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Handsome, reserved, almost frighteningly aloof until he was approached, then playful, cordial, Nathaniel Hawthorne was as mercurial and double-edged as his writing. “Deep as Dante,” Herman Melville said.
Hawthorne himself declared that he was not “one of those supremely hospitable people who serve up their own hearts, delicately fried, with brain sauce, as a tidbit” for the public. Yet those who knew him best often took the opposite position. “He always puts himself in his books,” said his sister-in-law Mary Mann, “he cannot help it.” His life, like his work, was extraordinary, a play of light and shadow.
In this major new biography of Hawthorne, the first in more than a decade, Brenda Wineapple, acclaimed biographer of Janet Flanner and Gertrude and Leo Stein (“Luminous”–Richard Howard), brings him brilliantly alive: an exquisite writer who shoveled dung in an attempt to found a new utopia at Brook Farm and then excoriated the community (or his attraction to it) in caustic satire; the confidant of Franklin Pierce, fourteenth president of the United States and arguably one of its worst; friend to Emerson and Thoreau and Melville who, unlike them, made fun of Abraham Lincoln and who, also unlike them, wrote compellingly of women, deeply identifying with them–he was the first major American writer to create erotic female characters. Those vibrant, independent women continue to haunt the imagination, although Hawthorne often punishes, humiliates, or kills them, as if exorcising that which enthralls.
Here is the man rooted in Salem, Massachusetts, of an old pre-Revolutionary family, reared partly in the wilds of western Maine, then schooled along with Longfellow at Bowdoin College. Here are his idyllic marriage to the youngest and prettiest of the Peabody sisters and his longtime friendships, including with Margaret Fuller, the notorious feminist writer and intellectual.
Here too is Hawthorne at the end of his days, revered as a genius, but considered as well to be an embarrassing puzzle by the Boston intelligentsia, isolated by fiercely held political loyalties that placed him against the Civil War and the currents of his time.
Brenda Wineapple navigates the high tides and chill undercurrents of Hawthorne’s fascinating life and work with clarity, nuance, and insight. The novels and tales, the incidental writings, travel notes and children’s books, letters and diaries reverberate in this biography, which both charts and protects the dark unknowable core that is quintessentially Hawthorne. In him, the quest of his generation for an authentically American voice bears disquieting fruit.
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Hawthorne
The Prison Door-Introductory
The wrong-doing of one generation lives into the successive ones, and, divesting itself of every temporary advantage, becomes a pure and uncontrollable mischief. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables
And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.
T. S. Eliot, "Little Gidding"
But the past was not dead.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The Custom-House"
Guilty. He heard the verdict and flinched. The second-born child of the very famous author had been convicted of defrauding the public, a violation of section 215 of the United States Criminal Code, in the matter of the Hawthorne Silver and Iron Mines, Ltd., Julian Hawthorne, president. Julian's father had written obsessively of crime and punishment and the sins of fathers visited on sons, and here he was, the son, sixty-six years old, hair white as sugar, well known, respected, and guilty-guilty-sitting in a New York City courtroom, sporting a scarlet tie.
Judge Mayer banged his gavel. Staring straight ahead, Julian frowned slightly as befitted a man of his stature and his shame. He, Nathaniel Hawthorne's son, would be imprisoned a year and a day in the United States federal penitentiary in Atlanta, his term set to run from November 25, 1912, the day the public trial began.
Likely his personal trials began much earlier. The great name of Nathaniel Hawthorne will "always handicap you more or less," poet James Russell Lowell had warned. "To be the son of a man of genius is at best to be born to a heritage of invidious comparisons," Henry James Jr. had acknowledged-and placed the Atlantic Ocean between himself and his philosopher father. But at least the younger James wrote fiction, which the elder James did not; comparisons are especially invidious when the son plies the father's trade, as Julian did.
But it was even more than that. Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne's children seemed to spring from one of Hawthorne's tales, incarnating their father's paradoxes writ large. "To plant a family!" Hawthorne had written. "This idea is at the bottom of most of the wrong and mischief which men do." It was as if the past always lay in wait, just around the bend. The fortunes of each Hawthorne child uncannily bore out what Hawthorne considered a curse of guilt and grief, of somberness and what we today call depression, as well as talent, penury, pluck, and fortitude, all stitched together in a bright pattern, like Hester Prynne's letter "A."
Hawthorne's firstborn, a daughter, descended directly from literature. Christened Una after Spenser's heroine in The Faerie Queene, she served as the model for Pearl, the precocious child in The Scarlet Letter, and many observers noticed her resemblance to her literary father. Like him, she was handsome, tall, exacting, and remote. "The more I feel the more it seems a necessity to be reserved," said Una at fifteen. Una had worshipped sorrow, said her mother, since the age of six. "It was impossible she should ever be happy," remarked a friend. The sky was too blue, the sun too blazing, her own feelings too hard to bear. She died mysteriously at the age of thirty-three.
Rose Hawthorne, the youngest Hawthorne child, fared better-eventually. After the death of both her parents, a horrible marriage, a feud with her siblings, and the early loss of her only child to diphtheria, Rose fulfilled the unspoken mission of one of the characters in Hawthorne's novel The Marble Faun: she takes communion. As a self-ordained Sister of Mercy, Rose consecrated herself to the poor and the sick, and at the age of forty-four, in 1896, established the charitable organization Sister Rose's Free Home (after St. Rose of Lima) to care for indigent cancer patients. In 1899 she received the Holy Habit of the Third Order of St. Dominic, and two years later, in 1901, the home was incorporated as the Servants of Relief for Incurable Cancer, still extant today in Hawthorne, New York.
Then there was Julian, in the middle. On Easter Sunday, 1913, he was transported to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. The formal charge against him and his cronies was misuse of the United States Postal Service, a catchall complaint designed to nail the defendants, whose real offense, according to Judge Mayer, wasn't selling shares in a worthless silver and iron mine so much as the exploitation of their recognizable names. "Theirs is the greater crime," spat the New York district attorney, "for they have prostituted them." The general counsel for the Hawthorne mines, former mayor of Boston Josiah Quincy, was cleared of the one conspiracy count against him, but the neurologist Dr. William J. Morton, whose father had discovered ether just before the Civil War, went to jail with Julian.
Julian held his head up high. His conviction disgraced neither him nor his name, he said, just the sleazy people who wished to see him-for some inexplicable reason-go to prison. What else could he say? After his sentencing, he briskly strode from the courtroom into the marshal's office and with remarkable sangfroid pulled out a small cigarette case, which he pushed toward Morton and the fourth accomplice, Alfred Freeman, a petty swindler without a fancy name. Morton stood paralyzed. Freeman circled the room. Hawthorne pocketed his case and shook the hand of a sympathetic well-wisher. "In such extremities," he later noted, "a man's manhood and dignity come to his support."
But when the deputy marshal clicked a pair of steel handcuffs round his wrist, Julian blinked in disbelief and with some confusion walked through the slanting rain to the city jail, a place familiarly known, à la Hawthorne, as the Tombs. "I was sure we should be acquitted," he muttered.
Yet by and large the only son of America's most esteemed novelist maintained a transcendental faith in his own innocence, a trait that linked him more to his tender, doting mother than to his morally particular father, who spent a lifetime probing motives, his own most of all. An epicure of intent, Hawthorne knew what the heart held in thrall. "It is a very common thing," he wrote near the end of his life, "-this fact of a man's being caught and made prisoner by himself." But Julian knew what he was doing when he exploited the Hawthorne name, which he plainly saw as false. Nathaniel Hawthorne: to the public it conjured American probity and success; to Julian it was fraudulent, overblown, hollow at the core.
Dissimulation was the keystone of Julian's career. And inadvertent parody of his father. Nathaniel Hawthorne's writing life was short and well crafted; Julian's, an interminable flood: hundreds of second-rate novels and poems, stories, histories, travel books, reminiscences, essays, even a two-volume biography of his parents, all capitalizing on the eminent patronymic. (With spooky foresight, his father once said of Julian that "his tendencies . . . seem to be rather towards breadth than elevation.") In 1908, when Julian abandoned literature for geology, as the president of the Hawthorne Silver and Iron Mines, Ltd., he managed to write hundreds of promotional letters as well as several promotional books. His energy was amazing.
If his father obeyed the Muse, Julian served Mammon. On selling his first short story, he thought, "Why not go on adding to my income in this way from time to time?" It seemed easy enough. "I think we take ourselves too seriously," he said of his fellow novelists, and at his death was credited as one of the first American writers to make literature "a bread-and-butter calling." When Henry James published his incisive study of Hawthorne, Julian confided to his diary that James deserved success "better than I do, not only because his work is better than mine, but because he takes more pains to make it so." In public, however, Julian protected himself from James and, more importantly, from his father's literary scruples. "I cannot sufficiently admire the pains we are at to make our work . . . immaculate in form," he declared. Aesthetic niceties are effeminate. Success is a racket.
Broad-chested and handsome-like his father-and with the same high coloring and dark wavy hair, Julian was born "to have ample means," declared his adoring mother. Friends thought she overpraised him, and that his father hadn't praised him enough. Whatever had happened, Julian combined his father's cynicism with his mother's ebullience. He loved women (though he was no feminist), tailored clothes, abundance, and a good scam. Hawthorne dryly assessed his son's character; he ought to join a ministry, he said.
Julian floundered at Harvard, quitting just months after his father's death, his interests inclining more to sport than study. He floundered at the Lawrence Scientific School and at the Realschule in Dresden, where he proposed to study civil engineering with a view toward knocking together a huge fortune in the American West. This plan also went awry. Unlike his father, who had delayed his marriage to Sophia, Julian married at the age of twenty-four and sired ten children, eight of whom survived. But he never had enough, kept enough, saved enough, planned enough.
His insouciance exasperated Rose. That he wouldn't accept a pardon unless William Morton also received one was yet another instance of his irresponsibility, she told his family. "But he is he, so to speak," she said, throwing her hands up. Still, Rose mounted a loyal defense. "I know that he really believed in the mines," she reportedly told Joseph P. Tumulty, Woodrow Wilson's secretary. To Julian, however, she starchily observed, "I am consoled about your personal trials by knowing that you have always adapted yourself to deprivations with the unconcern-or, rather, the manly vigor of one of your remote ancestors."
Coming from Rose, it was an equivocal compliment. She knew their Puritan ancestors whipped, scorched, hanged, and banished women such as herself for views far less heretical than hers. Julian too had disapproved of her vocation, though more amiably than their ancestors would have. After her death, he remembered Rose as a headstrong girl prone to egregious errors of judgment. Her errand in Washington, D.C., on his behalf, was one of these. On April 3, 1913, Mother Alphonsa, as Rose was known, traveled by train to the nation's capital to ask President Wilson to pardon her brother.
"What had I to do with 'pardons'?" Julian was furious. "Pardon for what?" But Rose was determined to restore luster to the Hawthorne name. A band of white cloth pleated across her forehead and stern black robes sweeping about her ample figure, she was every bit as fierce as Hester Prynne and probably just as nervous when she boarded a humid trolley for the White House. Tumulty received her. Strangely affected by the pink-cheeked woman in black and white, he ignored protocol and sent her request directly to the president.
Or said he had. Nothing happened. Public opinion was against Julian. Parole was denied. Not until the following fall, on October 15, 1913, was Julian Hawthorne released from prison. Again, he wore the scarlet tie.
Rose Hawthorne was born when her father was forty-seven. "She is to be the daughter of my age," he remarked, "-the comfort (at least so it is to be hoped) of my declining years." Hawthorne died, however, just before his sixtieth birthday and the day before her thirteenth.
He had called her Pessima. She was mercurial, fastidious, self-critical, and impatient. Explained Sophia in the double-edged terms she perfected, "I think you inherited from Papa this immitigable demand for beauty and order and right, & though, in the course of your development, it has made you sometimes pettish and unreasonable, I always was glad you had it."
Rose wanted to write, but her father's interdiction against the literary life put an end to that. In fact, both parents were wildly ambivalent about the practice of literature, declining to teach their children to read until they reached the ripe age of seven. Sophia was adamant about this. "I have not the smallest ambition about early learning in my children," she declared. And though her two sisters were educators of note and her brother-in-law, Horace Mann, once the secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, Sophia refused to hand her children over to schoolmistresses of dubious intent. Hawthorne deferred to her. "The men of our family are compliant husbands," his own sister later scoffed.
Encouraged to paint by her artistic mother, Rose dutifully studied art until Sophia's death in 1871, and then she cut loose, sort of. Barely twenty, she quickly married George Parsons Lathrop, a twenty-year-old aspiring writer. But if Rose believed she was replacing her parents by replicating their wonderful marriage-artist to writer-she was utterly mistaken. "Love is different from what I supposed and I don't like it," admits a character in one of her short stories. She did write after all.
George Lathrop got a job as assistant editor at the Atlantic Monthly, the showcase for much of his father-in-law's work, and when he lost the post he and Rose drifted to New York, where they nibbled at the edge of the literary set. Often dressed in yellow, her favorite color, Rose was soon known as a passable if gloomy poet and indifferent author of short stories, her best production fittingly called "Prisoners." George, a conventional and reasonably prolific writer, was known as a drunk.
The Lathrops converted to Catholicism, but religion didn't help their failing marriage, and after much soul-searching, Rose separated from her husband in 1895. Una suspected abuse. Then, in a volte-face that Julian found "abrupt and strange," Rose chose to rededicate her life to "usefulness." To Rose, however, it was her father's fine-grained appreciation of suffering that motivated her. "He was as earnest as a priest," she said, "for he cared that the world was full of sorrow & sin." Certainly Hawthorne's last illness had cast a pall over his youngest child; and in 1887 she was devastated yet again by the premature death of poet Emma Lazarus, a cherished friend.
This stiffened her purpose once and for all. On May 19, 1898, the thirty-fifth anniversary of her father's death, she clipped her auburn hair and stowed the leftover tufts under a linen cap. Henceforth she dressed in an austere monkish gown. "I gave up the world," she said, "as if I were dead." She swore off men and earthly things, and for the rest of her life lived productively in a community of faithful women. "From close observation I have learned something about the true courage of women," she had written years earlier.
Her choice reflecting a condition of her parents' lives-intimate friendships with members of the same sex-Rose started one of the first hospices in America in a tenement house on Scammel Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where she nursed the dying poor. Proceeds from a memoir of her father, published in 1897, supported her in this, and with Alice Huber, a "life-helper" (her word), she opened Sister Rose's Free Home in a three-story red brick building at 426 Cherry Street. Unlike her siblings, Rose managed to remake Nathaniel Hawthorne's legacy into something of her own. "
Brenda Wineapple is the author of the award-winning Hawthorne: A Life, Genêt: A Biography of Janet Flanner, and Sister Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein. Her essays, articles, and reviews have appeared in many publications, among them The American Scholar, The New York Times Book Review, Parnassus, Poetry, and The Nation. A Guggenheim fellow, a fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies, and twice of the National Endowment for the Humanities, she teaches in the MFA programs at Columbia University and The New School and lives in New York City.