- Historic Sites
In Search Of Innocence
Henry Adams and John LaFarge in the South Seas
June 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 4
When Marian Hooper Adams took her fatal dose of potassium cyanide on December 6, 1885, she almost smashed the life out of her husband as well. Suicide makes a clean sweep of the past and present; worst of all, it repudiates love. Until that day Henry Adams might have reasonably considered that his life was successful. He had not, to be sure, been President of the United States, like his grandfather and great-grandfather, or minister to England, like his father, but he had been a brilliant and popular teacher of medieval history at Harvard, a successful editor of the North American Review , a noted biographer and essayist, and he was in process of completing his twelve-volume history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations, which even such a self-deprecator as he himself must have suspected would one day be a classic. But above all this, far above, he had believed that he and his wife were happy.
Recovering from the first shock, he took a trip to Japan with his friend John LaFarge. Then he went back to Washington and worked for three laborious years to finish his history and prepare it for the press. After that, at last, he was free. He had neither child nor job, and his means were ample. In August of 1890 he and LaFarge sailed again from San Francisco for a voyage of indefinite duration to the South Seas. Many writers have speculated on why he went. Edward Chalfant, who in my opinion is the scholar closest to the secrets of Adams’ personality, told me that he had once made a list of seventeen possible motives. Suffice it to say that Adams had reached the end of one life and was wondering if another existed.
LaFarge was the perfect travelling companion. Ernest Samuels has described him as an original genius with a Faustian nature who maintained a large, devoutly Catholic family in Newport while he kept bachelor’s hall in New York. He was delighted to explore the Pacific at Adams’ expense, leaving family and creditors behind. A master in oils and water colors, he could also talk and write exuberantly on all the subjects that he reproduced.
The Pacific opened up a new dimension of color. LaFarge’s journal is a hymn to the sea and air. He taught Adams to observe the exquisite clearness of the butterfly blue of the sky, laid on between clouds and shading down to a white faintness in the distance where the haze of ocean covered up the turquoise. He made him peer down into the water, framed in the opening of a ship’s gangway, and see how the sapphire blue seemed to pour from it. He pointed out the varieties of pink and lilac and purple and rose in the clouds at sunset. Adams never learned to be more than an amateur painter, but his vision was immensely sharpened.
They went first to Oahu, where they made the discovery which every other island was to confirm: that the charm of the Pacific declined in exact proportion to the penetration of the white man. It was not until October, when thev landed on Uoolu in the Samoas, that they came in touch with a culture that was still largely unspoiled. The natives, grave and courteous, greeted them benevolently and made them feel immediately at home. They drank the ceremonial kava, muddy water mixed with grated root, which left a persistent little aftertaste that no amount of coconut milk could quite wash away, and they watched the siva, a dance performed by girls naked to the waist, their dark skins shining with coconut oil, seated cross-legged with garlands of green leaves around their heads and loins. The girls chanted as they swayed and stretched out their arms in all directions; they might have come out of the nearby sea. LaFarge’s spectacles quivered with emotion, but Adams was able to assure his correspondent Elizabeth Cameron that nothing in the song or dance suggested the least impropriety. Again and again he was to comment on such evidences of Rousseauistic innocence.
Samoa was ruled by Malietoa, the puppet king of the Western nations’ consuls, but Mataafa, the deposed monarch, still held the loyalty of most of the population. Adams and LaFarge, scrupulously neutral, called on both and learned a concept of aristocracy beside which Adams felt like “the son of a camel driver degraded to the position of stable boy in Spokane West Centre.” For the real art of the Samoans was social. Even the breeding among the chiefs was systematic. They selected their wives for strength and form, with the result that the principal families enjoyed a physical as well as a social superiority. Yet at the same time Adams observed that the society was basically communistic. All of the presents that he and LaFarge lavishly handed out to their hosts—umbrellas, silk scarfs, gowns, cigars—were soon seen parading about the villages on strangers. Every chief was basically a poor man because he was obliged to share what he had.
In Apia the travellers found the first corrosive effects of European influence. In the big siva organized in their honor by the American consul, the girls deferred to missionary prejudices by wearing banana leaves over their breasts. Adams was at once reminded of the world and the devil. In 1970 we are amused at his surprise that the Polynesian standard of female beauty should be more in the body than the face, but we must remember that in 1890 the face was all that the American woman exposed. He and LaFarge, however, did not carry their preference for old Samoan customs to the point of adopting the native want of costume. They feared ridicule, not to mention mosquitoes.