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 …
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