Clover Adams: portrait of an artist

Soon Henry was immersed not only in the Life of Gallatin but in a much larger scheme to record the early history of the United States, embracing both the Jefferson and Madison presidencies, a project that would take five years to complete and would result in the nine volume History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, a work that would offer unprecedented insight into the formative years of the American experiment as a Democracy and revolutionize the way history is approached and presented.

Ordinarily Henry would write through the day then He and Clover would ride horses in the afternoon. It seems incredible now but, though they lived within site of the White House—they lived on H St. facing Lafayette Square—they were able to ride horses all around Washington and even down into Virginia. In the evenings they entertained. ”A wide array of writers and artists, politicians and dignitaries, doctors and academics made their way to the Adamses’ salon for food and talk.” Presidents made their appearances along with statesmen and visiting dignitaries (Jerome Bonaparte, great nephew of Napoleon I and Aristarchi Bey, the Turkish minister), Cabinet members (Carl Schurz, Secretary of the Interior and John Hay, former secretary to Lincoln and future Secretary of State under Theodore Roosevelt), ex-Civil War leaders from both sides of the conflict (including General William Tecumseh Sherman, General Philip Sheridan, and James Lowndes, former Confederate Colonel), and, when he was in the country, Clover’s good friend Henry James.

In spite of these diversions, Clover found herself at a loss for what to do. She often assisted Henry in his research especially during a trip to Europe where the couple, taking advantage of their fluency in languages, visited archives in England, France, and Spain (they also both spoke German). But Henry’s increased absorption in his History and the two novels he wrote during this period meant that Daisy was back in the “shadow between eagerness and uneasy boredom.” One escape for her was through photography.

Photography in the United States…was by no means new at the time of the Civil War; the basic process was announced to the world in 1839. An entire generation of Americans had grown to adulthood without the vaguest recollection of a time when the photograph was not a household item.

Photography was more than a hobby for Clover; it became an outlet for her creativity. Photography elevated her from being a mere spectator of the vibrant intellectual and artistic worlds in first Boston and then Washington, into an active participant. . Henry Adams had noted her “intellectual grace.” “She was a superb writer, but her marriage had room for only one author.”

Photography was a wholly different activity, more active and more social. And it drew on Clover’s natural abilities: her keen eye, her acute powers of observation, and her attuned sense of an individual’s personality. Also, something surfaced in her photography that was not readily apparent in her witty, sometimes barbed letters…: a richness and subtlety of feeling.

Most of Clover’s photographs are portraits. She photographed neighbors, friends, family members, even her pets. There are some landscape portraits, too.

Clover’s technical skill increased and at the same time her confidence grew. One photograph taken of the Adamses’ neighbor, the eminent historian George Bancroft was much admired by John Hay, a close friend. Hay recommended the photo to George Gilder, editor of the Century magazine, “urging him to get a copy of it to put on the cover of the magazine.”

Mrs. Adams has made a remarkable photograph of George Bancroft in his study. He is now eighty-three, and one of these days will be gone.

Gilder agreed and sent a letter to Henry Adams asking if he would contribute an essay to accompany the photo. Henry refused and Clover missed an opportunity to have her work put forth before a much wider audience. Henry’s reason for refusing this simple request is uncertain. What is certain is that in refusing he was also sending a message to his wife that her work was not to be taken seriously. Beneath this was a combination of Henry’s strict aversion to publicity and his conventionality. He also had a curious ambivalence to women’s rights which expressed itself in a quasi-Teutonic mythology. His only public lecture presented in 1876 at Boston’s Lowell Institute was on “The Primitive Rights of Women.” These rights were based not so much on equality with men, but “by virtue of their fecundity and motherhood.”

Equality was based not on what was shared but on profound differences, and could be achieved only by affirming a woman’s essential nature and her role within a separate domestic sphere.

Henry and Clover Adams: A Fresh Start

Henry Adams Harvard Graduation Picture

Clover met Henry Adams while he was assisting his father in his duties as an ambassador to England. They were married in 1872, “joining Hooper wealth to Adams political renown. In the close quarters of Boston Brahmin society, where they had both grown up, they were a likely—if not inevitable—match.” Boston in the mid-19th Century was a thriving, forward-looking American city. “The city turned with the energies of abolitionist politics, Unitarian reform, and Transcendentalist individualism. There had been a “flowering”… of creative genius.

Figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Russell Lowell, Branson Alcott, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow won enduring fame to be sure, but numerous other Boston writers and reformers, preachers and scientists, including Elizabeth Palmer, Lydia Maria Child, Theodore Parker, James Freeman Clarke, Dorothea Dix, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Asa Gray, and Lois Aggasiz, were widely influential in their day.

The Sturgis sisters were part of this same intellectual milieu, and were close friends with Margaret Fuller, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Elizabeth Cary Aggasiz. When the Adamses returned from a yearlong honeymoon in Europe and Egypt, Henry took up a professorship at Harvard teaching history and instituting the first doctoral program in history at Harvard. After a few years he was asked to edit he papers of Albert Gallatin, the Secretary of the Treasury under Thomas Jefferson and founder of New York University. While in his classes Henry was a severe critic of the politics of his great-grandfather John Adams and of his grandfather John Quincy Adams, he was a great admirer of Gallatin and the presidents he served, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, so Henry was eager to not only edit Gallatin’s papers but determined to write a biography at the same time. Henry and Clover made the decision to move to Washington, D.C. to take advantage of the proximity to the National Archives and for a break from the past.

“What drew Clover and Henry to Washington was its growing cosmopolitanism, a combination of politics and culture unlike any other city in the country. Henry declared Washington “the only place in America where life has variety.” Politicians from every region gathered during the congressional term, and foreign diplomats, writers, scientists, and artists played their part in this diverse and ever-changing crosscurrent of people.”

“As Clover wrote to her father, life in Washington promised “new possibilities for us.”

Henry and Clover Adams: star-crossed or victims of a tragic fate (pt. 1)

In spite of the fact that Marian “Clover” Adams was herself a photographer, few photos of her exist. In those that are available her face is obscured or turned away from the camera.

Henry Adams and Marian “Clover’ Adams both came from families with troubled histories. Ellen Hooper, Clover’s mother, was the daughter of Captain William Sturgis and Elizabeth Davis. Ellen’s oldest brother William died in a tragic boating accident while attending Yale and Mrs. Sturgis withdrew into a bitter life of solitude thrusting Ellen into the role of surrogate mother of the five remaining siblings. Ellen Sturgis married Robert William Hooper, a doctor. The Hoopers had three children, Ellen (Nellie), Edward (Ned), and Marian (Clover). Ellen loved her husband and her three children but she was especially fond of Marian who she nicknamed Clover, “my blessed Clover.” Ellen and her sisters were a part of the burgeoning cultural scene in Boston and Ellen wrote ethereal poetry in the style of the Transcendentalists. She died of consumption when Clover was only five.

Traumatic as this must have been, Clover had a large support group that included her father, brother, and sister along with aunts, uncles and cousins who lived close by in Boston. They also summered together at Beverly Farms on Boston’s North Shore where ‘[h]er summer days matched the description in the opening pages of Henry Miller’s 1878 novel Daisy Miller:

…a flitting hither and thither of ‘stylish’ young girls, a rustling of muslin flounces, a rattle of dance music in the morning hours.

Still, fresh tragedy awaited. Five years after her mother’s death, Clover’s Aunt Sue, her favorite, took her own life by drinking arsenic. It is possible that Clover was with her when she died. The following year her sister Nellie traveled overseas on her “Grand Tour” of Europe and the next year her Aunt Cary (Caroline) left with her family for an extended tour of Europe. ‘Aunt Cary… offered Clover a vital link to the lively, intellectual Sturgis side of the family, and what must have been a valued proximity to memories of her mother. Her disappearance from Clover’s daily life for five years must have seemed another severed connection.”

After the death of her mother, Clover came especially close to her father, Dr. Hooper. Her father accompanied her on her Grand Tour of Europe in 1866 and they corresponded weekly for as long as Dr. Hooper lived. Since Daisy did not keep a diary, most of what we know of her life came from the letters she wrote her father. Although she kept herself busy with volunteer work, friends and visits with her family, as Clover approached the age of 30 she found herself “caught between eagerness and an uneasy boredom, not knowing what to do next, counting the months, waiting for something to happen.” This was a condition she shared with other well-bred, well-educated women of her time. The irony is that for such women the only chance for a secure and independent life was through marriage.

Leonardo Padura’s Recipe for Success: Turkey stuffed with rice and beans and other Cuban delights

“A turkey?”
“Yes, and it’s very easy to make. I made garlic, pepper, cumin, oregano, bay, basil and parsley leaves into a paste and, naturally, bitter orange and salt and basted it well inside and out with that paste. Then I threw in plenty of big slices of onion.”
“Then, as I’d already got black beans on the boil, I started to prepare a tasty sauce: I took two strips of bacon I cut and cut into small pieces and fried, and put more onion in the fat, but cut tiny with ground garlic and plenty of chili, and there you go. I poured the sauce over the beans when they were almost cooked and added a cup of dry wine…”
“And what else?”
“Well, I poured in the white rice to make a congrí, a bit more oregano, and for good measure a pinch of salt and a handful of finely chopped onion. Then I waited for the rice to dry out, before the grains went soft, of course, and switched it off and stuffed the turkey with the congrí, so it cooks inside the bird. You know what I didn’t have? Toothpicks to close it up so I used a few stems from the bitter oranges…”

Leonardo Padura has been described as the Cuba’s answer to Dashiell Hammett. Not to take anything away from Hammett, but I believe Padura is a more rounded author. His influences include J.D. Salinger, Cervantes, Mozart, and Lennon (note: –non, not –in.)His prose is dense and the subject matter is in turns cerebral and muscular. Havana Red, originally titled Masks (Mascaras, in Spanish) deals with the death of a transvestite in a Havana park. Inspector Mario Conde, known as the Count, who is about as unpredictable as Sam Spade, is given the case. His superiors are not over eager to unearth the murderer of a person of such questionable morals—it is Cuba, after all. But the one way that Conde is predictable is in his tenacity in seeing his cases to the end. In the course of his investigations he comes into contact with an aging playwright who has been blacklisted for his moral turpitude and anti-socialist tendencies. The playwright, Marqués offers insights into the steamy underworld of Cuban artistic life. In so doing he sheds light on a case that just about everyone else is content to allow to remain in darkness.

The conversations between Marqués and the Count are illuminating in other ways as well. Through them we follow the brief renaissance and long decline in Cuban art after the overthrow of Batista in the late 50’s. Perhaps decline is too harsh. Sublimation might be a better word. As we learned from Ry Cooder’s visit to Cuba in the 90’s which resulted in the Buena Vista Social Club sessions, Cuban art is and has been very much alive. Only it is hidden from the outside world.

Bitter Lemon Press is taking steps to redress this imbalance. In addition to Havana Red, Havana Black and Havana Blue are now available in translation. The library owns a copy of an earlier Padura novel, Adiós, Hemingway.

Yoani Sanchez recently posted a tribute to “Leonardo Padura: The Man Who Loved Books” on her Huff Post blog.


The Chemistry of Tears, by Peter Carey

“The workmanship of your timbrels and pipes was prepared for you on the day you were created.” Ezekiel 28:13

Illud auspicis non vides. “You cannot see what you can see.”

The Chemistry of Tears is a fantastic book. I mean this in both the literal and figurative sense. It is a slim book with considerable intellectual heft, containing elements of the sacred and the profane. It includes animals, both human and otherwise, and automatons. At times it is difficult to distinguish one from the other.

”But really, truly, anyone who has ever observed a successful automaton, seen its uncanny lifelike movements, confronted its mechanical eyes, any human animal remembers that particular fear, that confusion about what is alive and cannot be born. Descartes said that animals are automata. I have always been certain that it was the threat of torture that stopped him saying the same held true for human beings.” [p. 17]

In addition to Descartes the book features guest appearances by Jacques de Vaucanson (1709-1782) who “exhibited in Paris [in 1738] a mechanical duck which could waddle and splash, beat the air with detailed feathered wings, wag its head, quack, pick up grain, ingest this with swallowing movements, and eventually excrete the residue…”* [Kenner, p. 13]; Charles Babbage [renamed Arthur Cruickshank], “the father of the computer” [Kenner, p. 24]; and a very young and frightfully clever Karl Benz, inventor of the gasoline powered automobile.

*Remember the duck test: “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.

Not included in the book but notable in his exception is mathematician Alan Turing (1912-1954). In response to the question of whether a machine could ever be mistaken as human, Turing posited something that has become known as the Turing Test (or game).

Attacking the tedious question whether machines can think…he proposed a game for three players. One player is a machine; it is trying to pass itself off as a person. Another is a person, trying to make it clear that he is a person. The third is an observer, trying to decide which is which. All communication is by electric teletypewriter, with the observer in a separate room. [Kenner, p. 109-10]

This is not something Charles Babbage envisioned and even in Turing’s latter years (the 50’s) it seemed far-fetched. But this year was a break-through year for the automaton: Artificially Intelligent Game Bots Pass the Turing Test On Turing’s Centenary (Sept. 26, 2012)

”Babbage will occupy us further: we shall be sampling his informed enthusiasm (from which no one would guess that mills are dark and satanic) for the rationale for the Victorian factory, a wholly mechanized environment. Here Vaucanson was again the forerunner: having been named Inspector of the Silk Manufactures he planned and built near Lyons about 1756 the first wholly rationalized industrial plant in the world, linked machines executing all processes from the cocoons onward, the whole driven by an overshot waterwheel. Temperature and moisture were regulated, but for the benefit of the silk, not the workers; these latter were the first men in the world to know they were spending their waking hours wholly inside a single vast coordinated machine , whose dependencies they were.” [Kenner, p. 24-25]

Thus was born the age of mechanization—the age we live in today. Processes, computer or otherwise, devolve from observation. And observation requires detachment from ourselves, in order that we may become instruments of perception (or part of a machine given to observation). The advent of the age of machines meant more than fulfilling the idle fantasies of the wealthy; in the beginning it meant humans, often children, performing robotic tasks for the better part of the day. The poet laureate of the age of machinery, Charles Babbage describes these processes in his 1832 publication Economy of Manufactures and Machinery. In recent years it has meant humans being displaced by machines which can perform the tasks more economically and efficiently. And other unforeseen consequences, like climate change.

This is a story filled with wondrous invention and unspeakable environmental carnage. The contrast between an elegant, silver-plated mechanical swan and the Gulf oil spill could not be more pointed. The implication is that one leads to the other. “It is meant to kill us all. That is what the machine is for. It is not the work of humans.

The principle character in “Chemistry” is a woman named Catherine Gherig. Gherig is employed at the London Swinburne Museum in the horological department, usually a male preserve. When the book opens she discovers that her Museum colleague and lover, Matthew, has died. Her grief, the grief of a loner who has invested her all into a seventeen year affair, is almost inconsolable. She drinks, does drugs, and spends a lot of time revisiting e-mails that she and Matthew have imprudently sent, received, and stored on Museum servers. She believes the affair has gone unnoticed but her supervisor, Eric Croft, was also a close friend to Matthew and he moves quickly to contain the damage caused by his subordinate and his friend. He offers Catherine a deal she can’t refuse: the reconstruction of a mechanical device rescued from oblivion. The hope is that in thus engaging Catherine’s considerable talents, not only will she be profitably engaged but the restoration may prove attractive to the Tories who have a stranglehold on Museum finances.

In the beginning she is under the impression that it is Vaucanson’s Duck, but as the inventory of the parts is conducted it soon becomes apparent that the mechanical creature is an even more splendid apparatus. Catherine is guided in her understanding of the workings of what she soon learns is a swan by the notebooks of the man who initially commissioned the automaton, an English railroad magnate named Henry Blandling. Blandling takes the design to a region of Germany renowned for its clockmakers, only to have the plans stolen from him by the unscrupulous Herr Sumper, a prodigy of Albert Cruicksahnk.

Henry’s saw-tooth pen strokes had cut wormholes into time. I had been there. I had witnessed Herr Sumper unwrap the articulated neck. I had glimpsed Carl’s exploding toy roaring past the inn, his voltaic mouse, his blue cube, Thigpen’s immense scientific instrument [Cruickshank/Babbage’s Analytical Engine] the size of an elephant. Through one of these wormholes, as thin as a drinking straw, I had seen all that bright and poisonous invention. [p.136]

Sumper’s genius proves equal to his ego, and the reconstructed swan succeeds in the 20th century after being in oblivion for over a century.

The Chemistry of Tears is “about” loss and renewal. Loss is represented by tears which, if produced by emotion (as opposed to those needed for lubrication) “contained a hormone involved in the feeling of sexual gratification, another hormone that reduced sex; and finally a very powerful natural painkiller” [Leucine enkephaline]. Renewal is represented by the act of making love or simply hugging, an act that involves the skin, “the largest sensory organ in the body. It contains over four million receptors.” [p. 224]

[cf. Descartes, for whom the human body can “be considered as a kind of machine, so made up and composed of bones, nerves, muscles, veins, blood and skin, that although there were in it no mind [or soul] it would still exhibit the same motions which it at present manifests.” Kenner, p. 11]

Do machine’s have feelings? Do tears make us human? It may just depend on who you ask.

San Miguel, by T.C. Boyle

cover for T.C. Boyle's San Miguel

T.C. Boyle goes island hopping from Anacapa, which provided the scene for his previous novel, When the Killing’s Done, to San Gabriel, the uppermost of the California Channel Islands.

San Miguel contains three stories all set on San Miguel Island in the space of about fifty years. San Miguel is not a vacation paradise. It is a wild, desolate location, bereft of trees and barely habitable. It has been used as for the raising of sheep according to one of the characters, Herbie Lester, since the 1600’s when the Spaniards ruled what became California. The first story in this novel centers on an ex-Civil War Captain named Will Waters and his wife, Marantha, from San Francisco. Marantha is extremely ill with what is described as “consumption.” Using Marantha’s money, the Captain has invested in a ranch on San Gabriel with a stock of about 4,000 sheep. Captain Waters lures Marantha and her daughter Edith away from the creature comforts of San Francisco to the island of San Miguel with the promise that the sea air will prove salubrious for Marantha’s illness. The first story is told from Marantha’s perspective and we learn from this that the privations of the island and the constant struggle for survival, far from restoring her health, have nearly killed her. Her condition worsens and the family is forced to evacuate. Back in Santa Barbara, Marantha dies and Edith rebels, but Captain Waters, who has inherited his wife’s interest in the ranch is determined to move back and rescue the enterprise from the desultory condition it has assumed under the replacement caretaker. He forces his step-daughter Edith to accompany him as what amounts to a galley slave. This leads us into the second part of the story, which is told from Edith’s perspective. Edith, who is Marantha’s adopted daughter, has visions of a career in the arts which is several light years removed from the day to day reality on San Miguel Island. From the beginning of her unfortunate reintroduction onto the island, she begins to plan her escape. Her options are extremely limited, focusing on a compliant, but unpromising ranch hand, Jimmy, a Spanish shearer and finally an itinerant boat owner who sails among the Channel Islands looking for anything salable back on the mainland. Edith affects her escape, returns to San Francisco and goes on to become a star under the name of Inez Deane.

In the third part, a World War I veteran, Herbie Lester, and his new bride, Elise, become the island’s caretakers for a decade from the mid 1930’s to the 40’s. The charismatic Herbie is a World War I vet and Elise (Elizabeth) is an ex-librarian from New York who had previously never been further west than the Hudson River. Herbie’s almost manic zeal augers well for the success , but it is Elise who provides the steady hand on the tiller that makes their life on the island almost idyllic. The flock is substantially smaller in the latter story but conditions have improved considerably. Travel time from the mainland to the island has been reduced (there is a Coast Guard cutter that makes regular visits and provides news of the outside world, mail, and provisions), the primitive sheepherders house has been updated (courtesy of Captain Waters) to a habitable abode, and the privations of the island are considerably ameliorated due to the diligence of both Mr. and Mrs. Lester. In the course of their tenure on the island their family increases two-fold, with the addition of two daughters, and the press latches onto the success story of the “Swiss Family Lester” against the backdrop of a world gone mad, in the throes of the Second World War.

Two out of three Reference Librarians agree that T.C. Boyle is a great author. And we both agree that San Miguel is one of the best novels by Boyle that we have read.

[In the next installment of this review we will consider some of the legerdemain that T.C. Boyle employs to make this book so magical.]