Gilded Age society, through the lens of Clover Adams
Photos by Marian Hooper Adams show a shrewd eye and keen intelligence in the years before her tragic death
"The Education of Henry Adams,’’ the greatest autobiography in American literature, includes the greatest omission of any autobiography in American literature. Adams, the finest of all American historians as well as a direct descendant of two presidents, concludes Chapter 20 in 1871 and takes up Chapter 21 in 1892. The missing years are never accounted for or otherwise alluded to. They include the 13 years of his marriage to Marian Hooper Adams, universally known as “Clover.’’
The couple was married from 1872 until her suicide, in 1885. Adams never once mentions her in the book. The tradition of unhappily married memoirists ignoring their marriages is long and not necessarily a surprise. To all appearances, though, the Adamses were quite happy. Contemporaries remarked on what a fine pair they made: witty, assured, and acquainted with seemingly anyone worth being acquainted with in Gilded Age America. Their friends ranged from a future secretary of state (John Hay) to a future Supreme Court justice (Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.) to Henry James. The couple in James’s story “Pandora’’ are the Adamses in everything but name.
Portraits of Hay and Holmes are among the 39 of her pictures to be found in “A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life: The Photographs of Clover Adams, 1883-1885.’’ The show runs through June 2 at the Massachusetts Historical Society. It includes a handful of photographs by others, as well as entries from Clover Adams’s photographic notebook, letters by and about her and her husband, and other items relating to them.
Clover Adams had long displayed a shrewd eye and keen intelligence. She and her husband couldn’t have been such a good match otherwise. Has anyone bettered the acuity (let alone the concision) of her critique of James’s fiction: “He chaws more than he bites off’’? In the final two years of her life, she found a new way to employ that eye and intelligence: photography.
Adams didn’t restrict herself to portraits. A cityscape of trees in winter conveys an almost Zen stillness. But the lion’s share of the show consists of portraits. Adams’s status put her in a position to create a kind of photo album of America’s political and cultural elite. There are portraits of H.H. Richardson (the architect of the Adams house, across from the White House, in Washington), the historians George Bancroft and Francis Parkman, former secretary of state William M. Evarts, Senator L.Q.C. Lamar, the painter John La Farge.
Adams didn’t stand on formality. She was as likely to pose her husband shaking hands (all right, hand and paw) with their dog Marquis as working at his desk. Her sitters’ eminence lends her portraits interest; her ability to keep those portraits from seeming stiff or stuffy makes them interesting. The most striking portraits in the show are of Hay’s young son and daughter. Wearing rain gear and standing in front of a tree, they have a relaxed, inviting immediacy that’s striking - and seems strikingly closer to our own time than theirs.
Family figures prominently in the show - not just photographs of her husband, but also her mother- and father-in-law and her father. Adams, whose mother had died when her daughter was only 5, had grown extremely close to her father over the years. Less than 10 months after his death, she killed herself by drinking one of her developing chemicals. She was 42.
The show has been curated by Natalie Dykstra, author of a just-published biography, “Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life.’’ Wall labels and other texts exclusively refer to her as “Clover.’’ Presumably, this is done to easily distinguish her from her husband, who’s referred to as “Henry.’’ Sensible though this procedure is, it has the unintended effect of seeming to patronize Adams. Calling her “Clover’’ reduces Adams to the status of little woman and mere helpmeet. Not that any proof were needed, but her photographs demonstrate how very much more than that she was.