Letters Shed New Light on Henry Adams

By Natalie Dykstra

[Note: the following is a guest contribution from Natalie Dykstra, former MHS research fellow, Associate Professor of English at Hope College and the author of a forthcoming biography of Marian Hooper “Clover” Adams. The new collection she refers to below has been cataloged as the Henry Adams letters to Annie (Palmer) Fell (catalog record), and copies are available for consultation here at the library anytime during our regular hours. You can read more about the letters in Lane Lambert’s 19 November article on the collection in the Quincy Patriot-Ledger. Many thanks to Natalie for this contribution to The Beehive. – JBD]

At a White House luncheon celebrating the publication of the first four volumes of the Adams Family Papers, President John F. Kennedy commented on the “extraordinary and important qualities” given to the country by the two Adams Presidents, namely “courage-the courage of those who look to other days and other times.” Then he added: “The Adams family intimidates us all.”

It’s true. They are intimidating. As the author of a forthcoming biography of Clover Adams, wife of Henry Adams, to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2012, I marvel at this family: brilliant, hard-working, accomplished, so often heartbroken by life. As historian and writer, Henry Adams – like his grandfather, John Quincy Adams, and his great grandfather, John Adams – intimidates with his erudition, the sheer amount and scale of what he knew. And like his forbearers, his temperament can also push you back on your heels. John Quincy described himself this way: “reserved, cold” with “forbidding manners,” and his political adversaries called him “a gloomy misanthrope.” Henry may not have had his grandfather’s tundra-like austerity, but his far-seeing Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, was written in the third person, holding the reader at a safe remove from his inner life. His close friend, John Hay, playfully called him “Porcupinus Angelicus.”

All of which makes the recent acquisition by the MHS of 13 newly discovered letters written by Henry Adams to Anne Palmer Fell between 1885 and 1890 such an extraordinary literary find. Of the thirteen letters, ten were written after Clover’s death in 1885 and one letter only five weeks following. We get to see up close something of what Henry hid from view, confirming what John Hay knew about his friend – that his spiky Adams fa├žade was a cover that protected a great store of feeling.

Henry Adams was a prodigious letter writer-his correspondence runs to six thick published volumes. He knew so damn much. But he didn’t parade. He’d make reference to Shakespeare or Hegel or Lewis Carroll to make his point more pointed or a quick aside quicker-all part of the badinage for which he was known. (Come to the MHS to see one of his letters in manuscript form for yourself! His handwriting is meticulous, clear and upright on every single page, with each letter of the alphabet looking as if it were in typescript.) And like his autobiography, his published correspondence doesn’t reveal much about his personal feelings. In the Education, Henry omits any mention of his wife; so too in his published letters, he hardly writes at all about Clover after her suicide in December 1885.

But in these newly acquired letters to Anne Palmer Fell, Henry unburdens himself in the months following Clover’s death. Perhaps he felt he could, knowing how close Anne and Clover had been since they first met in Washington in 1877. The two women had been remarkably compatible, sharing a quick wit and a passion for art. Out of a total of twenty-one letters to Anne in Henry’s published correspondence, there are only two letters, neither very revealing, written to her between 1885 and 1890. This new collection fills that gap. One can detect in a letter dated March 2, 1885 a distinct foreboding. Henry felt sick with worry about how Clover might react to losing her father, who was close to death. “The winter has worn us out,” Henry told Anne. A year and a half later, on the eve of the first anniversary of Clover’s suicide and two days after he buried his father, Charles Francis Adams, Henry reached out to Anne in grief, writing that “during the last eighteen months I have not had the good luck to attend my own funeral, but with that exception I have buried pretty nearly everything I lived for.” He was grateful, too, for Anne’s news that she’d given her new baby daughter Clover’s birth name, Marian. He assured her he could “manage to keep steady now, within as well as without,” but admitted that her letter “gave me a wrench. I am more than grateful to you for your loyalty to Clover, and I shall love the fresh Marian dearly.” This is the only record we have of Henry’s stunned reaction to Anne’s announcement that she’d named her daughter after Clover. He’d be devoted to Anne’s Marian the rest of his life.

For me, as Clover’s biographer, the astonishing letter of the collection is the one Henry wrote less than five weeks after Clover’s suicide. His silence about her after she died has been interpreted so often as unfeeling or an indictment of their marriage or evidence of his emotional bankruptcy. But the story is far more complicated than that and this letter reveals some of that complexity.

There’s nothing quite like this letter in Henry’s published correspondence, a crucial piece of evidence in the vast manuscript collections at the MHS from which I’ve fashioned my forthcoming biography of Clover. Nowhere else does Henry talk about his inability to “get rid of the feeling that Clover must, sooner or later, come back, and that I had better wait for her to decide everything for me.” He changes the subject several times-from a Florida land deal to rattlesnakes and lemons-as if he can’t quite get his thoughts together. But then he turns back to what he’s wrestling with, dropping the ironic pose that would so distinguish his approach to life and the tone of much of his writing. Shock and grief had cracked Henry Adams wide open. Now what? He admonishes Anne to “get all the fun you can out of life.” He worries whether he and Clover were as happy as they could have been. He reveals a mix of doubt, guilt, self-recrimination, sadness, and a love lost. But his lines also reveal how his powerful intellect put borders around his loss, borders he could live within. Henry Adams decided to hold onto whatever happiness he and Clover did have, writing to Anne in a sentence of great balance and with an Adams courage: “The world may come and the world may go but no power yet known in earth or heaven can annihilate the happiness that is past.”

Henry would keep quiet about Clover’s death, believing that silence is wisdom. But to Clover’s friend, Anne, he spoke fully and from the heart.