The likeness of Nathaniel Hawthorne hanging in the AmLit museum resembles the shadowy, fading portrait of a distinguished ancestor. Yet, to my mind, The Scarlet Letter remains one of the three indispensable American novels of the nineteenth century, along with Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Now, biographer Brenda Wineapple, who tackled Leo and Gertrude Stein and Janet Flanner previously, has given us a scrupulous biography of Hawthorne that does a good deal to restore his portrait’s original colors, while guiding readers back to the novels (The House of the Seven Gables, The Blithedale Romance, The Marble Faun) and short stories (for example, “Young Goodman Brown,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” “Ethan Brand,” “The Birth-mark”) that shouldn’t be left to gather dust. Wineapple has crafted a smart, revelatory portrait of a complex, contradictory, secretive man, an Adamic figure in American literature.
Hawthorne was one of the great conservatives of the national letters. In Wineapple’s picture, the traits are there: skepticism of human motives; strong sense of sin; distrust of utopias and reformers; belief in what today’s think-tank conservatives preach as the “law of unintended consequences” (government actions never turn out as planned; for example, the Iraq war); and, most important, obsession with the past.
Indeed, anyone who has read “The Custom-House,” Hawthorne’s preface to The Scarlet Letter, knows well his obsession with the sins of his actual forefathers. The founding Hathorne, as it was then spelled, Nathaniel’s great-great-grandfather, William, settled in Salem, Massachusetts, in the 1630s. A landowner, selectman and magistrate of the growing port town, he did the Lord’s work as a scourge of heretical Quakers, one of whom, Ann Coleman, he ordered to be whipped around the streets half-naked.
Nathaniel’s great-grandfather, Col. John Hathorne, was another pillar of rectitude. As a judge in the 1692 witch trials, he sent scores of alleged Satanists to Gallows Hill. Family legend had it that one victim placed a curse on him. “Let us thank God,” Nathaniel Hawthorne once observed, “for having given us such ancestors and let each successive generation thank him, not less fervently, for being one step further from them in the march of ages.”
Although they repelled him, Hawthorne’s repressive forefathers seem to have been more alive in his psyche than the memory of his own father, also named Nathaniel, a sea captain who died when his son was only 3. Obsessed with the long reach of the past, he became something of an antiquarian as a young man, burrowing into dusty Salem annals and court reports alive with bygone sinners. As Wineapple writes, “The terrible conflict between past and present–the nostalgic pull of one, despite its darkness and doom, and the noisy, liberating tug of the other–is Hawthorne’s great subject.”
In The House of the Seven Gables Hawthorne writes about the ancestor-haunted Pyncheons, also living under a family curse (for cheating a man out of his land): “The wrong-doing of one generation lives into the successive ones, and, divesting itself of every temporary advantage, becomes a pure and uncontrollable mischief.” Holgrave, the boarder, a nineteenth-century techie (a daguerreotypist), speaks for the modern world when he cries, “Shall we never, never get rid of this Past?”
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Breaking with the oppressive Puritan superego, setting the imagination free and countering rigid dogma with psychological insight and compassion–those were Hawthorne’s achievements as an author. In The Scarlet Letter he exposes the Puritan theocracy through his greatest creation, Hester Prynne, the first good-bad girl of our literature–“both sinning and sinned against, a woman able to love, to yearn, and to endure the consequences of her offense,” Wineapple writes. Prynne toughens under the blows of censure, becoming an independent soul. “The world’s law was no law for her mind,” Hawthorne writes. “She assumed a freedom of speculation, then common enough on the other side of the Atlantic, but which our forefathers, had they known of it, would have held to be a deadlier crime than that stigmatized by the scarlet letter.” She is in her mind only a visionary radical who wants to free men by freeing women.
But, as Wineapple points out, once Hester becomes a closet freethinker, Hawthorne is compelled to regard her as unwomanly. Although sympathetic to women’s lives and aspirations, Hawthorne was ambivalent about equality between the sexes. In real life he was simpatico with the daring bluestocking Margaret Fuller, holding soulful conversations with her in Concord. But after her untimely death in a shipwreck, he delivered a spiteful attack on her, as revenge for her having given his earlier work lukewarm reviews. (He said she lacked the “charm of womanhood” and was something of a fraud, with a “defective and evil nature.”)
Hawthorne’s road to his crowning masterpiece wasn’t an easy one. He was a self-created writer; he had wanted to write since boyhood. After graduating from Bowdoin in 1825, he immured himself in his bedroom at the family home in Salem and scribbled. At that time, the profession of writing hardly existed in America. Hawthorne himself felt there was something unmanly and offensive to his Puritan forebears in authorship. In “The Custom-House” Hawthorne imagines his ancestors peering over his shoulder as he scribbles and snorting: “What is he? A writer of story-books! What kind of business in life, what mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in his day and generation, may that be?”
He began by publishing sketches, light essays and darker tales, but many townsmen still regarded him as a queer idler, confirming his own low opinion of his trade. He was sporadically active in Democratic Party politics, and in the 1840s sympathized with the views of the Young America movement, which plumped for Manifest Destiny, the rights of workingmen, egalitarianism, democracy and authors’ rights. He joined the utopian colony at Brook Farm, which promised cooperation and honest toil–but dropped out, disillusioned.
His first book of stories was published in 1837; until then he had been, he said, the most obscure writer in America. He later disdained his early stories: “Instead of passion, there is sentiment, and even in what purport to be pictures of actual life, we have allegory.” Although his sentiment could be treacly and his allegory a substitute for profundity, his work deepened, piercing the veil of appearance to reveal moral and psychological reality. He produced tales like “Ethan Brand,” whose title character exhibited the cold aloofness he perceived in himself. Brand searches for the Unforgivable Sin and finds it in his own icy heart–the egotism that has isolated him from the human community.
The megalomaniacal magi who are recurrent figures in Hawthorne’s fiction–Dr. Rappaccini, Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letter–resonate in our own time, where coldly rational science serves inhuman political or financial ends. In Hawthorne’s story “The Birth-mark,” a perfectionist scientist is driven fatally to tamper with Nature by removing a tiny hand-shaped growth that, he insists, mars his wife’s beauty. He creates a potion that removes the spot but ultimately kills her.
Wineapple’s multitiered analysis of this story–biographical and critical–typifies her enlightened approach to Hawthorne’s work. She highlights the scientist’s fatal moral flaw–his failure to see that “the ideal cannot exist in disembodied form”; that is, human beauty cannot exist in the abstract (a point not entirely remote from the feminist critique of the tyranny of unreal standards of female beauty). The story is also a “slap at Emerson and Transcendentalism”–at the view of Nature as divine, benign, knowable. Finally, written just six months after Hawthorne’s wedding, it deals with his subconscious masculine uneasiness with feminine intimacy and unleashed sexuality; it is a “fantasy of abortion.” The scientist destroys the symbolic child, kills his wife and returns to sterile bachelorhood.
Yet Hawthorne also credited the love of his bride, Sophia Peabody, with rescuing him from isolation and restoring him to flesh-and-blood contact with the world. “Thou art my only reality–all other people are but shadows to me,” he repeatedly told her.
“He has a celestial expression,” Sophia gushed to her sister Elizabeth, who thought he was calling on her. He was a handsome man, with raven-black hair, depthless gray-green eyes, a faintly quizzical smile. They married, after a long, procrastinatory engagement, in July 1842. She was 32, he was 38. They rented a parsonage in Concord known as the Old Manse and lived in a dreamy bubble of narcissisme à deux through the summer and fall. “We are Adam and Eve,” exulted the sexually awakened Sophia. She worshiped him, and always would.
The idyll ran aground when the money ran out. They slinked back to Salem, thrown on the kindness of relatives. Hawthorne, the putative provider, withdrew to his old room and tried to write his way out of debt.
He had angled, without success, for a political appointment. Finally, a local Democratic Party boss, pressed by Hawthorne’s influential friends, pulled out a plum: appointment as a Custom House inspector. He liked the work, Wineapple says; it was a man’s job with a regular salary–unlike writing.
He was fired after two years when the Whigs, under Zachary Taylor, took power in the election of 1848. In a white heat of anger and inspiration–working “as if the devil were in me”–he completed The Scarlet Letter and handed the manuscript to the Boston publisher James Fields, who not only admired his genius but knew how to sell his books.
After the success of The Scarlet Letter in 1850, Hawthorne and family moved to the Berkshires, which he grew to loathe; he missed the sea. He met the retired seadog Herman Melville, who was living on a farm near Lenox, writing Moby-Dick. Melville fell in love with him; in just what way is unclear, Wineapple says. Certainly, he was intellectually drawn to the dark Calvinist streak in Hawthorne’s tales like “Young Goodman Brown.” They held long talks; Melville’s overenthusiastic embrace of Hawthorne’s blackness deepened his whale novel.
But Hawthorne was moving away from blackness, letting the sun shine through in the ending of The House of the Seven Gables. He also abandoned his preoccupation with the oppressive past. His next novel, The Blithedale Romance, was a roman à clef satirizing the Brook Farm utopian colony (the author appears as the detached, self-absorbed poet Miles Coverdale). Not only was he scoring himself, Transcendentalism and bumbling idealists, he was commenting on the hot issue of slavery. His friends recognized, Wineapple writes, that “Blithedale was the abolition movement that Hawthorne adamantly refused to join.”
Although he professed to despise slavery, Hawthorne did not abhor it enough to change his belief that black people were inferior and better off with their kindly Southern massas. He said the Almighty would ultimately cause slavery to vanish like a dream. In the meantime, there was nothing to be done: “No great mistake, whether acted or endured, in our moral sphere, is ever really set right.” Abolitionists’ fire left him cold: “We go all wrong, by too strenuous a resolution to go all right.”
By now the literary well was running dry and financial worries intermittently stalked him, requiring another feeding at the federal trough. In November 1852 his Bowdoin classmate and dear friend, Franklin Pierce, an amiable nonentity, was elected President. Hawthorne had no problem with his friend’s proslavery pander to Southern Dems. Pierce rewarded the elegant campaign biography Hawthorne wrote for him with an appointment as US consul in Liverpool. Wineapple speculates that Hawthorne was relieved to take a leave from the insecurities of the writer’s life. He promised himself he would save $30,000 after four years and take up his pen again.
After seven years abroad, he and Sophia and their three children returned to the States. He cobbled together the static yet surprisingly Modernist novel The Marble Faun from his Italian notebooks, but it was his last. He grew increasingly reclusive and gloomy, hating the Civil War, unable to write. He died in 1864, after months of pain and failing health.
Not long before he died, sitting in Concord’s new Sleepy Hollow Graveyard and admiring the green grass and flowers, he said, “Yes, we New Englanders begin to enjoy ourselves–when we are dead.”