A Study of Hawthorne, by G. P. Lathrop

Chapter 13

The Loss and the Gain.

The suddenness with which Hawthorne faded away and died, when at the zenith of his fame, is no less strange and sad and visionary now than it was a poignant anguish then. He returned from Europe somewhat lingeringly, as we have seen, knowing too well the difference between the regions he was quitting and the thinner, sharper, and more wasting atmosphere of a country where every one who has anything to give is constantly drawn upon from every side, and has less resource for intellectual replenishment than in other lands. His seven years in England and Italy had, on the whole, been a period of high prosperity, of warm and gratifying recognition, of varied and delightful literary encounter, in addition to the pleasure of sojourning among so many new and suggestive scenes. And when he found himself once more on the old ground, with the old struggle for subsistence staring him steadily in the face again, it is not difficult to conceive how a certain degree of depression would follow. Just as this reaction had set in, the breaking out of civil war threw upon Hawthorne, before he had time to brace himself for the shock, an immense burden of sorrowing sympathy. The conflict of feelings which it excited on the public side has been sketched; and that alone should have been enough to make the years of strife a time of continuous gloom and anxiety to him; but it would be losing sight of a very large element in his distress, not to add that he mourned over the multitude of private griefs which were the harvest of battle as acutely as if they had all been his own losses. His intense imagination burned them too deeply into his heart. How can we call this weakness, which involved such strength of manly tenderness and sympathy? “Hawthorne’s life was shortened by the war,” Mr. Lowell says. Expressing this view once, to a friend, who had served long in the Union army, I was met with entire understanding. He told me that his own father, a stanch Unionist, though not in military service, was as certainly brought to his death by the war as any of the thousands who fell in battle. In how wide and touchingly humane a sense may one apply to Hawthorne Marvell’s line on Cromwell’s death —

“To Love and Grief the fatal writ was signed!”

His decline was gradual, and semi-conscious, as if from the first he foresaw that he could not outlive these trials. In April, 1862, he visited Washington, and wrote the article “Chiefly about War Matters” already alluded to. He has left this glimpse of himself at that time:—

“I stay here only while Leutze finishes a portrait, which I think will be the best ever painted of the same unworthy subject. One charm it must needs have — an aspect of immortal jollity and well-to-doness; for Leutze, when the sitting begins, gives me a first-rate cigar, and when he sees me getting tired, he brings out a bottle of splendid champagne; and we quaffed and smoked yesterday, in a blessed state of mutual good-will, for three hours and a half, during which the picture made a really miraculous progress. Leutze is the best of fellows.”

The trip was taken to benefit his health, which had already begun to give way; and though he wrote thus cheerily, he was by no means well. In another published note there is this postscript:—

“My hair really is not so white as this photograph, which I enclose, makes me. The sun seems to take an infernal pleasure in making me venerable — as if I were as old as himself.”

He had already, as we know, begun to meditate upon “The Dolliver Romance,” trudging to and fro upon his hill-top, which was called, at home, “the mount of vision.” But before proceeding with that, he began the series of essays composing “Our Old Home,” not yet feeling strong enough for the more trying exertion of fiction. But the preparation of these, charming as they are, brought no exhilaration to his mind. “I am delighted,” he writes to his publisher, “at what you tell me about the kind appreciation of my articles, for I feel rather gloomy about them myself. . . . I cannot come to Boston to spend more than a day, just at present. It would suit me better to come for a visit when the spring of next year is a little advanced, and if you renew your hospitable proposition then, I shall probably be glad to accept it; though I have now been a hermit so long, that the thought affects me somewhat as it would to invite a lobster or a crab to step out of his shell.”

His whole tone with regard to “Our Old Home” seems to have been one of fatigue and discouragement. He had, besides, to deal with the harassing question of the dedication to Franklin Pierce, which he solved in this manly and admirable letter to his publisher:—

“I thank you for your note of the 15th instant, and have delayed my reply thus long in order to ponder deeply on your advice, smoke cigars over it, and see what it might be possible for me to do towards taking it. I find that it would be a piece of poltroonery in me to withdraw either the dedication or the dedicatory letter. My long and intimate personal relations with Pierce render the dedication altogether proper, especially as regards this book, which would have had no existence without his kindness; and if he is so exceedingly unpopular that his name is enough to sink the volume, there is so much the more need that an old friend should stand by him. I cannot, merely on account of pecuniary profit or literary reputation, go back from what I have deliberately felt and thought it right to do; and if I were to tear out the dedication, I should never look at the volume again without remorse and shame. As for the literary public, it must accept my book precisely as I think fit to give it, or let it alone.”

By this time, the energy requisite for carrying on the Romance had sunk still lower, so that he wrote:—

“I can’t tell you when to expect an instalment of the Romance, if ever. There is something preternatural in my reluctance to begin. I linger at the threshold, and have a perception of very disagreeable phantasms to be encountered if I enter. I wish God had given me the faculty of writing a sunshiny book.”

And, a little later:—

“I don’t see much probability of my having the first chapter of the Romance ready so soon as you want it. There are two or three chapters ready to be written, but I am not yet robust enough to begin, and I feel as if I should never carry it through.”

His inability to work has been illustrated in the numerous bulletins of this period published by Mr. Fields: they show him at times despondent, as in the extracts above, then again in a state of semi-resolution. At another time there is mixed presentiment and humor in his report.

“I am not quite up to writing yet, but shall make an effort as soon as I see any hope of success. You ought to be thankful that (like most other broken-down authors) I do not pester you with decrepit pages, and insist upon your accepting them as full of the old spirit and vigor. That trouble, perhaps, still awaits you, after I shall have reached a further stage of decay. Seriously, my mind has, for the present, lost its temper and its fine edge, and I have an instinct that I had better kept quiet. Perhaps I shall have a new spirit of vigor, if I wait quietly for it; perhaps not.”

But over all these last notes there hangs a melancholy shadow that makes the flickering humor even sadder than the awesome conviction that he has done with writing. How singular the mingled mood of that last letter, in which he grimly jests upon the breaking-down of his literary faculty! Here he announces, finally: “I hardly know what to say to the public about this abortive Romance, though I know pretty well what the case will be. I shall never finish it.” Yet the cause was not so much the loss of literary power, as the physical exhaustion that had already worn him away beyond recovery. He longed for England; and possibly if he could have gone thither, the voyage, the milder climate, and the sense of rest that he would have felt there, might have restored him. He had friends in this country, however, who made attempts to break up the disastrous condition into which he had so unexpectedly come. In May of 1863, when “Our Old Home” was printing, he received from his friend Mr. Lowell this most charming invitation to come to Cambridge:—

MY DEAR HAWTHORNE:— I hope you have not forgotten that during “anniversary week” you were to make me a little anniversary by a visit? I have been looking forward to it ever so long. My plan is that you come on Friday, so as to attend the election-meeting of our club, and then stay over Sunday, and Monday, and Tuesday, which is the last day of my holidays. How will that do? I am glad to hear your book is going through the press, and you will be nearer your proof-sheets here. I have pencils of all colors for correcting in all moods of mind — red for sanguine moments when one thinks there is some use in writing at all, blue for a modest depression, and black for times when one is satisfied there is no longer an intelligent public nor one reader of taste left in the world. You shall have a room to yourself, nearly as high and quite as easy of access as your tower, and I pledge myself that my crows, cat-birds, orioles, chimbley-swallows, and squirrels shall present you with the freedom of their city in a hollow walnut, so soon as you arrive.

Now will you write and say when you are to be expected? I assure you I have looked forward to your coming as one of my chiefest spring pleasures, ranking it with the advent of the birds.

Always cordially yours,


“I have smoked a cigar over your kind invitation,” wrote Hawthorne, in answer, “and mean to come. There is a little bit of business weighing upon me (literary business of course, an article for the magazine and for my volume, which I ought to have begun and finished long ago), but I hope to smash it in a day or two, and will meet you at the club on Saturday. I shall have very great pleasure in the visit.”

But, at the last moment, he was obliged to give it up, being detained by a cold. And there seemed indeed a fatality which interfered with all attempts to thwart the coming evil. At the beginning of April, 1864, completely broken down, yet without apparent cause, he set out southward with Mr. William Ticknor. On arriving at Philadelphia he began to improve; but Mr. Ticknor’s sudden death overthrew the little he had gained, and caused him to sink still more. It is not my purpose here to dwell upon the sad and unbeautiful details of a last illness: these things would make but a harsh closing chord in the strain of meditation on Hawthorne’s life which we have been following out — a life so beautiful and noble that to surround its ending with the remembrance of mere mortal ailment has in it something of coarseness. But it was needful to show in what way this great spirit bowed beneath the weight of its own sympathy with a national woe. Even when Dr. Holmes saw him in Boston, though “his aspect, medically considered, was very unfavorable,” and though “he spoke as if his work were done, and he should write no more,” still “there was no failing noticeable in his conversational powers.” “There was nothing in Mr. Hawthorne’s aspect,” wrote Dr. Holmes, “that gave warning of so sudden an end as that which startled us all.” He passed on into the shadow as if of his own will; feeling that his country lay in ruins, that the human lot carried with it more hate and horror and sorrow than he could longer bear to look at; welcoming — except as those dear to him were concerned — the prospect of that death which he alone knew to be so near. It was on the 19th of May, 1864, that the news came from Plymouth, in New Hampshire — whither he had gone with Ex–President Pierce — that Hawthorne was dead. Afterward, it was recalled with a kind of awe that through many years of his life Hawthorne had been in the habit, when trying a pen or idly scribbling at any time, of writing the number sixty-four; as if the foreknowledge of his death, which he showed in the final days, had already begun to manifest itself in this indirect way long before. Indeed, he had himself felt that the number was connected with his life in some fatal way. Five days later he was carried to Sleepy Hollow, the beautiful cemetery where he had been wont to walk among the pines, where once when living at the Manse he had lain upon the grass talking to Margaret Fuller, when Mr. Emerson came upon them, and smiled, and said the Muses were in the woods that day.

A simple stone, with the single word “Hawthorne” cut upon it, was placed above him. He had wished that there should be no monument. He liked Wordsworth’s grave at Grasmere, and had written, “It is pleasant to think and know that he did not care for a stately monument.” Longfellow and Lowell and Holmes, Emerson and Louis Agassiz, and his friends Pierce, and Hillard, with Ellery Channing, and other famous men, assembled on that peaceful morning to take their places in the funeral train. Some who had not known him in life came long distances to see him, now, and ever afterward bore about with them the memory of his aspect, strong and beautiful, in his last repose. The orchards were blossoming; the roadside-banks were blue with violets, and the lilies of the valley, which were Hawthorne’s favorites among the flowers, had come forth in quiet companies, to look their last on his face, so white and quiet too. So, while the batteries that had murdered him roared sullenly in the distant South, the rites of burial were fulfilled over the dead poet. Like a clear voice beside the grave, as we look back and listen, Longfellow’s simple, penetrating chant returns upon the ear.

In vain to sum up, here, the loss unspeakable suffered in Hawthorne’s death; and no less vain the attempt to fix in a few words the incalculable gain his life has left with us. When one remembers the power that was unexhausted in him still, one is ready to impeach cold Time and Fate for their treason to the fair prospect that lay before us all, in the continuance of his career. We look upon these few great works, that may be numbered on the fingers of a hand, and wonder what good end was served by the silent shutting of those rich pages that had just begun to open. We remember the tardy recognition that kept the fountain of his spirit so long half concealed, and the necessities that forced him to give ten of his best years to the sterile industry of official duties. But there are great compensations. Without the youthful period of hopes deferred, Hawthorne, as we have seen, would not have been the unique force, the high, untrammelled thinker that be became through that fortunate isolation; wanting the uncongenial contact of his terms at Boston and Salem and Liverpool, it may be that he could not have developed his genius with such balance of strength as it now shows; and, finally, without the return to his native land, the national fibre in him would have missed its crowning grace of conscientiousness. He might in that case have written more books, but the very loss of these, implying as it does his pure love of country, is an acquisition much more positively valuable.

There is a fitness, too, in the abrupt breaking off of his activity, in so far as it gives emphasis to that incompleteness of any verbal statement of truth, which he was continually insisting upon with his readers.

Hawthorne, it is true, expanded so constantly, that however many works he might have produced, it seems unlikely that any one of them would have failed to record some large movement in his growth; and therefore it is perhaps to be regretted that his life could not have been made to solely serve his genius, so that we might have had the whole sweep of his imagination clearly exposed. As it is, he has not given us a large variety of characters; and Hester, Zenobia, and Miriam bear a certain general likeness one to another. Phoebe, however, is quite at the opposite pole of womanhood; Hilda is as unlike any of them as it is easy to conceive of her being; and Priscilla, again, is a feminine nature of unique calibre, as weird but not so warm as Goethe’s Mignon, and at the same time a distinctly American type, in her nervous yet captivating fragility. In Priscilla and Phoebe are embodied two widely opposed classes of New England women. The male characters, with the exception of Donatello and Hollingsworth, are not so remarkable as the feminine ones: Coverdale and Kenyon come very close together, both being artistic and both reflectors for the persons that surround them; and Dimmesdale is to some extent the same character — with the artistic escape closed upon his passions, so that they turn within and ravage his heart — arrested and altered by Puritan influences. Chillingworth is perhaps too devilish a shape of revenge to be discussed as a human individual. Septimius, again, is distinct; and the characterization of Westervelt, in “Blithedale,” slight as it is, is very stimulating. Perhaps, after all, what leads us to pronounce upon the whole fictitious company a stricture of homogeneity is the fact that the author, though presenting us each time with a set of persons sufficiently separate from his previous ones, does not emphasize their differences with the same amount of external description that we habitually depend upon from a novelist. The similarity is more in the author’s mode of presentation than in the creations themselves.

This monotone in which all the personages of his dramas share is nearly related with some special distinctions of his genius. He is so fastidious in his desire for perfection, that he can scarcely permit his actors to speak loosely or ungrammatically: though retaining their essential individuality, they are endowed with the author’s own delightful power of expression. This outward phasis of his work separates it at once from that of the simple novelist, and leads us to consider the special applicability to it of the term “romance.” He had not the realistic tendency, as we usually understand that, but he possessed the power to create a new species of fiction. For the kind of romance that he has left us differs from all compositions previously so called. It is not romance in the sense of D’Urfé‘s or Scudéri’s; it is very far from coming within the scope of Fielding’s “romances”; and it is entirely unconnected with the tales of the German Romantic school. It is not the romance of sentiment; nor that of incident, adventure, and character viewed under a worldly coloring: it has not the mystic and melodramatic bent belonging to Tieck and Novalis and Fouqué. There are two things which radically isolate it from all these. The first is its quality of revived belief. Hawthorne, as has been urged already, is a great believer, a man who has faith; his belief goes out toward what is most beautiful, and this he finds only in moral truth. With him, poetry and moral insight are sacredly and indivisibly wedded, and their progeny is perfect beauty. This unsparingly conscientious pursuit of the highest truth, this metaphysical instinct, found in conjunction with a varied and tender appreciation of all forms of human or other life, is what makes him so decidedly the representative of a wholly new order of novelists. Belief, however, is, not what he has usually been credited with, so much as incredulity. But the appearance of doubt is superficial, and arises from his fondness for illuminating fine but only half-perceptible traces of truth with the torch of superstition. Speaking of the supernatural, he says in his English journal: “It is remarkable that Scott should have felt interested in such subjects, being such a worldly and earthly man as he was; but then, indeed, almost all forms of popular superstition do clothe the ethereal with earthly attributes, and so make it grossly perceptible.” This observation has a still greater value when applied to Hawthorne himself. And out of this questioning belief and transmutation of superstition into truth — for such is more exactly his method — proceeds also that quality of value and rarity and awe-enriched significance, with which he irradiates real life until it is sublimed to a delicate cloud-image of the eternal verities.

If these things are limitations, they are also foundations of a vast originality. Every greatness must have an outline. So that, although he is removed from the list of novelists proper, although his spiritual inspiration scares away a large class of sympathies, and although his strictly New England atmosphere seems to chill and restrain his dramatic fervor, sometimes to his disadvantage, these facts, on the other hand, are so many trenches dug around him, fortifying his fair eminence. Isolation and a certain degree of limitation, in some such sense as this, belong peculiarly to American originality. But Hawthorne is the embodiment of the youth of this country; and though he will doubtless furnish inspiration to a long line of poets and novelists, it must be hoped that they, likewise, will stand for other phases of its development, to be illustrated in other ways. No tribute to Hawthorne is less in accord with the biddings of his genius than that which would merely make a school of followers.

It is too early to say what position Hawthorne will take in the literature of the world; but as his influence gains the ascendant in America, by prompting new and un-Hawthornesque originalities, it is likely also that it will be made manifest in England, according to some unspecifiable ratio. Not that any period is to be distinctly colored by the peculiar dye in which his own pages are dipped; but the renewed tradition of a highly organized yet simple style, and still more the masculine tenderness and delicacy of thought and the fine adjustment of aesthetic and ethical obligations, the omnipresent truthfulness which he carries with him, may be expected to become a constituent part of very many minds widely opposed among themselves. I believe there is no fictionist who penetrates so far into individual consciences as Hawthorne; that many persons will be found who derive a profoundly religious aid from his unobtrusive but commanding sympathy. In the same way, his sway over the literary mind is destined to be one of no secondary degree. “Deeds are the offspring of words,” says Heine; “Goethe’s pretty words are childless.” Not so with Hawthorne’s. Hawthorne’s repose is the acme of motion; and though turning on an axis of conservatism, the radicalism of his mind is irresistible; he is one of the most powerful because most unsuspected revolutionists of the world. Therefore, not only is he an incalculable factor in private character, but in addition his unnoticed leverage for the thought of the age is prodigious. These great abilities, subsisting with a temper so modest and unaffected, and never unhumanized by the abstract enthusiasm for art, place him on a plane between Shakespere and Goethe. With the universality of the first only just budding within his mind, he has not so clear a response to all the varying tones of lusty human life, and the individuality in his utterance amounts, at particular instants, to constraint. With less erudition than Goethe, but also less of the freezing pride of art, he is infinitely more humane, sympathetic, holy. His creations are statuesquely moulded like Goethe’s, but they have the same quick music of heart-throbs that Shakespere’s have. Hawthorne is at the same moment ancient and modern, plastic and picturesque. Another generation will see more of him than we do; different interpreters will reveal other sides. As a powerful blow suddenly descending may leave the surface it touches unmarked, and stamp its impress on the substance beneath, so his presence will more distinctly appear among those farther removed from him than we. A single mind may concentrate your vision upon him in a particular way; but the covers of any book must perforce shut out something of the whole, as the trees in a vista narrow the landscape.

Look well at these leaves I lay before you; but having read them throw the volume away, and contemplate the man himself.


Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38