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Natalie Dykstra

December 2021

Interview by Rebecca Johnston

Natalie Dykstra in front of the door to the Palazzo Barbaro, the palace where Gardner stayed in Venice and which inspired her; photo courtesy of Katrin Kelley.
Natalie Dykstra in front of the door to the Palazzo Barbaro, the palace where Gardner stayed in Venice and which inspired her; photo courtesy of Katrin Kelley.

Natalie Dykstra is a highly acclaimed biographer, author of Clover Adams and an upcoming biography of Isabella Stewart Gardner, both of which have been supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Until recently retiring, she taught writing and literature at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. She now lives in Waltham with her husband while she continues to write. She was kind enough to tell me about her writing journey, beginning with inspiring professors and incorporating the BA along the way. For more information, visit her website, www.nataliedykstra.com

Q: When and where did you grow up? Where do you call home now?

NATALIE DYKSTRA: I grew up in Michigan and Illinois and now live with my husband in Waltham, where he owns a business. I always thought I’d live west of the Mississippi, after getting my Master’s degree in American Studies at the University of Wyoming and a PhD in American Studies at the University of Kansas. I still pine for those big western skies, especially in the winter. But the stories I wanted to tell, and the archives and libraries connected to those stories, drew me eastward. 

Q: Did any classes or teachers have a particularly strong impact on you?  

ND: Two professors come immediately to mind. Ken Bratt, my classics professor at Calvin College (now Calvin University), wove together lectures about myth and art and poetry, so that we were utterly immersed in an ancient world. Sometimes, after his lectures, I couldn’t sleep at night, with that old world shimmering in my imagination. Barry Shank, at Kansas (now at Ohio State University), taught a course on cultural theory, in a way that was completely unexpected, original. One time, when I was talking with him, I was overcome with emotion because of one of our course readings and couldn’t stop my tears, though I desperately wanted to, making all sorts of sounds to that effect. He said to me quietly: “Always pay attention to what moves your heart.” That line shifted how I saw my work and writing.

Q: What is your profession? How did you get your start?  

ND: Until last May, I was Professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, where I taught for 20 years. For many of those years, my college accommodated my living eight months a year here in the Boston area. So, my writing life grew out of my teaching life.
 
Q: Please tell us a little about your book, Clover Adams. What were some of the struggles you had researching and writing your book? The great joys?

ND: A great pleasure of writing biography for me is who and what I get to think about. There were so many fascinating characters and themes in Clover’s story. Henry Adams, of course, was a complicated man, especially flawed as he got older, but also a genius and prolific writer, who penned some of the best letters of the nineteenth century. And there are innumerable others—Clover’s mother, Ellen Sturgis Hooper, a wonderful Transcendental poet; Henry James; the architect H.H. Richardson; and the Washington, D.C. socialite Elizabeth Cameron. But it was always Clover who drew me the most to my desk. It struck me as unfair that she’d been known for her marriage to a famous man and because she had died by suicide at the age of 42. She was so much more than her worst day—funny, a quick study, acerbic, creative, and often vulnerable in disguised ways that posed a challenge for anyone trying to understand her both in her own time, and now. Her death was a tragedy for Henry, and his overwhelming grief and guilt shrouded her in obscurity. But she was a gifted photographer in the years before Kodak and in her last years she recorded aspects of her life in gorgeous, sometimes heart-stopping images, which often speak to what she could not, or did not, say. Her photographs and letters are archived at the Massachusetts History Society and viewable on their website.

I missed her terribly after my book was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2012. I still do. 

Q: Are there any projects on the horizon you are able to share? How are things going with Isabella Stewart Gardner? 

ND: I’ve been grateful to have an all-absorbing project to work on during the pandemic and grateful, too, to be working with my same editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which has changed names and is now Mariner, an imprint of HarperCollins.

The challenges of writing a biography of Gardner are many. She had an enormously big life, lived to 84, knew a lot of people, and was extraordinarily smart and capable. Sometimes I find myself intimidated by her, but I think she would have liked that. One had to earn her trust. She was also great fun, full of stories, self-aware (most of the time), by turns generous, demanding, mercurial. And her life became larger and larger as she got older. Her eponymous art museum was her “letter to the world,” to borrow Dickinson’s line. When it first opened to the public in 1903, she was about to turn 63 years old. That timing is part of what drew me to the story. I find the shape of her life—an early promise, terrible losses, a long quiet, and then a coming to fruition, a blooming, much past the time otherwise expected—to be immensely moving. And she lived long enough to fully realize and enjoy what she’d accomplished. That’s rare.  

There’s a line I love from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves: “How I distrust neat designs of life that are drawn upon half-sheets of notepaper. I begin to long for some little language such as lovers use, broken words, inarticulate works, like the shuffling of feet on pavement.” It feels important, somehow, to keep Woolf’s lines close in my imagination when writing this complex life from a past that is both eerily familiar yet also remote.

Q: How did you find the Athenæum? Do you have any particular memories from when you first visited?  

ND: I knew about the Athenæum because the people I wrote about were library members. Then, I had the thrill to give a Clover book talk in its wonderful auditorium in 2012. How much I enjoyed that day! From the start, I loved the hush of its rooms, the way the light pours in on the fifth floor.

Q: What appeals to you about the Athenæum? Have you found any hidden gems you would like to share?  

ND: First of all, I appreciate how the library handled changes during the pandemic and how it ensured access to its collections, even when the doors needed to be temporarily closed. Impressive. I love the history of the library, its location at the top of Beacon Hill so near the State House. I like to imagine all the readers over the years entering its rooms and all the writers at its tables. I did a lot of reading on nineteenth-century fashion at the Athenæum and tracked down first edition copies of some of Gardner’s favorite novels that she read as a young woman. The library has a large collection of titles about Boston published in the 1920s and 30s, and those are filled with vivid, sensory details about growing up in the city. I love to scan the shelves for the books I know I need, and in doing so, discover books I didn’t know I needed. That’s the best.