This is a rather obscure, “underread” novel by one of the 19th century’s great American literary maestros, and one wishes it was just a slightly better and more powerful book. But there are all sorts of interesting elements and backgrounds to it, well worthy of consideration and analysis. And just maybe there’s something extraordinary here, slightly out of reach for me, but a better and deeper consideration by a qualified professional might make it more of a necessary text.
Henry Adams had a thing about authorship and publication and the reading public. I have a long way to go in my studies–and I’m still just getting started–but my vague impression is that he originally wanted attention to be focused on his history, and he wanted that attention to be serious. And whatever his intentions might have been about the shape of his career, they were broken in half by his wife Clover’s suicide in December 1885. This event was followed by years of silence (although the nine volumes of the History appeared from 1891 to 1896), marked by the well-known 20-year gap in The Education, and the polished, best-known works of his later years were privately printed and distributed. Mont Saint Michel and Chartres was published in 1913, and The Education was published after Adams’ death and won the Pulitzer in 1921.
I’m still trying to figure out why Adams and Clover lived in Washington D.C., rather than New York, although the move is probably explained in The Education–I can understand leaving Boston, similar to W.D. Howells departure in 1891, but Howells went to New York. Henry James was in England, of course, and as far as fiction goes it seems as if James, Howells and Adams might have made a tidy late-19th century triumvirate, with Adams as a sort of silent partner. At least that might have been the plan in 1883. In Esther Adams is trying to paint something like the same character posed by James in Portrait of a Lady, and elsewhere by Howells too, I assume. On a textual level, this is easy enough to see. But Adams made it, in practice, much more complicated.
Adams had already published an extremely popular and successful novel, Democracy–only no one really knew it. I haven’t read Democracy (though I want to now), but it was the Primary Colors of its day. Adams presumably moved to D.C. to have access to primary sources for his history and to continue his topical journalism (to begin to answer my earlier question), and in 1880 he published anonymously his novel about Washington society and political life, with thinly veiled portraits of well-known figures. It was a big hit and a bestseller, and the authorship was routinely ascribed to some one in Adams’ circle, but it never seemed to land on the historian himself. One more note: Adams had begun his writing career as an anonymous Washington correspondent while working as his father’s secretary, when C.F. Adams was a congressman. After C.F. Adams was appointed by Abraham Lincoln to be Ambassador to the UK, Henry Adams continued to post anonymous dispatches from London, now for the New York Times. He was mortified when his authorship was discovered and outed. “I am laughed at by all England,” he wrote (MacFarlane, xiii). This is all a little strange, and a weird sort of zhiv. It has been studied by Joanne Jacobson (1992) and elsewhere. Adams has received substantial amounts of scholarly attention, a combination of history, literary, and biographical. He’s a poster boy for American Studies.
As he worked away at his history, Adams followed up the success of Democracy–which no one knew that he had written–by writing Esther in the summer of 1883. Henry James had published The Portrait of a Lady in 1881, and Adams seems to be tackling “the woman question” (if that’s the correct term) from a different angle, perhaps using other shapes and shadows from James’ extensive gallery of female characters as well–Esther probably resembles Washington Square more than it does Portrait. Esther Dudley is a sophisticated free-thinker, whose world view has been shaped by the generous and urbane spirit of her father, along with her science-minded professor cousin George Strong, a paleontologist roughly modeled on Clarence King.
The novel’s story and conflict is developed through the romance of Esther with Stephen Hazard, the charismatic and high-minded new reverend at St. John’s Church, a close college friend of George Strong. Hazard is a modern day believer, gathering a substantial Fifth Avenue flock–he’s modeled on Adams’ cousin Phillips Brooks, who shaped the construction of Trinity Church in Boston, which was performed by Adams’ close friends Henry Hobson Richardson and John LaFarge (Richardson built the Adams-Hay mansions on Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House, and Adams later traveled extensively in Asia with LaFarge.) In Esther Adams transposes Fifth Avenue for Copley Square, and he explores how a modern rationalist woman might respond to the romantic pressures of a charming, handsome and commanding celebrity preacher (it’s a good companion text to Theron Ware, too). LaFarge is also present in the artist character Wharton, a moody representative of American ambition in the fine arts during the period. Esther herself is an artist, and art and architecture and medievalism and its revival are all pervasive elements of the novel.
The main figure in this rich tapestry, Esther herself, is based on Adams’ wife Clover, and he is attempting to capture her vivacity, talent and intellect, as well as her wide-ranging emotions. The central thrust of the story is based on Clover’s attachment to her father, as Adams prophetically explores the damage that would be caused by the illness and death of his father-in-law Robert Hooper, which occurred in 1885, the year after the novel was published. Esther is the story of a dutiful, enlightened daughter cast adrift by bereavement, and in her profound grief she falls in love with the fascinated and consoling Hazard. Once engaged, she tries to come to terms with being the companion and helpmate of a spiritual leader, and she reads theology and questions Strong and others, searching for reconciliation of her doubts. This crisis is all well-told, and it raises the dilemma of the sophisticated and modern female consciousness of the era in a profound way. Adams’ solution is especially interesting, given the desperate straits and frequent demises of so many 19th and 20th century heroines. Esther flees with a whole group of supportive family to Niagara, the classic 19th century locale of the Sublime. She communes with the power of Nature and the Falls, and manages to resist Hazard’s last desperate plea and she sends him away. All the while the tension that she will jump is excruciating–Clarence King apparently suggested as much (MacFarlane, xx)–, but Adams steered away from the fate that would absorb Clover herself such a short time later.
A big part of what’s fascinating here is that as deeply felt and imagined as Esther was by Henry Adams, absolutely no one read it. Adams continued the game of masking his authorship, just as he had with Democracy and his early journalism. He went further and
…refused to allow Holt to promote the book, published as the third selection in Holt’s American Novel Series. Holt was simply to place the books on the market, where, Adams conjectured, they might find their way to discriminating readers by word of mouth and the power of what he hoped would be the novel’s intrinsic appeal. There were to be no complimentary copies to influential reviewers, no puff pieces in popular magazines, no bright advertisements with enticing graphics. Instead, Adams wanted “authorship without advertisement” (Letters, 2:568); he deplored the “mutual admiration business…there is always an air of fatuous self-satisfaction (Letters, 2:527). Adams would underwrite the experiment, guaranteeing Holt that he would not lose money. In arranging this arcane scenario, Adams wanted to sound the depths of the American reading public (MacFarlane, viii-ix).
There was a certain hubris in this approach, after the wild success and continuing anonyminity of Democracy. But there was reticence and diffidence as well, because of the personal nature of the novel, which not only contained a detailed portrait of his wife–in a book that deeply concerns itself with portraiture–, but also close characterization of friends and family. Adams needed absolute deniability, and it’s interesting to ponder how success and popularity for the novel might have changed the dynamic that played out. Presumably Adams didn’t count on tepid reviews at best. Without any sort of promotion, the novel disappeared with the slightest of whimpers, selling just a few hundred books; Adams later bought up the unsold stock (copies must be rare and quite expensive). Adams was prepared for his experiment to fail, and it’s even possible to guess that might have been a preferred outcome.
There’s one more extremely significant wrinkle in this study of absent authorship. Democracy was truly anonymous, with no name on its title page. But Henry Adams published Esther under a pseudonuym–a female pseudonym, Frances Compton Snow. We’re quite used to female authors in the 19th century adopting male pseudonyms, and the examples are part of the richest vein of the history of the novel. But do any examples of males adopting a female pseudonym come to mind? They must exist, but I believe they must be obscure, perhaps extremely so. This odd element of its publishing history makes Esther truly a rara avis, and it was certainly obscure enough in its time–and it was written by Henry Adams!
What does it all mean, and what was Adams about? The novel takes on a new meaning, one that deserves more careful consideration, if it is assumed that it was written by a woman. This was the intent. Esther Dudley and her free-thinking, her rejection of Reverend Hazard and religion and romance, her failure to jump into Niagara Falls, and her last sentence rejection of the suitable but detached George Strong are all highly progressive maneuvers and choices for a female novelist in 1884. Esther, seen as such, is a valuable companion text to The Story of an African Farm, Country of the Pointed Firs, and The Awakening, the story of an independent woman, written by one–except that it wasn’t.
1999 Penguin Edition, introduction by Lisa MacFarlane.