CHAPTER XXXIV. NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE.
There came to the old town of Salem, in the Province of Massachusetts, in the early part of the seventeenth century, an English family named Hawthorne—Puritans, like all the other inhabitants of that growing town. They proved their fidelity to Puritan principles by entering readily into all the superstitions of the day, and became noted for the zeal with which they persecuted the Quakers and hung the witches. The head of the family was a sea captain, and for many generations the men of the family followed the same avocation, "a gray-haired shipmaster, in each generation, retiring from the quarter-deck to the homestead, while a boy of fourteen took the hereditary place before the mast, confronting the salt spray and the gale, which had blustered against his sire and grandsire."
Of such a race came Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was born at Salem, on the 4th, of July, 1804. His father was a sea captain, and died of the yellow fever at Havana, in 1810. His mother was a woman of great beauty and extreme sensibility, and it was from her that Nathaniel derived the peculiarities of character which distinguished him through life. The death of her husband filled her with the profoundest grief, and though the violence of her sorrow subsided with time, she passed the remainder of her life in strict seclusion, constantly grieving in her quiet way for her departed lord. Her son grew up to the age of ten in this sad and lonely house, passing four of the most susceptible years of his life in the society of his sorrowful mother. He became a shy boy, and avoided the company of other children. His health began to suffer from the effects of such an unnatural state of affairs, and at the age of ten he was sent to live on a farm belonging to the family, on the shore of Sebago Lake, in Maine. The active out-door life which he led here entirely restored his health, which was naturally strong and vigorous; here, also, he acquired that fondness for boating which was his chief amusement in after years. Returning to Salem, he completed his studies in the preparatory schools, after which he entered Bowdoin College, where he graduated in 1825, at the age of twenty-one. He was a classmate of Longfellow and George B. Cheever, with whom he was only slightly acquainted; and he formed a warm and lasting friendship with Franklin Pierce, who was in the class next before him. Longfellow has preserved a recollection of him in his student days as "a shy youth in a bright-buttoned coat, flitting across the college grounds."
After graduating, he went back to his home in Salem, where he resided for many years, leading a life of seclusion, which he passed in meditation and study. His strong literary inclination now vented itself in efforts which were in every way characteristic of the man. He wrote numerous wild tales, the most of which he burned, but a few of which found their way into the newspapers and magazines of the country. They were full of a wild gloominess, and were told with a power which proved that their author was no ordinary man. Few, however, dreamed that they were the work of the pale recluse of Salem, for he led a life of such strict seclusion that not even the members of his own family could tell with certainty what he did. His days were passed in his chamber, and at night he took long walks alone on the sea-shore or into the woods. He shunned all society, and seemed to find companionship only in nature, and in the creations of his fancy. Yet he was not a morose or unhappy man. On the contrary, he seems to have been a very happy one, full of generous and kindly feelings, and finding only a strange pleasure where others would have found bitterness and cynicism. Like the melancholy Jacques, he might have said of his pensive shyness, "It is a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects; ... which, by often rumination, wraps me in a most humorous sadness."
In 1837 he collected his published tales, which, while they had charmed a few cultivated readers, had scarcely been noticed by the masses, and published them in a volume to which he gave the name of "Twice-Told Tales." The book was well received by the public, but its circulation was limited, although Mr. Longfellow warmly welcomed it in the "North American Review," and pronounced it the "work of a man of genius and a true poet." Still it was neglected by the masses, and Hawthorne says himself that he was at that time "the most unknown author in America." There was more truth in this assertion than lies on its face, for the people who read the book supposed that the name of Nathaniel Hawthorne was merely a pseudonyme, and declared that as Nathaniel was evidently selected by the author because of the fondness of the old-time Puritans for Scripture names, so Hawthorne was chosen by him as expressive of one of the most beautiful features of the New England landscape. The merits of the book were too genuine, however, for it to lack admirers, and the small class which greeted its first appearance with delight gradually increased, and finally the demand for the book became so great that in 1842 Hawthorne ventured to issue a second series of "Twice-Told Tales," the most of which had appeared in the "Democratic Review," then edited by his friend O'Sullivan. Of these volumes, Mr. George William Curtis says: "They are full of glancing wit, of tender satire, of exquisite natural description, of subtle and strange analysis of human life, darkly passionate and weird."
In 1838 George Bancroft was Collector of the Port of Boston, and, having been deeply impressed with the genius displayed in the first volume of "Twice-Told Tales," sought out Hawthorne and offered him a place in the Boston Custom-House as weigher and gauger. Hawthorne accepted the position, and at once entered upon his duties. Leaving his solitude and the weird phantoms that had been his companions for so long, he passed immediately into the busy bustle of the great New England port. It was a new world to him, and one which interested him keenly. His duties kept him constantly on the wharf, and threw him daily into contact with captains and sailors from all parts of the world. He became a great favorite with these, and they told him many a strange story of their adventures and of the sights they had seen in distant lands, and these, as they were listened to by him, took each a distinctive form in his imagination. Not less interesting to him were the men among whom his duties threw him. They were more to him than the ordinary beings that thronged the streets of the great city, for they had been victorious in many a battle with the mighty deep, and they had looked on the wondrous sights of the far-off lands of the Old World. Queer people they were, too, each a Captain Cuttle or a Dirk Hatteraick in himself, and many an hour did the dreamy writer spend with them, apparently listening to their rude stories, but really making keen studies of the men themselves.
He discharged his duties faithfully in the Boston Custom-House, performing each with an exactness thoroughly characteristic of him, until 1841, when the accession of President Harrison to power obliged him to withdraw to make way for a Whig.
From the Custom-house he went to live at Brook Farm as one of that singular community of dreamers and enthusiasts which was to inaugurate a new era of men and things in the world, but which came at last to a most inglorious termination. He was thrown into intimate association here with many who have since become prominent in our literary history, and for some of them conceived a warm attachment. He took his share of the farm labors, to which he was very partial, but remained at the community less than a year, and then returned to Boston. In his "Blithedale Romance" he has given us a picture of the life at Brook Farm, though he denies having sketched his characters from his old associates at that place.
In 1843 he married Miss Peabody, a member of a family distinguished for their various achievements in the world of letters. Besides being an artist of no mean pretensions, she was herself a writer of considerable promise, though her writings had no other critics than her family and most intimate friends. "Her husband shrank from seeing her name in the reviews, and in this, as in all other things, his feelings were sacredly respected by her." She was a lady of rare strength of character and great beauty, and was in every respect a fitting wife for such a man. The twenty-one years of their wedded life make up a period of unbroken happiness to both. Hawthorne was very proud of his wife, and in his quiet way never failed to show it. Their friends often remarked that the wedded life of this happy pair seemed like one long courtship.
Hawthorne took his bride on his wedding-day to a new home. He had rented the old parsonage adjoining the battle-field of Concord, from whose windows the pastor of those heroic days had watched his congregation fight the British in his yard. It was a gloomy and partially dilapidated "Old Manse," and doubtless Hawthorne had chosen it because of its quaint aspect. He has himself drawn the picture of it, and given us an exquisite collection of "Mosses" from it. It lay back from the main road, and was approached by an avenue of ancient black-ash trees, whose deep shade added much to the quiet appearance of "the gray front of the old parsonage." It was just the home for him, and here passed three of the happiest years of his life. Here he wrote his "Mosses from an Old Manse," and here his first child was born.
The life he led at Concord was very secluded. He avoided the society of the village people, who sought in vain to penetrate his retirement and satisfy their curiosity concerning him. But they were disappointed. He lived on in his deep seclusion, happy in having his wife and child with him, but caring for no other society. During the day he remained in his study, which overlooked the old battle-field, or, passing down the lawn at the back of the house to the river, spent the afternoon in rowing on the pretty stream. At night he would take long walks, or row up the river to the bridge by which the British crossed the stream, and enjoy his favorite luxury—a bath. The village people were full of curiosity to know something about him, for he was absolutely unknown to them; and any one who understands what the curiosity of a New England villager is can readily imagine the feelings with which the people of Concord regarded their mysterious neighbor. They were never satisfied, however, for Hawthorne shrank from prying eyes with indescribable horror. He kept his ways, and compelled them to let him alone. He could easily avoid the town in his walks or his rides upon the river, and he was rarely seen passing through the streets unless compelled to do so by matters which needed his attention in Concord.
Yet the "Old Manse" was not without its guests. Hawthorne was a man of many friends, and these came often to see him. They were men after his own heart, and among them were Emerson, Ellery, Channing, Thoreau, Whittier, Longfellow, and George William Curtis. The last-named has left us this pleasant picture of our author in the midst of his friends:
"During Hawthorne's first year's residence in Concord, I had driven up with some friends to an esthetic tea at Mr. Emerson's. It was in the winter, and a great wood-fire blazed upon the hospitable hearth. There were various men and women of note assembled, and I, who listened attentively to all the fine things that were said, was for some time scarcely aware of a man who sat upon the edge of the circle, a little withdrawn, his head slightly thrown forward upon his breast, and his bright eyes clearly burning under his black brow. As I drifted down the stream of talk, this person who sat silent as a shadow looked to me as Webster might have looked had he been a poet—a kind of poetic Webster. He rose and walked to the window, and stood quietly there for a long time, watching the dead white landscape. No appeal was made to him, nobody looked after him, the conversation flowed as steadily on as if every one understood that his silence was to be respected. It was the same thing at table. In vain the silent man imbibed esthetic tea. Whatever fancies it inspired did not flower at his lips. But there was a light in his eye which assured me that nothing was lost. So supreme was his silence, that it presently engrossed me to the exclusion of every thing else. There was brilliant discourse, but this silence was much more poetic and fascinating. Fine things were said by the philosophers, but much finer things were implied by the dumbness of this gentleman with heavy brows and black hair. When presently he rose and went, Emerson, with the 'slow, wise smile' that breaks over his face, like day over the sky, said: 'Hawthorne rides well his horse of the night.'" Later on, after he knew him better, Curtis added to this picture, "His own sympathy was so broad and sure, that, although nothing had been said for hours, his companion knew that not a thing had escaped his eye, nor had a single pulse of beauty in the day, or scene, or society failed to thrill his heart. In this way his silence was most social. Every thing seemed to have been said."
At the close of the third year of his residence at Concord, Hawthorne was obliged to give up the "Old Manse," as the owner was coming back to occupy it. The Democrats had now come into power again under Mr. Polk, and Mr. Bancroft was in the Cabinet. The Secretary, mindful of his friend, procured him the post of Surveyor of the Port of Salem, and Hawthorne went with his little family to live in his native town. The Salem Custom-house was a sleepy sort of a place, and his duties were merely nominal. He had an abundance of leisure time, and from that leisure was born his masterpiece, "The Scarlet Letter"—the most powerful romance which ever flowed from an American author's pen. It was published in 1850, and in the preface to it the reader will find an excellent description of the author's life in Salem. He held his position in that place for three years, and then the election of General Taylor obliged him to retire.
He withdrew to the Berkshire Hills, and took a house in the town of Lenox. It was a little red cottage, and was situated on the shore of a diminutive lake called the Stockbridge Bowl. He was now the most famous novelist in America, and had thousands of admirers in the Old World. His "Scarlet Letter" had won him fame, and had brought his earlier works more prominently before the public than ever.
During his residence at Lenox, he wrote "The House of the Seven Gables," which was published in Boston in 1851. It was not less successful than the "Scarlet Letter," though it was not so finished a piece of workmanship.
Yet, though so famous, he was not freed from the trials incident to the first years of an author's life. Mr. Tuckerman says of him at this time: "He had the fortitude and pride, as well as the sensitiveness and delicacy, of true and high genius. Not even his nearest country neighbors knew aught of his meager larder or brave economies. He never complained, even when editors were dilatory in their remuneration and friends forgetful of their promises. When the poor author had the money, he would buy a beefsteak for dinner; when he had not, he would make a meal of chestnuts and potatoes. He had the self-control and the probity to fulfill that essential condition of self-respect, alike for those who subsist by brain work and those who inherit fortunes—he always lived within his income; and it was only by a kind of pious fraud that a trio of his oldest friends occasionally managed to pay his rent." His friend and publisher, Mr. Ticknor, "received and invested the surplus earnings of the absentee author when American Consul at Liverpool, and had obtained from Hawthorne a promise on the eve of his departure for his post, ... that he would send him all he could spare from his official income, to be carefully nursed into a competence for his family. Never was better advice given or wiser service performed by publisher to author. The investments thus made became the means of comfort to the returned writer in the maturity of his years and his fame."
In 1852 he returned to Concord and purchased a small house which had once been the residence of the philosopher Alcott. Here he made his permanent home and gathered about him his household treasures. In the Presidential campaign of 1852, his friend Franklin Pierce was the candidate of the Democracy, and Hawthorne wrote a short biography of him which was used by the Democrats as a campaign document. It was a labor of love, for the friendship that had been begun between these two men in their college days had never been broken, and though naturally averse to every thing that savored of politics, our author made this contribution to the cause of his friend with all the heartiness of his nature. Pierce was profoundly touched by this unexpected aid, for he knew how utterly Hawthorne detested political strife, and when seated in the Presidential chair he showed his appreciation of it by offering his friend the consulship to Liverpool—one of the most lucrative offices within the gift of the executive. Hawthorne broke up his home in Concord and sailed for Liverpool in 1853, and remained there until 1857, when he resigned his consulship and traveled on the continent with his family, residing for some time in Italy for the benefit of his health. His European residence had the effect of drawing him out of his shyness and reserve to a certain extent, and during the closing years of his life he was more social with the persons about him than he had ever been. After his return he went back to Concord, where he enlarged and beautified his old home, intending to remain there for the balance of his life. He wrote the "Marble Faun" and "Our Old Home" just after his return from Europe. The former was suggested by his residence in Italy, and the latter was a collection of English sketches and reminiscences.
The war between the two sections of the country affected him very deeply. It seemed to him a terrible tragedy, to which there could be no end but utter ruin for the country. He sympathized strongly with the cause of the Union, but at the same time his heart bled at the sufferings of the people of the south. It was one long agony to him, and only those who knew him intimately can understand how much he suffered during this unhappy period.
Mr. Moncure D. Conway gives the following reminiscence of him about this time: "I passed a night under the same roof with him at the house of Mr. Fields, his publisher. He seemed much dejected. Mr. Fields had invited a little company, but, after the first arrivals, Hawthorne made his escape to his room, from which he did not emerge until the next morning at breakfast time. He then came in with the amusing look of a naughty child, and pleaded that he had become lost the night before in Defoe's ghost stories until it was too late to make his appearance in the company. He must, I should think, have been contemplating some phantasmal production at that time, for I remember his asking me many questions about the ghost-beliefs of the negroes, among whom I had passed my early life."
Besides the works already mentioned, Hawthorne was the author of "True Stories from History and Biography" and "The Wonder Book for Boys and Girls," both published in 1851; "The Snow Image and Other Twice-Told Tales," published in 1852; and "Tanglewood Tales," published in 1853, all juveniles. At the time of his death he was engaged upon a novel which was to have been published in the "Atlantic Monthly," but it was left incomplete.
In the spring of 1864 his friend and publisher, Mr. W.D. Ticknor, of Boston, seeing how feeble Hawthorne had become, asked him to accompany him on an excursion, hoping that a rapid change of scene and cheerful company would benefit him. They set out in April, and went direct to Philadelphia. Upon arriving at the hotel, Mr. Ticknor was suddenly taken very ill, and died on the 10th of April in his friend's arms. Hawthorne was profoundly shocked by this melancholy occurrence, and it is said that he never fully recovered from its effects upon him. His melancholy seemed to deepen, and though his friends exerted themselves to cheer him, he seemed to feel that his end was near. Ex-President Pierce, hoping to rouse him from his sad thoughts, induced him to accompany him on an excursion to the White Mountains. Upon reaching Plymouth, which they took on their route, they stopped at the Pemigewasset House for the night. Mr. Pierce was so full of anxiety concerning his friend, who had been quieter and sadder than usual that day, that he went softly into his room in the middle of the night to look after him. Hawthorne was lying very still, and seemed to be sleeping sweetly. Mr. Pierce stole softly away, fearing to disturb him. In the morning he went back to rouse his friend, and found him lying lifeless in the position he had noticed in the night. He had been dead some hours.
The announcement of Hawthorne's death caused a feeling of deep sadness in all parts of the Union. His body was taken to Concord for burial, and was accompanied to the grave by the best and most gifted of the land, to each of whom he had endeared himself in life.