The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends 1880-1918
Group Biography is an interesting, odd, out-of-the-way genre, but it makes a lot of sense. It leans towards History, and Biography and History are already close kin. It can become sketchy, perhaps a feathered fish, but if you let go of trying to gain the highest standard, reading about a group of loosely connected, notable figures, rather than focusing on a particular individual or a single topic or entity, can be quite enjoyable.
I had good luck with a well-done group biography Partisans, back when I started this blog. It was a really good introduction to the New York Intellectuals of the 30s and 40s, gave a strong sense of the goals, accomplishments, mileau and players of the Partisan Review, and served as a great introduction to Mary McCarthy, who was obscure to me prior to reading it. I went on to delve rather deeply into McCarthy, reading a fair amount of her fiction and memoirs, and a really good biography of her by Frances Kiernan, Seeing Mary Plain, highly recommended. McCarthy is a wonderful feminist nexus for mid-century literature, linked not only to the Review characters but then Edmund Wilson and later as the author of The Group and a public intellectual. It was all a good run for me, and it started with the group biography Partisans.
There are other group biographies, and I might gather them up and note them elsewhere, but I mention Partisans and McCarthy because I would be happy to go on a similar run prompted by this book, The Five of Hearts, introducing Henry Adams as a primary subject, but telling the story of his wife Clover and his closest friends, John Hay and Clarence King. Hay and King are very interesting characters themselves, and highlighting them here, showing how their lives and pursuits reflect on Adams, makes for a good story. The structure of the book and its narrative is such that we see the group come together and become an intimate circle for a relatively brief time, as it turns out. The next section tells the story of Adams writing Democracy and then Esther and his wife Clover’s suicide, which broke his life in two. Adams’ slow, partial reentry into the world is set against the later careers of Hay and King. One would say that King is the “Fifth Heart” in the group, the bachelor who led a double life posing as a Pullman porter with an African-American wife and family. With Adams and Clover as one and two, and Hay the third, the fourth “heart” would be Hay’s wife, Clara, a Cleveland heiress who was engaging in her early years and grew stout and conservative in her maturity, fading deeply into the background through most of the narrative’s second half.
Adams’ broken life and diffidence about society and literature is thus set against Hay’s intriguing, somewhat reluctant rise as a statesman. Both Adams and Hay are very much late-19th century, late-Victorian gentlemen, stepping most gingerly into the 20th century and the modern world. They’re easily identified as part of the generation that came of age and was defined by the Civil War–the 60s generation, we might call it–, that was still tottering around as the modern world careened into global conflict in 1914.
O’Toole’s book served me well as an introduction to the broad strokes of Adams’ life and his relationships with his closest friends. I’m doing things backwards, per usual, making halting efforts to read The Education, which is the traditional Adams entry point, and I don’t have Mont Saint Michel and Chartres around either. Instead O’Toole’s book prompted me to read the copy of Adams’ relatively unread novel Esther, which I’ll write about in a separate post. One creditable thing about O’Toole’s book is that it fills in the story of Clover and her suicide, and Adams’ response to it, all of which is a gaping blank in The Education.
I was drawn to the book after discovering the story of Clarence King, and Five of Hearts is the precursor and prompt for Martha Sandweiss’s book Passing Strange. O’Toole does a good job of sketching out King’s biography and his relationship to Adams and Hay, but it’s easy to see, especially in hindsight, that his bizarre double life deserved its own book. When he wrote Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada and was ranging the West as a geologist he was a hero to Adams and Hay, who were both convinced his accomplishments would eclipse their own meager efforts.
If the material on Adams and Clover and King is a given, both welcome and expected, then the big blank and pleasant surprise here is John Hay. Hay is a great example of a person you would never encounter as an English major, even as a specialist in American Lit, but he makes a big mark in History and perhaps even more so in American Studies. In the first place, at age 22, after coming out of Ohio and attending Brown (class poet) and working in his father’s law office, he became Abraham Lincoln’s secretary. He shared the northeast corner bedroom on the second floor of the White House with his slightly senior colleague John G. Nicolay–Joseph Cross plays Hay in the Spielberg movie. He was a somewhat reluctant diplomat, editor and statesman in the last quarter of the century, while spending a lot of time helping the mercurial King and grief-stricken Adams as well, but a big part of his work was on an exhaustive Lincoln biography, which he wrote with Nicolay and published in 1890. It’s something of a companion piece to Adams’ History, relatively unsuccessful. It would be interesting as a tangent to Adams studies, to explore where Hay stands in the sequence of Lincoln biographers. The fact that Hay wrote a significant biography, material of interest to this blog and its concerns, was overshadowed by his appointment as Secretary of State by William McKinley and later Teddy Roosevelt. Thus Hay, evolving from the Lincoln White House to pre-WWI international diplomacy, had an important role in late-19th century American History, with Adams at his side the entire time. Hay was secretary to Lincoln at the same time that Adams was secretary to his father Charles Francis, Ambassador to the UK (a job that Hay himself would have in 1897, at the beginning of McKinley’s presidency). Who else would be the best friend of Henry Adams? H.H. Richardson built matching mansions for them in Lafayette Square, now the site of the Hay-Adams Hotel (fancy!) Even more intriguing as a destination, however, is Camp John Hay in the Philippines–the Forest Lodge looks really nice. That’s where I want to go. Eventually we’ll get to Adams’ trip to the South Pacific with John LaFarge. He might have had a better time going now, but you never know with Henry Adams.