A Study of Hawthorne, by G. P. Lathrop

Chapter 11


What has thus far been developed in this essay, concerning Hawthorne’s personality, though incidental, has, I hope, served the end in view — that of suggesting a large, healthy nature, capable of the most profound thought and the most graceful and humorous mental play. The details of his early life already given show how soon the inborn honor of his nature began to shine. The small irregularities in his college course have seemed to me to bring him nearer and to endear him, without in any way impairing the dignity and beauty of character which prevailed in him from the beginning. It is good to know that he shared the average human history in these harmless peccadilloes; for they never hurt his integrity, and they are reminders of that old but welcome truth, that the greatest men do not need a constant diet of great circumstances. He had many difficulties to deal with, as unpicturesque and harassing as any we have to encounter in our daily courses — a thing which people are curiously prone to forget in the case of eminent authors. The way in which he dealt with these throws back light on himself. We discover how well the high qualities of genius were matched by those of character.

Fragmentary anecdotes have a value, but so relative that to attempt to construct the subject’s character out of them is hazardous. Conceptions of a man derived only from such matter remind one of Charles Lamb’s ghosts, formed of the particles which, every seven years, are replaced throughout the body by new ones. Likewise, the grossest errors have been committed through the assumption that particular passages in Hawthorne’s writings apply directly and unqualifiedly to himself. There is so much imagination interfused with them, that only a reverent and careful imagination can apply them aright. Nor are private letters to be interpreted in any other way than as the talk of the hour, very inadequately representative, and often — unless read in many lights — positively untrue, to the writer. It gives an entirely false notion, for example, to accept as a trait of character this modest covering up of a noble sentiment, which occurs in a letter refusing to withdraw the dedication of “Our Old Home” to Pierce, in the time of the latter’s unpopularity:—

“Nevertheless, I have no fancy for making myself a martyr when it is honorably and conscientiously possible to avoid it; and I always measure out my heroism very accurately according to the exigencies of the occasion, and should be the last man in the world to throw away a bit of it needlessly.”

Such a passage ought never to have been printed without some modifying word; for it has been execrably misused. “I have often felt,” Hawthorne says, “that words may be a thick and darksome veil of mystery between the soul and the truth which it seeks.” What injustice, then, that he should be judged by a literal construction of words quickly chosen for the transient embodiment of a mood!

The first and most common opinion about the man Hawthorne is, that he must have been extremely gloomy, because his mind nourished so many grave thoughts and solemn fancies. But this merely proves that, as he himself says, when people think he is pouring himself out in a tale or an essay, he is merely telling what is common to human nature, not what is peculiar to himself. “I sympathize with them, not they with me.” He sympathizes in the special direction of our darker side. A creative mind of the higher order holds the thread which guides it surely through life’s labyrinths; but all the more on this account its attention is called to the erratic movement of other travellers around it. The genius who has the clew begins, therefore, to study these errors and to describe them for our behoof. It is a great mistake to suppose that the abnormal or preposterous phases which he describes are the fruit of self-study — personal traits disguised in fiction; yet this is what has often been affirmed of Hawthorne. We don’t think of attributing to Dickens the multiform oddities which he pictures with such power, it being manifestly absurd to do so. As Dickens raises the laugh against them, we at once perceive that they are outside of himself. Hawthorne is so serious, that we are absorbed in the sober earnest of the thing, and forget to apply the rule in his case. Dickens’s distinct aim is to excite us with something uncommon; Hawthorne’s, to show us that the elements of all tragedies lie within our individual natures; therefore we begin to attribute in undue measure to his individual nature all the abnormal conditions that he has shown to be potential in any of us. But in truth he was a perfectly healthy person.

“You are, intellectually speaking, quite a puzzle to me,” his friend George Hillard wrote to him, once. “How comes it that, with so thoroughly healthy an organization as you have, you have such a taste for the morbid anatomy of the human heart, and such a knowledge of it, too? I should fancy, from your books, that you were burdened with some secret sorrow, that you had some blue chamber in your soul, into which you hardly dared to enter yourself; but when I see you, you give me the impression of a man as healthy as Adam in Paradise.”

This very healthiness was his qualification for his office. By virtue of his mental integrity and absolute moral purity, he was able to handle unhurt all disintegrated and sinful forms of character; and when souls in trouble, persons with moral doubts to solve and criminals wrote to him for counsel, they recognized the healing touch of one whose pitying immaculateness could make them well.

She who knew best his habitual tone through a sympathy such as has rarely been given to any man, who lived with him a life so exquisitely fair and high, that to speak of it publicly is almost irreverent, has written:—

“He had the inevitable pensiveness and gravity of a person who possessed what a friend has called his ‘awful power of insight’; but his mood was always cheerful and equal, and his mind peculiarly healthful, and the airy splendor of his wit and humor was the light of his home. He saw too far to be despondent, though his vivid sympathies and shaping imagination often made him sad in behalf of others. He also perceived morbidness wherever it existed instantly, as if by the illumination of his own steady cheer.”

His closest friends, too, speak with delight of his genial warmth and ease in converse with them. He could seldom talk freely with more than two or three, however, on account of his constitutional shyness, and perhaps of a peculiarly concentrative cast of mind; though he possessed a ready adaptability. “I talk with everybody: to Mrs. T—— good sense; to Mary, good sense, with a mixture of fun; to Mrs. G— — sentiment, romance, and nonsense.” [Footnote: American Note–Books, 1837.] A gentleman who was with him at Brook farm, and knew him well, tells me that his presence was very attractive, and that he inspired great esteem among all at the farm by his personal qualities. On a walking trip to Wachusett, which they once made together, Hawthorne showed a great interest in sitting in the bar-rooms of country taverns, to listen to the talk of the attendant farmers and villagers. The manner in which he was approached had a great deal to do with his response. If treated simply and wisely, he would answer cordially; but he was entirely dismayed, as a rule, by those who made demonstrations of admiration or awe. “Why do they treat me so?” he asked a friend, in one case of this sort. “Why, they’re afraid of you.” “But I tremble at them,” he said. “They think,” she explained, “that you’re imagining all sorts of terrible things.” “Heavens!” he answered; “if they only knew what I do think about.” At one time, when he was visiting this same friend, he was obliged to return some calls, and his companion in the midst of conversation left him to continue it. He had previously asked his hostess, in assumed terror, what he should talk about, and she advised “climate.” Accordingly, he turned to the naval officer whom he was calling upon, and asked him if he had ever been to the Sandwich Islands. “The man started,” he said, on returning, “as if he had been struck. He had evidently been there and committed some terrible crime, which my allusion recalled. I had made a frightful mess of it. B—— led me away to the door.” This woful account was, of course, an imaginary and symbolical representation of the terrors which enforced conversation caused him; the good officer’s surprise at the abrupt introduction of a new subject had supplied him with the ludicrous suggestion. Mr. Curtis has given an account of his demeanor on another occasion:—

“I had driven up with some friends to an aesthetic tea at Mr. Emerson’s. It was in the winter, and a great wood-fire blazed upon the hospitable hearth. There were various men and women of note assembled; and I, who listened attentively to all the fine things that were said, was for some time scarcely aware of a man who sat upon the edge of the circle, a little withdrawn, his head slightly thrown forward upon his breast, and his black eyes [‘black’ is an error] clearly burning under his black brow. As I drifted down the stream of talk, this person, who sat silent as a shadow, looked to me as Webster might have looked had he been a poet — a kind of poetic Webster. He rose and walked to the window, and stood there quietly for a long time, watching the dead-white landscape. No appeal was made to him, nobody looked after him; the conversation flowed steadily on, as if every one understood that his silence was to be respected. It was the same thing at table. In vain the silent man imbibed aesthetic tea. Whatever fancies it inspired did not flower at his lips. But there was a light in his eye which assured me nothing was lost. So supreme was his silence, that it presently engrossed me, to the exclusion of everything else. There was very brilliant discourse, but this silence was much more poetic and fascinating. Fine things were said by the philosophers, but much finer things were implied by the dumbness of this gentleman with heavy brows and black hair. When he presently rose and went, Emerson, with the ‘slow, wise smile’ that breaks over his face like day over the sky, said, ‘Hawthorne rides well his horse of the night.’”

He was not a lover of argumentation. “His principle seemed to be, if a man cannot understand without talking to him, it is useless to talk, because it is immaterial whether such a man understands or not.” And the same writer says:——

“His own sympathy was so broad and sure, that, although nothing had been said for hours, his companion knew that not a thing had escaped his eye, nor a single pulse of beauty in the day, or scene, or society, failed to thrill his heart. In this way his silence was most social. Everything seemed to have been said.”

I am told that in his own home, though he was often silent, it was never with sadness except in seasons of great illness in the house, the prevailing effect of his manner being usually that of a cheerful and almost humorous calm. Mr. Curtis gives perhaps one of the best descriptions of his aspect, when he speaks of his “glimmering smile”; and of his atmosphere, when he says that at Emerson’s house it seemed always morning, but at Hawthorne’s you passed into

“A land in which it seemed always afternoon.”

Hawthorne’s personal appearance is said by those who knew him to have been always very impressive. He was tall and strongly built, with beautiful and lustrous gray-blue eyes, and luxuriant dark brown hair of great softness, which grew far back from his forehead, as in the early engraved portrait of him. His skin had a peculiar fineness and delicacy, giving unusual softness to his complexion. After his Italian sojourn he altered much, his hair having begun to whiten, and a thick dark mustache being permitted to grow, so that a wit described him as looking like a “boned pirate.” When it became imperative to shake off his reticence, he seems to have had the power of impressing as much by speech as he had before done by silence. It was the same abundant, ardent, but self-contained and perfectly balanced nature that informed either phase. How commanding was this nature may be judged from the fact related of him by an acquaintance, that rude people jostling him in a crowd would give way at once “at the sound of his low and almost irresolute voice.” The occasions on which he gave full vent to his indignation at anything were very rare; but when these came, he manifested a strength of sway only to be described as regal. Without the least violence, he brought a searching sternness to bear that was utterly overwhelming, carrying as it did the weight of perfect self-control. Something even of the eloquent gift of old Colonel Hathorne seemed to be locked within him, like a precious heirloom rarely shown; for in England, where his position called for speech-making, he acquitted himself with brilliant honor. But the effort which this compelled was no doubt quite commensurate with the success. He never shrank, notwithstanding, from effort, when obligation to others put in a plea. A member of his family has told me that, when talking to any one not congenial to him, the effect of the contact was so strong as to cause an almost physical contraction of his whole stalwart frame, though so slight as to be perceptible only to eyes that knew his habitual and informal aspects; yet he would have sunk through the floor rather than betray his sensations to the person causing them. Mr. Curtis, too, records the amusement with which he watched Hawthorne paddling on the Concord River with a friend whose want of skill caused the boat continually to veer the wrong way, and the silent generosity with which he put forth his whole strength to neutralize the error, rather than mortify his companion by an explanation. His considerateness was always delicate and alert, and has left in his family a reverence for qualities that have certainly never been surpassed and not often equalled in sweetness.

He was simple in his habits, and fond of being out of doors, but not — after his college days — as a sportsman. While living beside the Concord, he rowed frequently, with a dreamy devotion to the pastime, and was fond of fishing; swimming, too, he enjoyed. But his chief exercise was walking; he had a vast capacity for it, and was, I think, never even seen upon horseback. At Brook Farm he “belabored the rugged furrows” with a will; and at the Old Manse he presided over his garden in a paradisiacal sort of way. Books in every form he was always eager for, sometimes, as has been reported, satisfying himself with an old almanac or newspaper, over which he would brood as deeply as over richly stored volumes of classic literature. At other times he was fastidious in his choice, and threw aside many books before he found the right one for the hour. [Footnote: He would attach himself to a book or a poem apparently by some law perceptible only to himself, perhaps often giving an interest by his own genius. A poem On Solitude, in Dryden’s Miscellany, was at one time a special favorite with him.

It begins:—

“O Solitude, my sweetest choice,
Places devoted to the Night,
Remote from Tumult and from Noise,
How you my restless thoughts delight!”

And the last stanza has these lines:—

“O, how I solitude adore,
That element of noblest wit,
Where I have learned Apollo’s lore,
Without the pains to study it.”]

An impression has been set afloat that he cared nothing for books in themselves, but this is incorrect. He never had the means to accumulate a library of any size, but he had a passion for books.

“There yet lingers with me a superstitious reverence for literature of all kinds,” he writes in “The Old Manse.” “A bound volume has a charm in my eyes similar to what scraps of manuscript possess for the good Mussulman; . . . every new book or antique one may contain the ‘open sesame,’— the spell to disclose treasures hidden in some unsuspected cave of Truth.”

When he lived at the Wayside, and would occasionally bring home a small package of books from Boston, these furnished him fresh pleasure for many days. He would carry some favorite of them with him everywhere, from room to room or to his hill-top. He was, as we have seen, a cordial admirer of other writers, seldom vexing himself with a critical review of their merits and defects, but applying to them instead the test of his own catholic capacity for enjoyment. The deliberate tone in which he judges his own works, in his letters, shows how little his mind was impressed by the greatness of their fame and of the genius found in them. There could not have been a more modest author, though he did not weakly underrate his work. “Recognition,” he once said to Mr. Howells, “makes a man very modest.”

An attempt has also been made to show that he had little interest in animals, partly based, ludicrous as it may seem, on his bringing them into only one of his books. In his American journals, however, there is abundant evidence of his acute sympathy in this direction; at the Old Manse he fried fish for his dog Leo, when he says he should not have done it for himself; and in the Trosachs he finds a moment for pitying some little lambs startled by the approach of his party. [Footnote: English Note–Books (May, 1856).] I have already mentioned his fondness for cats. It has further been said that he did not enjoy wild nature, because in the “English Note–Books” there is no outgushing of ecstatic description. But in fact he had the keenest enjoyment of it. He could not enter into the spectacle when hurrying through strange regions. Among the English lakes he writes:—

“To say the truth, I was weary of fine scenery, and it seemed to me that I had eaten a score of mountains and quaffed as many lakes, all in the space of two or three days, and the natural consequence was a surfeit.

“I doubt if anybody ever does really see a mountain, who goes for the set and sole purpose of seeing it. Nature will not let herself be seen in such cases. You must patiently bide her time; and by and by, at some unforeseen moment, she will quietly and suddenly unveil herself and for a brief space allow you to look right into the heart of her mystery. But if you call out to her peremptorily, ‘Nature! unveil yourself this very moment!’ she only draws her veil the closer; and you may look with all your eyes, and imagine that you see all that she can show, and yet see nothing.”

But this was because his sensibility was so great that he drew from little things a larger pleasure than many feel when excited by grand ones; and knowing this deeper phase, he could not be content with the hasty admiration on which tourists flatter themselves. The beauty of a scene which he could absorb in peace was never lost upon him. Every year the recurrent changes of season filled him with untold pleasure; and in the spring, Mrs. Hawthorne has been heard to say, he would walk with her in continuous silence, his heart full of the awe and delight with which the miracle of buds and new verdure inspired him. Nothing could be more accurate or sensitive than the brief descriptions of nature in his works. But there is nothing sentimental about them; partly owing to the Anglo–Saxon instinct which caused him to seek precise and detailed statement first of all, and partly because of a certain classic, awe-inspired reserve, like that of Horace and Virgil.

There was a commendable indolence in his character. It was not a constitutional weakness, overcoming will, but the instinctive precaution of a man whose errand it was to rise to great emergencies of exertion. He always waited for an adequate mood, before writing. But these intervals, of course, were richly productive of revery which afterward entered into the creative moments. He would sometimes become deeply abstracted in imagination; and while he was writing “The Scarlet Letter” it is related by a trustworthy person that, sitting in the room where his wife was doing some sewing, he unconsciously took up a part of the work and cut it into minute fragments with the scissors, without being aware that he had done so. At some previous time, he had in the same way gradually chipped off with a knife portions of a table, until the entire folding-leaf was worn away by the process. The opinion was sometimes advanced by him that without a certain mixture of uncongenial labor he might not have done so much with the pen; but in this he perhaps underestimated the leisure in his blood, which was one of the elements of his power. Men of smaller calibre are hollowed out by the fire of ideas, and decay too quickly; but this trait preserved him from such a fate. Combined with his far-reaching foresight, it may have had something to do with his comparative withdrawal from practical affairs other than those which necessity connected him with. Of Holgrave he writes:—

“His error lay in supposing that this age more than any past or future one is destined to see the garments of antiquity exchanged for a new suit, instead of gradually renewing themselves by patchwork; . . . and more than all, in fancying that it mattered anything to the great end in view whether he himself should contend for it or against it.”

The implied opinion of the author, here, is not that of a fatalist, but of an optimist (if we must connect him with any “ism”) who has a very profound faith in Providence; not in any “special providence,” but in that operation of divine laws through unexpected agencies and conflicting events, which is very gradually approximating human affairs to a state of truthfulness. Hawthorne was one of the great believers of his generation; but his faith expressed itself in the negative way of showing how fragile are the ordinary objects of reverence in the world, how subject the best of us are to the undermining influence of very great sin; and, on the other hand, how many traits of good there are, by consequence, even in the worst of us. This, however, is a mere skeleton statement: the noblest element in his mood is that he believes with his heart. A good interpreter has said that he feels with his brain, and thinks with his heart, to show the completeness with which he mingled the two elements in his meditations on existence. A warm, pure, living sympathy pervaded all his analysis of mankind, without which that analysis would have taken no hold upon us. It is a crude view which reckons him to have been wanting in moral enthusiasm: he had not that kind which can crush out sympathy with suffering, for the sake of carrying out an idea. Perhaps in some cases this was a fault; but one cannot dwell on the mistaken side of such a phase, when it possesses another side so full of beneficent aid to humanity. And it must be remembered that with all this susceptibility, he was not a suffering poet, like Shelley, but distinctly an endurer. His moral enthusiasm was deeper than that of any scheme or system.

His distaste for society has been declared to proceed from the fact that, when he once became interested in people, he could no longer chemically resolve them into material for romance. But this assumption is also erroneous; for Hawthorne, if he felt it needful, could bring to bear upon his best friends the same qualitative measuring skill that he exercised on any one. I do not doubt that he knew where to place his friends and acquaintance in the scale of relative excellence. All of us who have not an equal analytic power with his own can at least reverence his discretion so far as to believe that he had stand-points not open to every one, from which he took views often more essentially just than if he had assumed a more sweeping estimate. In other cases, where he bestowed more friendship and confidence than the object of them especially deserved, he no doubt sought the simple pleasure of accepting what circumstances offered him. He was not a suspicious person; although, in fear of being fooled by his fancy, he cultivated what he often spoke of to a friend as “morose common-sense,” deeming it a desirable alloy. There was even, in many relations, an unquestioning trust on his part; for he might well be called

“As the greatest only are,
In his simplicity sublime.”

The connection between Pierce and himself involved too many considerations to make it possible to pass them with indifference; and he perhaps condemned certain public acts of the President, while feeling it to be utter disloyalty to an old friend to discuss these mistakes with any one. As to other slighter connections, it is very likely he did not take the trouble that might have saved him from being imposed upon.

But it is impossible to define Hawthorne’s personality precisely. A poet’s whole effort is to indirectly express this, by expressing the effect of things upon him; and we may read much of Hawthorne in his books, if we have the skill. But it is very clear that he put only a part of himself into them; that part which best served the inexorable law of his genius for treating life in a given light. For the rest, his two chapters on “The Custom–House” and “The Old Manse” show us something of his mode of taking daily affairs. But his real and inmost character was a mystery even to himself, and this, because he felt so profoundly the impossibility of sounding to the bottom any human heart. “A cloudy veil stretches over the abyss of my nature,” he writes, at one time. “I have, however, no love of secrecy or darkness.” At another time: “Lights and shadows are continually flitting across my inward sky, and I know neither whence they come nor whither they go; nor do I look too closely into them.” A mind so conscious as his of the slight reality of appearances would be dissatisfied with the few tangible qualities which are all of himself that a man can discern: at the same time he would hesitate to probe the deeper self assiduously, for fear of turning his searching gaze too intently within, and thus becoming morbid. In other persons, however, he could perceive a contour, and pursue his study of investigation from without inward — a more healthy method. His instinctive knowledge of himself, being brought into play, would of course aid him. Incidentally, then, something of himself comes to light in his investigation of others. And it is perhaps this inability to define their own natures, except by a roundabout method, which is the creative impulse of all great novelists and dramatists. I doubt whether many of the famous delineators of character could give us a very distinct account of their own individualities; and if they did, it would probably make them out the most uninteresting of beings. It would certainly be divested of the special charm of their other writing. Imagine Dickens clearly accounting for himself and his peculiar traits: would he be able to excite even a smile? How much of his own delicious personality could Thackeray have described without losing the zest of his other portraitures? Hawthorne has given a kind of picture of himself in Coverdale, and was sometimes called after that character by his friends; but I suspect he has adroitly constructed Coverdale out of the appearance which he knew himself to make in the eyes of associates. I do not mean that Hawthorne had not a very decisive personality; for indeed he had. But the essence of the person cannot be compressed into a few brief paragraphs, and must be slowly drawn in as a pervasive elixir from his works, his letters, his note-books. In the latter he has given as much definition of his interior self as we are likely to get, for no one else can continue the broken jottings that he has left, and extend them into outlines. We shall not greatly err if we treat the hidden depths of his spirit with as much reverence as he himself used in scrutinizing them. Curiously enough, many of those who have studied this most careful and delicate of definers have embraced the madness of attempting to bind him down in unhesitating, absolute statements. He who mastered words so completely that he learned to despise their obscurity, has been made the victim of easy epithets and a few conventional phrases. But none can ever be said to know Hawthorne who do not leave large allowances for the unknowable.


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