pseudopodium
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Frances Farmer Action Figure

"The gentleman reader cannot fairly be expected to work up a professional interest in a woman who picked up threads and ate them." -- newspaper review of The Shutter of Snow by Emily Holmes Coleman
Well, that's obviously changed. The Shutter of Snow must be the twentieth-or-so "woman goes crazy but eventually gets out of the institution" novel I've read. Which is the kind of number I'd a priori only expect from plotlines like "boy gets girl" or "detective solves mystery."

Let's take it for granted that insanity is interesting. Why the gender gap, then? Why the Padded Ceiling?

One obvious reason is that well-educated women are (still) more likely to be institutionalized than well-educated men. As the old formula goes, women are institutionalized, poor men are jailed, and the rest of us pretty much do what we want.

Another (not necessarily unrelated) reason is that story-consumers and story-makers prefer that protagonists who show weakness be female. And going crazy and recovering are both pretty obvious signs of weakness. When I was trying to write fiction about loonies I've known, most of whom have been male, I felt immense internal pressure to turn them into female characters instead. (Like, try imagining Repulsion with a male protagonist. No, I mean it: try. It's good for you.) The standard storylines tell us that women go into institutions because they go crazy and men go into institutions because they're rebels. Women get better and men keep insisting they were right. (Sylvia Plath vs. Ezra Pound; The Shutter of Snow vs. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest....) Men-going-under stories tend to be about addiction rather than madness: appetite, not fragility.

But there's another reason for the twentieth century having produced so many of these stories: the number of untold and unrecoverable stories left over from the nineteenth.

"My mom says that when she was growing up in New Zealand in the Fifties, there were three career options for women: emigrate, become an airline stewardess, or go crazy." -- Juliet Clark
Take out emigration and airlines, and you're left with the options for the nineteenth-century Anglo-American upper class. In feminist-backlash post-abolitionist late-1800s America, good girls had achieved Stendhal's proto-feminist dream: women were being educated but only so that they might be fitter companions to educated men. In the post-feminist era, it wouldn't be tasteful to try to be anything else. A nice New England woman in politics? Laughable. In literature? In art? Etc.
"Any woman learning Greek must buy fashionable dresses." -- Henry Adams regarding his wife, Clover Hooper Adams
The Civil War, with its bandage-making and fund-raising, was the high water mark of usefulness for the Adams/James generation of American women. Afterwards, if you were lucky, you could have children till you died in childbirth. If you weren't lucky, you either (like Alice James) shrunk into a mockingly dense point of invalidism or you found yourself over an abyss.
"We are working very hard, but it is all for ourselves." -- Clover Hooper Adams
An abyss-swimming man might clutch for a job; a woman could only be headed for the bin. And in the nineteenth century they tended not to come back out.
"I shall proclaim that any one who spends her life as an appendage to five cushions and three shawls is justified in committing the sloppiest kind of suicide at a moment's notice." -- Alice James
As a girl, Clover Hooper swapped dark comparisons of the hospitals that swallowed up her female relatives and friends:
"I wish it might have been Worcester instead of Somerville which is such a smelly hideous place."
As an adult, after almost a year of depression, she poisoned herself with her own photo-developing chemicals rather than face institutionalization.
"Ellen I'm not real -- Oh make me real -- you are all of you real!" -- Clover Hooper Adams to her sister, a few months before her death
A hundred years' worth of vanished victims seems to call for at least fifty years' worth of survivor testimony: It is possible to come out of the bin; it is possible to describe it....

Of course, the downside of so much survivor testimony is that the survivors are likely to get fetishized. And then a demand naturally develops, and the supply of survivors has to be periodically replenished....

Step Inside

. . .

Charles Francis Adams, Jr. : Most Annoying Adams Ever?

(Unless otherwise specified, all quotes are from Charles Francis Adams by his son Charles Francis Adams, published in 1900 as part of the American Statesmen series.)

The story is not lacking in interest; but it has already in main been told both by Henry Wilson, himself an actor in it, and by Edward L. Pierce, not only an actor in it, but subsequently an untiring investigator of it. Upon it Mr. Adams’s contemporaneous record throws much additional light. The period was, too, not only important, but, as revealed in his papers, extremely interesting. It has its distinctly humorous, as well as tragic, side. [...] It is absorbing, as well as impressive; but the narrative attains almost the dimensions of a history, and will not be compressed into a sketch. Its salient features only can here be referred to.
The as yet unwritten history of this gathering can here be no more than alluded to, though it still has an interest, and, at the moment, was of great historical significance.
The manner in which the wily and really good-natured Prime Minister, acting after his wont in such cases through the skillful cooperation of Lady Palmerston, subsequently, when he thought desirable so to do, renewed social relations, was interesting and eminently characteristic; but to recount it is beyond the scope of the present sketch.
The episode of the Howell-Zerman letter now occurred. Altogether a very entertaining and characteristic incident, the letter referred to caused at the moment great commotion, and for a brief space threatened gravely to compromise Mr. Adams; but the affair soon passed over, leaving no trace behind. Reference only can be made to it here.
Meanwhile a new contingency arose, and, to his own great surprise, Mr. Adams suddenly found himself a prominent candidate for a presidential nomination. The history of the movement which culminated in the Cincinnati convention of May, 1872, and the nomination of Horace Greeley as the opposing candidate to President Grant in the canvass of that year, is curious, and not without its humorous as well as interesting features. It can, however, here only be alluded to.

I'm glad the author was at least willing to share the curious and eminently characteristic reaction, not without continuing interest, of the London Times to the Emancipation Proclamation:

If the blacks are to obtain the freedom he promises them, it must be by their own hands. They must rise upon a more numerous, more intelligent, better-armed, and braver community of whites, and exterminate them, their wives and children, by fire and sword. The President of the United States may summon them to this act, but he is powerless to assist them in its execution. Nay, this is the very reason why they are summoned.... Mr. Lincoln bases his act on military necessity, and invokes the considerate judgment of mankind and the judgment of Almighty God. He has characterized his own act; mankind will be slow to believe that an act avowedly the result of military considerations has been dictated by a sincere desire for the benefit of those who, under the semblance of emancipation, are thus marked out for destruction, and He who made man in His own image can scarcely, we may presume to think, look with approbation on a measure which, under the pretense of emancipation, intends to reduce the South to the frightful condition of St. Domingo.... In the midst of violent party divisions, in ostentatious contempt of the Constitution, with the most signal ill success in war, he is persisting in the attempt to conquer a nation, to escape whose victorious arms is the only triumph which his generals seem capable of gaining. Every consideration of patriotism and policy calls upon him to put an end to the hopeless contest, but he considers the ruin is not deep enough, and so he calls to his aid the execrable expedient of a servile insurrection. Egypt is destroyed; but his heart is hardened, and he will not let the people go.
* * *

To be fair, Charles's fashionably obese prose was never built to carry conflicting emotions. He was bound to wheeze under the load.

Charles Francis Adams, Sr., had four sons, but the eldest, John, wrote nothing ever (and seems to have been by far the happiest):

As I look back upon the Uncles, I see them as always writing Uncle Charles in a nice square house just below his own on President's Hill, which he had bought to provide space for his books and to insure him peace from the distractions of a growing family, and which he called the "Annex." Uncle Henry when he was in Quincy commanded undisputed possession of the Stone Library, while Uncle Brooks reigned in John Adams's study on the second floor of the Old House. It used to puzzle me what they all found to write about, for my father never seemed to write at all but when I asked him about it, he said "I suppose it amuses them!"

[...] Uncle Brooks often told me how jealous he had always been of my father for possessing those social qualities of charm and conviviality which he himself so painfully lacked, adding in the same breath that John was far too lazy ever to make effective use of them.

- Education by Uncles by Abigail Adams Homans

The three writing brothers described their relative charmlessness as something passed through the Y chromosome, an unamiable rectitude which both determined and curtailed the social utility and historic importance of each generation's males. Charles Junior, in particular, associated this cursed inheritance with the familial habit of diary-keeping, a compulsion friendlier to future historians than to siblings and children. Here, for example, he writes about Charles Senior's earliest discernible achievement, publishing a life-and-letters of his grandmother Abigail:

Deeply gratified as he was at the success of this his first literary venture, Mr. Adams would have been more gratified yet could he have read his father's contemporaneous diary record; for J. Q. Adams was not a demonstrative man, and rarely, except when communing with himself, gave expression to his inmost feelings. So now, on Sunday, September 27, 1840, he wrote that, attending, as was his wont, divine service in the afternoon, whereat a certain Mr. Motte preached upon the evidences of Christianity from the text, John xx. 31, “my attention and thoughts were too much absorbed by the volume of my Mother's Letters which my son has published, and of which he sent me this morning a copy. An admirable Memoir of her life written by him is prefixed to the Letters, and the reading of it affected me till the tears streamed down my face.”

And Charles Junior, in particular, associated it with their father:

The sympathies of the aristocracy were distinctly on the side of the slaveocracy of the South, as against the democracy of the North; and this the American minister had been caused to feel with a distinctness almost peculiar to London, where the shades and phases of social coldness and incivility have long since been perfected into a science. Fortunately, Mr. Adams, by nature and bearing, was in this respect exactly the man the occasion called for. When the Englishman was cold and reserved, Mr. Adams was a little colder and a little more reserved than the Englishman. He thus played well the game to which he found himself called, for the very good reason that the game was natural to him.

Charles Junior only wrote the biography because John T. Morse, the editor of the American Statesmen series, asked him to, and because like the rest of the family he thought his father's Civil War diplomacy, which against very long odds stopped England from recognizing the Confederacy as an independent nation, had been unjustly forgotten by the ingrate Union. In his writing, however, this shared resentment had to contend with his own Adams-ish righteousness and with his more peculiarly Charles-ish resentments, both displayed in the letter he wrote to his brother Henry in the project's early stages:

I may respect the young man, as a young man; but I neither admire nor like him. The first thing I notice is the absence of anything large, human or sympathetic.... He took to diary writing early, and he took to it bad; and the disease grew in him as he grew older. It was just the thing he ought not to have done. Naturally reserved and self-centred, his nature required when young,— that is for its full development,— active contact with the world and social life; but at 22 he became a married hermit with a diary for his confidant and familiar friend. He wanted no other. Actually, he never was educated. This might not have been so bad, had there been the elements of warmth, humor, imagination in his intellectual make-up,— the geniality and friendliness among persons or the sympathy with nature,— which insensibly make what some persons write worth writing for themselves or worth reading to others. In his diaries there is nothing of the sort,— not a touch of humor, no power of description, no eye to the dramatic, no love of gossip, no touches of sympathy or fun....
- Charles to Henry, 15 April 1895

On paper, it would have made more sense for Morse to ask Henry, who held the unique advantage of having been present on their father's English mission, while Charles Junior had stayed home and joined the Union Army.

Off paper, Morse had rejected Henry's submission of an Aaron Burr biography fourteen years earlier, and would not have expected forgiveness or forgetfulness. And on Henry's side, after Clover Hooper Adams's suicide and the cheerless delivery of his contractual obligations, he considered himself done with American history and, so far as possible, with any public life whatsoever. When Charles asked him to serve as backup biographer, his answer was clear:

If you fail to carry out your plan for our father’s biography, do you think much loss will result? I do not know; but if you depend upon me to redeem your failure, I fear that you will make about as bad a miscalculation as you ever set to the score of the uncalculable. I should never touch it. Sad as this collapse may be, I am by no means sure that our honored parent might not be a greater figure for the shadows that would be left about his name.
- Henry to Charles, 26 April 1895

But Henry otherwise approved of the commission, and tried to talk Charles into a more lenient mood:

In the remote atmosphere which surrounds me, this debased and degraded race seems to care about us or our friends as little as they do for a Periplaneta Orientalis; and, to judge from the supreme indifference of this generation, that insignificant coleopter will be far more important than we, to the generations which may follow the present. Nevertheless I suppose we are bound to behave as though the universe were really made to glorify our works, so I heartily approve your proceedings. Pray make any use of me that you like, just as though I were real.

As for the governor, the world has little use for him, now that he is dead, and not much more, while he lived. Judging from the intolerable dulness ofthe various Lives already published: Seward, Chase, Sumner, Motley, Longfellow, &c—in fact, of all, except Lincoln and the Generals—I should say that the less we insisted on exhibiting our papa, the better. He stands on the merits of his course and speech in one session of Congress, and his diplomatic papers and conduct. For those two results, his character, mind and training were admirably fitted. His defects and limitations were as important, and as valuable, to him, as his qualities, within the range of those fields. Had there been a little more, or a little less of him, he would have been less perfect. As he stands, he stands alone. No other public man of his time begins to compare with him, within the range of his action. He is almost like a classical gem. From the moment he appeared anywhere—at Washington, London, Geneva—his place was never questioned, much less disputed. Russell, Palmerston, Disraeli, Bright, Cobden, Gladstone, Seward, and all the Americans, were bunglers in work compared with him, as his state-papers show. [...]

Of course you cannot expressly say all this, but this is really all that the public wants to know, and your business is to make them feel it. Sons are not the proper persons to do such work, but I know of no one better suited, so we may as well try.

- Henry to Charles, 16 April 1895

While the older brother worked at his old-school history, Henry became increasingly engaged by younger brother Brooks's more novel attempt to scientize history on a firm intellectual foundation of economics and antisemitism. His later replies to Charles were terse.

Still, Charles must have been eager to hear his opinion of the finished book. Henry certainly had one, and expressed it in a couple of diary-like letters:

Charles’ Life of his father, in the statesman series, is out, and I am making myself a martyr trying to read it. Thank my miserable cowardice that I did not write it! [...] At any rate, I have, at awful cost, learned to hold my tongue, except in letters, and am getting nervous even about them. No man that ever lived can talk or write incessantly without wearying or annoying his hearers if they have to take it in a lump. Thanks entirely to our family habit of writing, we exist in the public mind only as a typical expression of disagreeable qualities.
- Henry to Brooks, 4 March 1900
I’ve been trying to read my brother Charles’s Life of our father, and it makes me sick. Now I understand why I refused so obstinately to do it myself. These biographies are murder, and in this case, to me, would be both patricide and suicide. They belittle the victim and the assassin equally. They are like bad photographs and distorted perspectives. Luckily no one knows the difference, and the modern public is as dead to the feeling of historical atmosphere as it is to the color of the Chartres windows. I have sinned myself, and deeply, and am no more worthy to be called anything, but, thank my diseased and dyspeptic nervous wreck, I did not assassinate my father. I have also read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Letters with much the same effect on my mind. Cabot Lodge thinks them the best letters ever written. To me they rouse again the mystery of the hippopotamus and the dinner; they never leave enough for us. They exaggerate all one’s bigness, brutality and coarseness; they perpetuate all one’s mistakes, blunders and carelessnesses. No one can talk or write letters all the time without the effect of egotism and error. They are like a portrait by Sargent; they betray one’s besetting vices in youth, and one’s worst selfishness in middle-life, and one’s senility in Joe Choate.
- Henry to Elizabeth Cameron, 5 March 1900

(Despite his gift for irony, his frequent claims to mad senile laughter, and his generally successful attempts to circumnavigate despair in front of the children, Henry Adams never seems to have felt the power of deflationary comedy, or to have realized that something more than disillusionment might result when the virtue ethics of traditional history confront mere shared humanity.)

He wasn't so forthcoming with Charles himself. The excellent editors of Henry Adams's letters briskly summarize:

CFA2 and his family had been staying in Washington for the winter. On Feb. 28, after dining with HA, he noted in his diary that “not by word, look or line has he recognized the existence of my ‘Life.’” On March 25, after again dining with HA, he recorded the evening as “pretty dull and very restrained,—not a reference even to the ‘Life.’” On April 8 he recorded his “farewell call on Henry,—to the last dumb as an oyster on the ‘Life’” (CFA2 Diary, MHi).

Charles, Jr., never expressed pleasure in the labor of this biography, and no one was clamoring for more. And so, with true Adams doggedness, he immediately, and for most of the rest of his life, began working on a massive expansion which would, as a matter of course for a completely objective historian like himself, sadly necessitate many more acknowledgments of his father's inadequacies.

The youngest Adams sibling, sister Mary, saw some of the work in progress, asked him to reconsider, and called on Brooks and Henry for backup. Both demurred, claiming (reasonably enough) that interference would only make Charles more determined. But it's likely that Henry also preferred to maintain the "don't ask, don't tell" status quo. So far as I can gather from published records, the only opinion he ever offered his brother was the extremely indirect one of The Education of Henry Adams in 1907:

Please bear in mind that I don’t mean any harm. The motive of the first part is to acquit my conscience about my father. That of the second part is to acquit my conscience about Hay.
- Henry to Mary Cadwalader Jones, 11 April 1907,
sent with a copy of the book

Nine years later, Charles had the last (indirect) word with his posthumously published Autobiography, a long purge of regrets ("Few things do I envy the possession of in others more than the faculty of remembering faces or placing names") and recriminations: He wasn't given a bicycle. Harvard hadn't offered a course in chess. A hastily assembled mix of slaves and freemen given a few weeks of ten-foot-pole's-length cavalry training had failed to establish him as a brilliant military leader. And, most startling, and possibly unique in the annals of filial resentment, a complaint that his parents did not ship him away to a bullycratic boarding school: "I would so much have enjoyed it.... It might have made me 'a good fellow.'"

He gives his father credit for one good decision, though:

The common schools my father did not care to send his children to; and I have always been glad of it. I don’t associate with the laborers on my place, nor would the association be agreeable to either of us. Their customs, language, habits and conventionalities differ from mine; as do those of their children. I believe in school life; and I believe in the equality of men before the law; but social equality, whether for man or child, is altogether another thing. My father, at least, didn’t force that on us.

Detached from the manner of its telling, as Charles himself admits at the end, it would seem like a reasonably pleasant and successful life. Accompanied and sometimes overwhelmed by its drone of frets, chafes, and carps, it's a reasonably recognizable one. A dull book; a human document.

Oh, and to answer my initial question:

On paper, when writing about himself or his father or the pristine white manliness of Robert E. Lee, Charles Junior is hard to beat. But off paper everyone agrees that Brooks Adams was the most annoying by far even Brooks:

He used to say, plaintively, "As soon as I join a group of people they all melt away and disappear," which was all only too true.
- Education by Uncles by Abigail Adams Homans

Responses

"Curious" is the word. Shades of Ogdred Weary.

 

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.