- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 4, 2003

Halfway through her paradoxically zestful biography of a notoriously shy man, Brenda Wineapple locates her subject, Nathaniel Hawthorne, on ice. The year is 1842 and Hawthorne, already a highly regarded author owing to the publication and popularity of his early tales, has moved to Concord, Mass., from Boston.

“Winter grew cold. Louisa hoped her brother might be selected for the Salem post office, and though Hawthorne doubted he would, he assured his family that he’d receive a political appointment in a matter of months. He and Sophia [his wife] ate their first Thanksgiving dinner alone, fortified by one another. In the next months, while she gaily slid on the frozen river, he skated, darting away from her in long sweeping curves. Or, wrapped in his cloak, he was sometimes joined on ice by Thoreau and Emerson.”

The image of Hawthorne, the perennial outsider cloaked and skating, first alone and then in the company of those about whom he is ambivalent if not hostile, is a powerful one and it is an image that is repeated throughout the book.

Hawthorne was born in 1804, the son of a sea captain who died when Nathaniel was four years old. At the age of 14, he and his mother moved to a farm in Maine where the young boy learned the virtues of hard work and the sting of loneliness. From very early, Hawthorne knew he wanted to be a writer and after attending Bowdoin College he devoted himself to the task. His first novel “Fanshawe” (1829) did not garner the attention he would have liked and he took to writing a number of short stories that were collected in “Twice-Told Tales.” These stories did get noticed but did not pay well so he took a job at the Boston Custom House. When that job ended, Hawthorne went to Brook Farm.

During this period, Hawthorne grew weary of the unflagging optimism and idealism of the transcendentalists. As Ms. Wineapple observes, “men like Emerson, good and intelligent men of serious purpose, struck Hawthorne as somewhat pretentious and spoiled …”

Hawthorne redirected his passions — here misanthropy — to fiction. Although he was 10 years away from writing his blistering satire of the Brook Farm period, “The Blithedale Romance,” he did complete many tales collected in “Mosses from an Old Manse” (1846), one of which was a story called “The Procession of Life,” in which “the narrator caustically sorts people into categories, a strange pastime under any circumstance, though in this case the criterion isn’t rank or achievement, just disease, sorrow, crime, and dislocation.”

Ms. Wineapple, who does not dabble in obtrusive psychoanalyzing, but suggests that the root of Hawthorne’s remoteness is unadulterated guilt — guilt about the sins of his forbears (his great-grandfather Col. John Hathorne sent women of Salem to the gallows during the witch trials); guilt about the profession he has chosen, it being too far removed from practical reality; and guilt for his continual want of funds.

The biography actually begins with the one-word sentence “Guilty.” But it is not Hawthorne’s guilt with which the biographer opens her book, but that of Nathaniel’s son Julian who, in the book’s first pages is convicted for defrauding the public: He sold shares of worthless stock in silver and gold mines. During his trial he wore a crimson scarf.

In these early pages, one is taken with Julian’s sisters Una (named for the heroine of Spenser’s “Faerie Queen” and Rose, and along with the errant son one can’t help but feel sorry for themeven as one wonders what they are doing at the beginning of the book. This first chapter is called “The Prison Door — Introductory,” and it suggests the way the people of these pages live in Hawthorne’s shadow.

Beyond the introduction, Hawthorne’s life is presented in more quotidian terms. He marries Sophia Peabody, has three children, lives in a series of remarkable houses and writes continuously. Ms. Wineapple considers everything that Hawthorne wrote, discusses the plots, probes the symbols and it all makes for very gratifiying reading. She is at her best with her treatment of “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” a haunting and suggestive story that shows Hawthorne at his best.

Of these early stories, Ms. Wineapple writes: “Thematically, they set historical fiction within a psychological theater, suggesting that one creates and develops character in time, real time and internal time. And they show what rapidly became a signature style: phrases and clauses well-calibrated and modulated into sentences, sentences expanded into paragraphs, each grammatical component — and ultimately the whole tale — having accrued meaning far beyond the literal. ‘It was near nine o’clock of a moonlight evening, when a boat crossed the ferry with a single passenger, who had obtained his conveyance , at that unusual hour, by the promise of an extra fare,’ Hawthorne writes at the opening of [the story], his classical allusions half hidden in a story about the initiation of a young man into history , his own and the country’s.

“‘Deep as Dante,’ Melville would write of Hawthorne’s layered work, and he wasn’t wrong.”

Herman Melville is a sprightly presence in this book. His observations — and there are many — are among the most memorable. Though their friendship lasted only a brief time, and has been fodder for rude speculation ever since, Ms. Wineapple, neatly avoids that trap and focuses instead on the friendship between the older Hawthorne and the younger Melville, portraying the intellectual ardor that they shared.

Melville gave Hawthorne an inscribed copy of “Moby-Dick,” “cooked, Melville hinted, partly at Hawthorne’s fire.

“‘I have written a wicked book,’ Melville was to tell him, ‘and feel spotless as a lamb.’” Hawthorne praised the book in a letter that is now lost and the younger writer was moved to rapture. But in a passage that illustrates how cruel Hawthorne could be, Hawthorne did not write a positive review of a book that early on could have benefitted from one. “Melville lovers never forgave him,” writes the biographer.

This is a book that has its share of controversy. Hawthorne’s negative comments on Abraham Lincoln may surprise, no less than his enthusiastic embrace of Franklin Pierce and Hawthorne’s curious detachment from the Civil War, which was still raging at the time of his death in 1864, seems particularly chilly.

In the end, it is glimpses of the surpassing writer’s art that one looks for, and Ms. Wineapple does not disappoint. Her discussion of “The Scarlet Letter,” the book for whicih its author is best known, is riveting. Describing Hester Prynne as “magisterial and fierce,” a woman both “sinning and sinned against,” she praises Hawthorne for his brave foray into new literary territory. “Like Hawthorne, Hester is also a quiet rebel whose isolation grants her a certain freedom of thought,” she writes. But it is Hawthorne, perhaps, who has the last word. “‘The world’s law was no law for her mind,’” he declared.

In this elegant, graceful book, an estimable artist and his finest creations breathe fire.

HAWTHORNE: A LIFE

By Brenda Wineapple

Knopf, $30, 509 pages, illus.


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