Nathaniel Hawthorne/Chapter 8

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Nathaniel Hawthorne by George Edward Woodberry
Chapter 8

VIII.


LAST YEARS.


Hawthorne reached Concord, on his home journey, late in June, 1860, and took possession of the Wayside almost unobserved. He had intended to improve the house and grounds, and set about the task; the well-known tower, in memory of the tower of Montaüto, was added for his study, and some other changes were made, but his funds, which were diminished by an unfortunate loan, were insufficient to enable him to do all he desired. He was welcomed by his old Concord friends, and began again the agreeable village life he had formerly known; but he mingled more on equal terms with other people than had been his custom before his foreign residence had forced him into some share of society. He went not infrequently to the Saturday Club in Boston, and though always a silent and reserved person in such gatherings, his enjoyment of these occasions was as great as he could ever derive from literary companionship, and many of the members were old and familiar acquaintances. It was at home, however, that he spent his days, working in his study over his writing, and pacing the footpath on the hill-ridge back of his house, and from time to time going to the seaside at Beverly or in Maine with his son Julian for a companion. His health was not so firm as it had been. A change seems to have fallen on him with some suddenness on his return to America; for some years, ever since the hard winter of "The Scarlet Letter" at Salem, he had complained of fatigue in writing and of lassitude and slowness of mind; after the winter in Rome he felt this with new weariness, as he says when he practically ended his notebooks in Switzerland, not having the vital impulse to continue them, and in the intervening time he had completed "The Marble Faun;" now he began perceptibly to lose physical force, to grow thin, and to lack energy. He wrote a good deal, sitting down to his desk and "blotting successive sheets of paper as of yore;" but with little satisfaction to himself.

The times were unfavorable to peace of mind and the quiet of literary occupation. Secession began soon after he arrived, and war followed in the spring with that outburst of passionate devotion to the Union which was transforming all his neighborhood into a camp and sending all the youth of his people to the battle southward. To Hawthorne, being in such imperfect sympathy with this feeling and the causes which gave it passion, the war was only vexation and disaster, with much meaninglessness, foolishness, uselessness, however he might try to look at it with Northern eyes. In nothing is his natural detachment from life so marked as in this incapacity to understand the national life in so supreme a crisis and under the impulse of so profound a passion. He stood aloof from it, unmoved in his superannuated conservatism, as abroad he had stood aloof from the English life wrapped in his imperturbable New England breeding. He was obliged to take some stand in his own mind, and he naturally went with his own State, never having been really an American, on the national scale, but only a New Englander, as he confessed. During his life at Liverpool, four years before, he had made up his mind which side he would be on, when the prospect of war began to loom up as a possibility, and wrote briefly to Bridge about it:—

"I regret that you think so doubtfully (or, rather, despairingly) of the prospects of the Union; for I should like well enough to hold on to the old thing. And yet I must confess that I sympathize to a large extent with the Northern feeling, and think it is about time for us to make a stand. If compelled to choose, I go for the North. At present we have no country—at least, none in the sense an Englishman has a country. I never conceived, in reality, what a true and warm love of country is till I witnessed it in the breasts of Englishmen. The States are too various and too extended to form really one country. New England is quite as large a lump of earth as my heart can really take in.

"Don't let Frank Pierce see the above, or he would turn me out of office, late in the day as it is. However, I have no kindred with, nor leaning towards, the abolitionists."

In the first flush of the war he felt the contagion of the patriotic thrill, and was with his friends a "war Democrat;" but his mind was filled with reservations. On May 26, 1861, he again writes to Bridge:—

"The war, strange to say, has had a beneficial effect upon my spirits, which were flagging woefully before it broke out. But it was delightful to share in the heroic sentiment of the time, and to feel that I had a country,—a consciousness which seemed to make me young again. One thing as regards this matter I regret, and one thing I am glad of. The regrettable thing is that I am too old to shoulder a musket myself, and the joyful thing is that Julian is too young. He drills constantly with a company of lads, and means to enlist as soon as he reaches the minimum age. But I trust we shall either be victorious or vanquished before that time. Meantime, though I approve the war as much as any man, I don't quite understand what we are fighting for, or what definite result can be expected. If we pummel the South ever so hard, they will love us none the better for it; and even if we subjugate them, our next step should be to cut them adrift. If we are fighting for the annihilation of slavery, to be sure it may be a wise object, and offer a tangible result, and the only one which is consistent with a future union between North and South. A continuance of the war would soon make this plain to us, and we should see the expediency of preparing our black brethren for future citizenship by allowing them to fight for their own liberties, and educating them through heroic influences. Whatever happens next, I must say that I rejoice that the old Union is smashed. We never were one people, and never really had a country since the Constitution was formed."

Six months later he writes again with nearly the same point of view, accepting in fact the theory of disunion as the only possible result:—

"I am glad you take such a hopeful view of our national prospects so far as regards the war; but my own opinion is that no nation ever came safe and sound through such a confounded difficulty as this of ours. For my part I don't hope, nor indeed wish, to see the Union restored as it was. Amputation seems to me much the better plan, and all we ought to fight for is the liberty of selecting the point where our diseased members shall be lop't off. I would fight to the death for the northern slave States and let the rest go."

It is this despair of the Union that characterizes his attitude throughout, and with it goes also an absence of belief in the Union; but one feels that he is not deeply interested in the matter for its own sake. Thus after another interval he again writes to Bridge, February 14, 1862:—

"Frank Pierce came here and spent a night, a week or two since, and we mingled our tears and condolences for the state of the country. Pierce is truly patriotic, and thinks there is nothing left for us but to fight it out, but I should be sorry to take his opinion implicitly as regards our chances in the future. He is bigoted to the Union, and sees nothing but ruin without it; whereas I (if we can only put the boundary far enough south) should not much regret an ultimate separation."

The next month Hawthorne visited Washington and saw the edges of the conflict, and he wrote out his impressions of men and of the scenes in his article "Chiefly about War Matters," which was published in "The Atlantic Monthly" for July, 1862. The text was sufficiently unsympathetic with the times to trouble the editor's mind, and Hawthorne, to ease the situation, added explanatory comments of his own as if from an editorial pen. The article shows conclusively how little Hawthorne had been affected, how completely he stood out of the national spirit, being as mere an observer of what was going on as at any time in his life and expressing his own view from time to time with entire obliviousness, as in the passages on Lincoln and on John Brown, of everything except his own impression. The judgment he passes on John Brown illustrates, too, better than pages of comment, his mental attitude in politics, its excuses and its limitations:—

"I shall not pretend to be an admirer of old John Brown, any farther than sympathy with Whittier's excellent ballad about him may go; nor did I expect ever to shrink so unutterably from any apothegm of a sage, whose happy lips have uttered a hundred golden sentences, as from that saying (perhaps falsely attributed to so honored a source), that the death of this blood-stained fanatic has 'made the Gallows as venerable as the Cross!' Nobody was ever more justly hanged. He won his martyrdom fairly, and took it firmly. He himself, I am persuaded (such was his natural integrity), would have acknowledged that Virginia had a right to take the life which he had staked and lost; although it would have been better for her, in the hour that is fast coming, if she could generously have forgotten the criminality of his attempt in its enormous folly. On the other hand, any common-sensible man, looking at the matter unsentimentally, must have felt a certain intellectual satisfaction in seeing him hanged, if it were only in requital of his preposterous miscalculation of possibilities."

Whatever one may think of this as the truth of common-sense, its publication in the summer of 1862 in Massachusetts showed an impenetrable self-possession in the author, and it is doubtless true, as has been said, that no other Northern man could have written such an article as this, so disengaged from the realities, the passion and prejudices of the time, so cold in observation and so impartial in feeling, so free from any participation in the scene.

It was during the winter of this year and the spring of 1863 that Hawthorne renewed his literary work by contributing to "The Atlantic Monthly" the papers afterwards published as "Our Old Home." [Footnote: Our Old Home. A Series of English Sketches. By Nathaniel Hawthorne. Boston: Ticknor and Fields. 1863. 12mo. Pp. 398.] The contents of this volume have already been spoken of, and it need only be remarked here that some allowance may fairly be made for their tone and manner on the score of the depression of the time, arising from Hawthorne's increasing ill-health as well as from public confusion. The one memorable incident connected with the new book is the adherence of the author to his design of dedicating it to Franklin Pierce, to whom indeed it fitly belonged. Fields, however, was doubtful how the public would look on a compliment paid to the unpopular ex-President, and on communicating his views to Hawthorne he received this answer:—

"I thank you for your note of the 15th instant, and have delayed my reply thus long in order to ponder deeply on your advice, smoke cigars over it, and see what it might be possible for me to do towards taking it. I find that it would be a piece of poltroonery in me to withdraw either the dedication or the dedicatory letter. My long and intimate personal relations with Pierce render the dedication altogether proper, especially as regards this book, which would have had no existence without his kindness; and if he is so exceedingly unpopular that his name is enough to sink the volume, there is so much the more need that an old friend should stand by him. I cannot, merely on account of pecuniary profit or literary reputation, go back from what I have deliberately felt and thought it right to do; and if I were to tear out the dedication, I should never look at the volume again without remorse and shame. As for the literary public, it must accept my book precisely as I think fit to give it, or let it alone."

Hawthorne's decision was in the line of his character, and the dedication itself was in excellent taste.

The imaginative work of these last years was considerable in bulk, but it was never brought to any perfection; and though it has been published, the entire mass of it is only a bundle of more or less rough or uncompleted sketches and studies. It is comprised in the group of half-wrought tales, "The Ancestral Footstep," "Septimius Felton," "Dr. Grimshawe's Secret," and "The Dolliver Romance," which are all various shapes of the one work that Hawthorne was trying to evoke from his mind. They are interesting illustrations of the operation of his imagination, of his methods of thought, construction and elaboration, and in general of the manner in which a romance might grow under the hand; but there is little probability, so far as can be judged, that Hawthorne ever before worked in this experimental and ineffectual way. He had sketched an English romance "The Ancestral Foot-Step," in 1858, before his Italian experiences, and laid it aside. It was after his return to Concord that he again took up the scheme, and he attempted to join it with another plan involving a different idea. The four states in which the romance exists are the results of his various efforts, but in none of them is it anything more than inchoate. The idea on the English side of the story sprang from the imprint of a bloody footstep at the foot of the great staircase at Smithell's Hall; on the American side it sprang from a tradition which Thoreau reported about the Concord house, to the effect that a man had lived there in the Revolution who sought the elixir of life. But neither of these two topics developed satisfactorily. The physical type which had served Hawthorne so well hitherto no longer responded to his art; neither the bloody footstep, nor the flower that grew upon the grave, which was after all only a fungus and not the real flower of life, had any story in them, either alone or together, and the figure of Sylph, who embodies allegorically this graveyard flower, has no power to win credence such as other, earlier, symbolic characters had won. The power of narration, the rich surface of romantic art, the character of the physician and the child, the scene of the Revolutionary morning, the English chamber, the white-haired old man, the treasure chest with its secret of golden hair,—all these things are in one or another of these studies, and there is much loveliness of detail; but there is no vitality in any of these; that element of life which has been spoken of before, as the germinal power in Hawthorne's imaginative work, is gone; here are only relics and fragments, the costume and settings, the figures, the sentiment, the beauty of surface, the atmosphere of romance, but the story has refused to take life. Whether it was due to Hawthorne's failing powers or to inherent incapacities of the theme, is immaterial; he was not to finish this last work, and he knew it. He had gone so far as to give Fields the promise of "The Dolliver Romance," as if it were in that form that he meant to reduce the whole; but he did so with no confidence, as appears from his successive notes:—

"There is something preternatural in my reluctance to begin. I linger at the threshold, and have a perception of very disagreeable phantoms to be encountered if I enter.... I don't see much probability of my having the first chapter of the Romance ready as soon as you want it. There are two or three chapters ready to be written, but I am not robust enough to begin, and I feel as if I should never carry it through." And he writes again: "I am not quite up to writing yet, but shall make an effort as soon as I see any hope of success. You ought to be thankful that (like most other broken-down authors) I do not pester you with decrepit pages, and insist upon your accepting them as full of the old spirit and vigor. That trouble, perhaps, still awaits you, after I shall have reached a further stage of decay. Seriously, my mind has, for the present, lost its temper and its fine edge, and I have an instinct that I had better keep quiet. Perhaps I shall have a new spirit of vigor, if I wait quietly for it; perhaps not."

In February, 1864, he advises that some notice be given the readers of the magazine that he cannot furnish the promised romance, and he tries to touch the subject with humor, but it is too plain that his spirits are ill at ease:—

"I hardly know what to say to the public about this abortive romance, though I know pretty well what the case will be. I shall never finish it. Yet it is not quite pleasant for an author to announce himself, or to be announced, as finally broken down as to his literary faculty.... I cannot finish it unless a great change comes over me; and if I make too great an effort to do so, it will be my death; not that I should care much for that, if I could fight the battle through and win it, thus ending a life of much smoulder and a scanty fire in a blaze of glory. But I should smother myself in mud of my own making.... I am not low-spirited, nor fanciful, nor freakish, but look what seem to me realities in the face, and am ready to take whatever may come. If I could but go to England now, I think that the sea-voyage and the 'old Home' might set me all right."

At the end of March he started south with Ticknor, in hopes of some improvement by the change of air and scene; his companion, who was expected rather to have the care of Hawthorne, was himself taken ill and suddenly died in Philadelphia. The shock to Hawthorne in his state of health was a great one, and he returned home excited and nervous. He failed rapidly, and his family and friends became anxious about him, though they did not anticipate the suddenness of the end. In the middle of May Frank Pierce proposed that they should go to the New Hampshire lakes and up the Pemigewasset, by carriage, and Hawthorne consented. He bade his wife and children good-by, and was perhaps convinced that he would never return; whatever thoughts were in his mind, he kept silence concerning them. The narrative of the journey, with its end, is given by Pierce in a letter to Bridge:—

"I met H. at Boston, Wednesday (11th), came to this place by rail Thursday morning, and went to Concord, N. H., by evening train. The weather was unfavorable, and H. feeble; and we remained at C. until the following Monday. We then went slowly on our journey, stopping at Franklin, Laconia, and Centre Harbor, and reaching Plymouth Wednesday evening (18th). We talked of you, Tuesday, between Franklin and Laconia, when H. said—among other things—'We have, neither of us, met a more reliable friend.' The conviction was impressed upon me, the day we left Boston, that the seat of the disease from which H. was suffering was in the brain or spine, or both; H. walked with difficulty, and the use of his hands was impaired. In fact, on the 17th I saw that he was becoming quite helpless, although he was able to ride, and, I thought, more comfortable in the carriage with gentle motion than anywhere else; for whether in bed or up, he was very restless. I had decided, however, not to pursue our journey beyond Plymouth, which is a beautiful place, and thought, during our ride Wednesday, that I would the next day send for Mrs. Hawthorne and Una to join us there. Alas! there was no next day for our friend.

"We arrived at Plymouth about six o'clock. After taking a little tea and toast in his room, and sleeping for nearly an hour upon the sofa, he retired. A door opened from my room to his, and our beds were not more than five or six feet apart. I remained up an hour or two after he fell asleep. He was apparently less restless than the night before. The light was left burning in my room—the door open—and I could see him without moving from my bed. I went, however, between one and two o'clock to his bedside, and supposed him to be in a profound slumber. His eyes were closed, his position and face perfectly natural. His face was towards my bed. I awoke again between three and four o'clock, and was surprised—as he had generally been restless—to notice that his position was unchanged,—exactly the same that it was two hours before. I went to his bedside, placed my hand upon his forehead and temple, and found that he was dead. He evidently had passed from natural sleep to that sleep from which there is no waking, without suffering, and without the slightest movement."

The funeral took place at Concord on May 24, 1864, and he was buried in Sleepy Hollow; on his coffin lay his unfinished romance, and his friends stood about the open grave, for he was almost the first of the distinguished group to which he belonged to lay down the pen. Emerson and others whose names have been frequent in this record now lie with him in that secluded spot, which is a place of long memory for our literature. His wife survived him a few years and died in London in 1871; perhaps even more than his genius the sweetness of his home life with her, as it is so abundantly shown in his children's memories, lingers in the mind that has dwelt long on the story of his life.