Although the marriage and death of the 19th-century Bostonian Marian “Clover” Adams were well documented, it was the story that hadn’t been told that most fascinated Dr. Natalie Dykstra of the Hope College English faculty.
In telling it in her newly published biography “Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Dykstra had a crucial ally: Clover Adams herself, whose letters and artistic eye, as expressed in her portrait and landscape photography, provide a new and compelling view of her life.
The result, according to “Library Journal,” “reads as well as any page-turning novel,” while Booklist has said, “Dykstra’s contextually rich and psychologically discerning portrait of an underappreciated luminary is enlightening and affecting.”
Clover Adams was born to a prominent Boston family in 1843 and at 28 married Henry Adams, a respected historian and writer who was descended from two U.S. presidents. The couple’s Washington, D.C., home hosted the city’s intellectual and political elite. By the standards of the day, Clover Adams seemed to have everything, and yet in 1885, at age 42, she succumbed to depression and took her own life by drinking a poisonous chemical she used to develop her photographs.
Dykstra was interested in better understanding the fascinating woman who had been overshadowed by her marriage and the circumstances of her death. For a decade, she has dedicated herself to reviewing a rich mix of primary sources, including previously unknown family letters and a unique visual record: the 113 photographs that Clover had taken and developed herself in the last two years of her life, images that were technically and artistically remarkable, skillfully composed and accompanied by meticulous notes. The materials provided insight not only into Clover’s life, but into her sharp mind and sensitive spirit.
“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,” said Dykstra, an associate professor of English who has taught at Hope since 2000. “This seemed so unfair. I tried to stay close to her words and her photographs and to understand these sources as fully as possible to see her life from her point of view.”
Where Dykstra had seen Clover sometimes characterized as physically fragile or weak, Clover’s letters and photographs—several of the latter are in the book--told a different story.
“She was far from that. She was an athlete. She was fearless on horseback. She was engaged by her world,” Dykstra said. “She was this very vibrant person, with a sharp wit, who in her last years sank into a depression that engulfed her.”
One of Clover’s photographs, for example, shows three dogs posed at tea, an image, Dykstra said, created as “a send-up of a social convention she occasionally found tedious.” Another shows graves at Arlington National Cemetery, accompanied by, in Latin, the sentence “You sleep in our memory,” and a quote in German from Goethe’s “Faust.”
Dykstra’s interest in Clover Adams began at the end of her doctoral studies at the University of Kansas, where her dissertation focused on self-representation in women’s autobiographical writing in the 19th and 20th century. After completing her Ph.D., she conducted research through a Ruth R. Miller Fellowship in Women’s History from the Massachusetts Historical Society, which houses Clover’s photographs and letters in their large collection of Adams family papers.
Since 2001, she has spent most every summer and a series of sabbatical leaves working on the project at the Society, where she is now a Fellow. In 2005, she received a Fellowship for College Teachers and Independent Scholars from the National Endowment for the Humanities to support her research.
Although the book is complete, Dykstra is spending the current semester at the Society, where she has been putting together a gallery show of Clover’s photographs. Dykstra selected almost 40 images and has written the accompanying wall text and labels for exhibition that the society is featuring from Thursday, Feb. 9, through Saturday, June 2.
At last, she noted, Clover Adams will be in the spotlight for what she accomplished.
“I think what I’m most happy about is that almost 130 years after she first picked up her camera, Clover is going to get her first photography show,” Dykstra said.
Copies of “Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life” are available for $26 at the college’s Hope-Geneva Bookstore as well as at other area booksellers. More about Clover Adams, including examples of her photography, is available at the Massachusetts Historical Society’s website, www.masshist.org .