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Natalie Dykstra: LibraryThing Author Interview

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Natalie Dykstra is an associate professor of English at Hope College in Holland, MI. She has received a National Endowment of the Humanities fellowship for the research which resulted in her first book, Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life, published this month by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Do you recall what first interested you about the life of Clover Adams?

I vividly remember the moment I got interested. I was still in graduate school, working on my dissertation about how nineteenth-century women represented themselves in letters and diaries, when I read a five-page scene in Blanche Wiesen Cook's brilliant first volume of her biography of Eleanor Roosevelt. Cook describes how Mrs. Roosevelt would go every week to Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C., to sit in front of the seated bronze statue by Augustus Saint-Gaudens that marked Clover's grave. She found comfort there in the months after her discovery of her husband's affair with Lucy Mercer. But why? I became fascinated by the woman who fascinated Mrs. Roosevelt.

You write in the prologue "Clover's life has remained half-illumined, a reflection of how others viewed her but not how she saw herself." But, you argue, her photographs "invite the viewer to stand not on this side of her suicide, but on the other, the one she lived on." For those who might have not have yet had the chance to see Clover's photographs, what is it about them that's so compelling? Do you have any particular favorites?

Clover's photographs, when I first saw them, struck me as interesting and extraordinarily beautiful. Packed with a lived life. There are photographs of friends, of the seashore, of her dogs perched at chairs around a table as if "at tea." There are carefully composed photographs of her women friends that have great clarity and style and portraits of children that confer an enormous dignity. She got down on the same level as the children to take their photographs, so the viewer sees them eye to eye. And she was meticulous about the sequence in which she put her photographs in the albums, one image per page. I suppose some of my favorites include her gothic-like picture of her summer home, Pitch Pine Hill, on Boston's North Shore; her portrait of Elizabeth Bliss Bancroft, wife the historian George Bancroft; and her portrait of three women standing on rocks at the seashore, with two of the women turned away from her camera.

NB: See one of Clover's photograph albums here.

How did Clover first become interested in photography, and how did the art come to shape and even define the last years of her life?

I think it's pretty clear from her letters that a trip to New York City in the spring of 1883 was the impetus for Clover to start photography. During a week-long visit with her good friend, Anne Palmer; she went to numerous gallery shows and museums and visited the studios of Augustus Saint-Gaudens and the painter F.D. Millet. Anne was herself a photographer, something I know because Clover later requests to see Anne’s photographs. When Clover returned home to Washington, D.C., she was filled with, as she said, "new ideas." Less than three weeks later, she began to photograph in earnest, writing down her experiments in a small lined notebook and talking about her photography with her father in her weekly letters.

Clover found with photography a way to express herself – her sense of style, her sense of what was beautiful and worthy of a picture. For all its technical demands, photography allowed Clover to deepen her passion for art. For her compositions and choice of subjects, she drew from the rich visual world of fine art painting she knew so well. Something surfaced in Clover's photographs not readily apparent in her often witty, fast-paced letters: a richness and subtlety of feeling.

The complicated nature of Clover's marriage to Henry Adams is, of course, a key part of her story. Did you find it difficult to write this part of Clover's biography from her perspective, given that so much has been written about Henry's side of the story? How did their relationship, which seems to start out as something of a fairy tale, turn so complicated?

A marriage is always challenging to write about because of its mystery to those outside of it—there are only two people who can know for sure how it works or doesn't work, and even they might not know. There has been a long-standing debate about the Adamses' marriage that can be summarized briefly as this: Clover was a troubled woman who stood in Henry's way or Henry was an uncaring husband who stood in Clover's way. But this seemed reductive, especially given how very much in love they were. One of the chief difficulties in tracing out a more nuanced story is the fact that Clover and Henry were rarely separated. There's only one series of letters written by Henry to Clover in the spring of 1885, when she's in Cambridge tending to her dying father. But there are clues. Clover's cheery letters to her father in the first years of their marriage and later from London and Paris and Spain in the 1879 and 1880 are very different from the more somber letters she's writing in 1883. She grumbles more—about the weather, about how she's feeling, about Washington’s "society rabble," as she called it. She doesn't complain about Henry directly, but she mentions him less than in her earlier letters. What had been thrilling early on—proximity to power and conversations at dinner with friends that would last till all hours—became a bit more ho-hum. And the way she photographs Henry, and how she places his images in her albums, is also very revealing of a drift, a growing isolation between them.

Finally, Clover never speaks directly of the fact she and Henry had no children, nor does she ever openly protest Henry flirtations with younger women, particularly Elizabeth Cameron. But these facts of her marriage must have been wearing for a woman who very much wanted to please her husband.

Many people may know of Clover Adams through the famous Saint-Gaudens statue at her gravesite. Can you explain the story of how the statue came to be there, and why you think it has resonated with so many visitors over the years?

Let me first say a few words about her death. The heartbreak of Clover's story is that just when she had discovered with photography a powerful way to express herself, her life began to unravel. Her father, to whom she was very close, died of heart failure in April 1885. She'd always wrestled with gloomy moods, but these now turned into something darker, more dangerous. On December 6, 1885, at the age of forty-two, she committed suicide by drinking from a vial of potassium cyanide, a chemical she used to develop her photographs. As is so often the case with suicide, the most dramatic moment of her life became what defined her.

Henry rarely spoke of Clover after her suicide and didn't mention her in his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams. He's gotten a rap for that over the years. But what he did do is something that suited them both so well—he commissioned the most accomplished sculptor in America to create a work of art. I find this very moving. Henry honored Clover's memory with what she most loved—great art. And I think Henry's refusal to explain what the statue means is part of its lasting power. You bring to it what you carry in your own heart.

Tell us a bit about your research process: how long have you been working on the book? Where did your research take you?

Research took me to New York, Washington, D.C., and Boston, where I now live. I first saw Clover's photographs in person in early 1999, but I was finishing a dissertation and finding a job, so I didn’t get to focus on the project until 2002. I received a summer grant from the Massachusetts Historical Society, where Clover's photographs and papers are archived, and then a fellowship from the NEH for 2005-6, which gave me a year to transcribe all of Clover's letters as well as many letters by family and friends. The book took me six years to write. The story required exactly the right tone, pace, and angle of interpretation, which took awhile to figure out. And I wanted the book to be principally a biography, which used photographs in a compelling way as evidence, not a history of photography.

Did you discover anything that particularly surprised you as you were researching and writing?

Research is full of surprises. You hope you're surprised. I don't like to come with too many pre-conceived ideas about what something means or what I might find so I can be surprised by the nitty-gritty research. I was surprised that Clover and Henry were as happy as they were in their early years. I was surprised by Clover’s verve, by her sense of adventure and athleticism, by how fully alive she was. I was surprised by the love between Clover's parents, Ellen and Robert Hooper. I was surprised by how Clover's photographs were, as compared with images in other women's albums of the time, so distinctive, so personal.

What sorts of books would we find on your own bookshelves?

I love reading biography, of course. And I have favorites I return to again and again: Alice James, by Jean Strouse; The Peabody Sisters, by Megan Marshall; Isak Dinesen, by Judith Thurman; Virginia Woolf, by Hermione Lee. You can sink into these books, sink into another world and feel enlarged by another's life. These authors are masters of a narrative line that propels the reader forward – no easy feat. I'm also a big fan of Oliver Sacks – no book has inspired me more than his Awakenings. Melville breaks my heart and Virginia Woolf often mends it.

What have you read recently that you enjoyed?

I really enjoyed Darin Strauss' memoir, Half a Life. I just finished Robert Richardson's First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process, a gem of a book about reading and writing. No one writes a clearer sentence than Richardson. I'm looking forward to David Reynolds' recent Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America.

Do you have a sense yet of what your next project will be?

Biographies are long slogs. It takes a long time to know your subject and then know family and friends, acquaintances and neighborhoods—a whole inhabited world. It's like you have to inhale it for awhile. I'm still in Clover’s world at the moment, but I'm knocking around a few ideas. And I'd love the challenge of writing a man's story.

—interview by Jeremy Dibbell (who, it seems fair to note, in his previous job at the Massachusetts Historical Society, delivered many a box to Natalie's table in the reading room!)

Books by Natalie Dykstra

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