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Working in the Dark

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Massachusetts Historical Society
Clover Adams’s photograph of Miriam Choate Pratt, Alice Greenwood Howe, and Alice Pratt at Smith’s Point on Boston’s North Shore. Her biographer, Natalie Dykstra, sees in this photograph ‘a mood not of friendship and connection, but of lost possibility.’

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Supreme achievement in the arts is such a rare thing that to try to explain why talented people fall short of it can seem as futile as identifying geological conditions that fail to produce diamonds. Impediments lie everywhere. Cyril Connolly worried that “enemies of promise” such as writing for the movies distracted authors from their “true function” of producing masterpieces. For Virginia Woolf, the barrier to women writers in particular was the lack of “money and a room of her own,” those indispensable buffers from the intrusions of husband, housekeeping, and clamoring children. Biography is the genre in which such impediments are triumphantly overcome. Only in the margins of the eminent lives does one glimpse the mute inglorious brother or the brilliant sister—Woolf imagined her as Judith Shakespeare—who, in Woolf’s dire scenario of thwarted promise, “killed herself one winter’s night and lies buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop outside Elephant and Castle.”

Natalie Dykstra invokes Woolf in her tautly conceived and concisely written account of the “gilded and heartbreaking life” of Marian Hooper Adams, a gifted photographer who presided over a brilliant salon in Washington, from a vantage point opposite the White House, during a wretched succession of American presidents following the Civil War. Her husband, Henry Adams, was writing at the time his commanding multivolume history of the heroic early years of the Republic, and comparing the lackluster incumbents in the White House, such as Rutherford Hayes (who displayed “not a ray of force or intellect in forehead, eye, or mouth,” according to the sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued Mrs. Adams), to his own grandfather and great-grandfather. A biography of Mrs. Adams must in some sense also be a biography of her husband, who recognized, in his third-person biography of himself, The Education of Henry Adams, that his own failure to become president did not necessarily mean that he had wasted his life.

Marian Hooper, born in Boston in 1843, was so blessed with what used to be called advantages that her childhood nickname of Clover, as in lucky four-leaf clovers, seemed fitting from the start. Her father was a respected ophthalmologist, “rich enough,” as Lincoln Kirstein once wrote, “to evade formal practice”; he came out of retirement to treat the wounded at Gettysburg. Her mother was one of the Sturgis sisters, five striking and accomplished women who variously beguiled Emerson, befriended their beloved teacher Margaret Fuller, and published poetry in the Dial. Clover herself excelled in Elizabeth Agassiz’s innovative school, the forerunner of Radcliffe College, acquiring French and German easily and embarking on a lifelong study of Greek. Among her childhood friends were young men destined for great things: Henry James and his brother William and her second cousin Robert Gould Shaw, also of the Sturgis clan, who later led his regiment of African-American recruits in the doomed charge at Fort Wagner, in South Carolina.

Like other women in Boston, Clover joined in the war effort by sewing and sorting and mailing supplies to the front. One glimpses her at a wartime dinner party at a military barracks outside Cambridge sitting next to Henry James’s younger brother Wilky, a lieutenant in Shaw’s regiment. The black soldiers of “every shade of color from café au lait to ebony” sang “John Brown’s Hymn” for the guests. After Lee’s surrender, she attended the victory parade in Washington and observed columns of soldiers “for six hours marching past, eighteen or twenty miles long, their colours telling their sad history.” Later that night, she visited the small room in which Lincoln had died. The pillow, she noted, was “soaked with blood.”

Her father took her to Europe in 1866, on the obligatory Grand Tour postponed by the war, and she was introduced to the American minister at the Court of St. James, Charles Francis Adams, who had successfully maneuvered to prevent Britain, with its voracious cotton mills, from recognizing the cotton-rich Confederacy. She also met in passing his unimposing private secretary and son, Henry, who, at five feet three inches, was barely an inch taller than Clover and had viewed the war from a greater remove than she had. Back in Boston, she joined the ranks of unmarried women seemingly doomed to spinsterhood by the winnowing of eligible men on the killing fields in Virginia and Georgia.

Henry Adams, still a bachelor at thirty, was heir to a banking fortune on his mother’s side and heir to the presidency on his father’s. “Never in his life,” as T.S. Eliot noted, “would he have to explain who he was.” He could afford to do whatever he chose to do. He chose to teach history at Harvard, where Clover’s brother-in-law Whitman Gurney was dean of faculty. For seven years Henry adopted European methods of research, seeking to identify some law or logic in the seemingly random unfolding of history, and pushed the young men to ask questions and find answers. By all accounts he was a brilliant teacher, and his students, such as Henry Cabot Lodge, went on to great careers, but the chapter he devoted in the Education to this episode in his life is titled “Failure.”

He liked Clover’s wicked sense of humor and was not put off by what he called her “much too prominent” features—she thought her nose was too long and was reluctant to be photographed or painted—but he worried that with all her erudition she might be a “blue,” a femme savante or bluestocking. His brother Charles warned him that the Sturgis family were “all crazy as coots.” During their yearlong honeymoon, the high point of which was a riverboat journey down the Nile, documented with photographs taken by Henry with the unwieldy camera, glass plates, and chemicals he had purchased in London, Clover descended into a prolonged depression. Her spirits lifted when the couple returned to America and established a fashionable household in Washington where they could show off the watercolors by Turner and Blake, and Clover’s Worth gowns, that they had acquired in England and Paris. “People who study Greek,” Henry remarked, “must take pains with their dress.”

For twelve years, Clover and Henry Adams lived in Washington in apparent tranquility, riding their horses in Rock Creek Park and raising Skye terriers instead of children. Adams worked on his history and Clover assembled a salon of writers and artists and an occasional senator who gathered for her select five-o’clock teas. A more intimate circle was the self-styled and obscurely named Five of Hearts, which included Secretary of State John Hay, Henry Adams’s closest friend, his wife, Clara, and the adventurous geologist Clarence King. At one of Clover’s dinner parties, General Sherman enacted his March to the Sea “with knives and forks on the tablecloth,” then swept “the rebel army off the table with a pudding knife.” Henry James, a frequent visitor, portrayed the Adamses in his incisive short story “Pandora,” in which Mrs. Bonnycastle reigns over an exclusive salon that “left out, on the whole, more people than it took in.”

Both Clover and James shied away, in Dykstra’s nuanced view, from a full engagement with others, adopting a self-protective practice of “deflection”:

But if these two Bostonians had a close friendship, and they did, a kind of coolness defined its center, with each observing the other, each taking notes. James’s attention flattered and entertained Clover, but nothing more. She resisted the magnetic pull of his all-consuming imagination. Her self-containment demanded little from him. They both managed life by deflection—she with her fierce humor, he with a distancing charm—a tactic each must have understood in the other.
“He comes in every day at dusk and sits chatting by the fire,” Clover wrote her father, but added that she thought him “a frivolous being” for dining out as much as he did. After reading A Portrait of a Lady [sic], which James would later send to her, she wrote to her father, “It’s very nice, and [there are] charming things in it, but I’m aging faster and prefer what Sir Walter [Scott] called the ‘big bow-wow style.’” It wasn’t that her friend “bites off more than he can chaw,” she concluded, “but he chaws more than he bites off.”

The cutting quip confirms another aspect of James’s portrait of Clover in “Pandora,” however: her magisterial scorn for others, which eventually and perhaps inevitably was turned against herself, in the escalating self-loathing that Dykstra identifies as the principal affliction of her later years.

Dykstra believes that serving as hostess to a prominent historian and his friends was not sufficiently engrossing for a woman of Clover’s intellect and drive. Her career as a photographer, initiated in 1883 with her purchase of one of the newer and lighter cameras equipped with convenient dry-plate negatives, was her partial answer to what Dykstra calls Clover’s “predicament as a woman.” The puzzle for a biographer is that Clover’s intense engagement with photography coincided with her psychological decline. “Just when Clover discovered a powerful way to express herself, her life started to unravel.” Creativity, Dykstra suggests, can provide relief from emotional pain but it can also “go the other way,” giving “power to hidden undertows.” The symptoms of depression from the journey on the Nile resurfaced, in a more dire form, during the early 1880s, as Clover’s spirits rapidly deteriorated from “restlessness” to despondency. She couldn’t sleep and she wouldn’t eat. “I’m not real—” she complained to one of her sisters. “Oh make me real—you are all of you real!”

What had happened to Clover Adams? Was it the recent death of her father, a reliable source of support since her mother’s death during Clover’s childhood? Was it the entrance of Elizabeth Cameron, the dazzling niece of General Sherman and the wife of a dissipated and much older senator from Pennsylvania, into the social circle of the Adamses? “How could Clover not have been unnerved,” Dykstra asks rhetorically, “as she saw Henry’s eager attentions move away from her and toward a much younger woman?” Did her husband’s industry, “working like a belated beaver,” as Clover put it, on his own writing projects, make her own work in photography seem, by contrast, slight and amateurish? Or was it something more internal still, a bipolar condition that ran in the Sturgis family, reappearing in each generation, as George Santayana, another member of the clan, noted, and cruelly settling on Clover?1

On the morning of December 6, 1885, a Sunday, Henry Adams returned from a walk to find Clover sprawled on the floor of her studio upstairs. The bitter smell of almonds filled the air. She had swallowed potassium cyanide, a chemical she used to fix the images in her photographs. Dykstra observes, with a rare touch of melodrama, “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.” She was buried in Rock Creek Cemetery, under the ambiguous monument, neither male nor female, neither celebratory nor mournful, that Henry Adams commissioned Augustus Saint-Gaudens to make for their otherwise unmarked grave. Also ambiguous is the twenty-year gap in Adams’s Education, a book in which Clover is never mentioned. It is a narrative void as poignantly resonant in its way as the “Time Passes” interlude of To the Lighthouse.

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    In the chapter called “The Sturgises” in Persons and Places: Fragments of Autobiography ( MIT, 1986), Santayana writes, “Sound commonsense people, roseate optimists, as the Sturgises were, they were too Bostonian not to have at least one mad member, even in the Great Merchant generation” (p. 57). Elsewhere he writes of the “toll of madness” on each generation of Sturgises (p. 60). 

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