Little Daffydowndilly, and other stories (1887)/A Sketch of the Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne

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A SKETCH OF THE LIFE OF
NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE.

The old town of Salem, in Massachusetts, was once a famous seaport, and ships sailed out of its harbor to the ends of the world. In the East Indies so many merchant vessels bore the word Salem on the stern that people there supposed that to be the name of some powerful country, and “Mass.,” which was sometimes added, to be the name of a village in Salem. As Boston and New York grew more important, they drew away trade from the smaller towns, and Salem became less busy. It still has wharves, and large, roomy houses where its rich merchants lived, and shows in many streets the signs of its old prosperity; but one living in Salem is constantly reminded how famous the old town once was rather than how busy it now is.

In an old house in Union Street, in Salem, was born Nathaniel Hawthorne, July 4, 1804, and in one near by, in Herbert Street, he spent his boyhood. The town had already begun to decline when he was a boy there; and as he walked about the streets and listened to the talk of people, he seemed always to be in the company of old men, hearing about old times, and watching the signs of decay. There were strange stories of what had happened in former days, especially since Salem was the place where, more than a hundred years before, there had been a terrible outbreak of superstition; men and women had been charged with witchcraft, and had been put to death for it. One of Hawthorne’s own ancestors had been a judge who had condemned innocent people to death because he believed them guilty of witchcraft.

His father died before he could know him. He was a sea-captain, and so was his father before him, who was a privateersman in the Revolutionary War. When Hawthorne was a boy of fourteen, he went with his mother to live for a year in a lonely place in Maine. He spent much of his time by himself in the open air. In summer he took his gun and roamed for hours through the woods. On winter nights he would skate by moonlight, all alone, upon the ice of Sebago Pond, and sometimes rest till morning by a great camp-fire which he built before a log-cabin. He led a strange, solitary life, and formed habits of being by himself which he never shook off; but he learned also to observe the world about him, and his eye and ear were trained like those of an Indian.

He went back to Salem at the end of the year, and, when he was ready, went to Bowdoin College, in Maine, where he was a classmate of the poet Longfellow. Another of his college friends was Franklin Pierce, who afterward was President of the United States. Hawthorne had already begun to show that he was to be a writer. “While we were lids together at a country college,” he wrote once to his friend, Horatio Bridge, an officer in the navy, “gathering blueberries in study hours, under those tall academic pines; or watching the great logs, as they tumbled along the current of the Androscoggin; or shooting pigeons and gray squirrels in the woods; or bat-fowling in the summer twilight; or catching trout in that shadowy little stream, which, I suppose, is still wandering river ward through the forest, though you and I will never cast a line in it again,—two idle lads, in short (as we need not fear to acknowledge now), doing a hundred things that the faculty never heard of, or else it had been the worse for us,—still it was your prognostic of your friend’s destiny that he was to be a writer of fiction.”

After he graduated, in 1825, Hawthorne went back to Salem, and lived there, with only occasional excursions into the country, until 1838. He took long walks in the fields, along the country roads and the neighboring sea-beaches, but much of his time was spent in an upper chamber in the old Herbert Street house. Here he read many books, and sat for hours pondering and writing. Many of the tales which he wrote he destroyed, but one novel called Fanshawe was published; it was quite unlike what he afterward wrote, and was so little regarded that very few copies could be traced when, years afterward, the interest which people had come to have in everything of Hawthorne’s led to a reprint of it. He sent little stories to magazines, and here and there a reader was found who wondered at their strange beauty, but most passed them by. At length, through the help of his old friend Bridge, some of the stories were collected and published in a volume called Twice-Told Tales. It is from that volume that Little Annie's Ramble is taken. It is pleasant to notice that Longfellow was one of the first to welcome the book, and to give it hearty praise in an article in the North American Review. Hawthorne wrote also at this time some short sketches of biography and history.

While leading this quiet, uneventful life, he began to keep note-books, in which he recorded what he saw on his walks, what he heard other people say, and thoughts and fancies which came to him through the day and night. He did not make these note-books for publication; they held the rough material out of which he made books and stories, but they had also much that never reappeared in his writings. He jotted down what he said for his own use and pleasure, and thus sometimes he did not make complete sentences. He was like an artist who takes his pencil and draws a few lines, by which to remember something which he sees, and afterwards paints a full and careful picture from such notes. The artist’s studies are very interesting to all who like to see how a picture grows, and often the sketch itself is very beautiful, for one who paints well can scarcely help putting beauty into his simplest outlines; then, by drawing constantly, he acquires the power of putting down what he sees in few but vivid lines. After Hawthorne's death, selections from his Note-Books were published. One may learn by them how to write carefully, just as one may learn to draw by studying an artist’s sketches.

These thirteen years meant much to Hawthorne. He was learning to write; he was steadily using the power which had been given him, and it was growing stronger every year. Yet they were lonely and often discouraging years to him. He could earn but little by his pen. Very few people seemed to care for what he did, and he loved his own work so well that he longed to have others care for it and for him. He went back afterward to the chamber where he had read and written and waited, and as he sat in it again he took out his note-book, and wrote: “If ever I should have a biographer he ought to make great mention of this clamber in my memoirs, because so much of my lonely youth was wasted here, and here my mind and character were formed; and here I have been glad and hopeful, and here I have been despondent. And here I sat a long, long time, waiting patiently for the world to know me, and sometimes wondering why it did not know me sooner, or whether it would ever know me at all, at least, till I were in my grave&hellips;. By and by the world found me out in my lonely chamber, and called me forth.”

For a short time after this he held a post in the Boston custom-house, given him by the historian George Bancroft, who was then collector of the port. He kept at his writing, also, and prepared the first part of the volume published as Grandfather’s Chair, in which he told to children stories drawn from early New England history. In 1842 he married Miss Sophia Peabody, and went to live in Concord, Massachusetts. He occupied an old house near the river, which had been the home of the village minister for more than one generation, and was known as the Old Manse. He now gave himself busily to writing, and in 1846 the stories which he wrote were gathered into two volumes, under the title Mosses from an Old Manse.

In that same year he was appointed surveyor of the port of Salem, and held the office for three years. It was while living in Salem, among the old familiar scenes, that he wrote the novel which gave him fame, The Scarlet Letter; yet so diffident was he, and so discouraged by the slow sale of the little books he had put forth, that the manuscript of the first draft of the novel lay neglected, until a persistent friend, a publisher, Mr. James T. Fields, discovered it. The publication at once brought Hawthorne noticeably forward. The book was published in 1850, after he had left the custom-house in Salem; and he took his family at this time to Lenox, in the western part of Massachusetts, where he lived for a little more than a year. He wrote there another of his great novels, The House of the Seven Gables, and also his Wonder-Book, in which he retold for children some of the old classic legends. Afterwards he wrote the Tanglewood Tales, a book of similar stories.

Hawthorne was now a well-known American author, not so much because he had written books which everybody had read, as because the best judges of good books in America and England were eager to read everything he might write, for they saw that a new and great author had arisen. In 1853 his old college friend Franklin Pierce was President, and he appointed Hawthorne consul of the United States in Liverpool, England. Thither he went with his family, and remained in Europe until 1860, although he left the consulate in 1857. The seven years which he spent abroad were happy ones, and his Note-Books, passages from which have been published, give charming accounts of what he saw and did. Two books grew out of his life in Europe: Our Old Home, which tells of sights and people in England; and The Marble Faun, which is a novel, with its scene laid in Italy.

Hawthorne wrote other books, which are not named here, and he began one or two which he never finished. Most of his writings are better read by older people than by children, for though he wrote some books expressly for the young, he was most deeply moved by thoughts about life which the young cannot stand. He sometimes made allegories, like Bunyan’s Pilgrim's Progress, and one of them is given here, Little Daffydowndilly; and he always cared for the strange things which happen, just as some people like to walk in the twilight and to listen to mysterious sounds. He was not afraid of the dark, and he thought much of how people felt when they had done wrong or had suffered some great trouble.

Hawthorne died May 19, 1864, and was buried on a hill-side in the cemetery at Concord. The day on which he was buried was the one lovely day of a stormy week, and in a poem which Longfellow wrote after the funeral we may catch a glimpse of the beauty of the scene, and know a little of the thoughts of those who were present.

How beautiful it was, that one bright day
In the long week of rain!
Though all its splendor could not chase away
The omnipresent pain.

The lovely town was white with apple-blooms,
And the great elms o’erhead
Dark shadows wove on their aerial looms
Shot through with golden thread.

Many famous men and women followed him as he was borne to the grave, and a few of them knew him. Yet very few could say they knew him well. The people who now read his books may know almost as much of him as those who met him daily, for it was in his books that he made himself known. He left a son and two daughters, one of whom has since died. His son Julian Hawthorne has written a life of his father and mother, which is published in two volumes, under the title Nathaniel Hawthorne and his Wife. His son-in-law, George Parsons Lathrop, has also written A Study of Hawthorne, which gives the facts of his life in connection with his literary career. Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes published in The Atlantic Monthly for July, 1864, an account of Hawthorne in his last days. It is interesting to compare the two pen-pictures of the great romancer which the poet Lowell has drawn, an early one in his Fable for Critics, a late one in his poem Agassiz. If one would know how Hawthorne looked, he has several portraits to consult, issued by the publishers of Hawthorne’s works.


This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.