Haunted Hawthorne

Haunted Hawthorne

Judith Farr

A new biography reveals the major themes of one of America's most important early writers: Sorrow and imprisonment, the terrible influence of family history and names, the past with its mysterious power over the present.

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HAWTHORNE: A Life. By Brenda Wineapple. Knopf. 509 pp. $30

Reviewed by Judith Farr

In Hester Prynne, the passionately honest woman whose scarlet A” marks her as both adulteress and angel, Nathaniel Haw­thorne (1804–64) created one of the most admirable heroines of American fiction. Forced to exhibit herself for hours on a scaffold with both emblems of her sin at her breast—the infant Pearl and the A” she herself gorgeously embroidered—Hester serves as the light that ultimately rescues her lover’s soul from damnation. This elegant allegory presents its heroine with a grave empathy bordering on tenderness. It may therefore startle some readers of Brenda Wineapple’s revelatory biography to learn that Hawthorne’s vision of strong women, and indeed of women in general, was severely marred by what she calls “a deadly ambivalence.”

The bookish youth who wished he had been “born a girl so that I might have been pinned all my life to my mother’s apron,” the sensuous husband who played Adam to Sophia Peabody’s Eve on their idyllic honeymoon in Concord’s Old Manse, and the creator of such vital heroines as Hester of The Scarlet Letter (1850) and Zenobia of The Blithesdale Ro­­mance (1852), was the same man who fulminated that “I wish [women auth­ors] were forbidden to write, on [pain of] having their faces deeply scarified with an oyster-shell.” Envious of Harriet Beecher Stowe be­cause some 300,000 copies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin were in circulation the year it was printed, while The Scarlet Letter sold fewer than 7,000; afraid that sentimental fiction by female writers would weaken the infant American literature; and certain that too much intellectual engagement robbed women of their natural tranquility and grace, Hawthorne was a devoted father, but he chose not to teach his children to read until they reached the age of seven; and later he forbade his daughter Rose to write stories. He thought that her moral nature, finer than a man’s, might be defiled by such activity. Rose’s brilliant older sister Una was taught reading, horseback riding, French, and geography “in small doses,” but came to “despair of her own ignorance.” This well-meaning deprivation must have contributed to the girl’s anxiety and neurosis: To Hawthorne’s anguish, Una received primitive shock therapy at 14.

Like his other failures of human sympathy—his confessed “repugnance” toward Jews; his indifference to the misery of slaves and lack of compassion for youths who died to preserve the Union, a cause in which he did not believe—Hawthorne’s apparent misogyny is already well known. (Indeed, it would be hard not to perceive evidence of it in the tortured sexuality and twisted attitudes of such characters as Miles Coverdale, covering up his lust in various hiding places from which he peers at forbidden girls, and Hester’s dim-spirited lover, Arthur Dimmesdale.) Yet one of the strengths of Wineapple’s vivid biography is that she encourages us to understand the complexity of Haw­thorne’s misogyny. None of his emotions—or prejudices—were simple. He objected to Uncle Tom’s Cabin out of primitive envy, yes, but also because he believed that politics (Stowe’s abolitionism) should be kept out of art. He was averse to women’s higher education, true, but treated a female Shakespeare scholar most graciously when she asked “literary counsel” of him. When he lost a position that might have bettered the family’s desperate fortunes, he observed that his wife, Sophia, would bear the great disappointment “like a woman—that is to say, better than a man.”

Wineapple, the author of Genêt: A Biography of Janet Flanner (1989) and Sister Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein (1996), paints a rounded portrait of Haw­thorne that invites both respect and pity. The reader comes to understand the inner demons of anxiety and self-doubt that made the development and exercise of his artistic genius not merely difficult but heroic. Melancholy tortured him all his life. His pessimistic yet often luminous fiction was the work of one who feared and was ashamed of both his own genetic inheritance (he was the grandchild of a Puritan “hanging judge”) and his writing gift. The latter seemed to him frivolous, and indulging it, a wicked waste. “In the depths of every heart,” he once declared, “there is a tomb and a dungeon.” He often felt he inhabited both. His fame arrived at last, not at first. He destroyed copies of Fanshawe (1828) in despair, and although The Scarlet Letter was a success, it did not bring sufficient remuneration to enable his family to live in any kind of comfort.

One cannot help but admire Haw­thorne’s energetic if emotionally vexed efforts to alleviate his family’s dismal poverty. The transcendentalist writer Ellery Channing recalled that a handyman’s cottage the Haw­thornes rented (though they failed to pay the rent) was one of the poorest shanties in Lenox, Massachusetts, “with uneven floors, and so ill-built that the wind could not be kept out.”

When, for the sake of a steady salary, Hawthorne became a U.S. consul in Liverpool, his writing suffered. He hated the job and loathed yet was attracted to England. Realizing finally that Sophia and the children were miserable in that “rancid” city—Wineapple’s adjectives can be venturesome—he left England for Italy, where he and Una caught “Roman fever” (malaria) and nearly died. Dejected, discouraged, half-sick, they all returned to the United States and the bone-piercing cold of Concord.

It was 1860, and John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry had occurred the year before. Unmoved by the nationalist fervor that warmed the New England heart, the aristocratic Hawthorne of excellent ancestry was reviled as a “Copperhead,” a Northern sympathizer with the South in the war. He maintained that slavery would (and should) die out if left alone, whereas emancipation would provoke years of tumult.

Though famous for habitually avoiding company, Hawthorne reached out to a few friends and represented himself honestly to them. Herman Melville loved him, perhaps was slightly in love with him. Franklin Pierce, for whose presidential campaign Hawthorne worked, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a classmate at Bowdoin College, perceived the essential nobility and even sweetness of his nature.

To the end, in whatever unfertile circumstance, Hawthorne wrote. For “writing,” as Wineapple tells us, “meant everything to Hawthorne and yet cost everything. It was his heart of darkness . . . a source of shame as well as pleasure and a necessity he could neither forgo nor entirely approve.”

Especially praiseworthy in this biography are the literary-critical passages. We live in a time when sociopolitically minded critics attack Emily Dickinson for writing no poems about the execution of 38 Santee Sioux in Minnesota in 1862 or the problems of Irish miners in Pennsylvania, so we should rejoice that Wineapple never denigrates Hawthorne’s artistry on the grounds of his personal predilections or politics. Instead, she follows Henry James’s advice and grants the writer his donnée: his personal vision and characteristic genius. A sensitive reader of the various fictions, she is especially perceptive about the decidedly autobiographical Blithedale Ro­mance, which draws upon Hawthorne’s recollection of the utopian community of Brook Farm in Roxbury, Massachusetts; with its quirks of insight and characterization, that novel can be difficult to treat.

Wineapple occasionally resorts to awkward, quasi-poetical stylistic shortcuts: Zenobia is described as having “indignant hair”; the month of May is “nonchalant.” But she draws us into her narrative with élan. Her first chapter discloses the sad history of Hawthorne’s son Julian, imprisoned at 60 for selling worthless mine shares and exploiting his father’s name. Sorrow and imprisonment, the terrible influence of family history and names, the past with its mysterious power over the present: These are Hawthorne’s major themes, and in Wineapple’s biography, even the shape of the text gives them their proper authority. 

 

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