The Life and Genius of Nathaniel Hawthorne, by Frank Stearns

Chapter 3

Bowdoin College: 1821–1825.

The life of man is not like a game of chess, in which the two players start upon equal terms and can deliberate sufficiently over every move; but more like whist, in which the cards we hold represent our fortunes at the beginning, but the result of the game depends also on the skill with which we play it. Life also resembles whist in this, that we are obliged to follow suit in a general way to those who happen to have the lead.

Why Hawthorne should have entered Bowdoin College instead of Harvard has not been explained, nor is it easily explained. The standard of scholarship maintained at Harvard and Yale has always been higher than that at what Doctor Holmes designated as the “freshwater colleges,” and this may have proved an unfavorable difference to the mind of a young man who was not greatly inclined to his studies; but Harvard College is only eighteen miles from Salem, and he could have returned to his home once a week if he had chosen to do so, and this is a decided moral and social advantage to a young man in those risky years. If Hawthorne had entered Harvard in the next class to Emerson, he could not well have escaped the latter’s attention, and would have come in contact with other vigorous and stimulating minds; but it is of little use to speculate on what might have been.

Boys are encouraged to study for college by accounts of the rare enjoyment of university life, but they commonly find the first term of Freshman year both dismal and discouraging. Their class is a medley of strangers, their studies are a dry routine, and if they are not hazed by the Sophomores, they are at least treated by them with haughtiness and contempt. It is still summer when they arrive, but the leaves soon fall from the trees, and their spirits fall with them.

Hawthorne may have felt this more acutely than any other member of his class, and in addition to the prevailing sense of discomfort he was seized early in November with that disgusting malady, the measles, which boys usually go through with before they are old enough to realize how disagreeable it is. It appears to have been a light attack, however, and in three weeks he was able to attend recitations again. He made no complaint of it, only writing to his uncle for ten dollars with which to pay the doctor. He likes his chum, Mason, of Portsmouth, and does not find his studies so arduous as at Salem before entering. Neither are the college laws so strict as he anticipated.

In the following May he received the present of his first watch, presumably from Uncle Robert, and he writes to his mother, who is still at Sebago, that he is mightily pleased with it, and that it enables him “to cut a great dash” at college. His letters to his relatives are not brilliant, but they indicate a healthful and contented mind.

We will now consider some of the distinguished personages who were Hawthorne’s friends and associates during these four years of his apprenticeship to actual life; and there were rare characters among them.

In the same coach in which Hawthorne left Portland for Brunswick, in the summer of 1821, were Franklin Pierce and Jonathan Cilley. 24 Two men seated together in a modern railway-carriage will often become better acquainted in three hours than they might as next-door neighbors in three years; and this was still more likely to happen in the old days of coach journeys, when the very tedium of the occasion served as an inducement to frank and friendly conversation. Pierce was the right man to bring Hawthorne out of his hard shell of Sebago seclusion. He had already been one year at Bowdoin, and at that time there was not the same caste feeling between Sophomores and Freshmen — or at least very little of it — that has since arisen in American colleges. He was amiable and kindly, and possessed the rare gift of personal magnetism. Nature sometimes endows men and women with this quality in lieu of all other advantages, and such would seem to have been the case with Franklin Pierce. He was not much above the average in intellect, and, as Hawthorne afterward confessed, not particularly attractive in appearance; with a stiff military neck, features strong but small, and opaque gray eyes — a rather unimpressive face, and one hardly capable of a decided expression. Yet with such abilities as he had, aided by personal magnetism and the lack of conspicuous faults, he became United States Senator at the age of thirty-five, and President fifteen years later. The best we can say of him is, that he was always Hawthorne’s friend. From the first day that they met he became Hawthorne’s patron and protector — so far as he may have required the latter. There must have been some fine quality in the man which is not easily discernible from his outward acts; a narrow-minded man, but of a refined nature.

Jonathan Cilley was an abler man than Pierce, and a bold party-leader, but not so attractive personally. He always remained Hawthorne’s friend, but the latter saw little of him and rarely heard from him after they had graduated. The one letter of his which has been published gives the impression of an impulsive, rough-and-tumble sort of person, always ready to take a hand in whatever might turn up.

On the same day, Horatio Bridge, who lived at Augusta, was coming down the Kennebec River to Brunswick. Hawthorne did not make his acquaintance until some weeks later, but he proved to be the best friend of them all, and Hawthorne’s most constant companion during the four years they remained together. Pierce, Cilley and Bridge were all born politicians, and it was this class of men with whom it would seem that Hawthorne naturally assimilated.

On the same day, or the one previous, another boy set out from Portland for Brunswick, only fourteen years old, named Henry W. Longfellow — a name that is now known to thousands who never heard of Franklin Pierce. Would it have made a difference in the warp and woof of Hawthorne’s life, if he had happened to ride that day in the same coach with Longfellow? Who can tell? Was there any one in the breadth of the land with whom he might have felt an equal sympathy, with whom he could have matured a more enduring fellowship? It might have been a friendship like that of Beaumont and Fletcher, or, better still, like that of Goethe and Schiller — but it was not written in the book of Fate. Longfellow also had tried his hand on the Sebago region, and was fond of the woods and of a gun; but he was too precocious to adapt himself easily to persons of his own age, or even somewhat older. He had no sooner arrived at Bowdoin than he became the associate and favorite of the professors. In this way he missed altogether the storm-and-stress period of youthful life, which is a useful experience of its kind; and if we notice in his poetry a certain lack, the absence of a close contact with reality — as if he looked at his subject through a glass casement — this may be assigned as the reason for it.


During the four years they went back and forth to their instruction together, Hawthorne and Longfellow never became cordially acquainted. They also belonged to rival societies. There were only two principal societies at Bowdoin, which continued through the college course — the Peucinian and the Athenæan, and the difference between them might be described by the words “citified” and “countrified,” without taking either of those terms in an objectionable sense. Pierce was already a leading character in the Athenæan, and was soon followed by Cilley, Bridge and Hawthorne. The Peucinian suffered from the disadvantage of having members of the college faculty on its active list, and this must have given a rather constrained and academic character to its meetings. There was much more of the true college spirit and classmate feeling in the Athenæan.

Horatio Bridge is our single authority in regard to Bowdoin College at this time, and his off-hand sketches of Hawthorne, Pierce and Longfellow are invaluable. Never has such a group of distinguished young men been gathered together at an American college. He says of Hawthorne:

“Hawthorne was a slender lad, having a massive head, with dark, brilliant, and most expressive eyes, heavy eyebrows, and a profusion of dark hair. For his appearance at that time the inquirers must rely wholly upon the testimony of friends; for, I think, no portrait of him as a lad is extant. On one occasion, in our senior years, the class wished to have their profiles cut in silhouette by a wandering artist of the scissors, and interchanged by all the thirty-eight. Hawthorne disapproved the proposed plan, and steadily refused to go into the Class Golgotha, as he styled the dismal collection. I joined him in this freak, and so our places were left vacant. I now regret the whim, since even a moderately correct outline of his features as a youth would, at this day, be interesting.

“Hawthorne’s figure was somewhat singular, owing to his carrying his head a little on one side; but his walk was square and firm, and his manner self-respecting and reserved. A fashionable boy of the present day might have seen something to amuse him in the new student’s appearance; but had he indicated this he would have rued it, for Hawthorne’s clear appreciation of the social proprieties and his great physical courage would have made it as unsafe to treat him with discourtesy then as at any later time.

“Though quiet and most amiable, he had great pluck and determination. I remember that in one of our convivial meetings we had the laugh upon him for some cause, an occurrence so rare that the bantering was carried too far. After bearing it awhile, Hawthorne singled out the one among us who had the reputation of being the best pugilist, and in a few words quietly told him that he would not permit the rallying to go farther. His bearing was so resolute, and there was so much of danger in his eye, that no one afterward alluded to the offensive subject in his presence.” 25

Horatio Bridge is a veracious witness, but we have to consider that he was nearly ninety years of age at the time his memoirs were given to the public. It is difficult to imagine Hawthorne as a slender youth, for his whole figure was in keeping with the structure of his head. It is more likely that he had a spare figure. Persons of a lively imagination have always been apt to hold their heads on one side, but not commonly while they are walking. It is for this reason that phrenologists have supposed that the organ of ideality is located on the side of the head — if there really is any such organ.

Bridge says of Longfellow precisely what one might expect:

“He had decided personal beauty and most attractive manners. He was frank, courteous, and affable, while morally he was proof against the temptations that beset lads on first leaving the salutary restraints of home. He was diligent, conscientious, and most attentive to all his college duties, whether in the recitation-room, the lecture-hall, or the chapel. The word ‘student’ best expresses his literary habit, and in his intercourse with all he was conspicuously the gentleman.”

In addition to those already mentioned, James W. Bradbury of Portland, afterwards United States Senator, and the Reverend Dr. George B. Cheever, the vigorous anti-slavery preacher, were members of this class. Three others, Cilley, Benson and Sawtelle, were afterward members of the United States House of Representatives. Surely there must have been quite a fermentation of youthful intellect at Bowdoin between 1821 and 1825.

Franklin Pierce was so deeply interested in military affairs that it was a pity he should not have had a West Point cadetship. He was captain of the college militia company, in which Hawthorne and Bridge drilled and marched; a healthy and profitable exercise, and better than a gymnasium, if rather monotonous. Pierce was the popular hero and magnus Apollo of his class, as distinguished foot-ball players are now; but just at this time he was neglecting his studies so badly that at the close of his second year he found himself at the very foot of the rank list. The fact became known through the college, and Pierce was so chagrined that he concluded to withdraw from Bowdoin altogether, and it was only by the urgent persuasion of his friends that he was induced to continue his course. “If I remain, however,” he said, “you will witness a change in me.” For months together he burned midnight oil in order to recover lost ground. During his last two years at college, he only missed two recitations, both for sufficient reasons. His conduct was unexceptionable, he incurred no deductions, and finally graduated third in his class. It is an uncommon character that can play fast-and-loose with itself in this manner. The boy Franklin had departed, and Pierce the man had taken his place. 26 Horatio Bridge gives a rather more idealized portrait of him than he does of Hawthorne. He says:

“In person Pierce was slender, of medium height, with fair complexion and light hair, erect, with a military bearing, active, and always bright and cheerful. In character he was impulsive, not rash; generous, not lavish; chivalric, courteous, manly, and warm-hearted — and he was one of the most popular students in the whole college.”

The instruction in American colleges during the first half of the nineteenth century was excellent for Greek, Latin and mathematics — always the groundwork of a good education — but the modern languages were indifferently taught by French and German exiles, and other subjects were treated still more indifferently. The two noble studies of history and philosophy were presented to the young aspiring soul in narrow, prejudiced text-books, which have long since been consigned to that bourn from which no literary work ever returns. As already stated, Hawthorne’s best study was Latin, and in that he acquired good proficiency; but he was slow in mathematics, as artistic minds usually are, and in his other studies he only exerted himself sufficiently to pass his examinations in a creditable manner. We may presume that he took the juice and left the rind; which was the sensible thing to do. As might be expected, his themes and forensics were beautifully written, although the arguments in them were not always logical; but it is significant that he never could be prevailed upon to make a declamation. There have been sensitive men, like Sumner and George W. Curtis, who were not at all afraid of the platform, but they were not, like Hawthorne, bashful men. The college faculty would seem to have realized the true difficulty in his case, and treated him in a kindly and lenient manner. No doubt he suffered enough in his own mind on account of this deficiency, and it may have occurred to him what difficulties he might have to encounter in after-life by reason of it. If a student at college cannot bring himself to make a declamation, how can the mature man face an audience in a lecture-room, command a ship, or administer any important office? Such thoughts must have caused Hawthorne no slight anxiety, at that sensitive age.

The out-door sports of the students did not attract Hawthorne greatly. He was a fast runner and a good leaper, but seemed to dislike violent exercise. He much preferred walking in the woods with a single companion, or by the banks of the great river on which Brunswick is situated. There were fine trout-brooks in the neighborhood, and formerly the woods of Maine were traversed by vast flocks of passenger pigeons, which with the large gray squirrels afforded excellent shooting. How skilful Hawthorne became with his fowling-piece we have not been informed, but it is evident from passages in “Fanshawe” that he learned something of trout-fishing; and on the whole he enjoyed advantages at Bowdoin which the present student at Harvard or Oxford might well envy, him. The fish we catch in the streams and lakes of Maine only represent a portion of our enjoyment there. Horatio Bridge says:

“There was one favorite spot in a little ravine, where a copious spring of clear, cold water gushed out from the sandy bank, and joined the larger stream. This was the Paradise Spring, which deserves much more than its present celebrity for the absolute purity of its waters. Of late years the brook has been better known as a favorite haunt of the great romance writer, and it is now often called the Hawthorne Brook.

“Another locality, above the bridge, afforded an occasional stroll through the fields and by the river. There, in spring, we used to linger for hours to watch the giant pine-logs (for there were giants in those days) from the far-off forests, floating by hundreds in the stream until they came to the falls; then, balancing for a moment on the brink, they plunged into the foamy pool below.”

At the lower end of the town there was an old weather-beaten cot, where the railroad track now runs, inhabited by a lone woman nearly as old and time-worn as the dwelling itself. She pretended to be a fortune-teller, and to her Hawthorne and Bridge sometimes had recourse, to lift the veil of their future prospects; which she always succeeded in doing to their good entertainment. The old crone knew her business well, especially the art of giving sufficient variety of detail to the same old story. For a nine-pence she would predict a beautiful blond wife for Hawthorne, and an equally handsome dark-complexioned one for Bridge. Riches were of course thrown in by the handful; and Bridge remarks that although these never came to pass they both happened to be blessed with excellent wives. It is not surprising that the handsome Hawthorne and his tall, elegant-looking companion should have stimulated the old woman’s imagination in a favorable manner. The small coin they gave her may have been the least happiness that their visits brought into her life.

Close by the college grounds there was a miserable little inn, which went by the name of Ward’s Tavern, and thither the more uproarious class of students consorted at intervals for the purpose of keeping care at a distance, and singing, “Landlord, fill your flowing bowls.” Strange to say, the reserved, thoughtful Hawthorne was often to be found among them. It does not seem quite consistent with the gravity of his customary demeanor, but youth has its period of reckless ebullition. Punch-bowl societies exist in all our colleges, and many who disapprove of them join them for the sake of popularity. Hawthorne may have been as grave and well-behaved on these occasions as he was customarily. We have Bridge’s word for this; and the matter would hardly be worth mentioning if it had not led to more serious proceedings. May 29, 1822, President Allen wrote to Mrs. Hathorne at Salem that her son had been fined fifty cents for gaming at cards. 27 Certainly this was not very severe treatment; and if the Bowdoin faculty, being on the spot, concluded that young Hawthorne had only injured his moral nature fifty cents’ worth, I think we shall do well to agree with their decision. At the same time Nathaniel wrote his mother the following manly letter:

“BRUNSWICK, May 30th, 1822.

24 Bridge’s Memoir of Hawthorne, 3.

25 Horatio Bridge, 5.

26 Professor Packard’s “History of Bowdoin College.”

27 In 1864 a Harvard student was fined three dollars for writing on the woodwork with a lead-pencil — erased with a sponge.

“MY DEAR MOTHER:— I hope you have safely arrived in Salem. I have nothing particular to inform you of, except that all the card-players in college have been found out, and my unfortunate self among the number. One has been dismissed from college, two suspended, and the rest, with myself, have been fined fifty cents each. I believe the President intends to write to the friends of all the delinquents. Should that be the case, you must show the letter to nobody. If I am again detected, I shall have the honor of being suspended. When the President asked what we played for, I thought it proper to inform him it was fifty cents, although it happened to be a quart of wine; but if I had told him of that, he would probably have fined me for having a blow. There was no untruth in the case, as the wine cost fifty cents. I have not played at all this term. I have not drank any kind of spirits or wine this term, and shall not till the last week.” 28

The clemency with which the college authorities treated Bridge and Hawthorne is a plain indication of the confidence which they felt in them, and speaks more highly for their respective characters than if they had been patterns of good behavior. Some of the others were not so fortunate. One young man, whose name is properly withheld from us, was expelled from the institution. He was supposed to have been the ringleader in this dubious business, but Hawthorne manfully resented the supposition that any one could have influenced him, or did influence him, in this matter. It is more likely that he was influenced by the spirit of investigation, and wished to know what the sensation was like from personal experience.

“Letters home” from college are not commonly interesting to the general public, and those which Hawthorne wrote to his mother and sisters do not differ essentially from such as other young men write under similar conditions. At the age when it is so difficult to decide whether we have become men or are still boys, all our actions partake of a similar uncertainty, and the result of what we do and say is likely to be a rather confused impression. Though college students appear different enough to one another, they all seem alike to the outside world.

University towns always contain more or less cultivated society, and young Hawthorne might have been welcome to the best of it if he had felt so inclined; but he was as shy of the fair sex as Goldsmith’s bashful lover. M. D. Conway, who knew him, doubts if he ever became well acquainted with a young lady until his engagement to Miss Peabody. Considering this, it seems as if Jonathan Cilley made rather a hazardous wager with Hawthorne, before leaving Bowdoin — a wager of a cask of Madeira, that Hawthorne would become a married man within the next twelve years. Papers to that effect were duly signed by the respective parties, sealed, and delivered for safe-keeping to Horatio Bridge, who preserved them faithfully until the appointed time arrived. Under ordinary conditions the chances of this bet were in Cilley’s favor, for in those primitive days it was much easier for educated young men to obtain a start in life than it is at present, and early marriages were in consequence much more common.29

The year 1824 was a serious one in American politics. The Republican–Democratic party, having become omnipotent, broke to pieces of its own weight. The eastern interest nominated John Quincy Adams for the Presidency; the western interest nominated Henry Clay; and the frontier interest nominated Andrew Jackson. Unfortunately the frontier interest included all the unsettled and continually shifting elements in the country, so that Jackson had nearly as strong a support in the East as in the West. Bridge says, “We were all enthusiastic supporters of old Hickory.” It was evidently Pierce who led them into this, and although it proved in a material sense for Hawthorne’s benefit, it separated him permanently from the class to which he properly belonged — the enlightened men of culture of his time; and Cilley’s tragical fate can be directly traced to it. The Jackson movement was in its essence a revolt against civility — and it seems as if Hawthorne and Bridge might have recognized this.

Hawthorne was well liked in his class in spite of his reserved manners, but he held no class offices that we hear of, except a place on a committee of the Athenæan Society with Franklin Pierce. Class days and class suppers, so prolific of small honors, were not introduced at Bowdoin until some years later. He graduated eighteenth in a class of thirty-eight, but this was not sufficient to give him a part in the commencement exercises. 30 Accordingly Hawthorne, Bridge, and others who were in a like predicament, organized a mock Commencement celebration at Ward’s Tavern, where they elected officers of a comical sort, such as boatswain and sea-cook, and concluded their celebration in a manner suitable to the occasion.

Hawthorne was commonly known among his classmates, as “Hath,” and his friends addressed him in this manner long after he had graduated. His degree was made out in the name of Nathaniel Hathorne, above which he subsequently wrote “Hawthorne,” in bold letters.

The question may well be raised here, how it happened that America produced so many men of remarkable intellect with such slight opportunities for education in former times, while our greatly improved universities have not graduated an orator like Webster, a poet like Longfellow, or a prose-writer equal to Hawthorne during the past forty years. There have been few enough who have risen above mediocrity.

It is the same, more or less, all over the civilized world. We have entered into a mechanical age, which is natural enough considering the rapid advances of science and the numerous mechanical inventions, but which is decidedly unfavorable to the development of art and literature. Everything now goes by machinery, from Harvard University to Ohio politics and the gigantic United States Steel Company; and every man has to find his place in some machine or other, or he is thrown out of line. Individual effort, as well as independence of thought and action, is everywhere frowned upon; but without freedom of thought and action there can be no great individualities, which is the same as saying that there can be no poets like Longfellow, or writers like Hawthorne and Emerson. Spontaneity is the life of the true artist, and in a mechanical civilization there can be neither spontaneity nor the poetic material which is essential to artistic work of a high order. There can be no great orators, for masses of men are no longer influenced by oratory, but by newspapers. Genius is like a plant of slow growth, which requires sunshine and Mother Earth to nourish it, not chemicals and electric lights.

28 Horatio Bridge, 118.

29 Horatio Bridge, 47. The contract was dated November 14, 1824.

30 The President informed him that his rank in the class would have entitled him to a part if it had not been for his neglect of declamations; and Hawthorne wrote to his mother that he was perfectly satisfied with this, for it saved him the mortification of appearing in public.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55