Arthur Henry Adams was born at Lawrence, Otago, New Zealand, on 6 June 1872, the son of Eleanor (Ellen) Sarah Gillon and her husband, Charles William Adams, a surveyor and a talented astronomer. He attended Otago Boys' High School in Dunedin and the University of Otago, where he graduated BA in 1894. Although his major study was law, already he was more interested in literature, and in 1893 supplied the composer Alfred Hill with a comic opera libretto, 'The whipping boy'. (This was never performed.) Another collaboration with Hill was the cantata Time's great monotone (1894).
In 1895 Adams abandoned law to become a journalist and joined the Wellington Evening Post, which was edited by his uncle E. T. Gillon. In the same year, he and Hill worked on a cantata, Hinemoa. Adams's text was an essential contribution to the work's popular success. In 1898, aged 26, he moved to Australia for the first time. For most of his life Sydney was to be his home. There he worked on the libretto of the comic opera Tapu, which – again with music by Hill – was a success on its production in Wellington in 1903 despite some inadequacies in the dialogue.
His first volume of poems, Māoriland, and other verses, was published in Sydney in 1899. It was welcomed by critics and some of its verses have been frequently anthologised. Adams went to China in 1900 to cover the Boxer rebellion for the Sydney Morning Herald. He took advantage of this experience to make a lecture tour of New Zealand in 1901. Like others before and since, he travelled to England hoping to make his name. The three years he spent there seem to have been unhappy, and the poems in London streets (1906) give a negative image of the metropolis.
In 1905 Adams returned to New Zealand to continue his journalistic career at the Evening Post and (briefly) the New Zealand Times. Then in 1906 he replaced A. G. Stephens as editor of the Red Page in the Sydney Bulletin. This appointment was a sign of literary success. Stephens had long been feared and respected as the arbiter of literary taste among Australian writers. The Red Page (named for the colour of the journal's cover, on the inside of which it appeared) was four long columns of literary gossip, criticism and comment. Adams was now established as a leading figure in Sydney life.
On 30 September 1908 at Neutral Bay, Sydney, he married Lilian Grace Paton. The same year the first of a series of his comedies for the theatre had been performed. The tame cat was set in London, where a New Zealander tries to persuade a friend to return to the antipodes. One critic complained of the lack of action in the play but praised its sparkling dialogue. This judgement is in keeping with later praise of Adams's skill with words rather than with larger structures. In 1909 Adams left the Bulletin to take over the editorship of the literary magazine the Lone Hand, which published many well-known Australian writers. In 1911 he became editor of the Sydney Sun and returned to the Bulletin six years later.
In 1913 Adams published his Collected verses, in which he announced his abandonment of poetry. In fact he had already published his most successful novel, Tussock land, in London in 1904. It is the story of a young man who leaves his New Zealand home to seek artistic success in Australia but is constantly tortured by memories of the country and the young Māori woman he left behind. On returning to New Zealand he and Aroha are reconciled. This novel, with its powerful word-pictures of New Zealand landscapes and Sydney streets, is an important document of a man losing and recovering his sense of belonging to New Zealand.
Adams never forgot his origins and was always viewed by his Australian colleagues as a transplanted New Zealander. He continued to live in Australia, however, and published a number of other novels: Galahad Jones (1910), A touch of fantasy (1912), Grocer Greatheart (1915), The Australians (1920), and the autobiographical A man's life (1929). These are marked by a lively sense of humour, an ironic view of the gap between sexual passion and romantic idealism, and of a similar gap between the creative urge and the banality of daily life. They are notable for their overall kind-heartedness of tone. Adams also published four novels under the pseudonym James James, light-heartedly ironic treatments of married life.
Adams himself was devoted to his wife and family (to the derision of some of his literary colleagues). He was described as 'tall and thin, good-looking in a dark, sallow way', and evidently irritated people with his vanity while charming them with his natural talents and devotion to the literary life. He was an ardent advocate of Australian drama, and for over 20 years exerted considerable influence on Australian literature as journalist and critic. As a poet, playwright and novelist, for a time he was 'a fashion and a force', but, like characters in some of his novels and plays, gradually lost his talents in the disappointments of life. Adams died in Sydney on 4 March 1936. He was survived by his wife, two daughters and a son.