- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 21, 2004

Why on earth another book about Nathaniel Hawthorne? He has elicited numerous critical studies, beginning with Newton Arvin’s in 1927, and numerous biographies, from his son Julian’s in 1885 to Brenda Wineapple’s of last year. And of course, in addition to the novels and tales, Hawthorne left copious evidence of himself in the pages of his published volumes of notebooks, American, English, and Italian.

Philip McFarland, however, has found a way to bring him into fresh perspective by focusing on Hawthorne’s life in three different decades when he lived in Concord, Mass.

In “Sojourners” (1979), Mr. McFarland, following a similar approach, gave us all and perhaps even more than we wished to know about Washington Irving in various environments. “Hawthorne in Concord” is, by contrast, compact, and has a certain elegance to its three equal-length portraits.

First, there is the just-married writer settling in The Manse in 1843 with his bride Sophia Peabody; then his return to Concord, a celebrated novelist after residing in Salem, Boston, and Lenox, Mass.; finally, having served his term as American consul in Liverpool, England, his return to the final, rather sad, years at his Concord home, The Wayside.

This selective treatment means, for example, that certain figures important to Hawthorne’s life and work are absent from the book — most importantly Herman Melville, whose intense if brief friendship with Hawthorne was conducted in the Pittsfield-Lenox orbit.

Nor do Hawthorne’s later remarks about Melville’s unhappiness get mentioned — he remarked upon Melville’s visiting him in Liverpool that his friend had “pretty much determined to be annihilated” — since Hawthorne’s years in England aren’t presented directly, only alluded to.

By contrast, Hawthorne’s friendly relationship with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a more relaxed, less demanding one than with Melville, is fully filled in. We hear about Longfellow’s courtship of and marriage to Fanny Appleton (“Mrs. Longlady,” Sophia Hawthorne called her) and a couple of harrowing pages are given to describing the death by fire (her dress ignited) of Mrs. Longfellow.

Everyone seems to have agreed that Hawthorne was an exceptionally handsome man, graced especially by brilliant dark blue eyes. One of his notebook entries remarks, significantly, that “Men of cold passions have quick eyes,” and we should not understand that to equate cold passions with no passions. (Remember W.B. Yeats’ desire to write a poem “as cold and passionate as the dawn.”)

Hawthorne began to cultivate his cold passions early on when, in those years after graduating from Bowdoin, he occupied a room in his mother’s mother’s Salem house, seeing nobody, turning words round and round.

“By some witchcraft or other … I have been carried apart from the main current of life, and find it impossible to get back again,” he wrote in a letter to Longfellow from that time, words similar to those he used about Wakefield, the hero of his memorable early story who removes himself from the current of his married life for 20 years.

One feels that Hawthorne’s apartness made him all the more attractive to other men and women. When the young William Dean Howells visited him in Concord in 1860, the occasion was silent and awkward: “I saw that he was as much abashed by our encounter as I was; he was visibly shy to the point of discomfort,” wrote Howells about it afterwards.

Yet notwithstanding — or perhaps due in part to — the awkwardness, Howells concluded that his host was without pretense, was the opposite of posturing. And he ended up liking Hawthorne better than he did Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, whom he also visited.

It would not be too strong to say that there was something enchanting about Hawthorne’s aspect and temperament. More than one person thought so, including most notably Sophia, who claimed — 10 years after their marriage, when the Hawthornes had returned to Concord and “The Scarlet Letter” had brought him fame — that “he is still an enchanting mystery, beyond the region I have discovered and made my own.”

This testimony to a marriage that was still, she felt, a romance, bears striking similarity to Hawthorne’s description of what the writer of romances — as he felt himself to be — was engaged in.

Unlike the novelist, the romance writer (as announced in his preface to “The House of the Seven Gables”) “may so manage his atmospherical medium as to bring out or mellow the lights and deepen and enrich the shadows of the picture.”

Mr. McFarland calls the novel of romance an “enchanted world,” echoing Sophia Hawthorne’s language about the mystery she was still discovering in her husband.

The biographer doesn’t provide anything original in his criticism of Hawthorne’s art, but when he does comment on particular examples of it his commentary is shrewd and sensibly directed. He singles out “The Old Apple-Dealer,” one of the sketches Hawthorne did soon after he married and settled at The Manse, as an example of how his art could make the commonest things suggestive.

The apple-dealer peddles gingerbread and apples at a railroad depot; Hawthorne seizes upon the ordinariness of his subject to move matter, in Mr. McFarland’s words, “in the direction of the spiritual and true, language transmuting appearances about us, elevating them, spiritualizing them.”

This happens even more so, the biographer notes, in tales like “Egotism, or the Bosom Serpent” and “The Birthmark,” also written early in his Concord residence.

Mr. McFarland says little about the major novels, but is justly exasperated, as other readers have been, by the last one Hawthorne completed, the attenuated but gaseous “The Marble Faun.”

On the other hand, he devotes two salient pages to praising the under-appreciated “Our Old Home,” the book of sketches about English life that would be Hawthorne’s last completed work. This “wonderful book,” with its “abundant humor,” writes Mr. McFarland, shows the depth of Hawthorne’s feelings about the mother country, but also his refusal to sentimentalize it.

That refusal can be seen (in a passage Mr. McFarland doesn’t quote) when Hawthorne’s praise of English gardens and gardeners stops short of admiring “the few sour plums and abortive pears and apples” those gardeners produce.

“For my part, I never ate an English fruit, raised in the open air, that could compare with a Yankee turnip.” Here is the true provincial note, raised through humor into something satisfying.

After Hawthorne returned from his mainly happy time abroad in England and Italy, his final years in Concord are dispiriting. His health was poor (he died at age 59, probably of a never-diagnosed gastrointestinal cancer), he couldn’t write the English romance he hoped to, the Civil War made him miserable, and he would have preferred to be abroad, back in England “deprived of political rights and left to my individual freedom.”

Instead he published a subtle article in the Atlantic magazine titled “Chiefly About War Matters,” and decorated it with fabricated “editorial” criticisms of the article — criticisms in fact written by himself.

By the end of 1862 what his wife called “the fortress of his digestion” had broken down, and she wrote their eldest child, Una, that “Papa has not a good appetite, and eats no dinners except a little potato. But he is trying to write, and locks himself into the library and pulls down the blinds.”

He passed away quietly at the beginning of what was hoped to be a restorative trip he and his college friend and recent President Franklin Pierce made to New Hampshire. At his funeral were present Emerson, Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Bronson Alcott, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Agassiz, among others.

The minister who had married the Hawthornes 22 years previously delivered a eulogy in which he declared, “I know of no other thinker or writer who had so much sympathy with the dark shadow, the shadow which the theologian calls sin, as our friend. He seemed to be the friend of all sinners, in his writings.”

An analogous sympathy for Hawthorne — the man and his circumstances — is evident throughout Philip McFarland’s admirable book.

William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger professor of English at Amherst College, and the author most recently of “Shelf Life: Literary Essays and Reviews.”


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