Wednesday, October 15, 2014
October 15, 2014: New NEASA Books: Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life
[It’s been a while since I spent a week highlighting the amazing work done by my fellow AmericanStudies scholars. So for this week’s series I thought I’d highlight five recent books by scholars with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working on the NEASA Council. I’d love to hear in comments about books and scholars, recent or otherwise, that have inspired you!]
On the biography that exemplifies, and also transcends, that genre.
I’ve written twice previously in this space about Marion “Clover” Hooper Adams—once in the context of her husband Henry, who partly modeled his fictional heroine Esther on his wife; and once in a post on sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, whose moving Washington, DC sculpture “Grief” was created as a tribute to Clover after her 1885 suicide. But Clover’s brief, tragic, complex, and rich life is more than deserving of its own post and a lot more, as illustrated by Natalie Dykstra’s thorough, groundbreaking, and compulsively readable biography Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012).
Dykstra’s book does everything that you’d want a historical biography to do. She delineates the specific elements of Clover’s identity very effectively, helping readers to feel that they truly know this complex woman (as well as we can know anyone who died 130 years ago, at least); but she also locates Clover within the social, historical, and cultural contexts of late 19th century America very successfully, making clear how much her place, time, and world influenced those individual elements. She doesn’t shy away at all from uncertain and controversial topics, including not only Clover’s suicide but also her inspiring yet troubled marriage to Henry; yet the biography never strays into gossip territory, remaining serious and scholarly despite Dykstra’s engaging and accessible attention to such intriguing and universal topics.
So a great and highly recommended historical biography—but Clover Adams is also something more. Through her extended and groundbreaking attention to and close readings of Clover’s photographs—Clover spent a good deal of her final years of experimenting with the new technology and art form—Dykstra becomes an analytical detective, developing convincing takes on Clover’s perspective, life, and experiences as a result. Many biographies rely on primary and archival sources, of course—but Dykstra’s work with the photos involves more than just recovering or engaging with such sources. She weds the skills of close reading and aesthetic analysis to her biographical project, enriching both that project and our collective understanding of Clover as a result. Want to see what new ideas those photographic analyses produced? Read the book!
Next NEASA book tomorrow,
PS. Books or scholars you'd share? I'd love to hear about them!