By Robert Milder
Oxford University Press, $39.95, 336 pages
As the young United States spiraled toward its worst domestic crisis — the Civil War — its men of letters were fighting for their position on the world cultural stage. This battle, thankfully with no expense of human life, was unequivocally successful. Lovers of literature and students of American cultural history look back to this troubling time and find the genius of Melville, Dickinson, Thoreau, Emerson, Poe, Twain and Nathaniel Hawthorne (to name a few) shining through the dark clouds of slavery and Civil War.
The latter of these luminaries is the subject of an erudite and comprehensive study by Washington University professor of English Robert Milder. “Hawthorne’s Habitations” is, in the author’s own words, “not a formal biography but more than a work of literary criticism a book about a life led in and known primarily through written words — a literary life.” By offering a tour of all of Hawthorne’s writings and an accompanying description of the contexts in which they were written, Mr. Milder allows us a glimpse of the man through the lens of his works while interpreting the works in light of the man. There are, in addition, intermittent discussions of his friends and contemporaries who, together with Hawthorne, defined a generation of American letters.
The title comes from the book’s focus on the four places where Hawthorne spent time during various stages of his life: Salem, his birthplace from which he would consistently, and unsuccessfully, attempt to dissociate himself; Concord, where he happily spent the early years of his marriage and mingled with other icons like Thoreau, Emerson and Margaret Fuller; England, where he lived for five years and served as consul; and Rome, where he faced the religious and cultural antithesis of his native Salem. Each of these residences is shown significantly to influence Hawthorne’s writings by shaping his “region of thought and sensibility” regarding varying subjects, from the ubiquity of sin to the role of women.
Mr. Milder illustrates the surprising contrast between Hawthorne’s fiction, with which many are familiar, and his letters and journals. His fiction is mostly romantic, which in this context means that he was free from tying his work to reality and could use his stories and characters as allegorical models in order to infuse his picture of the world with a spirituality and purpose that he was not always able to detect in the chaos of real life.
Mr. Milder explains that Hawthorne’s letters and journals, on the other hand, display a remarkable realism. By looking at his works collectively and chronologically, it seems as if Hawthorne wanted to be (and could be when he chose) a realist. This preference is made clear by his love of the novels of Anthony Trollope and his hearty respect for the “beef and ale” constitution of the English. Nevertheless, he constantly retreated to romance because “faithfully represented, experience provides scant ground for faith.” In fact, much of his life can be seen as a contentious dichotomy of realism and romanticism.
This contention highlights a reluctant realization of the materialism surrounding him and an acute desire to trust in the order and purpose inherent in the spiritual worldview that was his Puritan inheritance. Mr. Milder describes his intellectual attitude, particularly during his time in Italy, as “a vertiginous pleasure in edging away from conventional belief to the brink of the modern.” In this vein, he draws a comparison of Hawthorne’s skeptical attitudes to the nihilism made so famous by Friedrich Nietzsche a half-century later.
Hawthorne’s personality is also vividly portrayed in this invaluable book. Painfully introverted and shy, he spent his post-Bowdoin College years writing alone in his old Salem home and then for much of his adult life regretted this reclusiveness that “wasted” so much of his youth. This aspect of his personality is brought to life by a wonderful anecdote about his time in England: While visiting “the Manchester Arts Exhibition,” Hawthorne “[chanced] to spy Tennyson” and “commented on the poet’s ‘shy and secluded habits.’ ” Although these two literary titans were together in the same room, “the two men, only yards apart, never met.”
Whether you’re a Hawthorne aficionado or your last taste was reading “The Scarlet Letter” in high school, this book will surely be an instructive and entertaining venture into the mind of one of the greatest American writers ever to live, and will bring to life a surpassing period of this nation’s literary history.
Maxwell Sater is a writer and critic in Maryland.