Posterity has remembered Henry Adams mostly as an American historian. His most famous published works are History of the United States of America, a nine volume set, and his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1919. However, he is also credited with having written two works of fiction, Esther, which he published under the pen name Frances Snow Compton, and Democracy, An American Novel, which was the first novel of its kind to become an international bestseller. In addition to being a historian, Adams was also a part of a highly political family, a member of an elite circle known as The Five of Hearts, and one half of a marriage that ended in tragedy.
As the grandson of President John Quincy Adams, Henry Adams shared a bloodline with two United States Presidents and was part of an influential Bostonian family. His father, Charles Francis Adams, Sr., was a U.S. Senator and diplomat.
Upon graduation from Harvard, Henry Adams began his career during the Civil War years as personal secretary to his father who was then serving in London as President Lincoln's ambassador to the United Kingdom. The father and son team were tasked with closely observing all Confederate communications with the British. They also sought to shut down British commerce raiders working for the Confederacy. At the same time, Adams worked anonymously as the London correspondent for The New York Times.
Upon his return from London in 1870, Adams took up a position as Professor of Medieval History at Harvard. Two years later, he married Marian "Clover" Hooper, a witty and spirited woman who was also from a prominent Bostonian family. Her father was a doctor, and her mother and aunt had been transcendentalist poets. She'd grown up in a home that regularly hosted the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendall Holmes, and Henry James. Henry James, who was fond of Clover Adams, once referred to her as a "perfect Voltaire in petticoats," and it is said that she inspired his novels, Daisy Miller and The Portrait of a Lady.
Some biographers have speculated that it was actually Clover Adams who authored Democracy, An American Novel, which was published anonymously in 1880 and wasn't attributed to Henry Adams until 1918. Clover Adams became an accomplished photographer, one of the United States's first portrait photographers. For some reason, Henry Adams wouldn't allow her to publish her work.
After Henry Adams was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he and Clover moved to Washington D.C., where they took up residence in a house on Lafayette Square across from the White House. In Washington, they hosted all the prominent politicians, artists, intellectuals, and socialites of the day, but their intimate relationship with three other individuals made them part of one of Washington's most exclusive cliques.
The circle of friends was made up of Secretary of State John Hay and his wife Clara, geologist Clarence King, and Henry and Clover Adams. The five called themselves, "The Five of Hearts" and went so far as to have their own personal stationery made, on which they corresponded throughout their lives. It is said that even President Theodore Roosevelt resented the extent to which John Hay and Henry Adams were in each other's confidence. Some biographers have also speculated that it was The Five of Hearts who together authored Democracy, An American Novel.
The Five of Hearts, and Henry Adams in particular, suffered a great loss in 1885. On December 6, Clover Adams took her own life by drinking a vial of potassium cyanide, a chemical she used to develop photographs. Clover's family had a history of depression and suicide. She was very close to her father, and his death on April 13, 1885 precipitated a depression that culminated in her death at the age of 42. Many have speculated that Clover resented the confining way in which Henry treated her and that, too, was cause for her suicide. Henry and Clover Adams never had any children.
Clover Adams was buried in Washington's Rock Creek Cemetery on December 11, 1885. After her death, Adams destroyed all her letters to him and all of her photographic work in his possession. From his friend, sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, he commissioned a sculpture to be placed on Clover's grave to serve as a memorial. Saint-Gaudens created a bronze sculpture of a seated and shrouded woman, which he titled, The Mystery of the Hereafter and The Peace of God that Passeth Understanding, but it has more commonly come to be called simply, Grief. The statue is considered one of Saint-Gaudens's greatest works and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Adams outlived his wife by 33 years and went on to write his two greatest works, The History of the United States of America and The Education of Henry Adams. Strangely enough, in his autobiography he avoided all mention of his wife and their 12-year marriage. He rarely spoke of Clover after her death and didn't like for others to speak of her either; in a way, Adams made Clover a real-life shrouded woman by destroying her legacy of photographs and letters and keeping her memory hidden.
Still, following his own death on March 27, 1918, as per his request, Henry Adams was laid to rest beside his wife in Rock Creek Cemetery beneath the statue of Grief.