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Thursday, March 29, 2012

"Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life" by Natalie Dykstra~The Shattering Of A Brilliant Woman

Known for her quick wit, being widely read and having an envied grasp of literature and art, the independently-minded and gracious photographic artist Clover Adams took her life in 1885.  This is her story.

Published by:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Pages:  330
Genre:  Biography/Non-fiction

Cover Rating:
This gorgeous cover which seems a take on a painting by John Singer Sargeant depicts the elegant lady of leisure of the late 1800's, just the time of Clover Adams.  Her near smile gives us the story in a nutshell...she's not exactly smiling, but she's not sour, either.  We're left to project what we will on her face.  I love this cover in all its fine details.  Perfect for drawing those who will most likely read it, women.  Rated:  A

Some Reviews :
“Natalie Dykstra writes of Clover Adams’s striking photographs that they ‘defeat distances between people and make time stand still.’ Dykstra’s biography achieves the same remarkable feat, bringing us close to an inspiring if ultimately tragic life, a celebrated marriage gone awry, a vanished world of privilege where the universally costly emotions of love, loss, and envy nevertheless hold sway. ‘I spare you the inside view of my heart,’ Clover Adams once wrote to her beloved father. Natalie Dykstra spares nothing in this eloquent and powerfully sympathetic portrait of the artist as a lady, a haunting hymn to women’s ways of seeing.” — Megan Marshall, author of The Peabody Sisters

“What happened to Clover Adams broke Henry Adams’s heart. And in Natalie Dykstra’s splendid retelling, it will break yours. This is a moving book, deeply researched, fast-paced, and profoundly engaging. It is not easy to write a book the family for so long did not want written. Dykstra has succeeded in doing so, and she has returned Clover Adams to us as a living figure.” — Robert D. Richardson, author of Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, Emerson: The Mind on Fire, and William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism

“At last, Clover Adams has the biography she deserves. Long glimpsed only as the wife of a famous man or the dazzling hostess to Gilded Age luminaries, she emerges here as a complex and fascinating woman — a thinker, writer, and photographer, but also a deeply troubled soul. Natalie Dykstra follows her subject from the academic circles of mid-nineteenth-century Boston to the halls of power in Washington, D.C., giving us a broader portrait of late-nineteenth-century life. But she never loses her focus on Clover and the dark demons that haunted her throughout her life. This is a compelling read, so beautifully written and persuasively argued it’s hard to put down.” — Martha A. Sandweiss, author of Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line

Author Natalie Dykstra has received a
National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship for her work on Clover Adams. She is a Fellow of the Massachusetts Historical Society and associate professor of English at Hope College in Holland, MI.

The Dame's Review :
The only picture of Clover Adams.  When she died, her husband, Henry Adams destroyed all of her photographs in their home and all of her letters.  There were no other known pictures of her than this one.  No close ups.

Nearly 20 years ago I read a novel based on truth (which name I can't remember now) about Clover Adams, her unhappy marriage to Henry Adams, her life and death.  I have never been able to forget it.  Not because the novel was so wonderful, although it was well written, but because the story was so haunting.  In this biography by Natalie Dykstra I was struck with that same feeling of a shattered mirror...a life so beautiful, a woman so gifted and admired who found herself broken like delicate glass fallen from a shelf.  It's instance is like the flash of a camera's bulb.  Yet, it seems to linger on in my mind like an after image.  I can't get the life of Clover Adams out of my mind.  In this biography "Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life"  more of the puzzle of her life came together for me.  This is a book I expect to return to several times over the years.

It is no surprise that a child of a mother who was herself abandoned at a young age by a morbidly depressed mother, should have some residual of that original trauma.  Family heartache and major losses seem to leave lasting scars that mar the DNA.  Clover herself was just a 5 year old when her mother died.  She was nothing if not a child and  young woman hampered by a delicate mind and heart.  In fact, the Hooper family was fraught with death and depression to suicide.

Brought up with the expectations of a Boston Brahmin, Transcendentalist family whose standard was undoubtedly putting a brave and beautiful face on all things, must have been nearly more than Clover could bear as she grew up and married. No surprise that she became a scholar and brilliant conversationalist.  How else could she escape the emotional landscape she must  have found herself in?  How else could she create a "lovable" self and an image of what a woman was supposed to be except to excel at all things? How could she fail to be emotionally stalwart, yet "eccentric?"  How fragile her life must have been when the love she so desperately needed fell just out of her reach, ultimately.

Natalie Dykstra takes us on a personal journey with Clover Adams as she walks this thin line of child to womanhood.  We learn of her development, her education, her family and her friends.  We see her through the eyes of others who knew and loved her, and we ultimately see her through her own eyes by way of her photo lens. 

There is so much that could be said about this book and Mrs. Adams, but as an artist, I want to share with you my focus on Clover's art work; her photography, and what I saw there for myself.  If you will go to Ms Dykstra's website, it will lead you to a link with the Massachusetts Historical Society which has a collection of Clover's photographs.  These pictures are discussed in Dykstra's book.   I want to discuss her photography with you because I think it gives us insight into her better than any words can. 

What I see is this:  a disconnect between people, an isolation in subjects and their surroundings, an assortment of unrelated and strangely juxtaposed natural settings with human beings or animals, depressed and mournful women, distant faces and grim faced family members, trees stark and strikingly lonely and barren in their setting.  In her collection of works, only the few pictures of very young children give some levity to her portraits; a little girl on a metal riding horse, and two children beside a tree.  

For the most part Clover Adam's photographs are not pretty pictures.  There are mostly portrait sorts of pictures, and even given the mode of the times to remain sober without smiling, these pictures still have the odd body language and physical placements that create a more off-centered and disconnected feel.  Psychologically, they scream for help.  In one picture, three women of different ages are on a rock.  Two older women are faced completely away from the camera and are dressed in heavy black. They stand on or sit on rocks just over a third young girl who is dressed in a light white dress, sitting on a rock below them and facing the camera with a smile on her face. This is no ordinary three family members portrait on a  hillside. It seems to depict death overlooking life; or the different ages of women.  But, when it's studied more, the disconnect comes stronger with the placement of the women's backs to the camera.  There's another message here altogether...a deeper meaning going on.  Perhaps it's the hopefulness of a young girl's mind and the virginity of her spirit vs the reality/awareness of the truth of her existence?  I'm not sure.  It could be many things in Clover's mind.  Either way, it shows a brittleness of heart from the eye of the camera...from the one who set up the composition and made the effort to bring the process through to a photograph.

Although the majority of her photographs convey this feeling of disconnect and isolation, I found it also beautiful to see how Clover set many of her "stages" and compositions.  In the portraits of women, their surroundings were open-aired, at least.  I liked this idea, as if she were breathing a freedom and release into their worlds.  There is a particularly striking photograph of an elderly woman sitting on a porch just outside of an open door.  She's in a dark dress all buttoned up, white cap on, stitching something small in her hands.  There's a small dog at her feet.  And there's the image of a lovely art panelled screen just inside the door behind her.  The shadows are beautiful in this photo, but what struck me most is this vision of freedom.  There's the sense that the woman is escaping the confines not only of the house, but also of her age...she's sitting like a girl on the floor of the porch!  And behind her, slightly hidden in the half dark hallway is a screen with artwork on it.  It hints at something exotic, another story.  Like another life, a more exciting life that may have been left behind or concealed in this woman's life in the past.  It's a beautiful photograph.  If it's a projection of what Clover feels "might have been" or if it's a message of what this woman has lost in life, it's a very telling piece of work coming from her camera to us. 

Natalie Dykstra has done much justice to the life and work of Clover Adams.  This is a beautiful book about a fleeting and lavishly imagined life.  As in any story of a young woman of promise who takes her own life, this one is shocking and harshly jarring.  We seem to know her somehow.  And in that "knowing" it's difficult to let her go so easily.  No matter how many books are written about Clover Adams, I will always wish I knew what made her decide to drink that horrible vial of poison...why she chose to end her life as if trashed upon the wasteland of her artwork.  I will never quite be able to forgive Henry Adams for his harshness and cruelties to her, for disallowing her to shine, and for dismissing her so quickly from his mouth and memoirs.

This is a very readable and extensive work by Ms Dykstra.  She's a capable and learned biographer who has treated the life and heart of Clover Adams with delicacy and honor.  I loved this book and highly recommend it.  Without regard to Henry Adams, although he does play a major part in Clover's life, obviously, I think it's a strong slice of American history from a woman's perspective.  And I think it's a great tribute to the heart of women during an age of repression.

5 stars




Such a nice post. Thanks for sharing your views.

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