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Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life Hardcover – February 8, 2012

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Editorial Reviews Review

Amazon Exclusive: A Q&A with Author Natalie Dykstra

Q: What was it about Clover that first drew you in?

A: I’d heard about Clover on the margins of other lives—her husband, Henry Adams, of course, but also Alice James, Henry James, Isabella Stewart Gardner, and others. Clover had long fascinated people—she was married to a famous man, led a privileged life in Boston and Washington, D.C., and at forty-two years old she committed suicide. She’s a mysterious figure and the mystery is only deepened by the haunting statue, sculpted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, that marks her grave in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C. When I read about how Eleanor Roosevelt would take a horse and carriage and sit in front of Clover’s memorial, I got curious about this woman who so fascinated Mrs. Roosevelt. Knowing Clover had been a serious amateur photographer, I began to wonder if answers about her life and what had happened might be found in her photographs. When I went to the Massachusetts Historical Society for the first time to look at her photograph collection, it was as if a past world unfolded in front of my eyes. What I saw was exactly what she’d seen herself. There was visual evidence that letters don’t provide, opening up hidden pathways to her inner life. When I discovered a notebook in which Clover kept a detailed record of her photographs, I realized that she’d paid close attention to how she put her photographs into her albums. She wanted her photographs to be viewed in a particular way because she was telling a story—her story.

Q: Tell us about your sources. What were your best finds?

A: Besides her photographs and her notebook, what made it possible to see the whole arc of Clover’s life was the discovery of family papers still in private hands, most of which have never been seen before. Suddenly, I could understand the world she’d been born into, the ways her family members talked to one another, the love between her father and mother. Also in this private collection is an unknown, heartrending letter written by William James in 1901 to comfort one of Clover’s nieces. This letter gave me a new and important way to think about Clover’s death and its aftermath.

Q: Clover led such a glamorous life in Gilded Age Washington. What are a couple of your favorite images or stories from that time in her life?

A: Clover and Henry were at the center of the political and cultural life of Washington. Politicians, scientists, artists, writers—they all gathered at the Adams’ home on Lafayette Square for some of Clover’s Russian tea and her equally delicious gossip. I love to think of the evening-long talks with the Five of Hearts, a select group consisting of Clover, Henry, Clarence King, and John and Clara Hay, and how they’d sit close together in low-slung red-leather chairs around a blazing fire. As Clover said, it was always a "good deal of good talk." I often think of Clover and Henry, bundled up on a cold winter night, walking over for dinner at the White House. They were never very impressed by the presidents during their years in Washington, but Clover enjoyed the drama of those evenings. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman always tried to sit next to Clover at dinner parties—he once recreated his "march to the sea" by placing all the dinnerware in the middle of the table and then, in the heat of action, sweeping the table clean, with forks and knives flying everywhere. There was almost nothing Clover enjoyed more than these kinds of moments. But, as glamorous as their lives were in Washington, Clover kept a wary eye on the scene—she was no unthinking social butterfly. She craved real friendships. And she was too smart to be completely swept up in what she called the "society rabble."

Q: Other than Clover herself, who are your favorite characters in Clover Adams?

A: There are so many. I remember looking forward to spending time with H. H. Richardson, architect of Boston’s Trinity Church, whom Henry and Clover hired to build their new house in Washington. Richardson was outrageously talented, brimming with life. He was an absolute extrovert—and a relief for me after days spent with Henry Adams, who was very much not an extrovert. I was moved by what a good friend John Hay was to the Adamses—his letters shine with his generosity. Henry James is such a large figure that he can stride into one’s narrative and take over in no time. But he taught me a lot about the restraint of that era, of what to say and what not to say, and his relationship with Clover was revealing—they liked each other, but they were both eagle-eyed portraitists of the other.

Of course, there’s Clover’s father, Dr. Hooper, and Lizzie Cameron, a complicated beauty, a rival for Henry’s attentions, damaged, and a "dangerously fascinating" woman, as someone put it. But I think a favorite character was Clover’s mother, Ellen Sturgis Hooper, about whom we knew very little until I found a stash of her letters in the family papers. She was a talented poet, friend of Emerson and Margaret Fuller, and an expressive, loving mother. She adored Clover. I could hardly bear to write of her death of tuberculosis at the age of thirty-six, when Clover was just six years old. Knowing her more fully, having a sense of her voice in her letters, helped me take full measure of what her loss meant to Clover. In some way, her absence haunts the story.

Q: Clover Adams is the story of a woman beginning to become an artist; it’s the story of a marriage; and it’s also a kind of mystery story. Did you know these would all be strands of your story from the start of your work on Clover?

A: Early on, I started to think of the story as a ghost story because it helped me stay away from making arguments about Clover or proving points—I could stay clear of preconceived ideas and focus instead on finding clues to the mystery.

Clover was known for her marriage and for committing suicide. The last act of her life had defined her, and she’d become no more than an emblem of loss and suffering. This seemed so unfair. To counter the way memory of her had become so stuck in stereotypes, I tried to stay close to her words and her photographs and to understand these sources as fully as possible. Once I was sure I wouldn’t get blown off track, I turned to Henry Adams, because I knew that to understand Clover, I had to enter into their marriage. Henry Adams said when he was writing a biography: "a great mass of material is almost as troublesome to a biography as a short allowance." How true. Books both by and about Henry fill the shelves. But I didn’t want his Pulitzer Prize–winning voice from his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, to take over Clover’s story. I had to inch my way toward him. It was finally seeing him as a teacher at Harvard, the same years in which Clover fell in love with him, that enabled me to imagine their relationship and what he brought her. His students adored him. He had an extraordinarily creative mind. Clover couldn’t go to college, but Henry opened up what was possible for her to know. They would read together until all hours of night, from French literature and German philosophy to current science and the latest by American authors. What became clear is how compatible they were and how much they loved each other. Henry loved her sense of adventure, her wit. There’s a scene of him at dinner, waving his napkin up and down, doubled over with laughter at one of Clover’s stories.

All of this only deepens the mystery of what went wrong. Something does shift in their marriage—it’s almost imperceptible at first. Henry’s flirtation with a beautiful younger woman, Clover’s growing anxiety about not having children, his increasing introversion, and her turn towards photography. The drift in their marriage becomes a chasm they can’t bridge. But this happens in the years when Henry was writing a second novel about a woman, this time a "failed artist." And Clover is taking photographs of him and their life together. So he’s writing about her, while she’s documenting her side of things, and they’re doing so in these wonderfully rich and roundabout ways. The clues had been there all along.

Q: The haunting Saint-Gaudens statue in Rock Creek Cemetery at Clover’s grave has drawn many, women especially, over time. Could you tell us a little about that?

A: Clover’s story resonates. She was a gifted woman who enjoyed enormous privilege—in many ways she lived the kind of life not available to most women. And yet, her determination to find a way to express herself, her worries in her marriage, her need for family, her struggle with painful feelings, her deep longing for connection and meaning—well, it’s a human story, isn’t it? It’s our story. And I think what the statue most communicates is that no matter what we suffer, we’re not defined by our suffering. I think that’s why it’s been a source of such comfort over the years.

From Booklist

An exceptionally bright and well-educated child in a prominent Boston family, Marian “Clover” Hooper (1843–85) became a woman of vigor, wit, courage, and high intelligence. She married the prodigious writer and historian Henry Adams, and together they reigned at the epicenter of Washington society. But Clover lost her mother at a young age. Then the aunt she loved committed suicide, a path Clover was destined to follow. First-time biographer Dykstra is the first to fully trace the darkening of Clover’s radiance, finding revelations in her superbly written Sunday letters to her father and in her pioneering photography. Embracing both the technical and aesthetic challenges of this new medium, Clover made brilliantly composed and emotionally saturated photographs, in which Dykstra astutely discerns clues to her despair over her childless marriage to a distant man whose prominence she helped establish but who thwarted her public success as an artist. Clover turned to her art to end her suffering, swallowing a chemical used in the developing process. Dkystra’s contextually rich and psychologically discerning portrait of an underappreciated luminary is enlightening and affecting. --Donna Seaman

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1st edition (February 8, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618873856
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618873852
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.3 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (46 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #210,944 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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37 of 38 people found the following review helpful By Ms Winston VINE VOICE on January 2, 2012
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Author Natalie Dykstra's first book is an examination of the life of Marian "Clover" Hooper, who was born in 1843 into an old, respected New England family. Adored by both parents, the first tragedy in her life was the death of her beloved mother in 1848 when Clover was just five years old. Her father, Doctor Robert Hooper, unlike most widowers of his time period, never re-married, but rather devoted his life to the care and emotional support of his three children. Inspite of the tragedy of the early death of her mother, Clover grew into a popular, highly intelligent, and well-educated young woman who knew some of the most brilliant minds of New England -- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr and Jr, among others, and was a cousin of Robert Gould Shaw, who was later to win fame and die young during the Civil War. If Clover had never married, it is possible that we today would know nothing of her -- as it was, at the age of 28 Clover married Henry Brooks Adams, great-grandson of John Adams, second president of the United States, and grandson of another president, John Quincy Adams. And that, as the poet wrote, "made all the difference."

The marriage of Clover and Henry (he was 33 at the time of the wedding) began in high hopes. The two were an intellectual match and had money for a comfortable life style that included travel to Europe. Henry was a college professor and writer, and the two spent many happy hours reading aloud to each other in English and German (Clover had also studied Greek since her teenage years). But problems surfaced on their honeymoon, when Clover began to experience some emotional problems during the time they were in Egypt. According to her letters to her father, she felt empty, demoralized, and withdrawn.
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28 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Laurence R. Bachmann VINE VOICE on February 19, 2012
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life is well worth a read, and my reservations about the book have more to do with the author's emphasis and interpretation rather than any errors of fact. Natalie Dykstra, having done the heavy lifting of excellent research is certainly entitled to her opinions: I just wish they were a bit more nuanced.

The author does a fine job of setting up the "Gilded" and "Heartbreaking" aspects of CHA's life. Born to privilege, Clover was an extremely bright, extremely well-educated young lady, born into Boston's elite social circles, at a time of extraordinary political and social upheaval. The decade leading up to the American Civil War and its outbreak were a time of extraordinary intellectual foment. Sharp, incisive and astute, at first glance it would seem that Clover had all imaginable blessings.

Her only detriment, and ultimately a fatal one were her genes. A mother prone to emotional breakdowns and sibling suicides foreshadowed the crises to come. Marrying late in life only deepened her attachment to an adored father. His death proved to be a tipping point from which she never recovered. Dykstra does a fine job of pointing out that marrying into the Adamses clan was at best a mixed blessing. While it afforded opportunity and status, it also was a tremendous pressure or expectation. She was never good enough as far as her in-laws were concerned and they never let her forget it. They also (rightly it turns out) were deeply concerned about the history of instability on her mother's side.

Up to this point I had no qualms about the author's interpretations or emphasis. However once Clover becomes enamored of photography and embarks on it as a hobby, she and I began to part company.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By L. M. Keefer TOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 10, 2012
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
"A perfect Voltaire in petticoats," novelist Henry James once described Clover Adams. If you like examining an age through the lens of an individual life, this biography provides a lively perspective on the last half of the fascinating 19th century. Born in 1843, Clover Adams was in a prime position as the wife of historian-author Henry Adams (grandson of President John Quincy Adams and great-grandson of President John Adams) to meet the colorful and powerful characters who populated and shaped this half century.

In addition to Henry James, luminaries such as Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Singer Sargent, Union General Sherman, Oscar Wilde and even Queen Victoria stroll through the pages of this book for Clover Adams to see or comment on. "Oh, for the pen of Abigail Adams," Clover once wistfully pined. Never mind Abigail's--Clover's own pen was fierce and insightful enough. Clover often sounds like a juicy and opinionated character in a Jane Austen novel. However, her own life resembled more of an Edith Wharton tragedy.

What was endearing about Clover Adams, and makes this book as readable as any novel set in this time period, is her lilting, humorous and very contemporary sounding voice. Her sprightly sayings are sprinkled throughout this book. I love books that can recreate the times so you almost feel what it was like to be alive then. Clover Adams captures this in picturesque speech. Some favorites (and you'll have fun finding your own):

* Describing teas, dinners, theater: they were a "mild drizzle of gaiety."

* On the lifestyle in a French hotel: "a la francaise..--early coffee and tea, then a stout midday meal and dinner at eight at some restaurant. We each buy a paper and get behind it!
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