I was pretty happy with culling Boston books the other day. The bookshops in Boston aren’t especially exciting (advantage, Berkeley: Go Bears!), but they’re not absolutely terrible. I have a modest list of Boston and New England-related books that I was on the lookout for, and at the end of my last visit a few things turned up. Just to go through the list: I began, rather oddly, with Matthew Pearl’s The Technologists, which I haven’t gotten around to writing up. I started John P. Marquand’s H.M. Pulham Esq., but then left it at home when I came back. That’s why I read the O’Hara, which I happened to have on hand. I found two key books: The Last Hurrah, by Edwin O’Connor, cited as something like the companion volume to Marquand’s study of Brahmins in The Late George Apley, this one dissecting the later Irish Catholic political world in careful detail. It looks good, and an initial glance tells me that O’Connor won the Pulitzer 5 years later for The Edge of Sadness (1961–never heard of it), so there’s more to know about him and his work. Second was a wartime copy (degrading paper) of Jean Stafford’s first novel, Boston Adventure, which was a nice little find. The first chapters of The Last Hurrah were accessible and engaging, and I was happy to have a new book I want to read, to add to my list, but a couple of paragraphs of Stafford reminded me that The Mountain Lion was great but no picnic, not an easy-read, and good form and some mental energy on my part would be necessary just to get into it, things I didn’t possess at the moment.
I was also gravitating at the same time towards Henry Adams. His famous book The Education was on the list, and had been on my radar for some time. I had been looking for the right copy to present itself, at the right moment. Learning recently that it is #1 on the Modern Library non-fiction list moved me closer. It’s a book I have known about for years, although my initial sense of it was extremely sketchy, and even later I knew only its most basic elements: that it is written in the third person; that he was the grandson and great-grandson of presidents; that he was an historian. I think I first started seeing Adams in a different light a few years ago, after learning about the Adams Memorial in a show at the Guggenheim called The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1969. The show told the story of Adams’ trips to the East, and it made an impression.
And one afternoon I went on a wikipedia run through 19th century Boston luminaries that started with Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., wandering rather far afield. This type of thing is fun. Charles Francis Adams, son of John Quincy and Henry’s father, is the type of second or third tier figure who has a rich and full career that’s more than worthy of review, and it’s not hard to link to a dozen such eminent Victorians in a single leisurely afternoon, along with side trips to places like Mt. Auburn cemetery, which has its own historical appeal. Eventually, going through people like Charles F. Eliot, Holmes Jr., Edward Everett Hale, Charles Eliot Norton and Henry Cabot Lodge, I made my way to Adams, all of it an easy historical stroll. Along the way I was thinking on occasion about Lewis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, which I didn’t quite finish and never wrote about, but it was a great study of some of these characters–and I should review it and figure out a way to make it part of my Boston efforts.
But I found a rare nugget and got excited about it, just as I was winding things down. I was quite familiar with Clarence King’s name because of my interest in Alpinism, and his Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada (1872) is a relatively familiar classic. It has never seemed especially readable, and I mainly think of it as a means to pitch Leslie Stephen and The Playground of Europe (1871), but it has long been a fairly important book and name for me. King’s name came up because he was a part of Adams’ and his wife Clover’s most intimate circle along with John Hay and his heiress wife, Clara Stone, a group that called themselves the Five of Hearts. A glance at King’s bio contains information that has been known for some time, but studied in detail recently in Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line, by Martha A. Sandweiss. King was successful, daring, and charismatic. The fact that he was one of the earliest explorers and “conquerors” of the Sierras was somewhat incidental, as he went on from that adventure to found and organize the U.S. Geological Survey, which itself is a somewhat obscure, monumental 19th century accomplishment. Hay, who was Abraham Lincoln’s secretary at 22 and had a magnificent career, and Adams, who was Henry Adams, both looked up to King and thought he was the titan and cynosure and man of destiny in the group. But Clarence King never quite landed or achieved spectacular success, and instead the end of his bio reveals a shocking secret. He had a double life for 20 years, as he had an African-American common law wife in New York, with whom he had four children. The surprise is King’s alter ego, as his wife Ada Coleman knew him as James Todd, an African-American Pullman porter. Working on the railroad would explain the lengthy absences when he was out in the world being Clarence King, but it’s more strange that the fair, blue-eyed King passed as black.
Sandweiss foregrounds this story in her book. King revealed himself to Ada in a letter he sent to her from his deathbed in Arizona. She spent the next 30 years in a legal conundrum trying to get a part of his modest estate. Apparently Hay supported her with a small stipend. I saw a note somewhere that Sandweiss took the impetus for her study from The Five of Hearts, an earlier group biography of the Adams circle by Patricia O’Toole, which contained the information on King and Ada, but didn’t have it as its main focus. This was all quite intriguing, and then I found myself looking at the New England/Boston writers shelf at Brattle Book Shop, where I was having some luck, getting the O’Connor and the Stafford, and I went through a variety of editions of Adams’ Education before choosing one. O’Toole’s book was there and I bought that too, very happily. There was quite a bit of Henry Adams stuff, actually, but I knew that these two books would make a good start.
I started Last Hurrah and put aside Boston Adventure, as I mentioned. And I peeked into Five of Hearts, and found it quite compelling, and I began to race through it. But I didn’t let myself get too far, because I wanted to read Adams’ own original text, this masterwork. It was a bit ornate, however, something of a slow starter, and I was fatigued, as I mentioned, not sharp at all. But these are all good Boston books, and I’ll be working my way through them–and Henry Adams studies will be up towards the top of the list.