The Five of Hearts

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Handsomely illustrated and full of the results of original research, Patricia O’Toole’s well-written group portrait The Five of Hearts keeps its promise of presenting “an intimate portrait of Henry Adams and his friends” and richly rewards its readers with a superb, fresh look at its subjects. Admirably, O’Toole’s book never becomes simply sensationalist or remains on the surface of polite and respectful pondering; her portrait is fair, generally complete, and endears its subjects to a contemporary reader

At the center of The Five of Hearts stands the private circle of that name. Its members begin referring to their gatherings in this way during the winter of 1880-1881, when all five “hearts” come to dwell in Washington, D.C., and start seeing each other at exclusive tea parties in the house Henry and Miriam “Clover” Adams are renting just opposite the White House. 0’ Toole leads up to a description of this union, an early climax of her book, by skillfully sketching the lives of her subjects before they come together. First the reader follows Henry Adams, the most famous of the group, moving from his native Quincy to Harvard, Europe, Washington, and back to his university, this time as professor of history. His marriage there—a small, intimate wedding marked by a conspicuous absence of pomp—introduces Clover Adams, nee Hooper, an outstanding woman with a sharp intellect, no religious beliefs, and a deep affection for her widowed father, to whom she writes weekly after their honeymoon in Europe and Egypt. The third “heart” is Clarence King, a brilliant scientist who quickly becomes famous as head of a geological expedition along the fortieth parallel, the first systematic attempt at charting the riches and mapping the land of the American West. Drawing on his surviving letters and official documents, O’Toole sharply contrasts King’s early professional triumphs with his lifelong personal frustrations. Because his domineering mother (who remains financially dependent on him) jealously thwarts King’s attempts at finding a “suitable” wife, O’Toole suggests, King in reaction, develops a hatred for women of his social class. The Five of Hearts dispassionately presents King’s love for Native Americans, English working- class women, and the black Ada Copeland, whom he finally marries under the name of James Todd while feigning a job as railway porter to explain his long absences from their home.

John and Clara Hay are the last two “hearts”; their marriage is shown as based on John’s admiration for the morally strong (and physically stout) Clara. Quoting from Clara’s school essays, O’Toole pictures a pious young woman who bravely insists on a woman’s right to intellectual life while serving her husband according to the cultural ideals of a bygone era. In John, whom O’Toole sees as afflicted with “an inability to act on his dreams,” the author perceives a nervous, rich gentleman drifter who needs a challenge set directly in front of him before he can rise (brilliantly) to the occasion.

When all five people are brought to Washington, 0’ Toole pauses to look at the dynamics of their friendship. Apart from physical similarities—“all of them were short”—there are important bonds, but there is friction as well:

They were sensitive, intelligent, charming, and, with the exception of Clara Hay, articulate and highly amusing. … Clover, noting that Mrs. Hay “never speaks,” speculated that it was just as well since Mr. Hay “chats for two.”

Each of the men had attained a degree of literary eminence. …All five were enthusiastically American, albeit with an elitist point of view. …Clara Hay and Clover Adams had no politics apart from the politics of their husbands. Nor did they have the right to vote.

Apart from their mutual fondness for one another, which nevertheless often turns into a sizzling battle of wits with charges led by four of the “hearts,” the friends also possess a powerful “secret for reinforcing a sense of exclusivity.” In 1880, Henry Adams publishes his immensely popular anonymous satirical novel Democracy, which lampoons the corruption of American politics while telling a powerful love story. With America and Western Europe guessing at the book’s authorship, the Five of Hearts (and very few...

(The entire section is 1791 words.)