A Study of Hawthorne, by G. P. Lathrop

Chapter 8

Lenox and Concord: Productive Period.

1850–1853.

In the early summer, after the publication of “The Scarlet Letter,” Hawthorne removed from Salem to Lenox, in Berkshire, where himself and his family were ensconced in a small red house near the Stockbridge Bowl. It was far from a comfortable residence; but he had no means of obtaining a better one. Meantime, he could do what he was sent into the world to do, so long as he had the mere wherewithal to live.

He was much interested in Herman Melville, at this time living in Pittsfield. There was even talk of their writing something together, as I judge from some correspondence; though this was abandoned.

Between this summer of 1850 and June, 1853, Hawthorne wrote “The House of the Seven Gables,” “The Blithedale Romance,” “The Wonder–Book for Boys and Girls,” and “Tanglewood Tales,” besides the story of “The Snow Image” in the volume to which this supplies the title; and his short “Life of Franklin Pierce.” The previous paucity of encouragements to literature, and the deterring effect of official duties and of the Brook Farm attempt, were now removed, and his pen showed that it could pour a full current if only left free to do so.

The industry and energy of this period are the more remarkable because he could seldom accomplish anything in the way of composition during the warm months. “The House of the Seven Gables” was under way by September, 1850.

“I shan’t have the new story ready,” he writes to his publisher on the 1st of October, “by November, for I am never good for anything in the literary way till after the first autumnal frost, which has somewhat such an effect on my imagination that it does on the foliage here about me — multiplying and brightening its hues; though they are likely to be sober and shabby enough after all.”

The strain of reflection upon the work in hand which he indulged one month later is so important as to merit dwelling upon.

“I write diligently, but not so rapidly as I had hoped. I find the book requires more care and thought than ‘The Scarlet Letter’; also I have to wait oftener for a mood. ‘The Scarlet Letter’ being all in one tone, I had only to get my pitch, and could then go on interminably. Many passages of this book ought to be finished with the minuteness of a Dutch picture, in order to give them their proper effect. Sometimes, when tired of it, it strikes me that the whole is an absurdity, from beginning to end; but the fact is, in writing a romance, a man is always, or always ought to be, careering on, the utmost verge of a precipitous absurdity, and the skill lies in coming as close as possible, without actually tumbling over. My prevailing idea is, that the book ought to succeed better than ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ though I have no idea that it will.”

By the 12th of January, 1851, he was able to write: “My ‘House of the Seven Gables’ is, so to speak, finished; only I am hammering away a little at the roof, and doing up a few odd jobs that were left incomplete”; and at the end of that month, he despatched the manuscript to Boston, still retaining his preference for it over the preceding work.

“It has met with extraordinary success from that portion of the public to whose judgment it has been submitted, viz. from my wife. I likewise prefer it to ‘The Scarlet Letter’; but an author’s opinion of his book just after completing it is worth little or nothing, he being then in the hot or cold fit of a fever, and certain to rate it too high or too low.

“It has undoubtedly one disadvantage, in being brought so close to the present time; whereby its romantic improbabilities become more glaring.”

He also wrote to Bridge, in July, after listening to the critics, and giving his own opinion time to mature:—

“I think it a work more characteristic of my mind, and more proper and natural for me to write, than ‘The Scarlet Letter,’— but, for that very reason, less likely to interest the public. Nevertheless, it appears to have sold better than the former, and I think is move sure of retaining the ground that it acquires. Mrs. Kemble writes that both works are popular in England, and advises me to take out my copyright there.”

His opinion of the superiority of the fresh production to his first great romance is no doubt one that critics will coincide with as regards artistic completeness; though his fear that it would not succeed so well was not confirmed, because, as I have suggested, he had begun to acquire that momentum of public favor which sets in after its first immense inertia has once been overcome. Acting on the reports from England, he made a suggestion to his publisher; and though this at first met with discouragement, ten months later £200 were received from a London house for “The Blithedale Romance.” English editions of his works had already become numerous. But Hawthorne began now to receive a more ethereal and not less welcome kind of tribute from abroad, that of praise from the makers and markers of literature. The critics welcomed him to a high place; authors wrote to him, urging him to cross the sea; and Miss Mitford — of whom he said, “Her sketches, long ago as I read them, are as sweet in my memory as the scent of new hay”— sent special messages expressive of her pleasure.

When the “Blithedale Romance” had come out, Mr. Hawthorne sent Miss Mitford a copy, and she wrote in reply this cordial and delightful note:—

SWALLOWFIELD, August 6,1852.

At the risk of troubling you, dear Mr. Hawthorne, I write again to tell you how much I thank you for the precious volume enriched by your handwriting, which, for its own sake and for yours, I shall treasure carefully so long as I live. The story has your mark upon it — the fine tragic construction unmatched amongst living authors, the passion of the concluding scenes, the subtle analysis of jealousy, the exquisite finish of style. I must tell you what one of the cleverest men whom I have ever known, an Irish barrister, the juvenile correspondent of Miss Edgeworth, says of your style: “His English is the richest and most intense essence of the language I know of; his words conveying not only a meaning, but more than they appear to mean. They point onward or upward or downward, as the case may be, and we cannot help following them with the eyes of imagination, sometimes smiling, sometimes weeping, sometimes shuddering, as if we were victims of the mesmeric influence he is so fond of bringing to bear upon his characters. Three of the most perfect Englishmen of our day are Americans — Irving, Prescott, and this great new writer, Mr. Hawthorne.” So far my friend Mr. Hockey. I forget, dear Mr. Hawthorne, whether I told you that the writer of whose works you remind me, not by imitation, but by resemblance, is the great French novelist, Balzac. Do you know his books? He is untranslated and untranslatable, and it requires the greatest familiarity with French literature to relish him thoroughly. . . . I doubt if he be much known amongst you; at least I have never seen him alluded to in American literature. He has, of course, the low morality of a Frenchman, but, being what he is, Mrs. Browning and I used to discuss his personages like living people, and regarded his death as a great personal calamity to both.

I am expecting Mrs. Browning here in a few days, not being well enough to meet her in London. . . . How I wish, dear Mr. Hawthorne, that you were here to meet them! The day will come, I hope. It would be good for your books to look at Europe, and all of Europe that knows our tongue would rejoice to look at you.

Ever your obliged and affectionate friend,

M. R. MITFORD.

I must transcribe here, too, part of a letter from Herman Melville, who, in the midst of his epistle, suddenly assumes the tone of a reviewer, and discourses as follows, under the heading, “The House of the Seven Gables: A Romance. By Nathaniel Hawthorne. 16 mo. pp. 344.”

“The contents of this book do not belie its clustering romantic title. With great enjoyment we spent almost an hour in each separate gable. This book is like a fine old chamber, abundantly but still judiciously furnished with precisely that sort of furniture best fitted to furnish it. There are rich hangings, whereon are braided scenes from tragedies. There is old china with rare devices, set about on the carved beaufet; there are long and indolent lounges to throw yourself upon; there is an admirable sideboard, plentifully stored with good viands; there is a smell of old wine in the pantry; and finally, in one corner, there is a dark little black-letter volume in golden clasps, entitled Hawthorne: A Problem. . . .

“We think the book for pleasantness of running interest surpasses the other work of the author. The curtains are now drawn; the sun comes in more; genialities peep out more. Were we to particularize what has most struck us in the deeper passages, we should point out the scene where Clifford, for a minute, would fain throw himself from the window, to join the procession; or the scene where the Judge is left seated in his ancestral chair.

“Clifford is full of an awful truth throughout. He is conceived in the finest, truest spirit. He is no caricature. He is Clifford. And here we would say, that did the circumstances permit, we should like nothing better than to devote an elaborate and careful paper to the full consideration and analysis of the purpose and significance of what so strongly characterizes all of this author’s writing. There is a certain tragic phase of humanity, which, in our opinion, was never more powerfully embodied than by Hawthorne: we mean the tragicalness of human thought in its own unbiased, native, and profound workings. We think that into no recorded mind has the intense feeling of the whole truth ever entered more deeply than into this man’s. By whole truth, we mean the apprehension of the absolute condition of present things as they strike the eye of the man who fears them not, though they do their worst to him.”

This really profound analysis, Mr. Mellville professes to extract from the “Pittsfield Secret Review,” of which I wish further numbers could be found.

But chief among the prizes of this season were letters from his friends Lowell and Holmes. The latter’s I insert, because it admirably illustrates the cordial relation which has always distinguished the famous writers of New England — no pleasant illusion of distance, but a notable and praiseworthy reality.

BOSTON, April 9, 1851.

MY DEAR SIR:— I have been confined to my chamber and almost to my bed, for some days since I received your note; and in the mean time I have received what was even more welcome, the new Romance “from the Author.” While I was too ill to read, my wife read it to me, so that you have been playing physician to my heartaches and headaches at once, with the magnetism of your imagination.

I think we have no romancer but yourself, nor have had any for this long time. I had become so set in this feeling, that but for your last two stories I should have given up hoping, and believed that all we were to look for in the way of spontaneous growth were such languid, lifeless, sexless creations as in the view of certain people constitute the chief triumphs of a sister art as manifested among us.

But there is rich red blood in Hester, and the flavor of the sweet-fern and the bayberry are not truer to the soil than the native sweetness of our little Phoebe! The Yankee mind has for the most part budded and flowered in pots of English earth, but you have fairly raised yours as a seedling in the natural soil. My criticism has to stop here; the moment a fresh mind takes in the elements of the common life about us and transfigures them, I am contented to enjoy and admire, and let others analyze. Otherwise I should be tempted to display my appreciating sagacity in pointing out a hundred touches, transcriptions of nature, of character, of sentiment, true as the daguerreotype, free as crayon sketching, which arrested me even in the midst of the palpitating story. Only one word, then, this: that the solid reality and homely truthfulness of the actual and present part of the story are blended with its weird and ghostly shadows with consummate skill and effect; this was perhaps the special difficulty of the story.

I don’t want to refuse anything you ask me to do. I shall come up, I trust, about the 1st of June. I would look over the MS. in question, as a duty, with as much pleasure as many other duties afford. To say the truth, I have as great a dread of the Homo Caudatus Linn., Anglicé, the Being with a Tale, male or female, as any can have.

“If foes they write, if friends they read me dead,”

said poor Hepzibah’s old exploded poet. Still, if it must be, I will stipulate to read a quantity not exceeding fifty-six pounds avoirdupois by weight or eighteen reams by measure or “tale,”— provided there is no locomotion in the case. The idea of visiting Albany does not enter into my intentions. I do not know who would serve as a third or a second member of the committee; Miss Sedgwick, if the Salic law does not prevail in Berkshire, is the most natural person to do it. But the real truth is, the little Albaneses want to see the author of “The Scarlet Letter,” and don’t care a sixpence who else is on the committee. That is what they are up to. So if you want two dummies, on the classical condition not to leave the country except in case of invasion, absentees, voters by proxy, potential but not personally present bottle-holders, I will add my name to those of Latimer, Ridley, and Co. as a Martyr in the cause of Human Progress.

Believe me, my dear sir,

Yours very sincerely,

O. W. Holmes.

Hawthorne’s interest in Dr. Holmes’s works was also very great, and one of the last books which he read at all was “Elsie Venner,” which he had taken up for a second time shortly before his death.

Amid all the variety of thoughtful and thoughtless praise, or of other comment on the new romance, he began to feel that necessity for abstracting his attention entirely from what was said of his work in current publications, which forces itself upon every creative mind attempting to secure some centre of repose in a chattering and unprivate age like the present. This feeling he imparted to Bridge, and it also appears in one or two published letters. At the same time, it must be remembered how careful a consideration he gave to criticism; and he wrote of Edwin Whipple’s reviewing of the “Seven Gables”:—

“Whipple’s notices have done more than pleased me, for they have helped me to see my book. Much of the censure I recognize as just; I wish I could feel the praise to be so fully deserved. Being better (which I insist it is) than ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ I have never expected it to be so popular.”

In this same letter occurs the following:—

“——— — Esq., of Boston, has written to me, complaining that I have made his grandfather infamous! It seems there was actually a Pyncheon (or Pynchon, as he spells it) family resident in Salem, and that their representative, at the period of the Revolution, was a certain Judge Pynchon, a Tory and a refugee. This was Mr. ——‘s grandfather, and (at least, so he dutifully describes him) the most exemplary old gentleman in the world. There are several touches in my account of the Pyncheons which, he says, make it probable that I had this actual family in my eye, and he considers himself infinitely wronged and aggrieved, and thinks it monstrous that the ‘virtuous dead’ cannot be suffered to rest quietly in their graves.”

The matter here alluded to threatened to give Hawthorne almost as much inconvenience as the tribulation which followed the appearance of “The Custom–House.” One of the complainants in this case, though objecting to the use of the name Pyncheon, “respectfully suggests,” with an ill-timed passion for accuracy, that it should in future editions be printed with the e left out, because this was the proper mode in use by the family.

There has been some slight controversy as to the original of the visionary mansion described in this romance. Mr. Hawthorne himself said distinctly that he had no particular house in mind, and it is also a fact that none is recalled which fulfils all the conditions of that of the “Seven Gables.” Nevertheless, one party has maintained that the old Philip English house, pulled down many years since, was the veritable model; and others support the Ingersoll house, which still stands. The Curwin, called the “Witch House,” appears, by an antique painting from which photographs have been made, to have had the requisite number of peaks at a remote date; but one side of the structure being perforce left out of the picture, there is room for a doubt. [Footnote: It is from one of these photographs that the cut in the new edition of Hawthorne’s Works has been developed.]

In “The House of the Seven Gables” Hawthorne attained a connection of parts and a masterly gradation of tones which did not belong, in the same fulness, to “The Scarlet Letter.” There is, besides, a larger range of character, in this second work, and a much more nicely detailed and reticulated portrayal of the individuals. Hepzibah is a painting on ivory, yet with all the warmth of a real being. Very noticeable is the delicate veneration and tenderness for her with which the author seems to inspire us, notwithstanding the fact that he has almost nothing definite to say of her except what tends to throw a light ridicule. She is continually contrasted with the exquisite freshness, ready grace, and beauty of Phoebe, and subjected to unfavorable comparisons in the mind of Clifford, whose half-obliterated but still exact aesthetic perception casts silent reproach upon her. Yet, in spite of this, she becomes in a measure endeared to us. In the grace, and agreeableness too, with which Hawthorne manages to surround this ungifted spinster, we find a unit of measure for the beauty with which he has invested the more frightful and tragic elements of the story. It is this triumph of beauty without destroying the unbeautiful, that gives the romance its peculiar artistic virtue. Judge Pyncheon is an almost unqualified discomfort to the reader, yet he is entirely held within bounds by the prevailing charm of the author’s style, and by the ingenious manner in which the pleasanter elements of the other characters are applied. At times the strong emphasis given to his evil nature makes one suspect that the villain is too deeply dyed; but the question of equity here involved is one of the most intricate with which novelists have to deal at all. The well-defined opposition between good and bad forces has always been a necessity to man, in myths, religions, and drama. Heal life furnishes the most absolute extremes of possession by the angel or the fiend; and Shakespere has not scrupled to use one of these ultimate possibilities in the person of Iago. Yet Hawthorne was too acutely conscious of the downward bent in every heart, to let the Judge’s pronounced iniquity stand without giving a glimpse of incipient evil in another quarter. This occurs in the temptation which besets Holgrave, when he finds that he possesses the same mesmeric sway over Phoebe, the latest Pyncheon offshoot, as that which his ancestor Matthew Maule exercised over Alice Pyncheon. The momentary mood which brings before him the absolute power which might be his over this fair girl, opens a whole new vista of wrong, in which the retribution would have been transferred from the shoulders of the Pyncheons to those of the Maules. Had Holgrave yielded then, he might have damned his own posterity, as Colonel Pyncheon had his. Thus, even in the hero of the piece, we are made aware of possibilities as malicious and destructive as those hereditary faults grown to such rank maturity in the Judge; and this may be said to offer a middle ground between the side of justice and attractiveness, and the side of injustice and repulsiveness, on which the personages are respectively ranged.

The conception of a misdeed operating through several generations, and righted at last solely by the over-toppling of unrestrained malevolence on the one hand, and on the other by the force of upright character in the wronged family, was a novel one at the time; this graphic depicture of the past at work upon the present has anticipated a great deal of the history and criticism of the following twenty-five years, in its close conjunction of antecedent influences and cumulative effects.

As a discovery of native sources of picturesque fiction, this second romance was not less remarkable than the one which preceded it. The theme furnished by the imaginary Pyncheon family ranges from the tragic in the Judge, through the picturesquely pathetic in Clifford, to a grotesque cast of pathos and humor in Hepzibah. Thence we are led to another vein of simple, fun-breeding characterization in Uncle Venner and Ned Higgins. The exquisite perception which draws old Uncle Venner in such wholesome colors, tones him up to just one degree of sunniness above the dubious light in which Hepzibah stands, so that he may soften the contrast of broad humor presented by little Ned Higgins, the “First Customer.” I cannot but regret that Hawthorne did not give freer scope to his delicious faculty for the humorous, exemplified in the “Seven Gables.” If he had let his genius career as forcibly in this direction as it does in another, when burdened with the black weight of the dead Judge Pyncheon, he might have secured as wide an acceptance for the book as Dickens, with so much more melodrama and so much less art, could gain for less perfect works. Hawthorne’s concentration upon the tragic element, and comparative neglect of the other, was in one sense an advantage; but if in the case under discussion he had given more bulk and saliency to the humorous quality, he might also have been more likely to avoid a fault which creeps in, immediately after that marvellous chapter chanted like an unholy requiem over the lifeless Judge. This is the sudden culmination of the passion of Holgrave for Phoebe, just at the moment when he has admitted her to the house where Death and himself were keeping vigil. The revulsion, here, is too violent, and seems to throw a dank and deathly exhalation into the midst of the sweetness which the mutual disclosure of love should have spread around itself. There is need of an enharmonic change, at this point; and it might have been effected, perhaps, by a slower passage from gloom to gladness just here, and a more frequent play of the brighter mood throughout the book. But the tragic predilection seems ultimately to gain the day over the comic, in every great creative mind, and it was so strong with Hawthorne, that instead of giving greater play to humor in later fictions, it curtailed it more and more, from the production of the “Seven Gables” onward.

Mr. Curtis has shown me a letter written soon after the publication of the new book, which, as it gives another instance of the writer’s keen enjoyment of other men’s work, and ends with a glimpse of the life at Lenox, I will copy at length:—

LENOX, April 29,1851.

MY DEAR HOWADJI:— I ought to be ashamed (and so I really am) of not having sooner responded to your note of more than a month ago, accompanied as it was by the admirable “Nile Notes.” The fact is, I have been waiting to find myself in an eminently epistolary mood, so that I might pay my thanks and compliments in a style not unworthy of the occasion. But the moment has not yet come, and doubtless never will; and now I have delayed so long, that America and England seem to have anticipated me in their congratulations.

I read the book aloud to my wife, and both she and I have felt that we never knew anything of the Nile before. There is something beyond descriptive power in it. You make me feel almost as if we had been there ourselves. And then you are such a luxurious traveller. . . . The fragrance of your chibonque was a marvellous blessing to me. It cannot be concealed that I felt a little alarm, as I penetrated the depths of those chapters about the dancing-girls, lest they might result in something not altogether accordant with our New England morality; and even now I hardly know whether we escaped the peril, or were utterly overwhelmed by it. But at any rate, those passages are gorgeous in the utmost degree. However, I suppose you are weary of praise; and as I have nothing else to inflict, I may as well stop here.

S—— and the children and I are plodding onward in good health, and in a fair medium state of prosperity; and on the whole, we are quite the happiest family to be found anywhere. We live in the ugliest little old red farm-house you ever saw. . . .

What shall you write next? For of course you are an author forever. I am glad, for the sake of the public, but not particularly so for your own.

Very soon after the issue of the “Seven Gables,” another lighter literary project was put into execution.

“I mean [he had announced on the 23d of May] to write within six weeks or two months next ensuing, a book of stories made up of classical myths. The subjects are: The Story of Midas, with his Golden Touch; Pandora’s Box; The Adventure of Hercules in Quest of the Golden Apples; Bellerophon and the Chimera; Baucis and Philemon; Perseus and Medusa.”

The “Wonder–Book” was begun on the first of June, and finished by the middle of July; so that the intention of writing it within six weeks was strictly carried out: certainly a rapid achievement, considering the excellent proportion and finish bestowed upon the book. It is a minor work, but a remarkable one; not its least important trait being the perfect simplicity of its style and scope, which, nevertheless, omits nothing essential, and preserves a thorough elegance. Its peculiar excellences come out still more distinctly when contrasted with Charles Kingsley’s “The Heroes; or, Greek Fairy Tales,” published in England five years after the appearance of the “Wonder–Book” here. The fresher play of Hawthorne’s mind with those old subjects is seen in nothing more agreeably than in the graceful Introduction and interludes which he has thrown around the mythological tales, like the tendrils of a vine curling over a sculptured capital. This midsummer task — it was very uncommon for him to write in the hot season — perhaps had something to do with further unsettling Hawthorne’s health, which at this time was not good. The somewhat sluggish atmosphere of the far inland valley did not suit his sea-braced temperament; and so, instead of renting Mrs. Kemble’s country place, as he had thought of doing, he decided to leave Berkshire with the birds; but not to go southward. Moving to West Newton, near Boston, he remained there for the winter, writing “Blithedale,” which was put forth in 1852.

The special characteristic of “The Blithedale Romance” seems to me to be its appearance of unlabored ease, and a consequent breeziness of effect distinguishing its atmosphere from that of any of the other romances. The style is admirably finished, and yet there is no part of the book that gives the same impression of almost unnecessary polish which occasionally intervenes between one’s admiration and the “Seven Gables.” On this score, “Blithedale” is certainly the most consummate of the four completed romances. And as Hawthorne has nowhere given us more robust and splendid characterization than that of Zenobia and Hollingsworth, the work also takes high rank on this ground. The shadows, which seemed partly dispersed in the “Seven Gables,” gather again in this succeeding story; but, on the other hand, it is not so jarringly terrible as “The Scarlet Letter.” From this it is saved partly by the sylvan surrounding and the pleasant changes of scene. In comparing it with the other works, I find that it lets itself be best defined as a mean between extremes; so that it ought to have the credit of being the most evenly attempered of all. The theme is certainly as deep as that of the earlier ones, and more tangible to the general reader than that of “The Marble Faun”; it is also more novel than that of “The Scarlet Letter” or even the “Seven Gables,” and has an attractive air of growing simply and naturally out of a phenomenon extremely common in New England, namely, the man who is dominated and blinded by a theory. And the way in which Hollingsworth, through this very prepossession and absorption, is brought to the ruin of his own scheme, and has to concentrate his charity for criminals upon himself as the first criminal needing reformation, is very masterly. Yet, in discussing the relative positions of these four works. I am not sure that we can reach any decision more stable than that of mere preference.

There is a train of thought suggested in “Blithedale” which receives only partial illustration in that story, touching the possible identity of love and hate. It had evidently engaged Hawthorne from a very early period, and would have made rich material for an entire romance, or for several treating different phases of it. Perhaps he would have followed out the suggestion, but for the intervention of so many years of unproductiveness in the height of his powers, and his subsequent too early death.

It was while at West Newton, just before coming to the Wayside, that he wrote a note in response to an invitation to attend the memorial meeting at New York, in honor of the novelist, Cooper, which should be read for its cordial admiration of a literary brother, and for the tender thought of the closing sentence.

To Rev. R. W. Griswold.

February 20,1852.

Dear Sir:— I greatly regret that circumstances render it impossible for me to be present on the occasion of Mr. Bryant’s discourse in honor of James Fenimore Cooper. No man has a better right to be present than myself, if many years of most sincere and unwavering admiration of Mr. Cooper’s writings can establish a claim. It is gratifying to observe the earnestness with which the literary men of our country unite in paying honor to the deceased; and it may not be too much to hope that, in the eyes of the public at large, American literature may henceforth acquire a weight and value which have not heretofore been conceded to it: time and death have begun to hallow it.

Very respectfully yours,

Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Early in the summer of 1852 he went to Concord again, where he had bought a small house, there to establish his permanent home. Mr. Curtis was at this time writing some chapters for a book on “The Homes of American Authors,” among which was to be included the new abode of Hawthorne. The project called forth from the romancer this letter:—

CONCORD, July 14, 1852.

MY HEAR HOWADJI:— I think (and am glad to think) that you will find it necessary to come hither in order to write your Concord Sketches; and as for my old house, you will understand it better after spending a day or two in it. Before Mr. Alcott took it in hand, it was a mean-looking affair, with two peaked gables; no suggestiveness about it and no venerableness, although from the style of its construction it seems to have survived beyond its first century. He added a porch in front, and a central peak, and a piazza at each end, and painted it a rusty olive hue, and invested the whole with a modest picturesqueness; all which improvements, together with its situation at the foot of a wooded hill, make it a place that one notices and remembers for a few moments after passing it. Mr. Alcott expended a good deal of taste and some money (to no great purpose) in forming the hillside behind the house into terraces, and building arbors and summer-houses of rough stems and branches and trees, on a system of his own. They must have been very pretty in their day, and are so still, although much decayed, and shattered more and more by every breeze that blows. The hillside is covered chiefly with locust-trees, which come into luxuriant blossom in the month of June, and look and smell very sweetly, intermixed with a few young elms and some white-pines and infant oaks — the whole forming rather a thicket than a wood. Nevertheless, there is some very good shade to be found there. I spend delectable hours there in the hottest part of the day, stretched out at my lazy length, with a book in my hand or an unwritten book in my thoughts. There is almost always a breeze stirring along the sides or brow of the hill.

From the hill-top there is a good view along the extensive level surfaces and gentle, hilly outlines, covered with wood, that characterize the scenery of Concord. We have not so much as a gleam of lake or river in the prospect; if there were, it would add greatly to the value of the place in my estimation.

The house stands within ten or fifteen feet of the old Boston road (along which the British marched and retreated), divided from it by a fence, and some trees and shrubbery of Mr. Alcott’s setting out. Whereupon I have called it “The Wayside,” which I think a better name and more morally suggestive than that which, as Mr. Alcott has since told me, he bestowed on it — “The Hillside.” In front of the house, on the opposite side of the road, I have eight acres of land — the only valuable portion of the place in a farmer’s eye, and which are capable of being made very fertile. On the hither side, my territory extends some little distance over the brow of the hill, and is absolutely good for nothing, in a productive point of view, though very good for many other purposes.

I know nothing of the history of the house, except Thoreau’s telling me that it was inhabited a generation or two ago by a man who believed he should never die. [Footnote: This is the first intimation of the story of Septimius Felton, so far as local setting is concerned. The scenery of that romance was obviously taken from the Wayside and its hill.] I believe, however, he is dead; at least, I hope so; else he may probably appear and dispute my title to his residence. . . .

I asked Ticknor to send a copy of “The Blithedale Romance” to you. Do not read it as if it had anything to do with Brook Farm (which essentially it has not), but merely for its own story and character. Truly yours,

NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE.

The Wayside was, perhaps, so named in remembrance of the time when its owner had “sat down by the wayside like a man under enchantment.” It characterized well, too, his mental attitude in maturity; though the spell that held him now was charged with happiness. The house itself was small, but the proprietor might have carved on his lintel the legend over Ariosto’s door, Parva, sed apta mihi. In October, 1852, he wrote to Bridge that he intended to begin a new romance within a day or two, which he should make “more genial” than the last. What design this was cannot now be even conjectured. Hawthorne had written, in the preceding year, “I find that my facility of labor increases with the demand for it”; and he always felt that an unlimited reserve of invention and imagination awaited his drafts upon it, so that he could produce as many books as he might have time for writing. But circumstances again called him away from ideal occupations. Just as he was preparing to write the “Tanglewood Tales,” as a sequel to the “Wonder–Book,” General Pierce, the Democratic nominee for President, urged him to write his biography, as a “campaign” measure. “I have consented to do so,” wrote Hawthorne, to his publisher; “somewhat reluctantly, however, for Pierce has now reached that altitude where a man careful of his personal dignity will begin to think of cutting his acquaintance. But I seek nothing from him, and therefore need not be ashamed to tell the truth of an old friend.” To Bridge, after the book was out, he wrote much more confidentially and strongly. “I tried to persuade Pierce that I could not perform it as well as many others; but he thought differently, and of course, after a friendship of thirty years, it was impossible to refuse my best efforts in his behalf, at the great pinch of his life.” In this letter, also, he states that before undertaking the work, he resolved to “accept no office” from Pierce; though he raises the query whether this be not “rather folly than heroism.” In discussing this point, he says, touching Pierce:—

“He certainly owes me something; for the biography has cost me hundreds of friends here at the North, who had a purer regard for me than Frank Pierce or any other politician ever gained, and who drop off from me like autumn leaves, in consequence of what I say on the slavery question. But they were my real sentiments, and I do not now regret that they are on record.”

These have to do with Hawthorne’s attitude during the war. Speaking of Pierce’s indorsement of the Compromise, both as it bore hard on Northern views and exacted concessions from the South thought by it to be more than reciprocal, he says:—

“It was impossible for him not to take his stand as the unshaken advocate of Union, and of the mutual steps of compromise which that great object unquestionably demanded. The fiercest, the least scrupulous, and the most consistent of those who battle against slavery recognize the same fact that he does. They see that merely human wisdom and human efforts cannot subvert it, except by tearing to pieces the Constitution, breaking the pledges which it sanctions, and severing into distracted fragments that common country which Providence brought into one nation, through a continued miracle of almost two hundred years, from the first settlement of the American wilderness until the Revolution.”

He predicted, too, the evils of forcible abolition being certain, and the good only a contingency, that the negroes would suffer aggravated injuries from the very process designed to better their state. It is useless here to enter into the question of degrees of right and wrong on either side, in the struggle which had already become formidable before Pierce’s election; but one can see how sincerely, and with what generous motives, a man like Hawthorne would feel that the Union must be maintained peacefully. Without questioning the undoubted grandeur of achievement which we sanely fell upon through the insane fit of civil war, we may recognize a deep patriotism consistent with humanity which forced itself to dissent from the noble action of the fighters, because it could not share in any triumph, however glorious, that rested on the shedding of brothers’ blood. It was this kind of humanity that found shelter in the heart of Hawthorne.

Unwelcome as was the task, he wrote the biography of Pierce, in friendship, but in good faith also, even seeing the elements of greatness in his old classmate, which might yet lead him to a career. [Footnote: As a literary performance, the book is of course but slightly characteristic; and being distasteful to the author, it is even dry. Yet there is a great deal of simple dignity about it. The Whig journals belabored it manfully, and exhausted the resources of those formidable weapons, italics and small capitals, in the attempt to throw a ridiculous light on the facts most creditable to Pierce. Hawthorne came in for a share of the abuse too. One newspaper called the book his “new romance”; another made him out a worthy disciple of Simonides, who was the first poet to write for money. The other party, of course, took quite another view of the work. A letter to Hawthorne from his elder sister bears well upon his fidelity. “Mr. D—— has bought your Life of Pierce, but he will not be convinced that you have told the precise truth. I assure him that it is just what I have always heard you say.”] He had not much hope of his friend’s election, but when that occurred, the question of office, which he had already mooted, was definitely brought before him. When Pierce learned that he positively would not take an office, because to do so now might compromise him, he was extremely troubled. He had looked forward to giving Hawthorne some one of the prizes in his hand, if he should be elected. But the service he had exacted from his friend threatened to deprive Hawthorne of the very benefit which Pierce had been most anxious he should receive. At last, Mr. Ticknor, Hawthorne’s publisher, was made the agent of Pierce’s arguments, and to them he added personal considerations which were certainly not without weight. Literature gave but a bare subsistence, and Hawthorne was no longer young, having passed his forty-ninth year. His books were not likely, it seemed, to fill the breach that would be made in the fortunes of his family, were he to be suddenly removed. This, Mr. Ticknor urged, in addition to the friendly obligation which Pierce ought to be allowed to repay. Hawthorne, as we have seen, had always wished to travel, and the prospect of some years in Europe was an alluring one: the decision was made, to take the Liverpool consulship.

The appointment was well received, though many persons professed surprise that Hawthorne could accept it. One gentleman in public life, however, who knew how unjust current judgments may often be, was not of this number, as appears from his note below. —

SENATE CHAMBER, March 26, 1853.

MY DEAR HAWTHORNE:—“Good! good!” I exclaimed aloud on the floor of the Senate as your nomination was announced.

“Good! good!” I now write to you, on its confirmation. Nothing could be more grateful to me. Before you go, I hope to see you.

Ever yours,

CHARLES SUMNER.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hawthorne/nathaniel/lathrop/chapter8.html

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