The Life and Genius of Nathaniel Hawthorne, by Frank Stearns

Mrs. Emerson and Mrs. Hawthorne 143

143 Read at the Emerson Club, at Boston, January 2, 1906

In 1892, when I was constructing the volume known as “Sketches from Concord and Appledore,” I said in comparing Emerson with Hawthorne that one was like day, and the other like night. I was not aware that four years earlier M. D. Conway had made a similar statement in his Life of Hawthorne, which was published in London. Miss Rebecca Manning, Hawthorne’s own cousin, still living at the age of eighty and an admirable old lady, distinctly confirms my statement, that “wherever Hawthorne went he carried twilight with him.” Emerson, on the contrary, was of a sanguine temperament and an essentially sunny nature. His writings are full of good cheer, and the opening of his Divinity School Address is as full of summer sunshine as the finest July day. It was only necessary to see him look at the sunshine from his own porch to recognize how it penetrated into the depths of his nature.

It would seem consistent with the rational order of things, that day should be supplemented by night, and night again by day; and here we are almost startled by the completeness of our allegory. We sometimes come across faces in the streets of a large city, which show by their expression that they are more accustomed to artificial light than to the light of the sun. Mrs. Emerson was one of these. She never seemed to be fully herself, until the lamps were lighted. Her pale face seemed to give forth moonlight, and its habitual expression was much like that of a Sister of Charity. It was said of her that she was the last in the house to retire at night, always reading or busying herself with household affairs, until twelve or one o’clock; but this mode of life would appear to have been suited to her organization, for in spite of her colorless look she lived to be over ninety.

So far I can tread upon firm earth, without drawing upon my imagination, but in regard to Mrs. Hawthorne I cannot speak with the same assurance, for I only became acquainted with her after her husband’s health had begun to fail, and the anxiety in her face was strongly marked; yet I have reason to believe that her temperament was originally sanguine and optimistic, and that she alternated from dreamy, pensive moods to bright vivacious ones. She certainly was very different from her husband. Her sister, Elizabeth Peabody, was the most sanguine person of her time, and her introduction of the kindergarten into America was accomplished through her unbounded hopefulness. The Wayside, where Mrs. Hawthorne lived, has an extended southern exposure. The house was always full of light, which is not often the case with New England country houses; and when she lived at Liverpool, where sunshine is a rare commodity, she became unwell, so that Mr. Hawthorne was obliged to send her to Madeira in order to avert a dangerous illness.

These two estimable ladies were alike in the excellence of their housekeeping, the purity of their manners, their universal kindliness, and their devotion to the welfare of their husbands and children. It was a pleasure to pass them on the road-side; the fare at their tables was always of the nicest, even if it happened to be frugal; and people of all classes could have testified to their helpful liberality. In these respects they might almost have served as models, but otherwise they were as different as possible. Mrs. Emerson was of a tall, slender, and somewhat angular figure (like her husband), but she presided at table with a grace and dignity that quite justified his favorite epithet of “Queenie.” There was even more of the Puritan left in her than there was in him, and although she encouraged the liberal movements and tendencies of her time, one always felt in her mental attitude the inflexibility of the moral law. To her mind there was no shady border-land between right and wrong, but the two were separated by a sharply defined line, which was never to be crossed, and she lived up to this herself, and, in theory at least, she had but little mercy for sinners. On one occasion I was telling Mr. Emerson of a fraudulent manufacturing company, which had failed, as it deserved to, and which was found on investigation to have kept two sets of books, one for themselves, and another for their creditors. Mrs. Emerson listened to this narrative with evident impatience, and at the close of it she exclaimed, “This world has become so wicked that if I were the maker of it, I should blow it up at once.” Emerson himself did not like such stories; and although he once said that “all deaf children ought to be put in the water with their faces downward,” he was not always willing to accept human nature for what it really is.

Mrs. Emerson did not agree with her husband’s religious views; neither did she adopt the transcendental faith, that the idea of God is innate in the human mind, so that we cannot be dispossessed of it. She belonged to the conservative branch of the Unitarian Church, which was represented by Reverend James Freeman Clarke and Doctor Andrew P. Peabody. The subject was one which was permitted to remain in abeyance between them, but Mrs. Emerson was naturally suspicious of those reverend gentlemen who called upon her husband, and this may have been the reason why he did not encourage the visits of clergymen like Samuel Johnson, Samuel Longfellow, and Professor Hedge, whom he greatly respected, and who should have been by good rights his chosen companions. I suppose all husbands are obliged to make these domestic compromises.

Mrs. Emerson had also something of the spirit-militant in her. When David A. Wasson came to dine at Mr. Emerson’s invitation, she said to him, by way of grace before meat: “I see you have been carrying on a controversy with Reverend Mr. Sears, of Wayland, and you will excuse me for expressing my opinion that Mr. Sears had the best of it.” But after sounding this little nourish of trumpets, she was as kindly and hospitable as any one could desire. She was one of the earliest recruits to the anti-slavery cause — not only a volunteer, but a recruiting officer as well — and she made this decision entirely of her own mind, without any special encouragement from her husband or relatives. At the time of John Brown’s execution she wanted to have the bells tolled in Concord, and urged her husband energetically to see that it was done. Mrs. Emerson was always thoroughly herself. There never was the shadow of an affectation upon her; nor more than a shadow of self-consciousness — very rare among conscientious persons. One of her fine traits was her fondness for flowers, which she cultivated in the little garden between her house and the mill-brook, with a loving assiduity. She is supposed to have inspired Emerson’s poem, beginning:

“O fair and stately maid, whose eyes
Were kindled in the upper skies
At the same torch that lighted mine:
For so I must interpret still
Thy sweet dominion o’er my will,
A sympathy divine.”

There are other references to her in his published writings, which only those who were personally acquainted with her would recognize.

Mrs. Hawthorne belonged to the class of womankind which Shakespeare has typified in Ophelia, a tender-hearted, affectionate nature, too sensitive for the rough strains of life, and too innocent to recognize the guile in others. This was at once her strength and her weakness; but it was united, as often happens, with a fine artistic nature, and superior intelligence. Her face and manners both gave the impression of a wide and elevated culture. One could see that although she lived by the wayside, she had been accustomed to enter palaces. Her long residence in England, her Italian experience, her visit to the Court of Portugal, her enjoyment of fine pictures, poetry, and architecture, the acquaintance of distinguished men and women in different countries, had all left their impress upon her, combined in a quiet and lady-like harmony. Her conversation was cosmopolitan, and though she did not quite possess the narrative gift of her sister Elizabeth, it was often exceedingly interesting.

Hawthorne has been looked upon as the necrologist of the Puritans, and yet a certain coloring of Puritanism adhered to him to the last. It was his wife who had entirely escaped from the old New England conventicle. Severity was at the opposite pole from her moral nature. Tolerant and charitable to the faults of others, her only fault was the lack of severity. She believed in the law of love, and when kind words did not serve her purpose she let matters take what course they would, trusting that good might fall, “At last far off at last to all.”

I suspect her pathway was by no means a flowery one. Mrs. Emerson’s life had to be as stoical as her husband’s, and Mrs. Hawthorne’s, previous to the Liverpool consulate — the consulship of Hawthorne — was even more difficult. No one knew better than she the meaning of that heroism which each day requires. A writer in the Atlantic Monthly, reviewing Julian Hawthorne’s biography of his father, emphasizes, “the dual selfishness of Mr. and Mrs. Hawthorne.” Insensate words! There was no room for selfishness in the lives they led. In a certain sense they lived almost wholly for one another and for their children; but Hawthorne himself lived for all time and for all mankind, and his wife lived through him to the same purpose. The especial form of their material life was as essential to its spiritual outgrowth as the rose-bush is to the rose; and it would be a cankered selfishness to complain of them for it.

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