Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Into the Mirror

One cold Sunday in December 1885, Henry Adams, historian, novelist and grandson and great-grandson of Presidents, found his wife dead on the floor of her room in their Washington D.C. house. Clover Adams, a talented amateur photographer, had swallowed potassium cyanide, one of her developing chemicals.
Clover=s family had a strain of depression and mental illness. A maternal aunt had killed herself by taking arsenic, and Clover=s sister was later to throw herself in front a train. On the Adams= honeymoon in Egypt in 1872, Clover herself had sunk into despair, feeling unworthy of her brilliant husband. AI never seem to get impressions that are worth anything and feel as if I were blind, deaf, and dumb too.@
Her spirits lifted when she and Henry returned to Europe, and their marriage was a happy one with no significant reappearance of Clover=s depression. But in the spring of 1885, her beloved father died in Boston, and for the next several months she could not sleep or eat and became obsessed with her own unworthiness to live. Henry watched over her from day to day, anxious for any sign of improvement. In November, the signs finally came - Clover slept better and paid visits to a few close friends. But her recovery was simply a reflection of the peace she had found in deciding to end her life.
Adams spent the first night of her death alone in their house with Clover=s body. From the first, he was determined to survive the terrible blow of his wife=s death with a stoicism worthy of his Adams upbringing and heritage. But as Adams= niece wrote late in a memoir, AUncle lost the companion of his life, and part of him was buried forever in silence or in what the world would call >irony.= ... he plunged into a life of restlessness and travel, of searchings, questionings, and of intense loneliness.
Adams decided to have his wife buried in Rock Creek Cemetery, the graveyard of St. Paul=s Church, where they used to ride together. Determined to erect a worthy memorial over her grave, he turned to his friend, the eminent sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Adams had a vision of the figure he wanted to preside over the grave, but he found it difficult to convey his idea exactly to Saint-Gaudens. He gave the sculptor a photograph of a statue of Guan Yin, the Buddhist Bodhisattva of compassion, but it wasn’t until – one day in the studio – Adams draped a blanket over the head of the sculptor’s boy assistant that Saint-Gaudens was able to grasp the pose that Adams had in mind.
With that settled, Adams decreed that he didn’t want to see anything of the statue again until it was finished. He received the first photographs of the completed memorial while he was in Tahiti in 1891. He was relieved to discover he did not dislike it, and friends wrote to tell him that the photographs did not do it justice. When Adams returned to the States and saw the statue itself, he was satisfied that his friend had not only captured his vision but had created a masterpiece, one that was constantly presenting the observer with new challenges and questions. “Like all great artists,” he wrote in The Education of Henry Adams, “St. Gaudens held up the mirror and no more.”
The memorial consists of a seated figure draped and cowled in a long encompassing cloth. It is cast in bronze and set against a block of pink polished granite. In accordance with Adams’ specific instructions, it has no identifying mark or inscription. The statue speaks for itself – as Adams said, “The whole meaning and feeling of the figure is in its universality and anonymity.”
Adams was annoyed that the public insisted on assigning a gender to the figure when he and Saint-Gaudens had deliberately conceived of the figure as asexual. While the face has a feminine aspect, the right arm has a distinctly masculine muscularity. Not even the President, his friend Theodore Roosevelt, was immune from rebuke. One evening at a dinner party at The White House, Roosevelt referred to the sculpture as a woman. Adams wrote the next day to correct him. “Should you allude to my bronze figure [again], will you try to do Saint-Gaudens the justice to remark that his expression was a little higher than sex can give. As he meant it, he wanted to exclude sex and sink it in the idea of humanity. The figure is sexless.”
Henry Adams himself lived on until 1918. He died in his sleep of a massive stroke at the age of 80 and was buried next to Clover under the brooding androgynous figure of his own imagining.   

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