Book Review: Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life


Reviewed by Erica Wetter

Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life

By Natalie Dykstra

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

You’ve probably never heard of Clover Adams, but as English Professor Natalie Dykstra illuminates in this detailed biography of the 19th-century Washington socialite, she rubbed elbows with many of the nation’s elite. “A perfect Voltaire in petticoats,” friend Henry James commented. “Certainly not handsome” her husband-to-be bluntly lamented to a friend. At 28, Clover’s marital prospects were dim until she unexpectedly snagged writer and political royalty Henry Adams as husband. The next 12 years were a whirlwind of social activities and photography—an art many women of the day took up and which Clover embraced wholeheartedly, snapping portraits of her famous friends. And then in December 1885, Clover, mourning her father’s death, succumbed to hereditary depression and committed suicide by drinking photo development chemicals. “The means of her art had become the means of her death,” Dykstra melodramatically pronounces. Adams, apparently grief-stricken, held on to the bottle of poison, and avoided speaking of Clover—even leaving her out of his autobiography—and so Clover’s life has been little examined until now. Dykstra approaches the task like a true academic. She reads much into details, like the way Clover twice placed a photo of Henry next to a photo of a tree in her photo album. Mostly a tedious recital of people, places, and photographs taken, Dykstra’s biography sparkles most when given over to Clover’s own voice.

Tagged in: Natalie Dykstra, books, book review   

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