The Life and Genius of Nathaniel Hawthorne, by Frank Stearns

Chapter 18


In the autumn of 1862 there was great excitement in Massachusetts. President Lincoln had issued his premonitory proclamation of emancipation, and Harvard College was stirred to its academic depths. Professor Joel Parker, of the Law School, pronounced Lincoln’s action unconstitutional, subversive of the rights of property, and a most dangerous precedent. With Charles Eliot Norton and other American Tories, Parker headed a movement for the organization of a People’s Party, which had for its immediate object the defeat of Andrew for Governor and the relegation of Sumner to private life. The first they could hardly expect to accomplish, but it was hoped that a sufficient number of conservative representatives would be elected to the Legislature to replace Sumner by a Republican, who would be more to their own minds; and they would be willing to compromise on such a candidate as Honorable E. R. Hoar — although Judge Hoar was innocent of this himself and was quite as strongly anti-slavery as Sumner. The movement came to nothing, as commonly happens with political movements that originate in universities, but for the time being it caused a great commotion and nowhere more so than in the town of Concord. Emerson was never more emphatic than in demanding the re-election of Andrew and Sumner.

How Hawthorne felt about this and how he voted in November, can only be conjectured by certain indications, slight, it is true, but all pointing in one direction. As long since explained, he entertained no very friendly feeling toward the Cotton Whigs; his letter to his daughter concerning Gen. McClellan, who set himself against the proclamation and was removed in consequence, should be taken into consideration; and still more significant is the letter to Horatio Bridge, in which Hawthorne proposed the enlistment of negro soldiers. Doctor George B. Loring, of Salem, always a loyal friend to the Hawthorne family, came to Concord in September to deliver an address at the annual cattle-show, and visited at the Wayside. He had left the Democratic party and become a member of the Bird Club, which was then the centre of political influence in the State. As a matter of course he explained his new position to Hawthorne. He had long felt attracted to the Republican party, and but for his influential position among his fellow-Democrats, he would have joined it sooner. Parties were being reconstructed. Half the Democrats had become Republicans; and a considerable portion of the Whigs had joined the Democratic party. The interests of the Republic were in the hands of the Republican party and it ought to be supported. We can believe that Hawthorne listened to him with close attention.

It was in the spring of 1862 that I first became well acquainted with the Hawthorne family, which seemed to exist in an atmosphere of purity and refinement derived from the man’s own genius. Julian visited me at our house in Medford during the early summer, where he made great havoc among the small fruits of the season. We boxed, fenced, skated, played cricket and studied Cicero together. As my father was one of the most revolutionary of the Free–Soilers, this may have amused Hawthorne as an instance of the Montagues and Capulets; but I found much sympathy with my political notions in his household. When the first of January came there was a grand celebration of the Emancipation in Boston Music Hall. Mrs. Hawthorne and Una were very desirous to attend it, and I believe they both did so — Miss Una at all events. If Mrs. Hawthorne’s opinions could be taken in any sense as a reflection of her husband’s mind, he was certainly drifting away from his old associations.

In October, 1862, Hawthorne published the first of a series of studies from English life and scenery, taken chiefly from his Note-book, and he continued this at intervals until the following summer, when Ticknor & Fields brought them out with some additions in book form as “Our Old Home;” a volume which has already been considered in these pages. It was not a favorable time for the publication of classic literature, for the whole population of the United States was in a ferment; and moreover the unfriendly attitude of the English educated classes toward the cause of the Union, was beginning to have its effect with us. In truth it seemed rather inconsistent that the philanthropic Gladstone, who had always professed himself the friend of freedom, should glorify Jefferson Davis as the founder of a new nation — a republic of slaveholders. In addition to this, Hawthorne insisted on dedicating the volume to President Pierce, and when his publishers protested that this would tend to make the book unpopular, he replied in a spirited manner, that if that was the case it was all the more reason why Pierce’s friends should signify their continued confidence in him. This may have made little difference, however, for comparatively few readers notice the dedication of a book until after they have purchased it; and we like Hawthorne for his firmness in this instance.

In England the book produced a sensation of the unfavorable sort. Hawthorne’s attack on the rotundity of the English ladies, whatever may have been his reason for it, was, to speak reservedly, somewhat lacking in delicacy. It stirred up a swarm of newspaper enemies against him; and proved a severe strain to the attachment of his friends there. Henry Bright wrote to him:

“It really was too bad, some of the things you say. You talk like a cannibal. Mrs. Heywood says to my mother, ‘I really believe you and I were the only ladies he knew in Liverpool, and we are not like beefsteaks.’ So all the ladies are furious.” 134

But Hawthorne was no longer what he had been, and allowance should be made for this.

Hawthorne’s chief interest at this time, however, lay in the preparation of his son for Harvard College. Julian was sixteen in August and, considering the itinerant life he had lived, well advanced in his studies. He was the best-behaved boy in Concord, in school or out, and an industrious though not ambitious scholar. He was strong, vigorous and manly; and his parents had sufficient reason to be proud of him. To expect him, however, to enter Harvard College at the age of seventeen was somewhat unreasonable. His father had entered Bowdoin at that age, but the requirements at Harvard were much more severe than at Bowdoin; enough to make a difference of at least one year in the age of the applicant. For a boy to enter college in a half-fitted condition is simply to make a false start in life, for he is only too likely to become discouraged, and either to drag along at the foot of the class or to lose his place in it altogether. Hawthorne may have felt that the end of earthly affairs was close upon him, and wished to see his son started on the right road before that came; but Emerson also had an interest in having Julian go to college at exactly this time; namely, to obtain him as a chum for his wife’s nephew, with the advantage of a tutor’s room thrown in as an extra inducement. He advised Hawthorne to place Julian in charge of a Harvard professor who was supposed to have a sleight-of-hand faculty for getting his pupils through the examinations. Julian worked bravely, and succeeded in entering Harvard the following July; but he was nine months (or a good school year), younger than the average of his class.

Hawthorne did not leave home this summer (1863), and the only letter we have of his was the one to James T. Fields concerning the dedication of “Our Old Home,” which was published in the autumn. Julian states that his father spent much of his time standing or walking in his narrow garden before the house, and looking wistfully across the meadows to Walden woods. His strength was evidently failing him, yet he could not explain why — nor has it ever been explained.

One bright day in November two of us walked up from Cambridge with Julian and lunched at his father’s. Mr. Hawthorne received us cordially, but in a tremulous manner that betrayed the weakness of his nerves. As soon as Julian had left the room, he said to us, “I suppose it would be of little use to ask you young gentlemen what sort of a scholar Julian is.” H—— replied to this, that we were neither of us in the division with him, but that he had heard nothing unfavorable in regard to his recitations; and I told him that Julian went to the gymnasium with me every evening, and appeared to live a very regular kind of life. This seemed to please Mr. Hawthorne very much, and he soon produced a decanter of port, and, his son having entered the room again, he said, “I want to teach Julian the taste of good wine, so that he will learn to avoid those horrible punches, which I am told you have at Harvard.” We all laughed greatly at this, which was afterward increased by Julian’s saying that the only punches he had yet seen were those which the sophomores gave us in the foot-ball fight — or some such statement. It was a bright occasion for all of us, and when Mrs. Hawthorne and her daughters entered the room, such a beautiful group as they all formed together! And Hawthorne himself seemed ten years younger than when he first greeted us.

He was the most distinguished-looking man that I ever beheld, and no sensible person could meet him without instantly recognizing his superior mental endowment. His features were not only classic but grandly classic; and his eyes large, dark, luminous, unfathomable — looking into them was like looking into a deep well. His face seemed to give a pictorial reflection of whatever was taking place about him; and again became like a transparency through which one could see dim vistas of beautiful objects. The changes of expression on it were like the sunshine and clouds of a summer day — perhaps thunder clouds sometimes, with flashes of lightning, which his son may still remember; for where there is a great heart there will always be great heat.


According to James T. Fields, the ground-plan of this work was laid the preceding winter, but Hawthorne became dissatisfied with the way in which the subject developed itself and so set the manuscript aside until he could come to it again with fresh inspiration. With the more bracing weather of September he commenced on it again, and wrote during the next two months that portion which we now have. On December 1 he forwarded two chapters to Ticknor & Fields, requesting to have them set up so that he could see them in print and obtain a retrospective view of his work before he proceeded further. Yet on December 15 he wrote again, saying that he had not yet found courage to attack the proofs, and that all mental exertion had become hateful to him. 135 He was evidently feeling badly, and for the first time Mrs. Hawthorne was seriously anxious for him. Four days later she wrote to Una, who was visiting in Beverly:

“Papa is comfortable today, but very thin and pale and weak. I give him oysters now. Hitherto he has had only toasted crackers and lamb and beef tea. I am very impatient that he should see Dr. Vanderseude, but he wants to go to him himself, and he cannot go till it be good weather. . . . The splendor and pride of strength in him have succumbed; but they can be restored, I am sure. Meanwhile he is very nervous and delicate; he cannot bear anything, and he must be handled like the airiest Venetian glass.” 136

He divided his time between lying on a sofa and sitting in an arm-chair; and he did not seem very comfortable in either position. It was long since he had attended meetings of the Saturday Club.

It is clear from this that Hawthorne had not recently consulted a doctor concerning his condition, and perhaps not at all. He may have been right enough in supposing that no common practitioner could give him help, but there was at that time one of the finest of physiologists in Boston, Dr. Edward H. Clark, who cured hundreds of sick people every year, as quietly and unostentatiously as Dame Nature herself. He was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, and as such not generally looked upon with favor by the Boston medical profession, but when Agassiz’s large brain gave way in 1868, Dr. Brown-Séquard telegraphed to him from Europe to consult Edward Clark, and Doctor Clark so improved his health that Agassiz afterward enjoyed a number of years of useful work. Perhaps he might have accomplished as much for Hawthorne; but how was Hawthorne in his retired and uncommunicative life to know of him? There are decided advantages in living in the great world, and in knowing what goes on there — if one only can.

It is doubtful if Hawthorne ever opened the proof of “The Dolliver Romance.” In February he wrote to Fields that he could not possibly go on with it, and as it had already been advertised for the Atlantic Monthly, a notification had to be published concerning the matter, which startled Longfellow, Whittier and other old friends of Hawthorne, who were not in the way of knowing much about him. The fragment that we now have of it was printed in the Atlantic many years after his death.

It was the last expiring ember of Hawthorne’s genius, blazing up fitfully and momentarily with the same brightness as of old, and then disappearing like Hawthorne himself into the unknown and the unknowable. It is a fragment, and yet it seems complete, for it is impossible to imagine how the story could have been continued beyond its present limits; and Hawthorne left no word from which we can conjecture his further intentions in regard to it.

There was an old apothecary in Concord, named Reynolds, a similar man to, but not so aged as, Hawthorne’s Doctor Dolliver; and he also had a son, a bright enterprising boy — too bright and spirited to suit Boston commercialism — who went westward in 1858 to seek his fortune, nor have I ever heard of his return. The child Pansie, frisking with her kitten — a more simple, ingenuous, and self-centred, but also less sympathetic nature than the Pearl of Hester Prynne — may have been studied from Hawthorne’s daughter Rose. There also lived at Concord in Hawthorne’s time a man with the title of Colonel, a pretentious, self-satisfied person, who corresponded fairly to his description of Colonel Dabney, in “The Dolliver Romance.” Neither is it singular that the apothecary’s garden should have bordered on a grave-yard, for there are two old cemeteries in Concord in the very centre of the town.

I know of no such portrait of an old man as Doctor Dolliver in art or literature — except perhaps Tintoretto’s portrait of his aged self, in the Louvre. We not only see the customary marks of age upon him, but we feel them so that it seems as if we grew old and stiff and infirm as we read of him; and the internal life of old age is revealed to us, not by confessions of the man himself, but by every word he speaks and every act he does as if the writer were a skilful tragedian upon the stage. It seems as if Hawthorne must have felt all this himself during the last year of his life, to describe it so vividly; but he ascends by these infirm steps to loftier heights than ever before, and the scene in which he represents Doctor Dolliver seated at night before the fire in his chamber after Pansie had been put to bed, is the noblest passage in the whole cycle of Hawthorne’s art; one of those rare passages written in moments of gifted insight, when it seems as if a higher power guided the writer’s hand. It is given here entire, for to subtract a word from it would be an irreparable injury.

“While that music lasted, the old man was alive and happy. And there were seasons, it might be, happier than even these, when Pansie had been kissed and put to bed, and Grandsir Dolliver sat by his fireside gazing in among the massive coals, and absorbing their glow into those cavernous abysses with which all men communicate. Hence come angels or fiends into our twilight musings, according as we may have peopled them in by-gone years. Over our friend’s face, in the rosy flicker of the fire-gleam, stole an expression of repose and perfect trust that made him as beautiful to look at, in his high-backed chair, as the child Pansie on her pillow; and sometimes the spirits that were watching him beheld a calm surprise draw slowly over his features and brighten into joy, yet not so vividly as to break his evening quietude. The gate of heaven had been kindly left ajar, that this forlorn old creature might catch a glimpse within. All the night afterwards, he would be semi-conscious of an intangible bliss diffused through the fitful lapses of an old man’s slumber, and would awake, at early dawn, with a faint thrilling of the heart-strings, as if there had been music just now wandering over them.”

So Jacob in the desert saw angels descending and ascending on a ladder from Heaven. Discouraged, depressed, the door closed upon his earthly hopes, not only for himself, but for those whom he loves much better than himself, so far as he could ever be a help and a providence to them, Hawthorne finds a purer joy and a higher hope in the depths of his own spirit.

In the second chapter, or fragment, of this romance, Doctor Dolliver, followed by Pansie, goes out into the garden one frosty October morning, and while the apothecary is digging at his herbs, the imitative child, with an instinctive repulsion for everything strange and morbid, pulls up the fatal plant from which the elixir of life was distilled, and frightened at her grandfather’s chiding, runs with it into the cemetery where it is lost among the graves and never seen again. This account stands by itself, having no direct connection with what precedes or follows; but the delineation is so vivid, the poetic element in it so strong, that it may be said to stand without assistance, and does not require the name of Hawthorne to give it value.

In the conclusion, the elixir of life proves to be an elixir of death; extremes meet and are reconciled. As he says in “The Marble Faun,” joy changes to sorrow and sorrow is laughed away; the experience of both being that which is really valuable. Doctor Dolliver and Pansie are figures for the end and the beginning of life; the Old Year and the New. Such is the sum of Hawthorne’s philosophy — the ultimate goal of his thought. There could have been no more fitting consummation of his work. The cycle of his art is complete, and death binds the laurel round his brow.

134 J. Hawthorne, ii. 280. Good Mrs. Alcott also objected stoutly to the reflections on her sex.

135 “Yesterdays with Authors,” 115.

136 J. Hawthorne, ii. 333.

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