Kitty Kelley Book Club: ‘Henry Adams in Washington’


By Kitty Kelley

If an academic book is one that can be taught in college, then “Henry Adams in Washington: Linking the Personal and Public Lives of America’s Man of Letters” succeeds. In fact, this book, by Ormond Seavey, an English professor at George Washington University, reads like a semester-long course on why Adams ought to be elevated to the pantheon of 19th-century writers, alongside Twain, James, Wharton, Hawthorne, Whitman, Dickinson, Emerson and Thoreau.

Seavey maintains that Adams (1838-1918) has been deprived of his rightful place in the literary stratosphere. He states that the writer’s nine-volume “History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison” belongs “alongside the greatest works of American creative writers” and is “the greatest work of history composed by an American.” The professor concedes some literary critics might disagree with him, but he presents his case with pedagogical fervor and a few too many convoluted sentences, like this one:

“[Adams’s] Washington turns out to be an essentially imaginative construct whose dimensions and appearances correspond to what others experience except that he has converted those details into a complex notion somehow independent of the seemingly solid realities experienced, for example, by James Madison, John Randolph, Ulysses S. Grant, Henry Cabot Lodge, or Theodore Roosevelt.”

Seavey scores high on presenting Adams as a man of letters, but falls short on illuminating the personal side of the man. Publicly, Adams was known as a Boston Brahmin with a prestigious lineage: President John Adams was his great-grandfather and President John Quincy Adams his grandfather.

Adams made his own mark as a noted historian and novelist, yet, even 100 years after his death, the personal man remains elusive. For reasons Seavey doesn’t explain or explore, Adams resisted transparency. Other than his multivolume history, he refused to publish under his own name and sometimes went to great lengths to camouflage his authorship. Why remains unknown.

When Adams worked for his father, Charles Francis Adams Sr., in the House of Representatives, he wrote anonymously as the Washington correspondent for Charles Hale’s Boston Daily Advertiser. Later, when his father became Abraham Lincoln’s minister to the Court of St. James’s, Adams worked as his father’s private secretary and wrote anonymously as the London correspondent for the New York Times.

Was he anonymous to avoid being accused of conflicts of interest, since he was working both in politics and as a journalist? Seavey doesn’t say; he simply describes Adams as “that master of conspiracies and disguises.”

After Adams married and moved to Washington, D.C., he wrote two novels, each one blanketed in secrecy: the anonymously published “Democracy,” described by Seavey as “a novel disguised as autobiography,” and “Esther,” published under the female pseudonym Frances Snow Compton.

Why the camouflage? Seavey suggests that Adams hid behind a skirt because he was unwilling to have his neighbors know he was the one exposing the city’s deficiencies. If his novels, based on real people, were published under his name, he may have jeopardized his social status in the capital, where he and his wife, Clover; John Hay and his wife, Clara; and pioneering geologist and entrepreneur Clarence King formed an elite little club they called “The Five of Hearts,” the title of Patricia O’Toole’s spectacular 1990 biography, subtitled: “An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends, 1880-1918.”

That loving quintet splintered on Dec. 6, 1885, when Clover Adams, 42, committed suicide by swallowing potassium cyanide. The evening newspaper reported she had dropped dead from paralysis of the heart, which may have been strangely accurate: the writings of others indicate she knew her husband had fallen in love with another woman, Elizabeth Sherman Cameron.

That Christmas, days after his wife’s death, Adams sent Cameron a piece of Clover’s favorite jewelry, requesting that she “sometimes wear it, to remind you of her.” Having written passionate letters to Cameron since 1883, he continued for the next 35 years of his life, although, according to Eugenia Kaledin’s “The Education of Mrs. Henry Adams,” their relationship was never consummated.

Seavey ignores these personal details, available in the biography of Adams written by Ernest Samuels, who received the Parkman, Bancroft and Pulitzer Prizes for his three-volume study, completed in 1964. Yet Samuels is not listed in Seavey’s bibliography and is only cited once in passing, a strange omission in a book purporting to link “the personal and public lives of America’s man of letters.”

The most intriguing monument to the mystery of Adams is the bronze sculpture, frequently called “Grief,” he commissioned from Augustus Saint-Gaudens in memory of his wife. “Visitors to Rock Creek Cemetery can see it for themselves. And that is all I am going to say about that,” Seavey writes.

The professor ends his book a few pages later, having shown in full the public life of Henry Adams, but leaving his personal side in shadows, still detached and disparate.

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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