think, is the peril of wielding a thesis—to her in possession of one, everything looks like a nail. And if Dykstra gets carried away with her hammer, she also grinds an axe. While she stops short of directly blaming Henry for Clover’s death, she implies that he was somehow at fault.
The outrageous thing is that she provides virtually no evidence. (In fact, many of her own quotes undermine her claims, such as this one from the letter Clover wrote to her sister just before killing herself: Henry, she said, had been “more patient and kinder than words can express.”) She appears to believe that her intuitions about Clover, and her readings of the photographs, are quite sufficient. And, in truth, some of her conjectures are plausible enough: it may well be that photography brought home to Clover the depth of her own sadness, and that her practice of it caused friction with Henry. But to tease out the hidden emotional life of people as subtle, complex, and clever as the Adamses, one needs a light, cautious touch, a gift for nuanced and suggestive phrasing, and, ideally, a sense of humor. Dykstra, alas, is prodigious in none of these departments, and she becomes most ham-fisted precisely when she needs to be most deft.
So what did drive Clover to suicide? There seems to be no reason to look beyond the mental illness that stalked her family; as Henry James put it, she “succumbed to hereditary melancholia.” Admittedly, there’s something particularly unsettling about a grown child killing herself in response to the death of a parent, which is, after all, in the natural order of things. (One thinks of the shocking suicide of the fashion designer Alexander McQueen two years ago.) But in Clover’s case it’s not terribly surprising that the loss of her beloved father would trigger a chain reaction—clearly the fissile materials were ready to hand.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 June 2012, on page 78
Copyright © 2013 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.comhttp://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/A-haunted--haunting-life-7413
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