The Life and Genius of Nathaniel Hawthorne, by Frank Stearns

Chapter 5

Eos and Eros: 1835–1839

It was fortunate for Hawthorne that there was at this time a periodical in the United States, the North American Review, which was generally looked upon as an authority in literature, and which in most instances deserved the confidence that was placed in it, for its reviews were written by men of distinguished ability. It was the North American Review which made the reputation of L. Maria Child, and which enrolled Hawthorne in the order of geniuses.

There is not much literary criticism in Longfellow’s review, and he does not “rise to the level of the accomplished essayist” of our own time, 44 but he goes to the main point with the single-mindness of the true poet. “A new star,” he says, “has appeared in the skies”— a veritable prediction. “Others will gaze at it with telescopes, and decide whether it is in the constellation of Orion or the Great Bear. It is enough for us to gaze at it, to admire it, and welcome it.”

“Although Hawthorne writes in prose, he belongs among the poets. To every subject he touches he gives a poetic personality which emanates from the man himself. His sympathies extend to all things living, and even to the inanimates. Another characteristic is the exceeding beauty of his style. It is as clear as running waters are. Indeed he uses words as mere stepping-stones, upon which, with a free and youthful bound, his spirit crosses and re-crosses the bright and rushing stream of thought.”

Again he says:

“A calm, thoughtful face seems to be looking at you from every page; with now a pleasant smile, and now a shade of sadness stealing over its features. Sometimes, though not often, it glares wildly at you, with a strange and painful expression, as, in the German romance, the bronze knocker of the Archivarius Lindhorst makes up faces at the Student Anselmus.”

Here we have a portrait of Hawthorne, by one who knew him, in a few simple words; and behind a calm thoughtful face there is that mysterious unknown quantity which puzzles Longfellow here, and always perplexed Hawthorne’s friends. It may have been the nucleus or tap-root of his genius.

Longfellow seems to have felt it as a dividing line between them. He probably felt so at college; and this brings us back to an old subject. Hawthorne’s superiority to Longfellow as an artist consisted essentially in this, that he was never an optimist. Puritanism looked upon human nature with a hostile eye, and was inclined to see evil in it where none existed; and Doctor Channing, who inaugurated the great moral movement which swept Puritanism away in this country, tended, as all reformers do, to the opposite extreme — to that scepticism of evil which, as George Brandes says, is greatly to the advantage of hypocrites and sharpers. This was justifiable in Doctor Channing, but among his followers it has often degenerated into an inverted or homoeopathic kind of Puritanism — a habit of excusing the faults of others, or of themselves, on the score of good intentions — a habit of self-justification, and even to the perverse belief that, as everything is for the best, whatever we do in this world must be for good. To this class of sentimentalists the most serious evil is truth-seeing and truth-speaking. It is an excellent plan to look upon the bright side of things, but one should not do this to the extent of blinding oneself to facts. Doctor Johnson once said to Boswell, “Beware, my friend, of mixing up virtue and vice;” but there is something worse than that, and it is, to stigmatize a writer as a pessimist or a hypochondriac for refusing to take rainbow-colored views. This, however, would never apply to Longfellow.

Hawthorne, with his eye ever on the mark, pursued a middle course. He separated himself from the Puritans without joining their opponents, and thus attained the most independent stand-point of any American writer of his time; and if this alienated him from the various humanitarian movements that were going forward, it was nevertheless a decided advantage for the work he was intended to do. In this respect he resembled Scott, Thackeray and George Eliot.

What we call evil or sin is merely the negative of civilization — a tendency to return to the original savage condition. In the light of history, there is always progress or improvement, but in individual cases there is often the reverse, and so far as the individual is concerned evil is no imaginary metaphor, but as real and absolute as what we call good. The Bulgarian massacres of 1877 were a historical necessity, and we console ourselves in thinking of them by the fact that they may have assisted the Bulgarians in obtaining their independence; but this was no consolation to the twenty or thirty thousand human beings who were ground to powder there. To them there was no comfort, no hope — only the terrible reality. Neither can we cast the responsibility of such events on the mysterious ways of Providence. The ways of Providence are not so mysterious to those who have eyes to read with. Take for instance one of the most notable cases of depravity, that of Nero. If we consider the conditions under which he was born and brought up, the necessity of that form of government to hold a vast empire together, and the course of history for a hundred years previous, it is not difficult to trace the genesis of Nero’s crimes to the greed of the Roman people (especially of its merchants) for conquest and plunder; and Nero was the price which they were finally called on to pay for this. Marcus Aurelius, a noble nature reared under favorable conditions for its development, became the Washington of his time.

It is the same in private life. In many families there are evil tendencies, which if they are permitted to increase will take permanent hold, like a bad demon, of some weak individual, and make of him a terror and a torment to his relatives — fortunate if he is not in a position of authority. He may serve as a warning to the general public, but in the domestic circle he is an unmitigated evil — he or she, though it is not so likely to be a woman. When a crime is committed within the precincts of good society, we are greatly shocked; but we do not often notice the debasement of character which leads down to it, and still more rarely notice the instances in which fear or some other motive arrests demoralization before the final step, and leaves the delinquent as it were in a condition of moral suspense.

It was in such tragic situations that Hawthorne found the material which was best suited to the bent of his genius.

In the two volumes, however, of “Twice Told Tales,”— the second published two years later — the tragical element only appears as an undercurrent of pathos in such stories as “The Gentle Boy,” “Wakefield,” “The Maypole of Merry-mount,” and “The Haunted Mind,” but reaches a climax in “The Ambitious Guest” and “Lady Eleanor’s Mantle.” There are others, like “Lights from a Steeple,” and “Little Annie’s Ramble,” that are of a more cheerful cast, but are also much less serious in their composition. “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “The Great Carbuncle,” and “The Ambitious Guest,” are Dantean allegories. We notice that each volume begins with a highly patriotic tale, the “Gray Champion,” and “Howe’s Masquerade,” but the patriotism is genuine and almost fervid.

When I first looked upon the house in which Hawthorne lived at Sebago, I was immediately reminded of these earlier studies in human nature, which are of so simple and quiet a diction, so wholly devoid of rhetoric, that Elizabeth Peabody thought they must be the work of his sister, and others supposed them to have been written by a Quaker. They resemble Dürer’s wood-cuts — gentle and tender in line, but unswerving in their fidelity. We sometimes wish that they were not so quiet and evenly composed, and then repent of our wish that anything so perfect should be different from what it is. His “Twice Told Tales” are a picture-gallery that may be owned in any house-hold. They stand alone in English, and there is not their like in any other language.

Yet Hawthorne is not a word-painter like Browning and Carlyle, but obtains his pictorial effect by simple accuracy of description, a more difficult process than the other, but also more satisfactory. His eyes penetrate the masks and wrappings which cover human nature, as the Röntgen rays penetrate the human body. He sees a man’s heart through the flesh and bones, and knows what is concealed in it. He ascends a church-steeple, and looking down from the belfry the whole life of the town is spread out before him. Men and women come and go — Hawthorne knows the errands they are on. He sees a militia company parading below, and they remind him from that elevation of the toy soldiers in a shop-window — which they turned out to be, pretty much, at Bull Run. A fashionable young man comes along the street escorting two young ladies, and suddenly at a crossing encounters their father, who takes them away from him; but one of them gives him a sweet parting look, which amply compensates him in its presage of future opportunities. How plainly that consolatory look appears between our eyes and the printed page! Then Hawthorne describes the grand march of a thunder-storm — as in Rembrandt’s “Three Trees,”— with its rolling masses of dark vapor, preceded by a skirmish-line of white feathery clouds. The militia company is defeated at the first onset of this, its meteoric enemy, and driven under cover. The artillery of the skies booms and flashes about Hawthorne himself, until finally: “A little speck of azure has widened in the western heavens; the sunbeams find a passage and go rejoicing through the tempest, and on yonder darkest cloud, born like hallowed hopes of the glory of another world and the trouble and tears of this, brightens forth the rainbow.” All this may have happened just as it is set down.

“Lady Eleanor’s Mantle” exemplifies the old proverb, “Pride goeth before destruction,” in almost too severe a manner, but the tale is said to have a legendary foundation; and “The Minister’s Black Veil” is an equally awful symbolism for that barrier between man and man, which we construct through suspicion and our lack of frankness in our dealings with one another. We all hide ourselves behind veils, and, as Emerson says, “Man crouches and blushes, absconds and conceals.”

“The Ambitious Guest” allegorizes a vain imagination, and is the most important of these three. A young man suffers from a craving for distinction, which he believes will only come to him after this life is ended. He is walking through the White Mountains, and stops overnight at the house of the ill-fated Willey family. He talks freely on the subject of his vain expectations, when Destiny, in the shape of an avalanche, suddenly overtakes him, and buries him so deeply that neither his body nor his name has ever been recovered. Hawthorne might have drawn another allegory from the same source, for if the Willey family had trusted to Providence, and remained in their house, instead of rushing out into the dark, they would not have lost their lives.

In the Democratic Review for 1834, Hawthorne published the account of a visit to Niagara Falls, one of the fruits of his expedition thither in September, 1832, by way of the White Mountains and Burlington, the journey from Salem to Niagara in those days being fully equal to going from New York to the cataracts of the Nile in our own time. “The Ambitious Guest” was published in the same volume with it, and “The Ontario Steamboat” first appeared in the American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge, in 1836. Hawthorne may have made other expeditions to the White Mountains, but we do not hear of them.

In addition to the three studies already mentioned, Hawthorne drew from this source the two finest of his allegories, “The Great Carbuncle” and “The Great Stone Face.”

“The Great Carbuncle” is not only one of the most beautiful of Hawthorne’s tales, but the most far-reaching in its significance. The idea of it must have originated in the Alpine glow, an effect of the rising or setting sun on the icy peaks of a mountain, which looks at a distance like a burning coal; an appearance only visible in the White Mountains during the winter, and there is no reason why Hawthorne should not have seen it at that season from Lake Sebago. At a distance of twenty miles or more it blazes wonderfully, but on a nearer approach it entirely disappears. Hawthorne could not have found a more fascinating subject, and he imagines it for us as a great carbuncle located in the upper recesses of the mountains.

A number of explorers for this wonderful gem meet together at the foot of the mountain beyond the confines of civilization, and build a hut in which to pass the night. They are recognizable, from Hawthorne’s description, as the man of one idea, who has spent his whole life seeking the gem; a scientific experimenter who wishes to grind it up for the benefit of his crucible; a cynical sceptic who has come to disprove the existence of the great gem; a greedy speculator who seeks the carbuncle as he would prospect for a silver-mine; an English lord who wishes to add it to his hereditary possessions; and finally a young married couple who want to obtain it for an ornament to their new cottage. The interest of the reader immediately centres on these last two, and we care much more concerning their fortunes and adventures than we do about the carbuncle.

The conversation that evening between these ill-assorted companions is in Hawthorne’s most subtle vein of irony, and would have delighted old Socrates himself. Meanwhile the young bride weaves a screen of twigs and leaves, to protect herself and her husband from the gaze of the curious.

The following morning they all set out by different paths in search of the carbuncle; but our thoughts accompany the steps of the young bride, as she makes one toilsome ascent after another until she feels ready to sink to the ground with fatigue and discouragement. They have already decided to return, when the rosy light of the carbuncle bursts upon them from beneath the lifting clouds; but they now feel instinctively that it is too great a prize for their possession. The man of one idea also sees it, and his life goes out in the exultation over his final success. The skeptic appears, but cannot discover it, although his face is illumined by its light, until he takes off his large spectacles; whereupon, he instantly becomes blind. The English nobleman and the American speculator fail to discover it; the former returns to his ancestral halls, as wise as he was before; and the latter is captured by a party of Indians and obliged to pay a heavy ransom to regain freedom. The scientific pedant finds a rare specimen of primeval granite, which serves his purpose quite as well as the carbuncle; and the two young doves return to their cot, having learned the lesson of contentment.

How fortunate was Hawthorne at the age of thirty thus to anatomize the chief illusions of life, which so many others follow until old age!

It is an erroneous notion that Hawthorne found the chief material for his work in old New England traditions. There are some half-dozen sketches of this sort, but they are more formally written than the others, and remind one of those portraits by Titian which were painted from other portraits — better than the originals, but not equal to those which he painted from Nature.

In the “Sights from a Steeple” Hawthorne exposes his methods of study and betrays the active principle of his existence. He says:

“The most desirable mode of existence might be that of a spiritualized Paul Pry hovering invisible round man and woman, witnessing their deeds, searching into their hearths, borrowing brightness from their felicity and shade from their sorrow, and retaining no emotion peculiar to himself.”

There are those who would dislike this busybody occupation, and others, such as Emerson perhaps, might not consider it justifiable; but Hawthorne is not to be censured for it, for his motive was an elevated one, and without this close scrutiny of human nature we should have had neither a Hawthorne nor a Shakespeare. There is no quality more conspicuous in “Twice Told Tales” than the calm, evenly balanced mental condition of the author, who seems to look down on human life not so much from a church steeple as from the blue firmament itself.

Such was the Eos or dawn of Hawthorne’s literary art.

Hawthorne returned thanks to Longfellow in a gracefully humorous letter, to which Longfellow replied with a cordial wish to see Hawthorne in Cambridge, and by advising him to dive into deeper water and write a history of the Acadians before and after their expulsion from Nova Scotia; but this was not practicable for minds like Hawthorne’s, surcharged with poetic images, and the attempt might have proved a disturbing influence for him. He had already contributed the substance to Longfellow of “Evangeline,” and he now wrote a eulogium on the poem for a Salem newspaper, which it must be confessed did not differ essentially from other reviews of the same order. He does not give us any clear idea of how the poem actually impressed him, which is after all the best that one can do in such cases. Poetry is not like a problem in mathematics, which can be marked right or wrong according to its solution.

When a young man obtains a substantial footing in his profession or business, he looks about him for a wife — unless he happens to be already pledged in that particular; and Hawthorne was not an exception to this rule. He was not obliged to look very far, and yet the chance came to him in such an exceptional manner that it seems as if some special providence were connected with it. His position in this respect was a peculiar one. He does not appear to have been much acquainted in Salem even now; and the only son of a widow with two unmarried sisters may be said to have rather a slim chance for escaping from those strong ties which have grown up between them from childhood. Many a mother has prevented her son from getting married until it has become too late for him to change his bachelor habits. His mother and his sisters realize that he ought to be married, and that he has a right to a home of his own; but in their heart of hearts they combat the idea, and their opposition takes the form of an unsparing criticism of any young lady whom he follows with his eyes. This frequently happens also in a family of girls: they all remain unmarried because, if one of them shows an inclination in that direction, the others unite in a conspiracy against her. On the other hand, a family of four or five boys will marry early, if they can obtain the means of doing so, simply from the need of feminine cheer and sympathy. A devoted female friend will sometimes prevent a young woman from being married. Love affairs are soft earth for an intriguing and unprincipled woman to work in, but, fortunately, Mrs. Hawthorne did not belong in that category.

It was stout, large-hearted Elizabeth Peabody who broke the spell of the enchanted castle in which Hawthorne was confined. The Peabodys were a cultivated family in Salem, who lived pretty much by themselves, as the Hawthornes and Mannings did. Doctor Nathaniel Peabody was a respectable practitioner, but he had not succeeded in curing the headaches of his daughter Sophia, which came upon her at the close of her girlhood and still continued intermittently until this time. The Graces had not been bountiful the Peabody family, so, to compensate for this, they all cultivated the Muses, in whose society they ascended no little distance on the way to Parnassus. Elizabeth Peabody was quite a feminine pundit. She learned French and German, and studied history and archaeology; she taught history on a large scale at Sanborn’s Concord School and at many others; she had a method of painting dates on squares, which fixed them indelibly in the minds of her pupils; she talked at Margaret Fuller’s transcendental club, and was an active member of the Radical or Chestnut Street Club, thirty years later; but her chief distinction was the introduction of Froebel’s Kindergarten teaching, by which she well-nigh revolutionized primary instruction in America. She was a most self-forgetful person, and her scholars became devotedly attached to her.

Her sister Mary was as much like Elizabeth mentally as she differed from her in figure and general appearance, but soon after this she was married to Horace Mann and her public activity became merged in that of her husband, who was the first educator of his time. Sophia Peabody read poetry and other fine writings, and acquired a fair proficiency in drawing and painting. They lived what was then called the “higher life,” and it certainly led them to excellent results.

Shortly before the publication of “Twice Told Tales,” Elizabeth Peabody learned that the author of “The Gentle Boy,” and other stories which she had enjoyed in the Token, lived in Salem, and that the name was Hawthorne. She immediately jumped to the conclusion that they were the work of Miss Elizabeth Hawthorne, whom she had known somewhat in earlier days, and she concluded to call upon her and offer her congratulations. When informed by Louisa Hawthorne, who came to her in the parlor, instead of the elder sister, that “The Gentle Boy” was written by Nathaniel, Miss Peabody made the significant remark, “If your brother can do work like that, he has no right to be idle” 45 — to which Miss Louisa retorted, it is to be hoped with some indignation, that her brother never was idle.

It is only too evident from this that public opinion in Salem had already decided that Hawthorne was an idle fellow, who was living on his female relatives. That is the way the world judges — from external facts without any consideration of internal causes or conditions. It gratifies the vanity of those who are fortunate and prosperous, to believe that all men have an equal chance in the race of life. Emerson once blamed two young men for idleness, who were struggling against obstacles such as he could have had no conception of. Those who have been fortunate from the cradle never learn what life is really like.

The spell, however, was broken and the friendliness of Elizabeth Peabody found a deeply sympathetic response in the Hawthorne household. Nathaniel at last found a person who expressed a genuine and heartfelt appreciation of his work, and it was like the return of the sun to the Arctic explorer after his long winter night. Rather to Miss Peabody’s surprise he and his sisters soon returned her call, and visits between the two families thereafter became frequent.

Sophia Peabody belonged to the class of young women for whom Shakespeare’s Ophelia serves as a typical example. She was gentle, affectionate, refined, and amiable to a fault — much too tender-hearted for this rough world, if her sister Elizabeth had not always stood like a barrier between her and it.

How Hawthorne might have acted in Hamlet’s place it is useless to surmise, but in his true nature he was quite the opposite of Hamlet — slow and cautious, but driven onward by an inexorable will. If Hamlet had possessed half of Hawthorne’s determination, he might have broken through the network of evil conditions which surrounded him, and lived to make Ophelia a happy woman. It was only necessary to come into Hawthorne’s presence in order to recognize the force that was in him.

Sophia Amelia Peabody was born September 21, 1811, so that at the time of which we are now writing she was twenty-five years of age. Hawthorne was then thirty-two, when a man is more attractive to the fair sex than at any other time of life, for then he unites the freshness and vigor of youth with sufficient maturity of judgment to inspire confidence and trust. Yet her sister Elizabeth found it difficult to persuade her to come into the parlor and meet the handsomest man in Salem. When she did come she evidently attracted Nathaniel Hawthorne’s attention, for, although she said little, he looked at her repeatedly while conversing with her sister. It may not have been an instance of love at first sight — which may happen to any young man at a dancing party, and be forgotten two days later — but it was something more than a casual interest. On his second or third call she showed him a sketch she had made of “the gentle boy,” according to her idea of him, and the subdued tone with which he received it plainly indicated that he was already somewhat under her influence. Julian Hawthorne writes of this: 46

“It may be remarked here, that Mrs. Hawthorne in telling her children, many years afterwards, of these first meetings with their father, used to say that his presence, from the very beginning, exercised so strong a magnetic attraction upon her, that instinctively, and in self-defence as it were, she drew back and repelled him. The power which she felt in him alarmed her; she did not understand what it meant, and was only able to feel that she must resist.”

Every true woman feels this reluctance at first toward a suitor for her hand, but a sensitive young lady might well have a sense of awe on finding that she had attracted to herself such a mundane force as Hawthorne, and it is no wonder that this first impression was recollected throughout her life. There are many who would have refused Hawthorne’s suit, because they felt that he was too great and strong for them, and it is to the honor of Sophia Peabody that she was not only attracted by the magnetism of Hawthorne, but finally had the courage to unite herself to such an enigmatical person.

We also obtain a glimpse of Hawthorne’s side of this courtship from a letter which he wrote to Longfellow in June, 1837, and in which he says, “I have now, or shall soon have a sharper spur to exertion, which I lacked at an earlier period;” 47 and this is all the information he has vouchsafed us on the subject. If there is anything more in his diary, it has not been given to the public, and probably never will be. A number of letters which he wrote to Miss Sophia from Boston, or Brook Farm, have been published by his son, but it would be neither right nor judicious to introduce them here.

It is, however, evident from the above that Hawthorne was already engaged in June, 1837, but his engagement long remained a secret, for three excellent reasons; viz., his slender means of support, the delicate health of his betrothed, and the disturbance which it might create in the Hawthorne family. The last did not prove so serious a difficulty as he seems to have imagined; but his apprehensiveness on that point many another could justify from personal experience. 48

From this time also the health of Sophia Peabody steadily improved, nor is it necessary to account for it by any magical influence on the part of her lover. Her trouble was plainly some recondite difficulty of the circulation. The heart is supposed to be the seat of the affections because mental emotion stimulates the nervous system and acts upon the heart as the centre of all organic functions. A healthy natural excitement will cause the heart to vibrate more firmly and evenly; but an unhealthy excitement, like fear or anger, will cause it to beat in a rapid and uneven manner. Contrarily, despondency, or a lethargic state of mind, causes the movement of the blood to slacken. The happiness of love is thus the best of all stimulants and correctives for a torpid circulation, and it expands the whole being of a woman like the blossoming of a flower in the sunshine. From the time of her betrothal, Sophia Peabody’s headaches became less and less frequent, until they ceased altogether. The true seat of the affections is in the mind. The first consideration proved to be a more serious matter. If Hawthorne had not succeeded in earning his own livelihood by literature so far, what prospect was there of supporting a wife and family in that manner? What should he do; whither should he turn? He continually turned the subject over in his mind, without, however, reaching any definite conclusion. Nor is this to be wondered at. If the ordinary avenues of human industry were not available to him as a college graduate, they were now permanently closed. A man in his predicament at the present time might obtain the position of librarian in one of our inland cities; but such places are few and the applications are many. Bronson Alcott once offered his services as teacher of a primary school, a position he might have filled better than most, for its one requisite is kindliness, but the Concord school committee would not hear of it. If Hawthorne had attempted to turn pedagogue he might have met with a similar experience.

Conway remarks very justly that an American author could not be expected to earn his own living in a country where foreign books could be pirated as they were in the United States until 1890, and this was especially true during the popularity of Dickens and George Eliot. Dickens was the great humanitarian writer of the nineteenth century, but he was also a caricaturist and a bohemian. He did not represent life as it is, but with a certain comical oddity. As an author he is to Hawthorne what a peony is to a rose, or a garnet is to a ruby; but ten, persons would purchase a novel of Dickens when one would select the “Twice Told Tales.” Scott and Tennyson are exceptional instances of a high order of literary work which also proved fairly remunerative; but they do not equal Hawthorne in grace of diction and in the rare quality of his thought — whatever advantages they may possess in other respects. Thackeray earned his living by his pen, but it was only in England that he could have done this.

44 Who writes so correctly and says so little to the purpose.

45 Lathrop, 168. Miss Peabody would seem to have narrated this to him.

46 J. Hawthorne, i. 179.

47 Conway, 75.

48 J. Hawthorne, i. 196.

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