Nathaniel Hawthorne/Chapter 6
In the late spring of 1850 Hawthorne removed his family and household goods to the little red cottage amid the Berkshire Hills which was to be a nature's hermitage to him for the next year and a half. It was a story-and-a-half building, rude and simple, on a great hillside, commanding a view of a small lake below and of beautiful low mountain horizons. Here began again that secluded happy family life which had belonged to the Old Manse, and he was perhaps happier than he had ever been. The home had the same internal look as of old, for he had brought with him the relics of family furniture, the oriental objects from over sea that were heirlooms from his father, and the Italian Madonnas, the casts and paintings with which his wife delighted to surround the home-life in an atmosphere of artistic adornment and suggestion; and, as the quarters were very small, the effect was one of mingled homeliness and refinement. Bridge soon joined them, and devoted himself in a practical way to making things shipshape, providing necessary closets and shelves out of packing boxes, and generally eking out the interior arrangements with a sailor's ready ingenuity. Outside there was a barnyard, and a two-story hencoop to be put to rights, with its brood of pet chickens each with its name,—Snowdrop, Crown Imperial, Queenie, Fawn, and the like decorative appellations. The two children, Una and Julian, were in a paradise. Other friends came, too, to visit or to call. Mrs. Hawthorne soon remarked that they seemed to see more society than ever before. Herman Melville lived near by, at Pittsfield, and became a welcome guest and companion, with his boisterous genuine intellectual spirits and animal strength. Fanny Kemble made an interesting figure on her great black horse at the gate. The Sedgwick neighbors were thoughtful and serviceable. O'Sullivan reappeared for a moment in all his Celtic vivacity, and Fields, Holmes, Duyckinck, and others of the profession came and went in the summer days. Hawthorne breathed the air of successful authorship at last, and knew its vanities and its pleasures. The mail brought him new acquaintances, and now and then a hero-worshiper lingered at the gate for a look. But as the warm days went by, and the frosts came, he found himself in his old sheltering nook, in a place removed from the world, living practically alone with his wife and children, though the increasing sense of friendliness in the world cheered and warmed him.
He had, however, begun to age. He was forty-six years old, and the last year had told upon him, with its various anxieties, excitement, and hard labor with the pen. He was more easily fatigued, he was less robust and venturesome, less physically confident. He showed the changes of time. On his arrival, "weary and worn," says his wife, "with waiting for a place to be, to think, and to write in," he gave up with something like nervous fever; "his eyes looked like two immense spheres of troubled light; his face was wan and shadowy, and he was wholly uncomfortable." He soon recovered tone; but though he pleaded that his mind never worked well till the frosts brought out the landscape's autumnal colors and had some similar alchemy for his own brain, it was a needed rest that he enjoyed while giving and receiving these early hospitalities in a new country. He even found the broad mountain view, with the lake in its bosom, a distraction which made it hard for him to write in its presence. He had always been used to narrow outlooks from his windows; even at the Old Manse the scene was small though open. With the coming of the fall days, however, he again took up his writing, and showed how stimulating to his ambition and energies the first taste of popularity had been. Indeed from this time he was more productive than at any other period, and wrote regularly and successfully as he had never before done. The scale of the novel gave more volume to his work of itself, and its mere continuity sustained his effort; moreover the excitement of a new kind of work was a strong stimulus. He now began to write novels, differently studied and composed from his earlier stories, more akin to the usual narrative of fiction. "The Scarlet Letter," a work of pure imagination, was the climax of his tales, the furthest reach of his romantic allegorizing moral art in creation; but he now undertook to utilize his experience and observation in the attempt to delineate life in its commoner and more realistic aspects of character and scene. He began "The House of the Seven Gables" in September and finished it early in January. He wrote regularly, but the story went on more slowly than he had hoped, requiring more care and thought than "The Scarlet Letter," because the latter was all in one tone, while here there was variety. He had to wait for the mood, at times; but the composition was really rapid, and seemed slow only because he was used to the smaller scale of effort. The book was at once sent to press and published in the spring. [Footnote: The House of The Seven Gables. A Romance. By Nathaniel Hawthorne. Boston: Ticknor, Reed and Fields. 1851. 12mo. Pp. vi, 344.]
"The House of the Seven Gables" is a succession of stories bound together to set forth the history of a family through generations under the aspect of an inherited curse which inheres in the house itself. The origin of the curse and of the plot lies in the founder of the family, Colonel Pyncheon, whose character, wrong-doing, and death make the first act; the second, which is no more than an illustrative episode and serves to fill out the history of the house itself, is the tale of Alice, the mesmerized victim of a later generation, in which the witchcraft element of the first story is half rationalized; the third part, which these two lead up to and explain, is the body of the novel, and contains the working out of the curse and its dissipation in the marriage of the descendants of the Colonel and the old wizard Maule, from whose dying lips it had come. The curse itself, "God will give him blood to drink," is made physical by the fact that death comes to the successive heirs by apoplexy, an end which lends itself to an atmosphere of secrecy, mysteriousness, and judgments; but the permanence of those traits which made the Colonel's character harsh and harmful, his ambition, will-power, and cruelty, gives moral probability to the curse and secures its operation as a thing of nature. There is, nevertheless, a lax unity in the novel, owing to this dispersion of the action; and its somewhat thin material in the contemporary part needs the strengthening and enrichment that it derives from the historical elements. The series is united by the uncut thread of a vengeful punishment that must continue until the original wrong itself shall disappear; but when that happens, the Indian deed hidden behind the portrait is worthless, the male line is extinct, and the house itself a thing of the past. The presence of the past in life, both as inheritance and environment, is the moral theme, and here it is an evil past imparting misery to whomever it touches. The old house is its physical sign and habitation; the inhabitants are its victims, and in the later story they are innocent sufferers, as Alice had been in the intermediate time.
Such a canvas is one which Hawthorne loved to fill up with the shadowed lights, the melodramatic coloring and fantastic decorativeness of his fancies. The characters are, as always, few. There are but five of them, Hepzibah, Clifford, Phoebe, the daguerreotypist, and the Judge, with the contributory figures of Uncle Venner and little Ned Higgins. They have also the constant Hawthorne trait of great isolation, and live entirely within the world of the story. In sketching them Hawthorne had recourse to real life, to observation, as also in all the contemporary background and atmosphere. The substance and attraction of the novel lie in this fidelity to the life he knew so minutely; for the plot, the crime, the curse, except in their own historical atmosphere, in the Colonel and in Alice's story, interest us but little and languidly. It is, perhaps, not refining too much to see in the novel a closer relationship to those earlier tales and sketches which drew their matter from observation, were less imaginative, more realistic, and belong to a less purely creative art. If "The Scarlet Letter" was the culmination of the finer tales, "The House of the Seven Gables" is the climax of this less powerful, but more every-day group of the familiar aspect of country life. It was, possibly, with some vague sense of this that Hawthorne preferred this novel as one "more characteristic of my mind, and more proper and natural for me to write;" it came from his more familiar self. He was able to introduce into it that realistic detail concerning trifles which he delighted to record in his journals; and the minute analysis which in the great romance he gave to the feelings and inner life of pain, he here gives rather to the elaboration of the scene, to external things, to the surface and texture of the physical elements. He has succeeded consequently in delineating and coloring a picture of New England conditions with Dutch faithfulness, and this is the charm of the work. It appeals, like life and memory themselves, to the people of that countryside, and goes to their hearts like the sight of home. To others it can be only a provincial study, with the attraction of such life in any land, and for them more dependent on its romantic setting, its moral suggestion, and general human truth. Those who have the secret and are of kin to New England, however, find in the mere description something that endears the book. The life of the little back street, as it revives in Clifford's childishly pleased senses, with its succession of morning carts, its scissor-grinder, and other incidents of the hour; the garden of flowers and vegetables, with the Sunday afternoon in the ruinous arbor, the loaf of bread and the china bowl of currants; the life of the immortal cent-shop, with its queer array, and its string of customers jingling the bell; the hens, evidently transported from the great coop of the Berkshire cottage, but with the value of an event in the novel,—all these things, with a hundred other features that are each but a trifle, make up a glamour of reality that grows over the whole book like the mosses on the house. In the characters themselves this local realism is carried to the highest degree of truth, especially in Hepzibah, who in her half-vital state, with her faded gentility and gentle, heroic heart of patient love, in all her outer queerness and grotesquely thwarted life, is the most wholly alive of all of Hawthorne's characters; in Phoebe, too, though in a different way, is the same truth, a life entirely real; and, on the smaller scale, Uncle Venner is also to be reckoned a character perfectly done. Clifford is necessarily faint, and does not interest one on his own account; he is pitiable, but his love of the beautiful is too much sentimentalized to engage sympathy in the special way that Hawthorne attempts, and one sees in him only the victim of life, the prisoner whom the law mistook and outraged and left ruined; and Holgrave is no more than a spectator, mechanically necessary to the action and useful in other ways, but he does not affect us as a character. There remains Judge Pyncheon, on whom Hawthorne evidently exhausted his skill in the effort to make him repellent. He is studied after the gentleman who was most active in the removal of Hawthorne from the Custom House, and was intended to be a recognizable portrait of him in the community. Perhaps the knowledge of this fact interferes with the proper effect of the character, since it makes one doubt the truth of it. The practice of introducing real persons into literature as a means of revenge by holding them up to detestation is one that seldom benefits either fiction or truth; it was the ugliest feature of Pope's character, and it always affects one as unhandsome treatment. In this instance it detracts from the sense of reality, inasmuch as one suspects caricature. But taken without reference to the original, Judge Pyncheon is somewhat of a stage villain, a puppet; his villainy is presented mainly in his physique, his dress and walk, his smile and scowl, and generally in his demeanor; it is not actively shown, though the reader is told many sad stories of his misbehaviour; even at the end, in the scene in which he comes nearest to acting, the plot never gets further than a threat to do a cruel thing. In other words it is a portrait that is drawn, not a character that is shown in its play of evil power actually embodying itself in life. He is the bogy of the house, the Pyncheon type incarnated in each generation; and when he sits dead in the old chair, he seems less an individual than the Pyncheon corpse. In the long chapter which serves as his requiem, and in which there is the suggestion of Dickens not in the best phase of his art, the jubilation is somewhat diabolic; it affects one as if Hawthorne's thoughts were executing a dance upon a grave. The character is too plainly hated by the author, and it fails to carry conviction of its veracity. Yet in certain external touches and aspects it suggests the hypocrite who everywhere walks the streets, placid, respectable, sympathetic in salutations, but bearing within a cold, gross, cruel, sensual, and selfish nature which causes a shudder at every casual glimpse that betrays its lurking hideousness. The character is thoroughly conceived, but being developed by description instead of action, seems overdone; prosperity has made him too flabby to act, and kills him with a fit as soon as he works himself up to play the role.
After all, the story in its contemporary phase is but a small part of the novel, which does not much suffer even if the Judge in his youthful, hard-hearted, cowardly crime and the victim in his aesthetic delicacy are both ineffective in making the impression the author aimed at. The real scene is the singularly trivial and barren life of the old house, where nothing takes place but the purchase of a Jim Crow, a breakfast of mackerel, a talk about chickens, gossip with Uncle Venner, and the passing of a political procession in the street; and one too easily forgets the marvelous art which could make such a life interesting and stimulating and engaging to the affections, even with the aid of Hepzibah and Phoebe in their simpleness. What makes the happiness of the story is to be found in these details, and in the century-old atmosphere which Hawthorne has generated about them, compounding into one element the witchcraft memories, the foreign horizons, the curse in the house, the threadbare gentility, the decay material and spiritual, the odor of time, all of which he had absorbed from his Salem life; thence it came that he was able to give to New England its only imaginative work that has ancestral quality. All this, too, is distilled from the soil. Hawthorne felt in his own life the weight of this past; its elements were familiar and near to him, so that his own family legend imparts coloring to the tale and gives him sympathy with it; and in leaving Salem it was from such a past that he desired to be free. He expresses himself, in these matters, through Holgrave, in his democratic new life urging Hepzibah to abandon gentility and be proud of her cent shop as a genuine thing in a practical and real world,—she would begin to live now at sixty, such was his narrowness of youthful view; but the democratic sentiment is Hawthorne's. So, too, in his rhetorical impeachment of the past, though the passage is meant to summarize the point of view of reform, there is an emphasis such as sincerity gives:—
"'Shall we never, never get rid of this Past?' cried he, keeping up the earnest tone of his preceding conversation. 'It lies upon the Present like a giant's dead body! In fact, the case is just as if a young giant were compelled to waste all his strength in carrying about the corpse of the old giant, his grandfather, who died a long while ago, and only needs to be decently buried. Just think a moment, and it will startle you to see what slaves we are to bygone times,—to Death, if we give the matter the right word!'
"'But I do not see it,' observed Phoebe.
"'For example, then,' continued Holgrave, 'a dead man, if he happen to have made a will, disposes of wealth no longer his own; or, if he die intestate, it is distributed in accordance with the notions of men much longer dead than he. A dead man sits on all our judgment-seats; and living judges do but search out and repeat his decisions. We read in dead men's books! We laugh at dead men's jokes, and cry at dead men's pathos! We are sick of dead men's diseases, physical and moral, and die of the same remedies with which dead doctors killed their patients! We worship the living Deity according to dead men's forms and creeds. Whatever we seek to do, of our own free motion, a dead man's icy hand obstructs us! Turn our eyes to what point we may, a dead man's white, immitigable face encounters them, and freezes our very heart! And we must be dead ourselves before we can begin to have our proper influence on our own world, which will then be no longer our world, but the world of another generation, with which we shall have no shadow of a right to interfere. I ought to have said, too, that we live in dead men's houses; as, for instance, in this of the Seven Gables!'"
This is in the form of dialogue; but Hawthorne's own attitude toward reform is clearly disclosed in the analytic passages in which he discusses Holgrave, though it is observable that he embodies no adverse criticism upon it in the character itself, as he was to do in his next novel. He appears to take the same view of reform that is sometimes found in respect to prayer, that it has great subjective advantages and is good for the soul, but is futile in the world of fact. It was well for Holgrave, he says, to think as he did; this enthusiasm "would serve to keep his youth pure and make his aspirations high," and he goes on with his own judgment on the matter:—
"And when, with the years settling down more weightily upon him, his early faith should be modified by inevitable experience, it would be with no harsh and sudden revolution of his sentiments. He would still have faith in man's brightening destiny, and perhaps love him all the better, as he should recognize his helplessness in his own behalf; and the haughty faith, with which he began life, would be well bartered for a far humbler one at its close, in discerning that man's best directed effort accomplishes a kind of dream, while God is the sole worker of realities."
This may be profound truth, as it is intended to be; but it needs no penetration to see here a man whose sympathies with all kinds of those "come-outers" who then multiplied exceedingly in his neighborhood, would be infinitesimal. He had not, however, yet engaged with this problem so closely as he was to do. So far one would discern only that fatalistic and pessimistic trait indicated by "The Scarlet Letter" and found in "The House of the Seven Gables" in the hard conclusion that there was no remedy for the harm that had been done in the long past. The curse was done with now, it is true, by the marriage of Phoebe and Holgrave, but for Clifford and Hepzibah there was no amends for the lives the dead Judge had ruined by the aid of an imperfect and blundering human law; they were wrecks, so Hawthorne represents it,—they had missed life's happiness and were now in hospital, as it were, till they should die; but in their lives evil had been triumphant, had made them innocent victims, and for this there was neither help nor compensation. The irremediableness of the breach that sin makes in the soul had been preached in "The Scarlet Letter;" here is the other half of the truth, as Hawthorne saw it, the irremediableness of the injury done to others. So far as the book has ethical meaning it lies in the implacability of the uncanceled wrong lingering as a curse, destroying the bad and blasting the good descendants of the house, and presenting the mystery of evil as something positive, persisting, and unchecked in its career. The moral element, nevertheless, lies well in the background and is overlaid with romantic and legendary features; its hatefulness in the main story is not the principal theme; and the novel pleases and succeeds, not by these traits, but by its humble realism, its delicate character-drawing, and that ancestral power which makes it the story of a house long lived in.
On finishing this work Hawthorne took that rest which he always required after any great intellectual exertion, and spent the time with his children and wife. His second daughter, Rose, was born in the spring. A happier childhood seldom gets into books than that which appears in the reminiscences of this small family, whether they were in Salem, or Berkshire, or Liverpool. Hawthorne lived much with his children, and he had the habit of observing them minutely and writing down the history of their little lives in his journals. All winter their play and recreation, their sayings and adventures and habits, diversified the Berkshire days; they thrived on "the blue nectared air," and had rosy cheeks and abounding spirits, and their heads were stuffed with fairy tales. The year was a glorious one in Julian's memory, and the page he makes of it may be taken as a leaf of his father's life at home, disclosing his daily life and home-nature, as it was through years of domestic happiness. Hawthorne, indeed, is never so attractive as when seen with the light of his children's eyes upon him:—
"He made those spring days memorable to his children. He made them boats to sail on the lake, and kites to fly in the air; he took them fishing and flower-gathering, and tried (unsuccessfully for the present) to teach them swimming. Mr. Melville used to ride or drive up, in the evenings, with his great dog, and the children used to ride on the dog's back. In short, the place was made a paradise for the small people. In the previous autumn, and still more in the succeeding one, they all went nutting, and filled a certain disused oven in the house with such bags upon bags of nuts as not a hundred children could have devoured during the ensuing winter. The children's father displayed extraordinary activity and energy on these nutting expeditions; standing on the ground at the foot of a tall walnut-tree, he would bid them turn their backs and cover their eyes with their hands; then they would hear, for a few seconds, a sound of rustling and scrambling, and, immediately after, a shout, whereupon they would uncover their eyes and gaze upwards; and lo! there was their father—who but an instant before, as it seemed, had been beside them—swaying and soaring high aloft on the topmost branches, a delightful mystery and miracle. And then down would rattle showers of ripe nuts, which the children would diligently pick up, and stuff into their capacious bags. It was all a splendid holiday; and they cannot remember when their father was not their playmate, or when they ever desired or imagined any other playmate than he."
The spirit of such a fatherhood, and all this delight in the children's world, was distilled for the great multitude of other children in "The Wonder-Book" and its sequel "Tanglewood Tales." From very early in his career he had written charming childhood sketches, of which "Little Annie's Ramble" and "Little Daffydown-dilly" are easily recalled; and his association with his wife's sister, Elizabeth Peabody, had directed his attention particularly to literature for children, and "Grandfather's Chair" had been the result. Whenever he fell into discouragement in respect to the earning capacity of his pen, his first thought was that he would write children's books for a living. For some time he had meditated a volume which should adapt the classical tales of mythology to the understanding and interests of such children as his own, and he now put the plan in execution. He began "The Wonder-Book" with the summer, and finished it at one effort in six weeks of June and July; the ease with which he accomplished the task indicates how pleasurable it was, and well adapted to his sympathies and powers; and the result was very successful, a book of sunshine from cover to cover. It [Footnote: A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys. By Nathaniel Hawthorne, with Engravings by Baker from designs by Billings. Boston: Ticknor, Reed and Fields. 1852. 16mo. Pp. vi. 256.] was published in the fall, and was followed after an interval by its second part, "Tanglewood Tales." [Footnote: Tanglewood Tales for Girls and Boys. Being a Second Wonder-Book. By Nathaniel Hawthorne, with Fine Illustrations. Boston: Ticknor, Reed and Fields. 1853. 16mo. Pp. 336.]
A multitude of children have loved these books, for whom their very names are a part of the golden haze of memory; and, in view of the association of Hawthorne's genius and temperament with quite other themes and the darker element in grown lives, this band of children make a kind of halo round his figure. Whether the thing done should have been so done, whether Greek should have been turned into Gothic, is a foolish matter. To please a child is warrant enough for any work; and here romantic fancy plays around the beautiful forms and noble suggestion of old heroic and divine life, and marries them to the hillside and fireside of New England childhood with the naturalness of a fairy enchantment; these tales are truly transplanted into the minds of the little ones with whose youngest tendrils of imagination they are intertwined. To tear apart such tender fibres were a poor mode of criticism, for the living fact better speaks for itself; and, in the case of the present writer, whose earliest recollection of the great world of literature, his first dawn-glimpse of it, lying in dreamy beauty, was Bellerophon's pool, the memory is potent and yields an appreciation not to be distilled in any other alembic. Few facts are more fixed in his memory than that he was the child who watched the pool for the tall boy with the shining bridle who was his strange friend from another world. If to wake and feed the imagination and charm it, and fill the budding mind with the true springtime of the soul's life in beautiful images, noble thoughts, and brooding moods that have in them the infinite suggestion, be success for a writer who would minister to the childish heart, few books can be thought to equal these; and the secret of it lies in the wondering sense which Hawthorne had of the mystical in childhood, of that element of purity in being which is felt also in his reverence for womanhood, and which, whether in child or woman, was typical of the purity of the soul itself,—in a word, the spiritual sense of life. His imagination, living in the child-sphere, pure, primitive, inexperienced, found only sunshine there, the freshness of the early world; nor are there any children's books so dipped in morning dews.
On finishing "The Wonder-Book" Hawthorne devoted himself to life with Julian for three weeks, during the absence of the rest of the family on a visit, and wrote a daily account of it with such fullness that this history would fill a hundred pages of print. Some passages have been published, and they illustrate how this amusement had taken the place of the earlier note-books which recorded his observations of ordinary and even trivial life round about him. There may be some wonder that a mind of Hawthorne's powers should find its play in such literary journalizing, and the inference is ready that, when not at work in imagination, he was mentally unoccupied; his intellectual interests were, however, always limited in scope, and his readings in the evening to his wife were confined to pure literature; outside of such books he apparently had no intellectual life, and his thoughts and affections found their exercise in the domestic circle just as his eyes were engaged with the look of the landscape, the incidents of the road, and the changes of the weather. His capacity for idleness was great, and as his vigor had already somewhat waned his periods of repose were long. He undertook no new work during the summer, but prepared for the press a new volume of tales, "The Snow Image," [Footnote: The Snow Image and other Twice-Told Tales. By Nathaniel Hawthorne. Boston: Ticknor, Reed and Fields. 1852. 12mo, brown cloth. Pp. 273. The contents and source of the tales were as follows: The Snow Image, International Review, November, 1850; The Great Stone Face, National Era, January 24, 1850; Main Street, Æsthetic Papers, 1849; Ethan Brand, Dollar Magazine, May, 1851; A Bell's Biography, Knickerbocker Magazine, March, 1837; Sylph Etherege, Boston Token, 1838; The Canterbury Pilgrims, Boston Token, 1833; No. I, Old News, New England Magazine, February, 1835; No. II, The Old French War, March, 1835; No. III, The Old Tory, May, 1835; The Man of Adamant, Boston Token, 1837; The Devil in Manuscript, New England Magazine, May, 1835; John Inglefield's Thanksgiving, Democratic Review, March, 1840; Old Ticonderoga, Democratic Review, February, 1836; The Wives of the Dead, Boston Token, 1832; Little Daffydowndilly, Boys' and Girls' Magazine, Boston, 1843; Major Molineux, Boston Token, 1832.] which was ready by the first of November and was soon afterwards issued. It is made up of stories and sketches out of old periodicals, which had not been gathered in the former collection, some of them dating from the beginning of his career. Three, however, were later in composition, and were perhaps among those which he had thought of binding up with "The Scarlet Letter," had that been issued according to his original plan as one of several new tales. These three were "The Great Stone Face," from "The National Era," January 24, 1850, "The Snow Image" from "The International Magazine," November, 1850, and "Ethan Brand; a Chapter from an Abortive Romance," from "Holden's Dollar Magazine," May, 1851; they were all published with the author's name. These stories require no comment, as the types to which they belong are well marked. They were, in reality, his last trials of his art as a teller of tales.
Late in November, the family again removed to a new dwelling-place. The inland air had proved, it was thought, less favorable to health than was expected, and except in the bracing months of mid-winter Hawthorne found it enervating. He had been, however, very happy in Berkshire, as happy probably as it was in his nature to be, and the distant beauty and near wildness of the country had been attractive; the house, nevertheless, was very small, and he fretted at its inconveniences, not in a disagreeable way, but desiring to have a house and home of his own among more familiar scenes and within reach of the sea; he regarded the new move as a makeshift, and settled in West Newton, a suburb of Boston, where his wife's family lived, until he should purchase a place of his own. The change from the winter picturesqueness of Berkshire was marked, but the village was of the usual New England type and his surroundings were not essentially different from those he was accustomed to at Concord and Salem.
West Newton was near to Roxbury and the scenes of his rural experience at Brook Farm; but he hardly needed to refresh his memory of the places and persons that had been so much a part of his life ten years before. Brook Farm, as an experiment in the regeneration of society, had run its course, and was gone; but much that was characteristic of it externally was now to be transferred to the novel Hawthorne had in hand as his next work. "The Blithedale Romance" [Footnote: The Blithedale Romance, By Nathaniel Hawthorne. Boston: Ticknor, Reed and Fields. 1852. 12mo, cloth. Pp. viii, 288.] was written during the winter, and was finished as early as May, 1852, when it was at once issued. It is the least substantial of any of his longer works. It lacks the intensity of power that distinguishes "The Scarlet Letter," and the accumulated richness of surface that belongs to "The House of the Seven Gables," due to the overlaying of story on story in that epitome of a New England family history. "The Blithedale Romance," on the contrary, has both less depth and less inclusiveness; and much of its vogue springs from the fact of its being a reflection of the life of Brook Farm, which possesses an interest in its own right. Hawthorne used his material in the direct way that was his custom, and transferred bodily to his novel, to make its background and atmosphere, what he had preserved in his note-books or memory from the period of his residence with the reformers. The April snowstorm in which he arrived at the farm, his illness there, the vine-hung tree that he made his autumnal arbor, the costume and habits, the fancy-dress party, the Dutch realism of the figure of Silas Foster, and many another detail occur at once to the mind as from this origin; his own attitude is sketched frankly in Miles Coverdale, and the germs of others of the characters, notably Priscilla, are to be found in the same experience. The life of the farmhouse, however, is not of sufficient interest in itself to hold attention very closely, and the socialistic experiment, after all, is not the theme of the story; these things merely afford a convenient and appropriate ground on which to develop a study of the typical reformer, as Hawthorne conceived him, the nature, trials, temptations, and indwelling fate of such a man; and to this task the author addressed himself. In the way in which he worked out the problem, he revealed his own judgment on the moral type brought so variously and persistently under his observation by the wave of reform that was so strongly characteristic of his times.
The characters are, as usual, few, and they have that special trait of isolation which is the birthmark of Hawthorne's creations. Zenobia, Priscilla, and Hollingsworth are the trio, who, each in an environment of solitude, make the essence of the plot by their mutual relations. Zenobia is set apart by her secret history and physical nature, and Priscilla by her magnetic powers and enslavement to the mesmerist; Hollingsworth is absorbed in his mission. It is unlikely that Hawthorne intended any of these as a portrait of any real person, though as the seamstress of Brook Farm gave the external figure of Priscilla, it may well be that certain suggestions of temperament were found for the other two characters among his impressions of persons whom he met. Neither Zenobia nor Priscilla, notwithstanding the latter's name, are essentially New England characters; in each of them there is something alien to the soil, and they are represented as coming from a different stock. Hollingsworth, on the other hand, is meant as a native type. The unfolding of the story, and the treatment of the characters, are not managed with any great skill. Hawthorne harks back to his old habits, and does so in a feebler way than would have been anticipated. He interjects the short story of The Veiled Lady, for example, in the middle of the narrative, as he had placed the tale of Alice in "The House of the Seven Gables," but very ineffectively; it is a pale narrative and does not count visibly in the progress of the novel, but only inferentially. He uses also the exotic flower, which Zenobia wears, as a physical symbol, but it plays no part and is only a relic of his old manner. The description of the performance in the country hall seems like an extract from one of the old annuals of the same calibre as the Story-Teller's Exhibition. Mesmerism is the feebler substitute for the old witchcraft element. In a word, the work is not well knit together, and the various methods of old are weakly combined. One comes back to the moral situation as the centre of interest; and in it he exhibits the reformer as failing in the same ways in which other egotists fail, for he perceives in the enthusiasm of the humanitarian only selfishness, arrogance, intolerance in another form. Hollingsworth, with the best of motives apparently, since his cause is his motive, as he believes, is faithless to his associates and willing to wreck their enterprise because it stands in his way and he is out of sympathy with it; he is faithless to Priscilla in so far as he accepts Zenobia because she can aid him with her wealth, and on her losing her wealth he is faithless to her in returning to Priscilla; he has lost the power to be true, in the other relations of life, through his devotion to his cause. One feels that Hollingsworth is the victim of Hawthorne's moral theory about him. It is true that at the end Hawthorne has secured in the character that tragic reversal which is always effective, in the point that Hollingsworth, who set out to be the friend and uplifter and saviour of the criminal classes, sees at last in himself the murderer of Zenobia; but this is shown almost by a side-light, and not as the climax of the plot, perhaps because the reader does not hold him guilty in any true sense of the disaster which overtakes Zenobia. In its main situation, therefore, the plot, while it suggests and illustrates the temptations and failures of a nature such as Hollingsworth's, does not carry conviction. Description takes the place of action; much of Zenobia's life and of Hollingsworth's, also, is left untold in the time after Coverdale left them; as in the case of Judge Pyncheon, the wrong-doing is left much in the shadow, suggested, hinted at, narrated finally, but not shown in the life; and such wrong-doing loses the edge of villainy. It might be believed that Hollingsworth as a man failed; but as a typical man, as that reformer who is only another shape of the selfish and heartless egotist sacrificing everything wrongfully to his philanthropic end, it is not so easily believed that he must have failed; it is the absence of this logical necessity that discredits him as a type, and takes out of his character and career the universal quality. This, however, may be only a personal impression. The truth of the novel, on the ethical side, may be plainer to others; it presents some aspects of moral truth, carefully studied and probably observed, but they seem very partial aspects, and too incomplete to allow them, taken all together, to be called typical. The power of the story lies rather in its external realism, and especially in that last scene, which was taken from Hawthorne's experience at Concord on the night when he took part in rescuing the body of the young woman who had drowned herself; but with the exception of this last scene, and of some of the sketches that reproduce most faithfully the life and circumstances of Brook Farm, the novel does not equal its predecessors in the ethical or imaginative value of its material, in romantic vividness, or in the literary skill of its construction. The elements of the story are themselves inferior; and perhaps Hawthorne made the most of them that they were capable of; but his mind was antipathetic to his main theme. His representation of the New England reformer is as partial as that of the Puritan minister; both are depraved types, and in the former there is not that vivid truth to general human nature which makes the latter so powerful a revelation of the sinful heart.
Hawthorne had purchased at some time during the winter, while at work upon this novel, the house at Concord that he named The Wayside. It had belonged to Mr. Alcott, and was an ordinary country residence with about twenty acres of ground, part of which was a wooded hillside rising up steeply back of the house, which itself stood close to the road. The family took possession of this new home early in June, and it soon took on the habitual look of their domicile, which, wherever it might be, had a character of its own. Mrs. Hawthorne, as usual, was much pleased with everything, and wrote an enthusiastic account of its prettiness and comfort, though no important changes were then made in the house itself. She describes the "Study," and the passage, which is in a letter to her mother, gives the very atmosphere of the place:—
"The study is the pet room, the temple of the Muses and the Delphic shrine. The beautiful carpet lays the foundation of its charms, and the oak woodwork harmonizes with the tint in which Endymion is painted. At last I have Endymion where I always wanted it—in my husband's study, and it occupies one whole division of the wall. In the corner on that side stands the pedestal with Apollo on it, and there is a fountain-shaped vase of damask and yellow roses. Between the windows is the Transfiguration [given by Mr. Emerson]. (The drawing-room is to be redeemed with one picture only,—Correggio's Madonna and Christ.) On another side of the Study are the two Lake Comos. On another, that agreeable picture of Luther and his family around the Christmas-tree, which Mr. George Bradford gave to Mr. Hawthorne. Mr. Emerson took Julian to walk in the woods, the other afternoon. I have no time to think what to say, for there is a dear little mob around me. Baby looks fairest of fair to-day. She walks miles about the house."
No words but her own do justice to the happiness of her married life. She worshiped her husband, who always remained to her that combination of adorable genius and tender lover and strong man that he had been ten years before when they were wedded. He had been on his part as devoted to her, and especially he had never allowed the burden of poverty to fall upon her in any physical hardship. In the absence of servants, for example, he himself did the work, and would not permit her to task herself with it. He was never a self-indulgent man, except toward his genius; he had early learned the lesson of "doing without," as the phrase is, and she describes him as being "as severe as a Stoic about all personal comforts" and says he "never in his life allowed himself a luxury." Her testimony to his household character is a remarkable tribute, nor does it detract from it to remember that it is an encomium of love:—
"He has perfect dominion over himself in every respect, so that to do the highest, wisest, loveliest thing is not the least effort to him, any more than it is to a baby to be innocent. It is his spontaneous act, and a baby is not more unconscious in its innocence. I never knew such loftiness, so simply borne. I have never known him to stoop from it in the most trivial household matter, any more than in a larger or more public one. If the Hours make out to reach him in his high sphere, their wings are very strong. But I have never thought of him as in time, and so the Hours have nothing to do with him. Happy, happiest is the wife who can bear such and so sincere testimony to her husband after eight years' intimate union. Such a person can never lose the prestige which commands and fascinates. I cannot possibly conceive of my happiness, but, in a blissful kind of confusion, live on. If I can only be so great, so high, so noble, so sweet, as he in any phase of my being, I shall be glad."
This was written in the Berkshire days, but it represents her habitual feeling at all times; and now, in the pleasant society of Concord and among the scenes which were endeared to their memory as those of their early married life, this strain of happiness often overflows in her letters like a flood of sunshine. "All that ground," she writes of the neighborhood of the Old Manse, "is consecrated to me by unspeakable happiness; yet not nearly so great happiness as I now have, for I am ten years happier in time, and an uncounted degree happier in kind. I know my husband ten years better, and I have not arrived at the end; for he is still an enchanting mystery, beyond the region I have discovered and made my own. Also, I know partly how happy I am, which I did not well comprehend ten years ago."
One scene, out of scores that are contained in her correspondence, is too pretty and characteristic to miss, and, besides, serves by a single glimpse to give the home life of this new Concord sojourn with great vividness, yielding—what is the hardest of all to obtain in such intimate views—its quality, like a tone of color. It describes Hawthorne's return from a three weeks' absence at the Isles of Shoals during which he had also attended his class reunion at Bowdoin:—
"I put the vase of delicious rosebuds, and a beautiful China plate of peaches and grapes, and a basket of splendid golden Porter apples on his table; and we opened the western door and let in a flood of sunsetting. Apollo's 'beautiful disdain' seemed kindled anew. Endymion smiled richly in his dream of Diana. Lake Como was wrapped in golden mist. The divine form in the Transfiguration floated in light. I thought it would be a pity if Mr. Hawthorne did not come that moment. As I thought this, I heard the railroad-coach—and he was here. He looked, to be sure, as he wrote in one of his letters, 'twice the man he was.'"
Earlier in the summer this happy home had been shadowed by the tragedy of the death of Hawthorne's sister, Louisa, who was lost in a steamship disaster on the Hudson. Like all such natures, Hawthorne took his griefs hard and in loneliness; but in such a home healing influences were all about him, and even such a sorrow, which he deeply felt, could only add another silence to his life. His summer work, to which he had turned with reluctance and had rapidly finished by the end of August, was the campaign biography of Franklin Pierce, his life-long friend, who was now a candidate for the Presidency. It is a brief but sufficient book, [Footnote: Life of Franklin Pierce. By Nathaniel Hawthorne. Boston: Ticknor, Reed and Fields. 1852. Pp. 144. 12mo.] done well though without distinction, and it holds no real place among his works. Much adverse criticism has, however, been made upon him for writing it at all. It is thought that as a man of letters he lost dignity by using his skill for a political end, and also that as a Northerner he placed himself upon the wrong side in the important public questions then coming to a great national crisis. This is an unjust view. It has already become plain, in the course of the story of his life, that he was not a reformer nor in any real sympathy with reform. He was not only not an abolitionist, which in itself, in view of the closeness of his association with the friends of the cause, argues great immobility in his character; he was, on the contrary, a Democrat in national politics, and took the party view of the slavery question, not with any energy, but placidly and stolidly, so far as one can judge. In fact he took little or no interest in the matter. There was no objection in his mind to writing the biography because of Pierce's political position; he did not hesitate on that score. He did not hang back, on the other hand, because he felt that he could not tell the truth about his friend in a book pledged to see only the good in him. He was as honest as the granite, so far as that is concerned; and he respected as well as loved his friend, and was quite willing to serve him by showing his life and character as he knew them. He had no intention to deceive any one by a eulogy. He indulged in no illusions about Pierce, nor about any of his other friends. He was, in fact, an unsparing critic of men's characters, and he had a trait, not rare in New England,—a willingness to underrate men and minimize them. His fellow-citizens are not natural hero-worshipers; to them "a man is a man, for a' that," with an accent that levels down as well as up. Hawthorne had to the full this democratic, familiar, derogatory temper. Pierce was to him a politician, just as Cilley had been, and for politicians as a class he had a well-defined contempt. He believed Pierce to be a man of honor, sagacity, and tact, a true man, not great in any way, but quite the equal of other men in the country and fit in ability, experience, and character to be President, if his fellow-citizens desired him to serve in that office. The biography Hawthorne wrote contains no conscious untruth. It cannot be thought that Hawthorne compromised with himself either with regard to the national question involved or to the personal character of the candidate. His reluctance to write the book had no deeper root than a dislike to seem to be paid for doing it by an office. He knew that Pierce would provide him with a lucrative post in any case; and the public would say that office was his pay. The prospect of this situation was so irksome to him that he decided beforehand to refuse the office, since he preferred rather to do that than to decline the request of his friend to oblige him with his literary service at such a crisis of his career. It is unjust to Hawthorne to suppose that the act had any political complexion, or was anything else than a mere piece of friendliness, natural and proper in itself; his association with the political group, of which Pierce was one, did not proceed from principle, but was an accident of college companionship; the fact is, however strange it may seem, he had no politics, but stood apart from the great antislavery cause just as he did from the transcendental philosophy; neither of these two main movements in the life of his times touched him at all in a personal way. It belongs to the shallowness of his objection to undertake the biography, his dislike to take office as a kind of pay, that it was easily removed. Fields very sensibly persuaded him that he should not neglect so favorable an opportunity to provide for his wife and children, who had no support but his life. When the newly elected President, therefore, offered him the best office in his gift, the Liverpool consulate, Hawthorne decided to take it. The nomination was confirmed March 26, 1853; and, after sending "Tanglewood Tales" to the press, which had been his winter's work, he prepared to leave Concord for a long residence abroad.