MHS for the Media

New Henry Adams’ Letters Uncovered: Offer Rare Personal View of Wife’s Tragic Suicide

Henry Adams LetterBOSTON, November 2010—An astonishing discovery of 13 hand written letters was made while settling the estate of a descendant of Anne Palmer Fell. Written by Henry Adams—historian, novelist, intellectual, and grandson of President John Quincy Adams—these letters offer a rare personal view of his wife’s tragic suicide. The letters have been donated to the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) by the Marian Vans Agnew Smith Living Trust.

In the published correspondence of Henry Adams there are 21 letters from Henry Adams to Anne Palmer Fell.  However, these 13 letters appear to be unknown, making their discovery all the more significant. And what makes the letters so remarkable is the personal nature of the correspondence. Natalie Dykstra, Associate Professor of English at Hope College and author of a forthcoming biography of Clover Adams to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, characterizes the letters as “an extraordinary literary find. This collection expands and enriches our understanding of the crucial time period following Clover’s suicide,” Professor Dykstra states.  The letter Adams wrote just a month after his wife’s death, in particular, “reveals his broken heart.  It’s a potent mix of doubt, self-reproach, determination, and a cry for a great love lost. This letter unveils, and in a new way, how Henry Adams would survive the death of his wife.”    

Henry Brooks Adams, grandson of President John Quincy Adams, and Marian “Clover” Hooper Adams were married on June 27, 1872. Falling into a bout of depression after the death of her father, Clover committed suicide in December 1885. The recently discovered letters disprove the generally accepted claim that after her death, Henry never mentioned her name again. In a letter dated January 1886—just a month after Clover’s death—Henry not only mentions Clover by name but provides insight into how he was dealing with her loss, “Even now I cannot quite 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… The only advice I have for you is to get all the fun you can out of life.  The only moments of the past that I regret are those when I was not actively happy.  As one cannot be always actively blissful, one must be contented with passive content, but it is a poor substitute at best, and makes no impression on the memory.  My only wonder is whether I could have managed to get more out of twelve years than we got, and if we really succeeded in being as happy as was possible.”