The Evasive Henry Adams

Part of an occasional series series on “lesser known DC”

One of the most compelling pieces of sculpture in North America sits hidden in Rock Creek cemetery in DC. It’s a statue that suits its sponsor: smart, tasteful, controlling, melancholy, arch, cryptic. It’s  a monument to decline, and silence. The story is well known to historians. If you don’t know it, bear with me. The story, and the monument that resulted, are worth knowing.

Henry Adams was born to rank and privilege. Great Grandson of John Adams, grandson of John Quincy Adams, his father was ambassador to England during the Civil War. His family had wealth, status, social position, and connections. If the US belonged to anyone, it belonged to the Adams family. Immigrants came to America, coarser men of lesser breeding, and enjoyed its opportunities: Adams, bemused, tolerated their presence and later was appalled by it.

For a while, just after the Civil War, Adams was a journalist in Washington DC. He was appointed professor of medieval history at Harvard, at a time when appointments at Harvard were reserved for gentlemen. It’s reasonable, though, to regard him as one of the founders of the profession of history in the US. He worked hard at it his whole life. He married a woman of his class named Clover Hooper, by all accounts as bright, witty and charming as Adams himself, and they moved back to Washington. He wrote an excellent novel about gilded age politics, Democracy, anonymously. He was later elected president of the American Historical Association.

Historians know Adams best for his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams.  It’s a dense, maddening, withholding book, full of witty observations and arch sleight of hand. He refers to himself throughout as “Adams.” Most of it describes a very smart but very cosseted man coming to terms with a new world that’s left people like him behind. The theory of evolution appalled Adams: he had no doubt that he and his family and friends were the best the America had produced, and yet people they never heard of held elected office. “The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant,” Adams wrote, “was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.”

The Education is well worth reading: despite his  mandarin-ish tone and the whining. Adams was an anti semite and a snob, but he was also extremely observant and well connected. It won a Pulitzer prize in 1919, when it was published a year after Adams died.

The Education of  Henry Adams never once mentions his wife. Not one word. It’s doubly surprising because of the way she died: in 1885 she committed suicide by drinking the chemicals she used in her hobby, photography. After he found her dead Adams burned all her letters, and all her photographs and negatives, destroying the historical record of their marriage and her work. He never spoke of her publicly again.

But when it came time to bury her, he commissioned two of the most famous artists in America, the architect Sanford White and the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. White was famous for designing lavish homes for rich people, and for big public monuments like the Washington Square Arch in Manhattan. He’s most famous today for the fact that he was murdered by the jealous husband of his mistress, gilded age pinup girl and circulating muse Evelyn Nesbit.

White designed the landscaping and the “hardscaping:” Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the leading sculptor of the day, produced the central figure. It’s one of his most famous pieces of work, form a very long list. I’m not a huge Saint-Gaudens fan. His work is full of heroic anti-modernism, and appealed to the desire of really wealthy gilded age Americans to escape the industrial marketplace that they had created. But it’s technically brilliant and consistent: I don’t like it but can’t mistake that it’s good.

So on to the memorial. This is how it looks as you approach it:

There’s an entrance on the side, which gives few clues about what you’ll see:

The entrance path directs you to a stone bench

Which compels you to look at this:

That’s it–no words, no message, no “explanation.” The combination of enclosure and compulsion, the witholding, is typical of Adams, as is  the combination of simplicity and expensive taste.

The statue itself is brooding, and enigmatic. Its gender is completely ambiguous:

It’s withdrawn and isolated, alone and mysterious, but also vaguely timeless. It might be neo-classical, it might be medieval: it might be religious, it might be occult.

The only sign of Clover Adams is the linked wreaths on the back. Henry Adams is aso buried here.

The Adams memorial captures a moment of transition, of the old WASP aristocracy giving way to a more brash and less refined order. It’s grand in a way that would have appalled John Adams, or John Quincy Adams–that’s the gilded age. It’s simple and tasteful and perfectly executed, reflecting the power of money and elite status. But it commemorates not accomplishment, but invisibility; not grand public life but mysterious inner life.

The gilded age was full of bustle and big projects, political corruption and brag; salesmanship and swagger, smoke and fire and machines and sweat. Adams created a memorial which reflected how old elites might give way before change.

Compare this to the Theodore Roosevelt memorial on Roosevelt Island. TR was a peer of Adams–same wealthy family background, same elite education, same presumption of class superiority. But the Roosevelt memorial is broad, declamatory, active, public, empty and outward. Roosevelt took a different path through the challenges of the gilded age.


  • As usual, a wonderfully provocative post on a fascinating subject. I’ve long wanted to know more about this memorial. The juxtaposition with the TR monument is great–but did he have any say in its design or execution?
    And I want to know still more about what you think the Adams monument means: “Adams created a memorial which reflected how old elites might give way before change?” Really? Are you sure it’s just not about something much more private: about emotions that were so painful, so searing that Adams didn’t even put their names on the memorial? A private monument to grief is how I’ve always understood it. And maybe it’s about the way old elites and new elites grieve.
    What think you?

  • I’m not sympathetic to Adams. A private monument? If privacy is the point, why erect a monument?

    It’s an artifact of class privilege–you, the ordinary person, are there to observe and admire but not to share or participate. It’s exclusive, in a way that ordinary monuments aren’t

    I also think he felt complicit in her suicide, destroyed all the evidence of her life, and then built a cryptic monument that reflected his specific aesthetic taste and continued the erasure of her existence. He was always too good for the rest of the world–the whole pose of writing as “Adams” was a way of concealing himself from his inferiors. It’s what happens when WASP rectitude turns into snobbery

  • Also TR had, as far as I know, nothing to do with that monument, so the comparison is unfair

  • Well, historians need to take the difference in the monument’s origins into account, but the juxtaposition is still striking.

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