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.
Clover’s own impulse toward self-effacement is indicated in other ways, in any case. She seems never to have taken any picture of herself—indeed, only one adult photograph of her survives, a vague shot of her on horseback which only confirms that she loved riding. She found a certain happiness, it may be, in hiding herself behind the camera hood to see the reality of others.
She left no journal or other record of the secret self. Some of her letters show evidence of the critical humor that her conversation was reputed to abound in. While James’ was making sharp remarks about the Adamses in his own letters (“One reason for their liking Washington better than London is that they are, vulgarly speaking, someone here, and that they are nothing in your complicated kingdom,” he told an English friend), she would be observing him: “It is high time Harry James was ordered home by his family. He is too good a fellow to be spoiled by injudicious old ladies—in the long run they would like him better for knowing and loving his own country. He had better go to Cheyenne and run a hog ranch.” But these letters, mostly the cheerful, chatty weekly bulletins she sent to her father from the time of her marriage until his death, show nothing of those dark obsessions that must have surged to the surface more than once before the end. There is one strange letter to her sister in which she describes a dream she had during the period of her engagement, a dream of imprisonment in ice from which Henry will deliver her. It is just enough to tantalize us with the realization that we really know nothing about her interior history.
Despite the elusiveness of his subject, however, Otto Friedrich has written a book called Clover. As one might anticipate from the paucity of materials, it is only intermittently concerned with her; his pages are fleshed out with other things, some quite lively and interesting if not always clearly relevant to Clover’s own experience. It is allowable, of course, that the book should be really a dual biography which gives equal space to Henry Adams, about whom there is an abundance of information available in the biographical studies of Ernest Samuels and others. And vignettes of Clover’s family and friends not only provide some ambiance, they are a necessary means of approaching her own personality. Indeed, if anything, Friedrich makes too little of the immediate personalities that must have strongly affected hers—we long to understand more about her father, to whom she was deeply attached, about her brother and sister, both of whom also committed suicide, as well as about her mother, who died when she was five, and other relatives. But though providing some biographic facts about these persons, Friedrich abstains—perhaps wisely—from psychological speculation about her relations with them.
On the other hand he offers a sort of generational history which emphasizes public moments that Clover often could not have witnessed. On the premise that “Clover’s whole generation was marked” by the Civil War, we are provided with a chapter, for example, which describes Harvard in wartime and relates the battle experiences not only of Ned Hooper, Clover’s brother, and Charles Francis Adams, Jr., Henry Adams’s, but of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., of Thomas Lee Higginson, of the younger brothers of Henry James, and others, some known and perhaps some not known personally to Clover. Friedrich repeats familiar stories—how Cabot Russel searching for his son’s body at Fort Wagner found instead the wounded Wilky James and brought him home to his family; he tells the often told epic history of Robert Gould Shaw and his black troops who died together there. Shaw, of course, was a second cousin of Clover’s, so we can assume that his martyrdom must have particularly impressed itself as it was recounted to her.
No doubt Clover heard these and many other tales of the battleground, but there is little evidence of how she responded. She herself lacked the more immediate impression of the war of those young women who served as nurses in hospitals or in the field, in any case; she came only as close as the Boston office of the Sanitary Commission where she stamped blankets and rolled bandages. Adams, in London at the embassy for the duration, was even further away from the sound of guns and the shedding of blood.
Less justifiable than this sort of filling-out of empty space in his “biography” is Friedrich’s intrusion of his own adventure as a biographer. He not only describes the statue at Rock Creek but he quotes the comments of the taxi driver who took him there. He invites us to overhear his conversation about his project with a woman at a party while “in another room guests are watching a private showing of a film about R.D. Laing.” We gain no special insight into the ironies of time by standing with him in Marlborough Street to notice that the Adamses’ Boston house is now a residence for the aged with “forty-two private bedrooms, mostly with washbasins.” Most distracting of these digressions is his visit to the studio where the “Adams Chronicles” were filmed and where “a fat man in a purple shirt” is seen responding to the cue call for “Henry James” and Friedrich discusses with the script writer whether Adams could have been a latent homosexual. Since we have no information at all about Adams’s wooing of Clover, “we might as well watch to see how television imagines the event,” he says, actually inserting that portion of the script into his text. We might as well not.
One effect of the “Adams Chronicles” upon us all has been to make us imagine this extraordinary family history as a continuous plot of connected episodes—and Friedrich feels obliged to rechronicle the generations of the Adamses, providing still more supplement to the story of Clover. We should ponder how Clover took her place in that succession of Adams wives that began with the redoubtable Abigail who appealed to her husband to “remember the ladies” in the new laws, saying “remember all men would be tyrants if they could.” That all men would be tyrants was perhaps understood by John Quincy’s wife Louisa, that fragile, foreign-bred lady who wrote an autobiography she called Adventures of a Nobody, and perhaps by later Adams wives, too.
Friedrich does not reflect on how this tradition worked, if it did, in Henry’s generation. Yet I am tempted, if he is not, to make the most of what scraps of suggestion we have. There was Henry’s attitude toward Clover’s study of Greek, a language in which he had once received schoolboy training and had forgotten. He did not find his bride less charming for this oddity, though he urged her, on their honeymoon, to order new dresses from Worth’s, for “people who study Greek must take pains with their dress.” Yet two years later he was still talking about her Greek in a letter to his friend Sir Robert Cunliffe, to whom he also declared with shocking vehemence,
Our young women are haunted by the idea that they ought to read, or to labor in some way, not for any such frivolous object as making themselves agreeable to society, nor for simple amusement, but “to improve their minds.” They are utterly unconscious of the pathetic impossibility of improving those hard, thin, one-stringed instruments which they call their minds, and which haven’t range enough to master one big emotion, much less to express it in words or figures.
On the question of Clover’s education Friedrich himself takes a curiously antifeminist tone. He points out that Clover attended the Agassiz School in Cambridge where the girls were privileged to hear lectures not only from the great Louis Agassiz but from other Harvard professors. She had the advantage, too, he notes, of coming from a cultivated family—her mother and her aunt had been poets, friends of Emerson and other great thinkers of the previous generation. She might nevertheless have been interested in the movement for higher education, I would guess; her sister Ellen, married to Dean Gurney of Harvard who tutored Clover in Greek, worked actively for the founding of the Harvard “Annex” which later became Radcliffe—and received Clover’s help. Still, Friedrich insists not only that there is no evidence that Clover was a feminist, but that “by the standards of her time, she had no strong reasons to feel oppressed. If she could not go to Harvard like her brother Ned, she was not one whit less well educated at home, and if she could not vote for Grant or Horatio Seymour in the new elections of 1868, she was nonetheless born rich, and that gave her far more freedom and independence than could be enjoyed by any Irish workman standing in line at the polling station.”
Such a comment suggests that Friedrich really may not be properly fitted to make the right guesses about female life a hundred years ago. Nothing seems less likely than that this sensitive female intellectual could have been complacent about her position because she wasn’t a poor Irish workingman. Perhaps despite the present scantiness of materials, another biography of Clover may still be written by someone with the necessary understanding of the complex tensions and sublimations of nineteenth-century women. (Such concerns, I might note, are to be found in the work of one scholar, Dr. Eugenia Kaledin, whose unpublished dissertation on Clover Adams completed several years ago studies the same materials that Friedrich has made use of.) Clover’s present biographer, however, quotes the passage in Adams’s letter to Cunliffe without comment, and blandly follows it with an Adams niece’s remembered sight of Henry and Clover riding together down a lane in Beverly, and her impression of “oneness of life and mind, of perfect companionship.”
We have, finally, the mystery of Clover’s suicide. Ernest Samuels and other students of Adams’s life have been satisfied with the obvious explanation that she failed to recover from the depression caused by her father’s death. Having lost her mother in her childhood, Clover may have suffered, with redoubled devastation, her long-buried grief. The potentialities of her closely dependent attachment to her father were clear to Adams, who eerily came close to predicting the actual disaster when he described the desolation overtaking Esther at her father’s death.
But Friedrich is not satisfied with this. He thinks that Clover sank into despair because Henry had fallen in love with another woman, Elizabeth Cameron. Well, there has never been any doubt that Henry delighted—as did Clover—in the pretty wife of their somewhat dull friend, Senator Don Cameron, and after Clover’s death his fondness for Mrs. Cameron continued. But there is every reason to believe in his declaration to E.L. Godkin that in the darkest moment of his life he had found himself so strengthened by the thought that “life could have no other experience so crushing” as Clover’s suicide and by the realization that “at least I have got out of life all the pleasure it had to give…. For twelve years I had everything I most wanted on earth.”
Where Friedrich is most misled, I think, is in his use in this connection of Adams’s portrait of Mrs. Cameron as Esther’s cousin, Catherine—testimony, he considers, to the younger woman’s fresh appeal—while Clover, as Esther, is the victim of a cruelly destructive resentment. But this is simply not true. Esther is the heroine of the book, adored by two of the three male characters in it for reasons the author makes obvious. The charming Catherine is a lay-figure by comparison with this affecting searcher for truth who wrestles so nobly with the problem of faith and finally finds, as did Adams himself, a message in the great voice of the Niagara waterfall.
Did Clover acquiesce in the idea of eternal mindless universal force? Friedrich prefers to think that she had a “latent religious faith” despite the skepticism of her husband and her father. Of this, there is no evidence at all. To the last she wrote her letters to her father on Sunday mornings while the good, white sheep, as she would say, were at church. A pious friend expressed the hope when she was dead that though “hers was an invincible ignorance…somehow and somewhere she is learning better things.” Henry James, who may have shared with Clover a large measure of skepticism, could only say with melancholy irony, “Poor Mrs. Adams found the other day the solution to the knottiness of existence.”
It would be hazardous, certainly, to try to connect with her unbelief that moment when Clover killed herself with a dose of potassium cyanide, a chemical she used in developing her photographic prints. Most atheists manage to ignore the logic which dictates suicide as the only adequate response to the absurdity of human life. Her anomie might, however, have expressed the inner emptiness which she felt. She is remembered to have cried out to her sister in the preceding weeks, “I’m not real—oh make me real!” It would almost seem that the fate of a remarkable woman who could only be, not do, was to lose in the end the very sense of being.
January 24, 1980