June 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 4
Henry Adams and John LaFarge in the South Seas
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.
Everywhere they asked their hosts endless questions about customs, families, and religion, and everywhere they ran into the same stubborn secrecy. Adams became convinced that under the superficial layer of their converted Christianity the Samoans preserved a secret priesthood mightier than the political chiefs, with supernatural powers, invocations, prophecies, charms, and the whole paraphernalia of paganism. The natives never had to kill a missionary. They merely played him off.
On their malangas , or boat excursions, to the smaller islands, the two friends thrust themselves deeper and deeper into the Polynesian mystery. How had the natives ever got there? From east or west? Was Darwin correct about the origin of coral reefs? LaFarge despaired of duplicating the quality of the light, and Adams of catching the true expression of the islands. To John Hay, Adams wrote that it was languor that was not languid, voluptuousness that was not voluptuous, a poem without poetry. At other moments it struck him as simply an impossible stage decoration. Gazing at the natives passing his cottage in their blue or red or yellow waistcloths, their bronzed skins aglow in the sun against the surf line of the coral reef, he wrote Anna Lodge that he expected to see a prima donna in green garlands and a girdle of ti leaves emerge from the next hut to invoke the cuttlefish or the shark with a Wagnerian chorus of native maidens.
But in the end reality surpassed all such images. Perhaps Adams’ most vivid memory would be the picnic by the sliding rock where they watched the yellow limbs of the girls who plunged naked into the white foam, like goldfish in a blue-green pool. LaFarge said that had they stayed much longer they would have plunged in after them. LaFarge, alone, might have.
Before leaving Samoa, they became fairly intimate with Robert Louis Stevenson, who had moved there with his wife and mother, in the last round of his gallant but desperate struggle with tuberculosis. Stevenson’s letter to a friend in England about their first visit caused much hilarity when the Adams circle got hold of it: “Two Americans called on me yesterday. One, an artist named LaFarge, said he knew you. The name of the other I do not recall.”
Stevenson was immediately congenial with LaFarge, but he put Adams in mind of a dirty cotton bag over a skeleton. The novelist’s flashing dark eyes, his darting body, his improbable tales, made Adams uneasy. Adams recoiled from physical messiness and may have ascribed what he saw of this quality to Stevenson’s mental processes. In this he was certainly unfair. Adams had turned away from life in wandering to the Polynesian islands; Stevenson was searching for it. He gave all of himself to the Samoan experience; he dug roots, cut trees, and helped with the building of his house at Vailima like a man on the frontier. He entered passionately into the political disputes of the island and fiercely embraced the side of the natives against that of the exploiting colonials. Adams felt that Stevenson could never understand the Samoans because he attributed to them the motivations of boys in the Edinburgh of his own youth. But I wonder if Stevenson’s understanding of boys and of adventure did not put him closer to the Samoans than Adams could ever have been.
After Samoa came the appalling disillusionment of Tahiti. Adams described it as an exquisitely successful cemetery. The atmosphere was one of hopelessness and premature decay. The natives were not the gay, big, animal creatures of Samoa; they were still, silent, sad in expression, and fearfully few in number. The population had been decimated by bacteria brought in by Westerners. Rum was the only amusement which civilization and religion had left the people. The puppet king, Pomare, was to die of a rotten liver shortly after Adams and LaFarge left. Tahiti was a halfway house between Hawaii and Samoa. Adams complained that a “pervasive half-castitude” permeated everything, “a sickly whitey-brown, or dirty-white complexion” that suggested weakness and disease.
He was bored, he insisted, as he had never been bored in the worst wilds of Beacon Street or at the dreariest dinner tables of Belgravia. While waiting for a boat to take them elsewhere, anywhere, he amused himself by returning to his role of historian and interviewing members of the deposed royal family, the Tevas. Next to Mataafa in Samoa, he found the old ex-queen of Tahiti, Hinari, or Grandmother, the most interesting native figure in the Pacific. She showed none of the secrecy of the Samoan chiefs but took a motherly interest in Adams and LaFarge and told them freely, sitting on the floor, all her clan’s oldest legends and traditions. Adams was even adopted into the Teva clan and given the hereditary family name of Taura-atua, with the lands, rights, and privileges attached to it—though these holdings consisted of only a hundred square feet.
But when he came, some years later, to put the history into a book which he had privately printed, it was little more than an interesting failure. Tahiti had no history, in the Western sense of the word, until the arrival of the white man. Of the thousands of years that had preceded Captain Cook, where generation had succeeded generation without distinguishable change, there was nothing left but genealogy and legend. The genealogy, which makes up a large part of Adams’ book, is boring, and as for the legend, he admitted himself that it needed the lighter hand of Stevenson.
Yet The Memoirs of Arii Taimai nonetheless mark an important step in Adams’ career. He had gone, by 1890, as far as he was going as a historian in the conventional sense. His great work on Jefferson and Madison was history at its most intellectually pure. The author stands aside and lets the documents tell the story, from which a very few precious rules may be deduced. But in the South Seas he had tried to leave the intellect for simplicity, for instinct. He had sought peace and found ennui. Even the unspoiled natives, in the long run, palled. He,had to return, in Papeete, to his profession, and he had to try it with a new twist, for how else could Tahitian history be done? And if The Memoirs were a bore, was it altogether his fault? Might it not be in the subject? Suppose he were to happen upon a subject that required not only the imagination of the man who had sat on the floor with the old queen of Tahiti as she intoned the poems of her family tradition, but also the industry of the devoted scholar who had pored through archives of European foreign offices? Suppose he were to find a subject, in short, that required a great artist as well as a great historian?
He was to find such a one a few years hence in the Gothic cathedrals of France. Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres is an extraordinary tour de force of the imagination, a vivid invocation of the spirit and force of the twelfth century that may be longer read than any of Adams’ other books. It has always been a difficult volume for librarians to classify. Is it history or travel or criticism or theology or even fiction? But its language shimmers with some of the magic blue of the windows of the cathedral which forms its principal topic. One day, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, gazing at the brilliant Ia Orana Maria , I was struck by the fact that the Virgin of Chartres, like the Virgin of Paul Gauguin, may owe something to the colors and legends of the South Seas.
Gauguin arrived in Tahiti a few days after Adams and LaFarge had left, in time to witness the funeral of King Pomare. It is probably just as well that they did not meet. The American travellers detested European settlers, and a European settler who drank to excess and lived publicly with a native woman would have seemed the acme of Western corruption. If Adams had considered Stevenson a Bohemian, Gauguin would have been beyond the pale. Nor would LaFarge have liked Gauguin’s painting. Many years later, when he and Adams were old men and Gauguin was dead, LaFarge wrote to his former travelling companion about an illustrated catalogue of a Gauguin show in Paris. He informed Adams that the “mad Frenchman” had been in Tahiti shortly after their visit and had actually met some of their friends on the island. It is disappointing to have to relate that LaFarge then went on to say that Gauguin’s paintings were sorry failures, desperate efforts to catch the attention of a novelty-hunting; public.
It has been said that Gauguin, with his brilliant colors and primitive figures, caught the essential atmosphere of the islands that both Adams and LaFarge missed. But what he really did was to create a Polynesia of his own that millions of his admirers now regard as the true one. Gauguin came to Tahiti nai’vely in search of an island paradise, an unspoiled Arcadia, but he found and recognized in Papeete precisely what Adams had found and recognized. Only on canvas could he realize his dream. He was under no illusions about what he was doing. His red seas and blue dogs were perfectly deliberate. He wanted painting to stand independent of what it purported to represent and not to be a branch of sculpture. He said that the kind of people who wanted exact reproduction would have to wait for the invention of a color camera. They have, and they are quite content!
Of the brilliant four who were in the Polynesian islands in 1891—Adams, Stevenson, Gauguin, and LaFarge—the first three, like most artists, brought more with them than what they were to take out. The subjective experiences of the historian, of the storyteller, and of the postimpressionist might have been very much the same in other parts of the globe. Polynesia simply happened to be the stage of one aspect of their development. But in LaFarge’s work I feel a more objective effort to reproduce the islands than the others may have made.
His stubborn imagination fixed them in a classic atmosphere that seemed proof against disillusionment. To him the blues and greens were painted in lines of Homer, guessed at by Titian, and the long sway and cadence of the surf had the music of the Odyssey. The Samoan youngster with a red hibiscus fastened in his hair by a grassy knot was a Bacchus of Tintoretto. LaFarge prided himself on having an affinity with a remoter ancestry of man and on being better able than other Westerners to understand the islanders.
But if his paintings have a charm that may be special and Polynesian, they are nevertheless romantic. They tell us quite as much of John LaFarge as they do of the South Seas. Perhaps it is because he insisted that the paradise still existed which Gauguin knew was dead. And perhaps this very insistence is the one good thing that came out of the meeting of East and West. The dream of innocence, abided in or awoken from, may still be a mighty source of inspiration.