The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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March 3, 2012

'The happiness that is past'

As I mentioned before, I first 'met' Clover Adams, the wife of writer and historian Henry Adams, in college, when I veered away from the assigned reading in an American literature seminar. What I remember about all this was that Mrs. Adams poisoned herself, with the chemicals she used for her photography, in grief over the death of her father, and that Henry Adams was so devastated by her death that he did not mentioned her, or their 13-year marriage, in his autobiography, not at all. I also remember seeing pictures for the first time of the beautiful and haunting statue that Henry commissioned and Augustus Saint-Gaudens sculpted as a memorial.

There's more to the story, of course there is, and I loved reading about her again in a new biography by Natalie Dykstra. Clover was one of three children born to a family from Boston; her mother died when Clover was very young, from tuberculosis, and there was a string of suicides and a history of mental illness in her family. Henry James noted her 'intellectual grace;' she taught herself Greek and was a gifted amateur photographer. Henry Adams, a historian and novelist, was the great-grandson of John Adams and the grandson of John Quincy Adams, and both Clover and Henry had friends in Boston and Washington, D.C.'s social circles and among artists, historians and writers. The story of their marriage is heartbreaking (there's really no other word for it)-- it seemed to start out so strongly, as a marriage of equal and shared intellects, and then degenerate into hopelessness as family members died, Clover fell into mental illness, and Henry couldn't, or wouldn't, cope. They were both such interesting, engaging people that I found myself just wanting something better for them.

Sometimes, I think one of the best things about reading biographies is the chance to discover lives like this one, not as well-known as others but very much worth writing about and reading. I did think that some of the analysis of her photographs and what they 'said' about her life was a little bit forced, but it was elegantly written, and this was, in the end, a very good example of the kind of biography that I always hope to find. I just need my next book to much more cheerful. :)

1 comment:

Nan said...

I don't think I will read it, but I did like reading your post about her. I really knew nothing at all. How very, very sad.

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