Man of the Century

But 100 years after writing his classic memoir, the question about Henry Adams remains: Which century?

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The earth itself, he writes, "seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arms-length at some vertiginous speed and barely murmuring—scarcely humming an audible warning to stand a hair's breadth further for respect of power—while it would not wake the baby lying against its frame. Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force."

And yet despite the range of Adams' interests, his capacity for self-examination and his unblinking engagement with the world, there is a striking gap in his story, for reasons that he found too painful to discuss in Education.

In 1872, Adams had married Marian Hooper, known as "Clover," who came from a wealthy Yankee family. She was a superb horsewoman, pioneering photographer and witty hostess, but a shadow fell over their honeymoon in Egypt when she suffered a bout of depression. In 1880, they moved from Boston to a rented house on H Street in Washington, two blocks from the White House. They rode horses in Rock Creek Park and developed a close friendship with John Hay and his wife, Clara, and with the geologist Clarence King, an apparent bachelor who secretly kept an African-American wife and family in New York. This group socialized regularly in the evenings and called themselves "the five of hearts."

Adams doted on his wife and fretted while she attended her dying father in Massachusetts in the spring of 1885. "How did I ever hit on the only woman in the world who fits my cravings and never sounds hollow anywhere?" he wrote to her. But after her father died, depression again overtook Clover. On a Sunday morning that December, as Henry set out to the dentist about a toothache, she went to her studio and swallowed a fatal dose of potassium cyanide. (Her aunt and sister also committed suicide and her brother attempted to.) Two days later, Adams replied to a condolence telegram from John Hay, "I shall come out all right from this—what shall I call it—Hell!"

Clover's suicide coincided with the completion of his Lafayette Square house. A few weeks after he buried her in Rock Creek Cemetery, Adams moved into it alone. Fortunately, the Hays and their four children would soon be next door. Henry, though childless, loved children. He created a "hat shop" under his desk for a favorite child, and the sign for it remained there until he died 30 years later.

Clover's name appears nowhere in Education, though there is a passing mention of Elizabeth Cameron, the beautiful, lively and much younger wife of an alcoholic Pennsylvania senator who had been a friend of Clover's as well as Henry's. As a widower, Adams was smitten by "Lizzie," but her interest in him was not romantic. That became painfully clear to Adams after he cut short an extended South Seas voyage (1890-91) with artist John La Farge to "race" via steamship to Paris, where Cameron had led him to believe she awaited him. Alas, she gave no satisfaction to her would-be lover when he at last presented himself. Protesting that he "was not old enough to be a tame cat" (he was then 53), Adams expressed his love, and his hurt, in a long letter to Cameron as she sailed back to America. "I, who would lie down and die rather than give you a day's pain, am going to pain you the more, the more I love," he wrote.

With the years, Adams and Cameron deepened their platonic relationship and faithfully corresponded. Adams attended to her apartment in Paris while she traveled, and he kept up a doting friendship with her daughter, Martha. He let his guard down with Lizzie as with nobody else, as in a 1907 letter in which he wrote: "Behold me! I am busted and boiled and buttered. I am a biled owl. I am a cold buckwheat. I am a bummer-duffer idjut."

Adams planned to sail from New York to Europe on the first eastbound crossing of the Titanic on April 20, 1912. After the liner sank on the night of April 14-15, Adams wrote to Lizzie in Paris that he had "said it all, seven years ago, in my Education." And he had: "Every day nature violently revolted, causing so-called accidents with enormous destruction of property and life, while plainly laughing at man, who groaned and shrieked and shuddered."

Three days after writing that letter to Lizzie, the 74-year-old Adams suffered a stroke. His family, disapproving of his bond to the still-married Cameron, tried to block her from visiting him as he convalesced. She came anyway. In 1913, Adams resumed his annual shuttle between Washington and Paris. He developed a new enthusiasm for medieval music. When the art historian Bernard Berenson sent him a magazine containing "Old Music," Adams wrote back: "Nearly at my last gasp, I got your songs yesterday morning, and before noon we had sung them over and over....I keep alive only in the 12th century, by cutting all connection with life since 1300."

During one summer in Paris, Adams had invited Lizzie, Berenson and the novelist Edith Wharton—the latter two of whom held each other in "low regard," according to Patricia O'Toole's The Five of Hearts, a portrait of Adams and his circle—to a dimly lit private room in a Paris restaurant. Wharton wore a black lace veil that hid her face. Berenson "was captivated by her artistic prejudices, which matched his own," writes O'Toole. Only when the lights came fully on did he recognize Wharton. Thus started a close friendship that lasted until Wharton's death, in 1937.


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