The contrast between male and female opportunities for historic survival could not be better illustrated than in the cases of Henry Adams and his wife Marian, called “Clover” by her family and friends. To be a male Adams was to be condemned to the light of history, however disinclined one might feel for such exposure, such persistence. The descendant of two presidents, son of a distinguished ambassador and politician, developed into the most ardently private of persons, rejecting all public roles. And yet he proved an Adams in the end, a historian and philosopher whose understanding of national experience served the American consciousness as well as any political career might have done.
His famous third-person autobiography is an expression of this paradox—studiously impersonal, excluding direct expression of private feeling and even omitting the major private experience of his life, it yet imposes upon us a unique and unforgettable presence. His wife, on the other hand, lives for us almost entirely as she was seen by the male imagination. For two viewers of exceptional imaginative power—Adams himself and their friend Henry James—she became in the end more symbol than substance, less her distinguishable self than a part of their creative vision.
James’s view of her was incorporated into his myth of the American Girl. Along with his beloved lost cousin, Minny Temple, she was an instance for him of a national quality most purely expressed in feminine form, a fine and free innocence, an audacity that was valor if it was not presumptuousness, which he would illustrate in the heroines of his fiction. When he was only twenty-seven and Clover a year younger he thought of her during a weary round of dull English visits, and said of his hostesses: “I revolt against their dreary, deathly want of—what shall I call it?—Clover Hooper has it—intellectual grace—Minny Temple has it—moral spon taneity.
It was eight years before he published Daisy Miller, his first light sketch of the concept in a girl whose field-flower name echoes Clover’s, and conceived of the far more complex “history of an Americana.” The Portrait of a Lady. By then Clover, who was aware of the ambivalences in his devotion, heard him describe her as the “incarnation of his native land.” With some dryness, she asked. “Am I then vulgar, dreary, impossible to live with?”
But she understood Daisy Miller better than most, and once, at a White House party, she argued with a visitor from Chicago that the book had been unfairly called an attack on American womanhood when it was the very opposite. Daisy, she said, “was charming and the author adored her.” After marriage she did not lose James’s regard he thought her the more considerable of “the Clover Adamses.” When he saw the couple in London, some years later he again compared her to the local ladies, ‘Mrs Adams in comparison with the usual British female is a perfect Voltaire in petticoats,” he said of the wife of the man who would be called the America voltaire.
After her suicide in 1885, she was buried in accordance with her husband’s wishes in Washington’s Rock Creek Cemetery in a grave that bears no name, no birth and death dates, no legend; it is marked only by a statue, the master-piece of Augustus Saint-Gaudens. This monumental hooded figure in no way resembles Clover but is a representation of the grief of the mourner which took the form of ferocious silence. Adams refused ever afterward to speak of her; he destroyed such papers as she may have left behind and even his own journals for the period of his marriage. When he came to write the Education he omitted that entire span of his life; his twentieth chapter is dated 1871, the year before he was married, and the next is titled, “Twenty Years After.”
But he had written and privately published, shortly before her death, his anonymous novel Esther, in which she is represented. Esther is clearly that young Clover who, he told friends, was remarkable neither for beauty nor for erudition (“she laughs at being thought a blue”) but held him by her “intelligence and sympathy.” If Esther is her portrait Adams also found in his wife an instinctive moral sense which seemed to him a peculiarly feminine attribute. After her death his regard for the feminine response to life grew still greater, culminating in his vision of the Virgin of Chartres. He would say that he “owed more to the American women than to all the American men he had ever heard of.” Perhaps some of Clover lived on in Adams’s self-transformations; he may have survived the melancholia of mourning, as is often the case, by incorporating in himself the lost beloved, embracing for himself her values and her traits.
But Adams’s idea of Clover was also a representation of his own ideas. Esther’s problem of choice (posed by two men who want to marry her, a minister and a scientist) dramatizes Adams’s lifelong obsession with choices of conviction and role: her conclusion, that no choice was possible, was Adams’s agony, whether or not it was clover’s. It is curious, too, how close Adams’s description of Esther is to James’s mythification of Clover. Esther, says one of the other characters in the novel, is “one of the most marked American types I ever saw.” And he declares, “I want to know what she can make of life. She gives one the idea of a lightly sparred yacht in mid-ocean; unexpected; you ask yourself what the devil she is doing there. She sails gayly along, though there is no land in sight and plenty of rough weather coming.” The attitude of the viewer and his choice of metaphor strikingly resemble those of Ralph Touchett when he speaks of his cousin Isabel in The Portrait of a Lady, published only three years before Esther: “I hope I shall live long enough to see what she does with herself…. I should like to put a little wind in her sails…. I should like to see her going before the breeze.”
What Clover was aside from such uses of her personality by James or Adams is not easy to say. How important was it to her when, as a Washington hostess, she made hospitality a statement of taste and judgment, an assertion of principle in the most corrupt and vulgar period of national politics? In his story “Pandora” James made fun of the Adamses whom he represented as a couple whose house, “the pleasantest in Washington,…left out, on the whole, more people than it took in” and who unbend at the end of their social season with, “Let us be vulgar and have some fun—let us invite the President” (one can imagine this conversation taking place in H Street concerning the rather commonplace new neighbors across Lafayette Square, Rutherford B. and Lucy Hayes).
The Adamses’ exclusions and inclusions, their combinations of choice spirits, may have been an assertion of the possibility, latent in a democracy even in its most degraded moments, of a renewal of intelligence and idealism. They did not merely dislike bores; they barred their door to scoundrels like Senator James G. Blaine, whom Adams called “our pet enmity.” James, who was visiting Washington in 1882 when Blaine seemed about to be disgraced, reported to his father, “The little Adamses who (especially Mrs. A) are tremendously political—are beside themselves with excitement.” The condescension directed not only at his friends’ small stature, is deserved. The Adams way of dealing with the enemy was simply to “cut” Senator Blaine and his wife even after the Senator became Secretary of State under Garfield.
Adams had by then given up direct involvement in politics, which had been the preoccupation of his family for three generations. He had spent the Civil War—that occasion of male engagement for his generation—in London as his father’s secretary, but returned in 1868 to see if journalism could be a mode of action. He hoped that the ethical individual might exert an influence. “We want,” he wrote his brother Charles, “a national set of young men like ourselves or better, to start new influences not only in politics, but in literature, in law, in society, and throughout the whole social organism of the country”—and his first article in the North American Review declared, “A network of rings controls Congress.”
But the Grant administration soon proved the inefficacy of his efforts. As he later wrote, “No one wanted him. No one wanted any of his friends in reform.” By 1870 he was ready to accept an invitation to teach medieval history at Harvard. Grant was re-elected against Greeley, who had won out as a candidate against Henry Adams’s father, and Henry, just married, took off for a year’s honeymoon and research tour in Europe. Yet in 1875 he was involved in an effort to put Charles Francis Adams again into the field, though the reform Republicans settled for that “third-rate nonentity,” Hayes. He began his biography of Gallatin and launched upon his long-term researches into the Jefferson era. The Adamses moved into the house a block away from the White House where they became alert but passive witnesses to the depressing administrations of Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, and Cleveland.
Clover, a woman, had no choice. Adams, at least, had acted in another way than the direct political one when he published, also anonymously, his first novel, Democracy, As in Esther he had used a female protagonist reminiscent of Clover. Mrs. Lee, in the novel, is the “political” Clover; she is engaged in a struggle to find morality in politics and meets her opponent in a senatorial black knight in whom Blaine instantly recognized himself. Also of the opinion that Mrs. Adams was more “political than her husband, he was heard to charge that she had written the book. But, of course, she had not, though she may well have wearied of the role of, as she said, “a genteel restaurant keeper.” John Hay, still another admiring male observer, said to Adams after her death, “Is it any consolation to remember her as she was? That bright intrepid spirit, that keen fine intellect, that lofty scorn of all that was mean, that social charm which made your house such a one as Washington never knew before….” But we do not remember—personality alone does not perpetuate itself, only action does.
Perhaps she did try to imprint her vision upon a medium that would outlast her—literally the photographic plate. Like Matthew Brady, whom she admired, she created portraits which combine insight into the depth of her subject with a reverence for exterior truth. There are not many of her pictures to speak for her—she took up photography only in the last three years of her life. But it is clear that she worked with serious intensity to perfect her skill at what was, nevertheless, determinedly a hobby. There was, for example, the fine study she did of the historian George Bancroft which the editor of the Century magazine heard about and wanted to publish along with some accompanying text from Henry Adams. She refused for both of them with the excuse, “Mr. Adams does not fancy the prevailing literary vivisection”—that is, writing about his friends and rivals. She said nothing about her picture, though Esther, a painter, cries, “You don’t know what it is like to work without an object…. If I were able to be a professional, do you think I would be an amateur?” Having permitted this protest, Adams produced an occasion of more exigent dedication for Esther—her father’s grave illness—and we hear no more in the novel about her wish to decorate public buildings and be paid for it.