booknotes: clover adams

It was nearly a decade ago that I first started hearing from a former professor (turned good friend) of mine about her latest research project: the study of a set of photograph albums at an archives in Boston, albums created by a 19th century female photographer named Marian "Clover" Hooper Adams. At the time, the friend -- Natalie Dykstra -- was in the process of applying for an NEH fellowship to spend her sabbatical at the archives -- the Massachusetts Historical Society -- to work with the albums and develop a book-length project that would consider the photography of Clover Adams as autobiographical texts. Texts that might, in some way, help us to understand how Clover understood her own life, her work, her marriage to historian Henry Adams, and the factors that led to her decision to end her own life at age forty-two by drinking chemicals used in the development of her photographs.

Since then, I've had the privilege of drifting on the periphery of Natalie's research and writing of the manuscript which became Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life (Houghton Mifflin, 2012). It is, in part, because of her connection with the Massachusetts Historical Society that I considered relocating to Boston, that I applied to work at the MHS, and her friendship has been a sweet thread of connection between my previous life at Hope College/in Holland and my world here in Boston. Over the past four years I've worked with Natalie in my reference librarian hat to track down details related to Clover's childhood and coordinated the provision of photographs by and of Clover will appear, in all their visual splendor, in the pages of her biography.

This is all by way of saying that I approach this review with a far-from objective sense of propriety when it comes to the work of a friend, and the opportunity to see the life of an overlooked female photographer -- whose work is preserved at "my" library -- brought into the open and shared with the world in such an eloquent way.

So, you know, take my praise for what it's worth and form your own opinions of Natalie's work at your leisure. But having read the advance review copy over the Christmas holidays, I do want to share a few notes on what about Natalie's work -- and Clover's life story -- particularly moved and impressed me. Because I do, in my professional historian hat, think Natalie's done something remarkable here.

Clover Adams' story presents a number of dilemmas for the modern biographer. In the socioeconomic sense, she was a daughter of privilege, born to a Boston family with economic resources and social and political connections. Her mother was a poet who moved in Transcendentalist circles with the likes of Margaret Fuller and the Peabody sisters. Her father's family, the Hoopers, had made their money in business  during the previous century, and Robert Hooper (Clover's father), with whom Clover remained close, received his medical training at Harvard and in Paris. In marrying Henry Adams, Clover became part of one of the most high-profile American families of the period; she and her husband maintained multiple residences, traveled abroad, and moved through the upper echelons of American and European society.

Yet at the same time, there were limits to what privilege could bring to Clover's life in terms of health and well-being. Her mother died of tuberculosis when Clover was a young child, and the aunt who cared most directly for Clover thereafter eventually committed suicide. Mental health struggles seem to have haunted the Hooper family, and if read in a certain light Clover Adams appears to be one long narrative of health struggles for which contemporary late-nineteenth-century medical, religious, and philosophical frameworks had no useful remedy.

In addition, Clover contended with the fact that she was a girlchild, and later a woman, in a world that offered a limited number of options for women to craft satisfying lives for themselves. The majority of women were, of course, caught up in surviving class and race inequality. However, even those who, like Clover, didn't face immediate material dilemmas, were nonetheless constrained by social expectation to pursue a limited number of professional and relational pathways. While Clover seems to have settled into her marriage with Henry Adams quite happily and voluntarily, her married life was colored by the couples' inability to communicate some of their deepest needs to one another. That the two never had children also appears to have haunted Clover on some level, though I appreciated that Natalie takes note of this factor without dwelling on it extensively.

Clover's photography, taken up in the final years of her life, remained an amateur endeavor in part because of the status of photography in the art world and in part because of the fact that Clover was a woman. Both she and Henry expressed ambivalence over her creative work and its place in their lives, and eschewed opportunities which might have brought her more attention for her work.

All of these aspects of Clover's life -- her mental health, her marriage, her work, and her place in society -- are interesting to a modern audience in part because Clover's struggles feel like very relevant in our current society, roughly a century and a quarter after Clover's death. How we understand -- and cope with -- mental illness is still a live question.The benefits and limits of marriage as an institution -- and as a primary relationship -- are under intense discussion. The role of work and creative expression -- particularly in the lives of married and mothering women -- is still a subject of public debate. It would be all too easy to map our current understanding of all three of these subjects backward onto Clover's life (what is known in the historical profession as "presentism"). We're shown the pain of Clover's depression without any sort of narrative pressure to diagnose cause or condition: her mental landscape is described most often in Clover's own words. Natalie doesn't back away from the loneliness and disconnection that, in the end, resided at the heart of the Adams marriage. Yet she manages to show Henry Adams at his most vicious (I felt real flares of anger at him while reading) without laying the blame of Clover's suicide at the feet of her husband.

At the same time, while skillfully avoiding the trap of presentism, Natalie also refuses to absent herself -- as a biographical narrator -- from the storytelling endeavor. Having spent literally a decade with Clover's story she has much to offer us in terms of synthesis and analysis. I didn't finish the book wishing that Natalie had shown less partiality for (and more critical analysis of) her subject. She really manages to do the balancing act of letting us see Clover's life as it was lived and understood in broader historical context, not just through Clover's own meaning-making mechanisms.

Speaking as someone who is intensely interested in the history of feminism, gender and sexuality, I find Clover's story compelling on a number of levels. Natalie explicitly avoids the language of gender theory in her storytelling. Which is not to say she ignores the way in which Clover's lived experience was shaped by her womanhood -- far from it. But Natalie has the grace to let Clover's life be -- as much as possible -- her own. And Clover herself doesn't seem to have understood her life through the lens of gender. Other women of her era did (though they would have used the word "sex" rather than "gender"). The years between Clover's birth and death were active ones for women's rights agitation, and Boston saw its fair share of feminist activism. While feminist analysis would likely not have saved Clover from the depths of despair, I found myself wondering if Clover's ability to anchor herself -- in her marriage, in her art, in her social connections -- could have been aided at all by the friendship of women (or men) who outspokenly advocated for her right to be (and be seen) as an artistic individual, out beyond the confines of the domestic sphere. I found myself wondering how Clover and Henry's expectations of the roles played by husband and wife contributed to the silences in their marriage, and whether more radical friends might have encouraged them to re-consider their assumptions and move past what seem to have been baffling obstacles to marital connection and contentment. This is something that Natalie hints at, but for the most part leaves for the reader to piece together as they will.

courtesy of the MHS
Last week, when I arrived at work, I found that the sign advertising upcoming events had been switched out to showcase the opening of our next exhibition -- guest curated by Natalie -- which features Clover's own photographs. The image chosen (see right) is a striking photograph taken at Smith Point (Mass.) is a group portrait of Miriam Pratt, Alice Howe, and Alice Pratt, discussed in chapter fourteen of Clover Adams ("At Sea"). It is not, Natalie writes, "a straightforward portrait intended simply to capture the likeness of three specific women. Instead, Clover carefully stage-managed the composition, creating a mood not of friendship and connection but of lost possibility ... the women are connected neither to one another nor to the sea, which might otherwise open up their visual world" (150). Despite Clover's own ambivalence about the public exhibition of her work during her lifetime, I am proud of Natalie for bringing her photography out of the archive and into the public eye. For helping us to understand Clover's creative work not only as the art it surely is, but also as a visual voice communicating a particular woman's understanding of her world in a form that will long outlive its creator.

Clover Adams will go on sale on February 8th. You can pre-order it now through a variety of venues, or put it on hold at your local library.

Natalie, I'm so, so proud of you!

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