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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.