A Study of Hawthorne, by G. P. Lathrop

Chapter 10

The Last Romance.


There are in the “English Note–Books” several dismal and pathetic records of tragic cases of brutality or murder on shipboard, which it was Hawthorne’s duty as consul to investigate. These things, as one might have divined they would, made a very strong and deep impression upon him; and he tried strenuously to interest the United States government in bettering the state of the marine by new laws. But though this evil was and is still quite as monstrous as that of slavery, there was no means of mixing up prejudice and jealousy with the reform, to help it along, and he could effect nothing. He resolved, on returning home, to write some articles — perhaps a volume — exposing the horrors so calmly overlooked; but the slavery agitation, absorbing everybody, perhaps discouraged him: the scheme was never carried out. It is a pity; for, aside from the weight which so eminent a name might have given to a good cause, the work would have clearly proven the quick, responsive, practical nature of his humanity — a quality which some persons have seen fit to deny him — in a case where no question of conflicting rights divided his sense of duty.

He came to America in June, 1860. For several years the mutterings of rising war between the States had been growing louder. In June of 1856 he had written to Bridge, expressing great hope that all would yet turn out well. But so rapidly did the horizon blacken, that later in the same year he declared that “an actual fissure” seemed to him to be opening between the two sections of the country. In January, 1857:—

“I regret that you think so doubtfully of the prospects of the Union; for I should like well enough to hold on to the old thing. And yet I must confess that I sympathize to a large extent with the Northern feeling, and think it is about time for us to make a stand. If compelled to choose, I go for the North. New England is quite as large a lump of earth as my heart can really take in. . . . However, I have no kindred with nor leaning toward the Abolitionists.”

He felt, no doubt, that the vital principle of The Union from the beginning had been compromise, mutual concession, and if it was to be severed, preferred that it should be peacefully. Still, his moods and wishes varied as did those of many careful watchers at that time; and he saw too clearly the arguments on either side to hold fixedly to one course. In the December after his return, secession began; and for more than a year following he could not fix his attention upon literary matters. He wrote little, not even his journal, as Mrs. Hawthorne has told us, until 1862. Accustomed to respond accurately to every influence about him, with that sensitized exterior of receptive imagination which overlay the fixed substance of personal character — so that, as we have seen, even a change of climate left its impress on his productions — it was not strange that the emotions of horror and pain, the passion of hate, the splendid heroism which charged the whole atmosphere about him, now, should absorb his whole sensibility, and paralyze his imagination. It was no time for quiet observation or creative revery. A new era had broken upon us, ushered by the wild din of trumpet and cannon, and battle-cry; an era which was to form new men, and shape a new generation. He must pause and listen to the agonies of this birth, striving vainly to absorb the commotion into himself and to let it subside into clear visions of the future. No hope! He could not pierce the war-smoke to any horizon of better things. He who had schooled himself so unceasingly to feel with utmost intensity the responsibility of each soul for any violence or crime of others, could not cancel the fact of multitudinous murder by any hypothesis of prospective benefit. Thus, in the midst of that magnificent turbulence, he was like the central quiet of a whirlpool: all the fierce currents met there, and seemed to pause — but only seemed. Full of sympathy as he was for his fellows, and agitated at times by the same warlike impulses, he could not give himself rein as they did, nor dared to raise any encouraging strain in his writing, as others felt that they might freely do. His Puritan sense of justice, refined by descent and wedded to mercy, compelled him to weigh all carefully, to debate long and compassionately. But meantime the popular sense of justice — that same New England sentiment, of which his own was a development — cared nothing for these fine considerations, and Hawthorne was generally condemned by it as being warped by his old Democratic alliances into what was called treason. Nevertheless, he was glad to be in his native land, and suffer bitter criticism here — if that were all that could be granted — rather than to remain an unmolested exile.

An article which he contributed to the “Atlantic Monthly” in July, 1862, gives a faint inkling of his state of mind at this time; but nothing illustrates more clearly, either, the reserve which he always claimed lay behind his seemingly most frank expressions in print. For he there gives the idea of something like coldness in his attitude touching the whole great tragedy. But those who saw him daily, and knew his real mood, have remembered how deeply his heart was shaken by it. Fortunately, there are one or two epistolary proofs of the degree in which his sympathy with his own side of the struggle sometimes mastered him. He used to say that he only regretted that his son was too young and himself too old to admit of either of them entering the army; and just after the first battle of Bull Run he wrote to Mr. Lowell, at Cambridge, declining an invitation:—

THE WAYSIDE, CONCORD, July 23, 1861.

DEAR LOWELL:— I am to start, in two or three days, on an excursion with — — who has something the matter with him, and seems to need sea-air and change. If I alone were concerned, . . . I would most gladly put off my trip till after your dinner; but, as the case stands, I am compelled to decline. Speaking of dinner, last evening’s news will dull the edge of many a Northern appetite; but if it puts all of us into the same grim and bloody humor that it does me, the South had better have suffered ten defeats than won this victory.

Sincerely yours,


And to another friend, in October:—

“For my part, I don’t hope (nor, indeed, wish) to see the Union restored as it was; amputation seems to me much the better plan. . . . I would fight to the death for the Northern slave States, and let the rest go. . . . I have not found it possible to occupy my mind with its usual trash and nonsense during these anxious times; but as the autumn advances, I find myself sitting down at my desk and blotting successive sheets of paper as of yore.”

He had now begun, I suppose, the “Romance of Immortality,” or “Septimius Felton,” which has been posthumously printed, but had been abandoned by him for another treatment of the same theme, called “The Dolliver Romance.” This last, of which two chapters appeared, was left unfinished at his death. Of “Septimius” I shall not attempt an analysis: it contains several related and concentric circles of meaning, to survey which would require too much space. The subject had been one of the earliest themes of meditation with Hawthorne, and he wrote as with a fountain-pen in which was locked the fluid thought of a lifetime. One of the less obvious aspects of the book is the typification in Septimius’s case of that endless struggle which is the lot of every man inspired by an ideal aim. The poet and the painter are, equally with Septimius, seekers after immortality, though of a more ethereal kind; and his morbidness and exaggeration serve to excite in us a tenderness and pity over him, assisting the reception of truth. These relate mainly to the temptation of the artist to effect a severance of ordinary, active human relations. (Sad to think what bitter cause the author had to brood upon this, the fault attributed to himself!) The poet, the creator in whatever art, must maintain his own circle of serene air, shutting out from it the flat reverberations of common life; but if he fail to live generously toward his fellows — if he cannot make the light of every day supply the nimbus in which he hopes to appear shining to posterity — then he will fall into the treacherous pit of selfishness where Septimius’s soul lies smothered. But this set of meanings runs imperceptibly into others, for the book is much like the cabalistic manuscript described in its pages: now it is blurred over with deceptive sameness, and again it brims with multifarious beauties like those that swim within the golden depth of Tieck’s enchanted goblet. The ultimate and most insistent moral is perhaps that which brings it into comparison with Goethe’s “Faust”; this, namely, that, in order to defraud Nature of her dues, we must enter into compact with the Devil. Both Faust and Septimius study magic in their separate ways, with the hope of securing results denied to their kind by a common destiny; but Faust proves infinitely the meaner of the two, since he desires only to restore his youth, that he may engage in the mere mad joy of a lusty existence for a few years, while Septimius seeks some mode, however austere and cheerless, of prolonging his life through centuries of world-wide beneficence. Yet the satanically refined egoism which lays hold of Septimius is the same spirit incarnated in Goethe’s Mephistopheles — der Geist der stets verneint. To Faust he denies the existence of good in anything, primarily the good of that universal knowledge to the acquisition of which he has devoted his life, but through this scepticism mining his faith in all besides. To Septimius he denies the worth of so brief a life as ours, and the good of living to whatever end seems for the hour most needful and noble. Septimius might perhaps be described as Faust at an earlier stage of development than that in which Goethe represents him. [Footnote: Indeed, these words, applied by Mephistopheles to Faust, suit Septimius equally well:—

“Ihm hat das Schicksal einen Geist gegeben
Der ungebändigt immer vorwarts dringt
Und dessen übereiltes Streben
Der Erde Freuden überspringt.”]

As a further point of resemblance between the two cases, it may be noticed that the false dreams of both are dispelled by the exorcising touch of a woman. Both have fallen into error through perceiving only half of the truth which has hovered glimmering before them; these errors originate in the exclusively masculine mood, the asceticism, which has prevailed in their minds. It will be observed that, in the first relation of Rose to Septimius, Hawthorne takes pains to contrast with this mood, delicately but strongly, the woman’s gentle conservatism and wisely practical tendency to be satisfied with life, which make her influence so admirable a poising force to man. The subsequent alteration of the situation, by which he makes her the half-sister of his hero, is owing, as Mr. Higginson has pointed out, to the fact “that a heroine must be supplied who corresponds to the idea in the lover’s soul; like Helena in the second part of Faust.” [Footnote: A phase of character rich in interest, but which I can only mention, in passing, is presented in the person of Sybil Dacy, who here occupies very much the same place, in some regards, as Roger Chillingworth in “The Scarlet Letter.” The movement of the story largely depends on a subtle scheme of revenge undertaken by her, as that of “The Scarlet Letter” hangs upon the mode of retribution sought by the physician; but her malice is directed, characteristically, against the slayer of the young officer who had despoiled her of her honor, and, again characteristically, she is unable to consummate her plan, from the very tenderness of her feminine heart, which leads her first to half sympathize with his dreams, then pity him for the deceit she practised on him, and at last to rather love than hate him.]

But there is a suitable difference between the working of the womanly element in “Faust” and in Hawthorne’s romance. In the former instance it is through the gratification of his infernal desire that the hero is awakened from his trance of error and restored to remorse; while Septimius’s failure to accomplish his intended destiny appears to be owing to the inability of his aspiring nature to accommodate itself to that code of “moral dietetics” which is to assist his strange project. “Kiss no woman if her lips be red; look not upon her if she be very fair,” is the maxim taught him. “If thou love her, all is over, and thy whole past and remaining labor and pains will be in vain.” How pathetic a situation this, how much more terrible than that of Faust, when he has reached the turning-point in his career! A nature which could accept an earthly immortality on these terms, for the sake of his fellows, must indeed have been a hard and chilly one. But there is still too much of the heart in it, to admit of being satisfied with so cruel an abstraction. On the verge of success, as he supposes, with the long-sought drink standing ready for his lips, Septimius nevertheless seeks a companion. Half unawares, he has fallen in love with Sybil, and thenceforth, though in a way he had not anticipated, “all is over.” Yet, saved from death by the poison in which he had hoped to find the spring of endless life, his fate appears admirably fitting. There is no picture of Mephisto hurrying him off to an apparently irrevocable doom. The wrongs he has committed against himself, his friends, humanity — these, indeed, remain, and are remembered. He has undoubtedly fallen from his first purity and earnestness, and must hereafter be content to live a life of mere conventional comfort, full of mere conventional goodness, conventional charities, in that substantial English home of his. Could anything be more perfectly compensatory?

Nothing is more noticeable than the way in which, while so many symbolisms spring up out of the story, the hero’s half-crazed and bewildered atmosphere is the one which we really accept, until the reading is ended. By this means we are enabled to live through the whole immortal future which he projects for himself, though he never in reality achieves any of it. This forcing of the infinite into the finite, we are again indebted to Mr. Higginson for emphasizing as “one of the very greatest triumphs in all literature.” “A hundred separate tragedies,” he says, “would be easier to depict than this which combines so many in one.”

But notice the growth of the romance in Hawthorne’s mind. “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” in which several people are restored to youth for an hour by a life-elixir, was published before 1837. In 1840 we have this entry in the journal: “If a man were sure of living forever here, he would not care about his offspring.” A few years afterward, in “A Virtuoso’s Collection,” the elixir vitae is introduced, “in an antique sepulchral urn,” but the narrator refuses to quaff it. “‘No; I desire not an earthly immortality,’ said I. ‘Were man to live longer on the earth, the spiritual would die out of him. . . . There is a celestial something within us, that requires, after a certain time, the atmosphere of heaven to preserve it from ruin.’” But the revolt against death, and then the reactionary meditation upon it, and final reverence for it, must, from the circumstances of his youngest years, have been very early familiar to Hawthorne; and in the course of these meditations, the conception of deathlessness must often have floated before him. The tradition as to the former owner of the Wayside, who had thought he should never die (alluded to in the letter to Curtis, in 1852 [Footnote: See ante, p. 244.]), brought it definitely home to him. He had in 1837 thought of this: “A person to spend all his life and splendid talents, in trying to achieve something totally impossible — as, to make a conquest over nature”; but the knowledge of an actual person who had expected to live forever gave the scattered elements coherence. The way in which other suggestions came into the plan is exceedingly curious. The idea of a bloody footstep appears in the Note–Books in 1850: “The print in blood of a naked foot to be traced through the street of a town.” By a singular corroboration, he encountered five years afterward in England an actual bloody footprint, or a mark held to be such, at Smithell’s Hall in Lancashire. (“English Note–Books,” Vol. I. April 7, and August 25, 1855.) The parting request of his hostess there was that he “should write a ghost-story for her house,” and he observes that “the legend is a good one.” Only five days after first hearing it he makes a note thus: “In my Romance, the original emigrant to America may have carried away with him a family secret, by which it was in his power, had he so chosen, to have brought about the ruin of the family. This secret he transmitted to his American progeny, by whom it is inherited throughout all the intermediate generations. At last the hero of my Romance comes to England, and finds that, by means of this secret, he still has it in his power to procure the downfall of the family.” This clearly refers to something already rapidly taking shape in his mind, and recalls at once the antique chest containing family papers, and the estate in England waiting for an heir, of “Septimius.” Could he have already connected the two things, the bloody footstep and this Anglo–American interest? The next piece of history comes in the shape of a manuscript book in journal form, written in 1858, after Hawthorne had left the consulate, and containing what must have been the earliest sketch of the story, as he then conceived it. It begins abruptly, and proceeds uncertainly, at the rate of a few pages each day, for about a month. Detached passages of narration alternate with abstracts of the proposed plot, and analysis of the characters. The chief interest seems to lie in the project which a young American has formed, during a visit to England, of tracing out and proving his inherited right to an old manor-house formerly the property of his ancestors. This old hall possesses the peculiarity of the bloody footstep, and with this some mystery is connected, which the writer himself does not yet seem to have discovered. He takes a characteristic pleasure in waiting for this suggestive footstep to track the lurking interest of his story to its lair, and lingers on the threshold of the tale, gazing upon it, indulging himself with that tantalizing pleasure of vague anticipation in which he hopes to envelop the good reader. The perusal of this singular journal, in which the transactions recorded are but day-dreams, is absorbing beyond description. But though at times he seems to be rapidly approaching the heart of the story, yet at every point the subtle darkness and coming terror of the theme seem to baffle the author, and he retires, to await a more favorable moment. At its conclusion, though he appears now to have formed a clear picture enough of what his persons are to do, there is still wanting the underlying thought, which he at moments dimly feels but cannot bring to light, and without which he is unable to fuse the materials into readiness for the mould.

Our only information as to the course of the story between April, 1858, and the time of writing “Septimius,” must be gathered from a sketch found among the author’s papers, the date of which it is not possible to determine with precision, though both its matter and form indicate that it must have been written subsequently to the journal above mentioned. Herein are curiously mingled certain features of both “Septimius” and the “Dolliver Romance.” So far as is consistent with the essential privacy of the manuscript, I shall give a general outline of its contents. It consists of two sections, in the second of which a lapse of some years is implied. In the first of these chapters, for they hardly exceed that limit, the most prominent figure is that of a singular, morose old man, who inhabits a house overlooking a New England graveyard. But though his situation resembles in this particular that of Grandsir Dolliver, his characteristics resemble more those of Dr. Portsoaken. He is constantly accompanied, too, by brandy-and-water and a cloud-compelling pipe; and his study, like the doctor’s chamber in “Septimius,” is tapestried with spider-webs; a particularly virulent spider which dangles over his head, as he sits at his writing-desk, being made to assume the aspect of a devilish familiar. On the other hand, his is a far richer and less debased nature than that of Portsoaken. Hawthorne appears subsequently to have divided him, straining off from the rank sediments which settle into the character of Dr. Portsoaken the clear sweetness of good Grandsir Dolliver. This “grim doctor,” as he is almost invariably styled in the manuscript, seems to have originated in Hawthorne’s knowledge of a Mr. Kirkup, painter, spiritualist and antiquarian, of Florence, [Footnote: French and Italian Note–Books, Vol. II.] who also probably stood as a model for Grandsir Dolliver. Not that either of these personages is copied from Mr. Kirkup; but the personality and surroundings of this quaint old gentleman had some sort of affinity with the author’s idea, which led him to maintain a certain likeness between him and his own fictitious persons. As in the case of the Florentine antiquary, a little girl dwells in the house of the doctor, her chief playmate being, like that of Mr. Kirkup’s adopted daughter, a very beautiful Persian kitten. There is much about her like Pansie, of the “Dolliver” fragment, but she is still only dimly brought out. The boy is described as of superior nature, but strangely addicted to revery. Though his traits are but slightly indicated, he suggests in general the character of Septimius, and may very easily have grown into him, at a later period. At first he is much neglected by the doctor, but afterwards, by resolute and manly behavior in questioning his mysterious guardian as to his own origin, and the connection subsisting between them, he secures greater consideration. The doctor gradually hints to him the fact of his descent from an old English family, and frequent mention is made of the ancestral hall, the threshold of which is stained by the imprint of a bloody footstep marking the scene of some dark tragedy, which, in the superstitious haze thrown over it by time, assumes various and uncertain forms. At different times two strangers are introduced, who appear to have some obscure knowledge of, and connection with, the ghastly footstep; and, finally, a headstone is discovered in the neighboring cemetery, marking the spot where an old man had been buried many years since, and engraved with the likeness of a foot. The grave has been recently opened to admit a new occupant, and the children, in playing about it, discover a little silver key, which the doctor, so soon as it is shown him, pockets, with the declaration that it is of no value. After this, the boy’s education is taken in hand by his being sent to school; but presently the doctor sickens of life, and characteristically resolving to abandon brandy-drinking, and die, does so accordingly. Mention has previously been made of certain papers which he had kept in a secret place, and these the youth now secures. The second part describes his advent into England. He soon makes his way to the old hall, but just as his connection with it and its inmates begins, the manuscript terminates.

It will be noticed that in this fragment the scene is at first laid in New England, whereas the journalized sketch opened the drama in England. From this I infer that the former was written after the return to this country. “The Marble Faun” appropriated the author’s attention, after the sketch of 1858; and in this, which was probably written just before the commencement of the war, he had not yet clearly struck the key-note of the story. When he recurred to it, in the autumn of 1861, on beginning to “blot successive sheets as of yore,” it was at last with the definite design of uniting the legend of the deathless man with the legend of Smithell’s Hall. It is as if, having left England, he could no longer write an English romance, but must give the book mainly an American coloring again. There is a pathetic interest, too, in his thus wavering between the two countries, which now so nearly equally divided his affections, and striving to unite the Wayside with the far-off English manor. Under the new design, everything began to fall into place. The deathless man was made the hero; the English inheritance became an inferior motive-power, on which, however, the romantic action depends; the family papers and the silver key came well to hand for the elucidation of the plot; the bloody footstep gained a new and deep significance; and a “purple everlasting flower,” presented in 1854 to Mrs. Hawthorne by the gardener of Eaton Hall, blossomed out, with supernatural splendor, as a central point in the design. The scene being in Concord, and the time of writing that of war, the Revolutionary association was natural. But the public phase of that epoch could not assume an important place: it was sunk into the background, forming merely a lurid field on which the figures of this most solemn and terrific of all Hawthorne’s works stand out in portentous relief. One singular result of the historic location, however, is the use that was now made of that tradition which Lowell had told him at the Old Manse, concerning a boy who was chopping wood on the April morning of the famous fight, and found a wounded British soldier on the field, whom he killed with his axe. “Oftentimes, as an intellectual and moral exercise, I have sought to follow that poor youth through his subsequent career, and observe how his soul was tortured by the blood-stain. . . . This one circumstance has borne more fruit for me than all that history tells us of the fight.” Thus had he written, fourteen years before; and now that sombre study furnished him with the psychology of the death-scene in the beginning of “Septimius.”

But the romance, even in this form, was again abandoned, as we learn from the prefatory note to Pierce in “Our Old Home,” written in July, 1863. He there speaks of it as an “abortive project, utterly thrown aside,” which “will never now be accomplished.” In November of that year, “The Dolliver Romance” was announced for serial publication; and in the first page of the isolated opening scene, published in July, 1864, occurs the mention of a certain potent cordial, from which the good doctor had received great invigoration, and which we may well suppose was destined to tincture the whole story. Another point from which a connection with “Septimius Felton” may perhaps be traced is the passing mention of Grandsir Dolliver’s grandson Cornelius, by whom this cordial had been compounded, he having displayed a great efficiency with powerful drugs. Recalling that the author describes many nostrums as having been attributed to Septimius, which he had perhaps chanced upon in his unsuccessful attempts to distil the elixir of life, we may fairly conjecture this posthumous character of Cornelius, this mere memory, to be the remains of Septimius, who, it would seem, was to have been buried by the author under the splendid monument of a still more highly wrought and more aspiring form of the romance. The only remaining portions of this latest form have been printed, and are lull of a silvery and resonant promise. Unquestionably it was to have been as much a “Romance of Immortality” as “Septimius”; and the exquisite contrast of the child Pansie — who promised to be the author’s most captivating feminine creation — with the aged man, would no doubt have given us a theme of celestial loveliness, as compared with the forbidding and remorseless mournfulness of the preliminary work. In the manuscript sketch for “Septimius” there is a note referring to a description in the “English Note–Books” of two pine-trees at Lowood, on Windermere, “quite dead and dry, although they have the aspect of dark, rich life. But this is caused by the verdure of two great ivy-vines which have twisted round them like gigantic snakes, . . . throttling the life out of them, . . . and one feels that they have stolen the life that belonged to the pines.” This does not seem to have been used; but the necessity of some life being stolen in order to add to any other life more than its share, is an idea that very clearly appears in the romance. In “Dolliver” the same strain of feeling would probably have reappeared; but it would there perhaps have been beautified, softened, expiated by the mutual love of Pansie and the grandsire; each wishing to live forever, for the other. Even in “Septimius” we can discern Hawthorne standing upon the wayside hill-top, and, through the turbid medium of the unhappy hero, tenderly diffusing the essence of his own concluding thoughts on art and existence. Like Mozart, writing what he felt to be a requiem for his own death, like Mozart, too, throwing down the pen in midmost of the melody, leaving the strain unfinished, he labors on, prescient of the overhanging doom. Genial and tender at times, amidst their sadness, his reveries are nevertheless darkened by the shadow of coming death; and it is not until the opening of “The Dolliver Romance” that the darkness breaks away. Then, indeed, we feel once more the dewy freshness of the long-past prime, with a radiance unearthly fair, besides, of some new, undreamed-of morning. He who has gone down into the dark valley appears for a brief space with the light of the heavenly city on his countenance. Ah, prophet, who spoke but now so sadly, what is this new message that we see brightening on your lips? Will it solve the riddle of sin and beauty, at last? We listen intently; we seem to lean out a little way from earth.

Only an eddying silence! And yet the air seems even now alive with his last words.


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