The Life and Genius of Nathaniel Hawthorne, by Frank Stearns

A Hero’s End

After Hawthorne’s letter of February 25, Fields felt that he ought to make an effort in his behalf. Fields’s partner, W. D. Ticknor, was also ailing, and it was arranged that he and Hawthorne should go on a journey southward as soon as the weather permitted. Doctor Holmes was consulted, and the last of March Hawthorne came to Boston and met Holmes at Fields’s house. Holmes made an examination, which was anything but satisfactory to his own mind; in fact, he was appalled at the condition in which he found his former companion of the Saturday Club. “He was very gentle,” Holmes says; “very willing to answer questions, very docile to such counsel as I offered him, but evidently had no hope of recovering his health. He spoke as if his work were done, and he should write no more.” 137 The doctor, however, must have been mistaken in supposing that Hawthorne was suffering from the same malady that carried off General Grant, for no human being could die in that manner without suffering greater pain than Hawthorne gave any indication of; and the sedatives which Holmes prescribed for him could only have resulted in a weakening of the nerves. He even warned Hawthorne against the use of alcoholic stimulants, to which for some time he had been more or less accustomed.

Hawthorne and Ticknor went to New York, and two days later Ticknor was able to write to Mrs. Hawthorne that her husband appeared to be much improved. How cruelly disappointing to meet him at their own door four days later, haggard, weary and more dispirited than when he had left the Wayside on March 26! He had proceeded to Philadelphia with Ticknor, and there at the Continental Hotel Ticknor was suddenly seized with a mortal malady and died almost in Hawthorne’s arms, before the latter could notify his family in Boston that he was ill. What a severe ordeal for a man who was strong and well, but to a person in Hawthorne’s condition it was like a thunderbolt. Ticknor’s son came to him at once, and together they performed the necessary duties of the occasion, and made their melancholy way homeward. Nothing, perhaps, except a death in his own family, could have had so unfavorable an effect upon Hawthorne’s condition.

Some good angel now notified Franklin Pierce of the serious posture of affairs, and he came at once to Concord to offer his services in Hawthorne’s behalf. However, he could propose nothing more hopeful than a journey in the uplands of New Hampshire, and for this it would be necessary to wait for settled weather. So Hawthorne remained at home for the next month without his condition becoming apparently either better or worse. At length, on May 13, the ex-President returned and they went together the following day.

We will not linger over that leave-taking on the porch of the Wayside; so pathetic, so full of tenderness, even of despair, and yet with a slender ray of hope beneath the leaden cloud of anxiety. To Hawthorne it must have seemed even more discouraging than to his wife and children, though none of them could have suspected that the end would be so soon.

137 Atlantic Monthly, July, 1864.

On the morning of May 20, I had just returned from my first recitation when Julian Hawthorne appeared at my room in the Massachusetts dormitory, and said, like a man gasping for breath, “My father is dead, and I want you to come with me.” Fields had sent him word through Professor Gurney, who knew how to deliver such a message in the kindliest manner. We went at once to Fields’s house on Charles Street, where Mrs. Fields gave Julian the little information already known to them through a dispatch from Franklin Pierce — that his father died during his sleep in the night of May 18, at the Pemmigewasset House, Plymouth, New Hampshire. After this we wandered about Boston, silent and aimless, until the afternoon train carried him to Concord. He greatly dreaded meeting the gaze of his fellow-townsmen, and confessed that he wanted to hide himself in the woods like a wounded deer. 138

On Wednesday, May 18, Hawthorne and Pierce drove from Centre Harbor to Plymouth, a long and rather rough journey to be taken in a carriage. Hawthorne, however, did not make much complaint of this, nor did he seem to be unusually fatigued. He retired to his room soon after nine o’clock, and was sleeping comfortably an hour later. Pierce was evidently nervous about him, for he went in to look at him at two in the morning, and again at four; and the last time he discovered that life was extinct. Hawthorne had died in his sleep as quietly and peacefully as he had lived. There is the same mystery in his death that there was in his life, and it is difficult to assign either an immediate or a proximate cause for it. With such a physique, and his simple, regular habits of life, he ought to have reached the age of ninety. General Pierce believed that he died of paralysis, and that is the most probable explanation; but it was not like the usual cases of paralysis at Hawthorne’s age; for, as we have seen, the process of disintegration and failure of his powers had been going on for years. Nor did this follow, as commonly happens, a protracted period of adversity, but it came upon him during the most prosperous portion of his life. The first ten years following upon his marriage were years of anxiety, self-denial and even hardship; but other men, Alcott, for example, have suffered as much and yet lived to a good old age. It may have been “the old dull pain” which Longfellow associated with him, filing perpetually on the vital cord. It was part of the enigmatic side of his nature.

The last ceremonies of respect to the earthly remains of Hawthorne were performed at Concord on May 23, 1864, in the Unitarian Church, a commodious building, 139 well adapted to the great concourse of mourners who gathered there on this occasion. Reverend James Freeman Clarke, who had united Hawthorne and Sophia Peabody in marriage twenty-two years before, was now called upon to preside over the last act in their married life. The simple eloquence of his address penetrated to the heart of every person present. “Hawthorne had achieved a twofold immortality — and his immortality on earth would be a comforting presence to all who mourned him. The noblest men of the age had gathered there, to testify to his worth as a man as well as to his genius as a writer.” Faces were to be seen in that assembly that were never beheld in Concord before. Among these was the soldierly figure and flashing eye of the poet Whittier. Longfellow, Emerson, Lowell, Agassiz, Alcott and Hillard were present; and ex-President Pierce shook hands with Judge Hoar over Hawthorne’s bier. After the services the assembly of mourners proceeded to Sleepy Hollow cemetery, and there the mortal remains of Hawthorne were buried under the pine trees on the same hill-side where he and Emerson and Margaret Fuller conversed together on the summer afternoon twenty years before. He needs no monument, for he has found a place in the universal pantheon of art and literature.

138 The passage in “A Fool of Nature,” in which he describes Murgatroyd’s discovery of his father’s death, must have been a reminiscence of this time — a passage of the finest genius.

139 In 1899 this building was burned to the ground, and a new church has been erected on the same spot.

It would seem advisable at this parting of the ways to say something of Hawthorne’s religious convictions. He went as a boy with his mother and sisters to the East Church in Salem, a society of liberal tendencies and then on the verge of Unitarianism. All the Manning family attended service there, but at a later time Robert Manning separated from it and joined an orthodox society. Hawthorne’s mother and his sister Louisa became Unitarians, and at Madam Hawthorne’s death in 1848 the funeral services were conducted by Reverend Thomas T. Stone, of the First Salem Church. It is presumable that Nathaniel Hawthorne also became a Unitarian, so far as he can be considered a sectarian at all; but certain elements of the older faith still remained in his mental composition. It cannot be questioned that the strong optimism in Emerson’s philosophy was derived from Doctor Channing’s instruction, and it is equally certain that Hawthorne could never agree to this. Whatever might be the origin of evil or its abstract value, he found it too potent an element in human affairs to be quietly reasoned out of existence. Whatever might be the ultimate purpose of Divine Providence, the witchcraft prosecutions were an awful calamity to those who were concerned in them. In this respect he resembled David A. Wasson, one of the most devout religious minds, who left the church of Calvin (as it was in his time), without ever becoming a Unitarian or a radical. Miss Rebecca Manning says:

“I never knew of Hawthorne’s going to church at all, after I remember about him, and do not think he was ever in the habit of going. I think he may have gone sometimes when he was in England, but I do not know about it. Somewhere in Julian or Rose Hawthorne’s reminiscences, there is mention made of his reading family prayers, when he was in England. He, as also his mother and sisters were people of deeply religious natures, though not always showing it by outward observances.”

A Concord judge and an old Free–Soil politician once attended a religious convention, and after the business of the day was over they went to walk together. The politician confessed to the judge that he had no very definite religious belief, for which the judge thought he did himself great injustice; but is not that the most advanced and intelligent condition of a man’s religious faith? How can we possess clear and definite ideas of the grand mystery of Creation? Consider only this simple metaphysical fact, that space has no limit, and that we can neither conceive a beginning of time nor imagine time without a beginning. What is there outside of the universe? The brain reels as we think of it. The time has gone by when a man can say to himself definitely, I believe this or I believe that; but we know at least that we, “the creature of a day,” cannot be the highest form of intelligence in this wonderful world. We thought that we lived in solid bodies, but electric rays have been discovered by which the skeletons inside of us become visible. The correlation and conservation of forces brings us very close to the origin of all force; and yet in another sense we are as far off as ever from the perception of it.

This would seem to have been also Hawthorne’s position in regard to religious faith. What do we know of the religious belief of Michel Angelo, of Shakespeare, or of Beethoven? We cannot doubt that they were sincerely and purely religious men; but neither of them made any confession of their faith. Vittoria Colonna may have known something of Michel Angelo’s belief, but Vasari does not mention it; and Beethoven confessed it was a subject that he did not like to talk about. The deeper a man’s sense of the awe and mystery which underlies Nature, the less he feels inclined to expose it to the public gaze. Hawthorne’s own family did not know what his religious opinions were — only that he was religious. One may imagine that the reticent man would be more reticent on this subject than on any other; but we can feel confident that at least he was not a sceptic, for the confirmed sceptic inevitably becomes a chatterer. He walks to Walden Pond with Hillard and Emerson on Sunday, and confesses his doubts as to the utility of the Church (in its condition at that time), for spiritual enlightenment; but in regard to the great omnipresent fact of spirituality he has no doubt. In “The Snow Image” he makes a statue come to life, and says in conclusion that if a new miracle is ever wrought in this world it will be in some such simple manner as he has described.

To the poetic mind, which is after all the highest form of intellect, the grand fact of existence is a sufficient miracle. The rising of the sun, the changes of the seasons, the blooming of flowers and the ripening of the grain, were all miracles to Hawthorne, and none the less so because they are continually being repeated. The scientists tell us that all these happen according to natural laws: perfectly true, but WHO was it that made those laws? WHO is it that keeps the universe running? Laws made for the regulation of human affairs by the wisest of men often prove ineffective, and inadequate to the purpose for which they were intended; but the laws of Nature work with unfailing accuracy. The boy solves his problem in algebra, finding out the unknown quantity by those values which are given him; and can we not also infer something of the unknown from the great panorama that passes unceasingly before us? The one thing that Hawthorne could not have understood was, how gifted minds like Lucretius and Auguste Comte could recognize only the evidence of their senses, and deliberately blind themselves to the evidence of their intellects. He who denies the existence of mind as a reality resembles a person looking for his spectacles when they are on his nose; but it is the imagination of the poet that leads civilization onward to its goal.

College life is rather generally followed by a period of scepticism, partly owing in former times to the enforced attendance at morning prayers, and still more perhaps to the study of Greek and Latin authors. During what might be called Hawthorne’s period of despair, he could not very well have obtained consolation from the traditional forms of divine worship; at least, such has been the experience of all those who have passed through the Wertherian stage, so far as we know of them. It is a time when every man has to strike the fountain of spiritual life out of the hard rock of his own existence; and those are fortunate who, like Moses and Hawthorne, strike forcibly enough to accomplish this. It is the “new birth from above,” in the light of which religious forms seem of least importance.

One effect of matrimony is commonly a deepening of religious feeling, but it is not surprising that Hawthorne should not have attended church after his marriage. His wife had not been accustomed to church-going, on account of the uncertainty of her health; the Old Manse was a long distance from the Concord tabernacle; Hawthorne’s associates in Concord, with the exception of Judge Keyes, were not in the habit of going to church; and the officiating minister, both at that time and during his later sojourn, was not a person who could have been intellectually attractive to him. Somewhat similar reasons may have interfered with his attendance after his return to Salem; and during the last fifteen years of his life, he was too much of a wanderer to take a serious interest in the local affairs of the various places he inhabited; but he was desirous that his children should go to church and should be brought up in honest Christian ways.

Little more need to be said concerning Hawthorne’s character as a man. It was not so perfect as Longfellow’s, to whom all other American authors should bow the head in this respect — the Washington of poets; and yet it was a rare example of purity, refinement, and patient endurance. His faults were insignificant in comparison with his virtues, and the most conspicuous of them, his tendency to revenge himself for real or fancied injuries, is but a part of the natural instinct in us to return the blows we receive in self-defence. Wantonly, and of his own accord, he never injured human being. His domestic life was as pure and innocent as that which appeared before the world; and Mrs. Hawthorne once said of him in my presence that she did not believe he ever committed an act that could properly be considered wrong. It was like his writing, and his “wells of English undefiled” were but as a synonym for the clear current of his daily existence.

The ideality in Hawthorne’s face was so conspicuous that it is recognizable in every portrait of him. It was not the cold visionary expression of the abstract thinker, but a human poetic intelligence, which resolved all things into a spiritual alembic of its own. It is this which elevates him above all writers who only deal with the outer world as they find it, and add nothing to it from their own natures.

George Brandes, the Danish critic and essayist, speaks of Hawthorne somewhere as “the baby poet;” but we suspect that if he had ever met the living Hawthorne, he would have stood very much in awe of him. It would not have been like meeting Ernest Rénan or John Stuart Mill. Although Hawthorne was not splenetic or rash, there was an occasional look in his eye which a prudent person might beware of. He was emphatically a man of courage.

The wide and liberal interest which German scholars and writers have so long taken in the literature of other nations, has resulted in founding an informal literary tribunal in Germany, to which the rest of the world is accustomed to appeal. A. E. Schönbach, one of the most recent German writers on universal literature, gives his impression of Hawthorne in the following statement:

“I find the distinguishing excellence of Hawthorne’s imaginative writings in the union of profound, keen, psychological development of characters and problems with the most lucid objectivity and a joyous modern realism. Occasionally there appears a light and delicate humor, sometimes hidden in a mere adjective, or little phrase which lights up the gloomiest situation with a gentle ray of hope. Far from unimportant do I rate the charm of his language, its purity, its melody, its graceful flexibility, the wealth of vocabulary, the polish which rarely betrays the touch of the file. After, or with George Eliot, Hawthorne is the first English prose writer of our century. At the same time he sacrifices nothing of his peculiar American quality. Not only does he penetrate into the most secret inner movements of the old colonial life, as no one else has done, and reproduces the spirit of his forefathers with a power of intuition which no historical work could equal; but in all his other works, from the biography of General Pierce, to the ‘Marble Faun,’ Hawthorne shows the freshness and keenness, the precision and lucidity, and other qualities not easy to describe, which belong to American literature. He is its chief representative.” 140

Hawthorne has always been accorded a high position in literature, and as time goes on I believe this will be increased rather than diminished. In beauty of diction he is the first of American writers, and there are few that equal him in this respect in other languages. It is a pleasure to read him, simply for his form of expression, and apart from the meaning which he conveys in his sentences. It is like the grace of the Latin races — like Dante and Chateaubriand; and the adaptation of his words is so perfect that we never have to think twice for his meaning. In those editions called the Elzevirs, which are so much prized by book collectors, the clearness and legibility of the type result from such a fine proportion of space and line that no other printer has succeeded in imitating it; and there is something similar to this in the construction of Hawthorne’s sentences.

He is the romance writer of the English language; and there is no form of literature which the human race prizes more. How many translations there have been of “The Vicar of Wakefield,” and of “The Sorrows of Werther”! The latter is not one of Goethe’s best, and yet it made him famous at the age of twenty-eight. The novel deals with what is new and surprising; the romance with what is old and universal. In “The Vicar of Wakefield” we have the old story of virtue outwitted by evil, which is in its turn outwitted by wisdom. There is nothing new in it except the charming exposition which Goldsmith’s genius has given to the subject. Thackeray ridiculed “The Sorrows of Werther,” and in the light of matured judgment the tale appears ridiculous; but it strikes home to the heart, because we all learn wisdom through such experiences, of which young Werther’s is an extreme instance. It was only another example of the close relation that subsists between comedy and tragedy.

It cannot be questioned that “The Scarlet Letter” ranks above “The Sorrows of Werther;” nor is it less evident that “The Marble Faun” falls short of “Wilhelm Meister” and “Don Quixote.” 141 Hawthorne’s position, therefore, lies between these two — nearer perhaps to “Werther” than to “Wilhelm Meister.” In certain respects he is surpassed by the great English novelists: Fielding, Scott, Thackeray, Dickens and Marian Evans; but he in turn surpasses them all in the perfection and poetic quality of his art. There is much poetry in Scott and Dickens, a little also in Thackeray and Miss Evans, but Hawthorne’s poetic vein has a more penetrating tone, and appeals more deeply than Scott’s verses. If power and versatility of characterization were to be the test of imaginative writing, Dickens would push closely on to Shakespeare; but we do not go to Shakespeare to read about Hamlet or Falstaff, or for the sake of the story, or even for his wisdom, but for the tout ensemble — to read Shakespeare. Raphael painted a dozen or more pictures on the same subject, but they are all original, interesting and valuable, because Raphael painted them. If it were not for the odd characters and variety of incident in Dickens’s novels they would hardly be worth reading. Hawthorne’s dramatis personæ is not a long one, for his plots do not admit of it, but his characters are finely drawn, and the fact that they have not become popular types is rather in their favor. There are Dombeys and Shylocks in plenty, but who has ever met a Hamlet or a Rosalind in real life?

A certain English writer promulgated a list of the hundred superior authors of all times and countries. There were no Americans in his catalogue, but he admitted that if the number was increased to one hundred and eighteen Hawthorne and Emerson might be included in it. Doubtless he had not heard of Webster or Alexander Hamilton, and many of his countrymen would be inclined to place Longfellow before Emerson.

I have myself frequently counted over the great writers of all times and languages, weighing their respective values carefully in my mind, but I have never been able to discover more than thirty-five authors who seem to me decidedly superior to Hawthorne, nor above forty others who might be placed on an equality with him. 142 This, of course, is only an individual opinion, and should be accepted for what it is worth; but there are many ancient writers, like Hesiod, Xenophon, and Catullus, whose chief value resides in their antiquity, and a much larger number of modern authors, such as Balzac, Victor Hugo, Freytag, and Ruskin, who have been over-estimated in their own time. Petrarch, and the author of “Gil Bias,” might be placed on a level with Hawthorne, but certainly not above him. Those whom he most closely resembles in style and subject matter are Goldsmith, Manzoni, and Auerbach.

Yet Hawthorne is essentially a domestic writer — a poetizer of the hearth-stone. Social life is always the proper subject for works of fiction, and political life should never enter into them, except as a subordinate element; but there is a border-land between the two, in which politics and society act and react on each other, and it is from this field that the great subjects for epic and dramatic poetry have always been reaped. Hawthorne only knew of this by hearsay. Of the strenuous conflict that continually goes on in political centres like London and New York, a struggle for wealth, for honor, and precedence; of plots and counterplots, of foiled ambition and ruined reputations — with all this Hawthorne had but slight acquaintance. We miss in him the masculine vigor of Fielding, the humanity of Dickens, and the trenchant criticism of Thackeray; but he knew that the true poetry of life (at the present time) was to be found in quiet nooks and in places far off from the turbulent maelstrom of humanity, and in his own line he remains unrivalled.

140 “Gesammelte Aufsatze zur neueren Litteratur,” p. 346.

141 See “Cervantes” in North American Review, May, 1905

142 Appendix C.

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