The Life and Genius of Nathaniel Hawthorne, by Frank Stearns

Chapter 6

Pegasus at the Cart: 1839–1841

Horatio Bridge’s dam was washed away in the spring of 1837, by a sudden and unprecedented rising of the Androscoggin River. Bridge was financially ruined, but like a brave and generous young man he did not permit this stroke of evil fortune, severe as it was, to oppress him heavily, and Hawthorne seems to have felt no shadow of it during his visit to Augusta the following summer. He returned to Salem in August with pleasanter anticipations than ever before — to enjoy the society of his fiancée, and to prepare the second volume of “Twice Told Tales.”

The course of Hawthorne’s life during the next twenty months is mostly a blank to us. He would seem to have exerted himself to escape from the monotone in which he had been living so long, but of his efforts, disappointments, and struggles against the giant coils of Fate, there is no report. He wrote the four Province House tales as a send-off to his second volume, as well as “The Toll–Gatherer’s Day,” “Footprints on the Seashore,” “Snow–Flakes,” and “Chippings with a Chisel,” which are to be found in it. 49 There is a long blank in Hawthorne’s diary during the winter of 1837–38 which may be owing to his indifference to the outer world at that time, but more likely because its contents have not yet been revealed to us. It was the period of Cilley’s duel, and what Hawthorne’s reflections were on that subject, aside from the account which he wrote for the Democratic Review, would be highly interesting now, but the absence of any reference to it is significant, and there is no published entry in his diary between December 6, 1837, and May 11, 1838.

Horatio Bridge obtained the position of paymaster on the United States warship “Cyane,” which arrived at Boston early in June, and on the 16th of the month Hawthorne went to call on his friend in his new quarters, which he found to be pleasant enough in their narrow and limited way. Bridge returned with him to Boston, and they dined together at the Tremont House, drinking iced champagne and claret in pitchers — which latter would seem to have been a fashion of the place. Hawthorne’s description of the day is purely external, and he tells us nothing of his friend — concerning whom we were anxious to hear — or of the new life on which he had entered.

On July 4, his thirty-fifth birthday, he wrote a microscopic account of the proceedings on Salem Common, which is interesting now, but will become more valuable as time goes on and the customs of the American people change with it. The object of these detailed pictorial studies, which not only remind one of Dürer’s drawings but of Carlyle’s local descriptions (when he uses simple English and does not fly off into recondite comparisons), is not clearly apparent; but the artist has instincts of his own, like a vine which swings in the wind and seizes upon the first tree that its tendrils come into contact with. We sometimes wish that, as in the case of Bridge and his warship, they were not so objective and external, and that, like Carlyle, he would throw more of himself into them.

On July 27, Hawthorne started on an expedition to the Berkshire Hills, by way of Worcester, remaining there nearly till the first of September, and describing the scenery, the people he met by the way, and the commencement at Williams College, which then took place in the middle of August, in his customary accurate manner. He has given a full and connected account of his travels; so full that we wonder how he found time to write to Miss Sophia Peabody. He would seem to have been entirely alone, and to have travelled mainly by stage. On the route from Pittsfield to North Adams he notices the sunset, and describes it in these simple terms: 50

“After or about sunset there was a heavy shower, the thunder rumbling round and round the mountain wall, and the clouds stretching from rampart to rampart. When it abated the clouds in all parts of the visible heavens were tinged with glory from the west; some that hung low being purple and gold, while the higher ones were gray. The slender curve of the new moon was also visible, brightening amidst the fading brightness of the sunny part of the sky.”

At North Adams he takes notice of one of the Select-men, and gives this account of him: 51

“One of the most sensible men in this village is a plain, tall, elderly person, who is overseeing the mending of a road — humorous, intelligent, with much thought about matters and things; and while at work he had a sort of dignity in handling the hoe or crow-bar, which shows him to be the chief. In the evening he sits under the stoop, silent and observant from under the brim of his hat; but, occasion suiting, he holds an argument about the benefit or otherwise of manufactories or other things. A simplicity characterizes him more than appertains to most Yankees.”

He did not return to Salem until September 24. A month later he was at the Tremont House in Boston, looking out of the windows toward Beacon Street, which may have served him for an idea in “The Blithedale Romance.” After this there are no entries published from his diary till the following spring, so that the manner in which he occupied himself during the winter of 1838–39 will have to be left to the imagination. On April 27, 1839, he wrote a letter to Miss Sophia Peabody from Boston, in which he says:

“I feel pretty secure against intruders, for the bad weather will defend me from foreign invasion; and as to Cousin Haley, he and I had a bitter political dispute last evening, at the close of which he went to bed in high dudgeon, and probably will not speak to me these three days. Thus you perceive that strife and wrangling, as well as east winds and rain, are the methods of a kind Providence to promote my comfort — which would not have been so well secured in any other way. Six or seven hours of cheerful solitude! But I will not be alone. I invite your spirit to be with me — at any hour and as many hours as you please, but especially at the twilight hour before I light my lamp. I bid you at that particular time, because I can see visions more vividly in the dusky glow of firelight than either by daylight or lamplight. Come, and let me renew my spell against headache and other direful effects of the east wind. How I wish I could give you a portion of my insensibility! and yet I should be almost afraid of some radical transformation, were I to produce a change in that respect. If you cannot grow plump and rosy and tough and vigorous without being changed into another nature, then I do think, for this short life, you had better remain just what you are. Yes; but you will be the same to me, because we have met in eternity, and there our intimacy was formed. So get well as soon as you possibly can.”

This statement deserves consideration under two headings; and the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.

It will be noticed that the accounts in Hawthorne’s diary are for the most part of a dispassionate objective character, as if he had come down from the moon to take an observation of mundane affairs. His letters to Miss Peabody were also dispassionate, but strongly subjective, and, like the one just quoted, mainly evolved from his imagination, like orchids living in the air. It was also about this time that Carlyle wrote to Emerson concerning the Dial that it seemed “like an unborn human soul.” The orchid imagination was an influence of the time, penetrating everywhere like an ether.

In the opening sentences in this letter, Hawthorne comes within an inch of disclosing his political opinions, and yet provokingly fails to do so. There is nothing about the man concerning which we are so much in the dark, and which we should so much like to know, as this; and it is certain from this letter that he held very decided opinions on political subjects and could defend them with a good deal of energy. On one occasion when Hawthorne was asked why he was a Democrat, he replied, “Because I live in a democratic country,” which was, of course, simply an evasion; and such were the answers which he commonly gave to all interrogatories. His proclivities were certainly not democratic; but the greater the tenacity with which a man holds his opinions, the less inclined he feels to discuss them with others. The Boston aristocracy now vote the Democratic ticket out of opposition to the dominant party in Massachusetts, and Hawthorne may have done so for a similar reason.

Hawthorne was now a weigher and gauger in the Boston Custom House, one of the most laborious positions in the government service. The defalcation of Swartwout with over a million dollars from the New York customs’ receipts had forced upon President Van Buren the importance of filling such posts with honorable men, instead of political shysters, and Bancroft, though a rather narrow historian, was a gentleman and a scholar. He was the right man to appreciate Hawthorne, but whether he bestowed this place upon him of his own accord, or through the ulterior agency of Franklin Pierce, we are not informed. It is quite possible that Elizabeth Peabody had a hand in the case, for she was always an indefatigable petitioner for the benefit of the needy, and had opportunities for meeting Bancroft in Boston society. His kindness to Hawthorne was at least some compensation for having originated the most ill-favored looking public building in the city. 52

Hawthorne’s salary was twelve hundred dollars a year — fully equal to eighteen hundred at the present time — and his position appears to have been what is now called a store-keeper. He fully earned his salary. He had charge and oversight of all the dutiable imports that came to Long Wharf, the most important in the city, and was obliged to keep an account of all dutiable articles which were received there. He had to superintend personally the unloading of vessels, and although in some instances this was not unpleasant, he was constantly receiving shiploads of soft coal — Sidney or Pictou coal — which is the dirtiest stuff in the world; it cannot be touched without raising a dusty vapor which settles in the eyes, nose, and mouth, and inside the shirt-collar. He counted every basketful that was brought ashore, and his position on such occasions was to be envied only by the sooty laborers who handled that commodity. We wonder what the frequenters of Long Wharf thought of this handsome, poetic-looking man occupied in such a business.

Yet he appreciated the value of this Spartan discipline — the inestimable value of being for once in his life brought down to hard-pan and the plain necessities of life. The juice of wormwood is bitter, but it is also strengthening. On July 3, 1839, he wrote: 53

“I do not mean to imply that I am unhappy or discontented, for this is not the case. My life only is a burden in the same way that it is to every toilsome man, and mine is a healthy weariness, such as needs only a night’s sleep to remove it. But from henceforth forever I shall be entitled to call the sons of toil my brethren, and shall know how to sympathize with them, seeing that I likewise have risen at the dawn, and borne the fervor of the midday sun, nor turned my heavy footsteps homeward till eventide. Years hence, perhaps, the experience that my heart is acquiring now will flow out in truth and wisdom.”

This is one of the noblest passages in his writings.

On August 27 he notices the intense heat in the centre of the city, although it is somewhat cooler on the wharves. At this time Emerson may have been composing his “Wood Notes” or “Threnody” in the cool pine groves of Concord. Such is the difference between inheriting twenty thousand dollars and two thousand. Hawthorne lived in Boston at such a boarding-place as Doctor Holmes describes in the “Autocrat of the Breakfast Table,” and for all we know it may have been the same one. He lived economically, reading and writing to Miss Peabody in the evening, and rarely going to the theatre or other entertainments — a life like that of a store clerk whose salary only suffices for his board and clothing. George Bancroft was kindly disposed toward him, and would have introduced Hawthorne into any society that he could have wished to enter; but Hawthorne, then and always, declined to be lionized. Hawthorne made but one friend in Boston during this time, and that one, George S. Hillard, a most faithful and serviceable friend — not only to Hawthorne during his life, but afterwards as a trustee for his family, and equally kind and helpful to them in their bereavement, which is more than could be said of all his friends — especially of Pierce. Hillard belonged to the brilliant coterie of Cambridge literary men, which included Longfellow, Sumner and Felton. He was a lawyer, politician, editor, orator and author; at this time, or shortly afterward, Sumner’s law partner; one of the most kindly sympathetic men, with a keen appreciation of all that is finest in art and literature, but somewhat lacking in firmness and independence of character. His “Six Months in Italy,” written in the purest English, long served as a standard work for American travellers in that ideal land, and his rather unsymmetrical figure only made the graces of his oratory more conspicuous.

Hawthorne kept at his work through summer’s heat and winter’s cold. On February 11, 1840, he wrote to his fiancée:

“I have been measuring coal all day, on board of a black little British schooner, in a dismal dock at the north end of the city. Most of the time I paced the deck to keep myself warm. . . .

“ . . . Sometimes I descended into the dirty little cabin of the schooner, and warmed myself by a red-hot stove among biscuit barrels, pots and kettles, sea chests, and innumerable lumber of all sorts — my olfactories, meanwhile, being greatly refreshed by the odor of a pipe, which the captain or some of his crew was smoking.”


One would have to go to Dante’s “Inferno” to realize a situation more thoroughly disagreeable; yet the very pathos of Hawthorne’s employment served to inspire him with elevated thoughts and beautiful reflections. His letters are full of aërial fancies. He notices what a beautiful day it was on April 18, 1840, and regrets that he cannot “fling himself on a gentle breeze and be blown away into the country.” April 30 is another beautiful day — “a real happiness to live; if he had been a mere vegetable, a hawthorn bush, he would have felt its influence.” He goes to a picture gallery in the Athenaeum, but only mentions seeing two paintings by Sarah Clarke. He returns to Salem in October, and writes in his own chamber the passage already quoted, in which he mourns the lonely years of his youth, and the long, long waiting for appreciation, “while he felt the life chilling in his veins and sometimes it seemed as if he were already in the grave;” but an early return to his post gives him brighter thoughts. He takes notice of the magnificent black and yellow butterflies that have strangely come to Long Wharf, as if seeking to sail to other climes since the last flower had faded. Mr. Bancroft has appointed him to suppress an insurrection among the government laborers, and he writes to Miss Sophia Peabody:

“I was not at the end of Long Wharf today, but in a distant region — my authority having been put in requisition to quell a rebellion of the captain and ‘gang’ of shovellers aboard a coal-vessel. I would you could have beheld the awful sternness of my visage and demeanor in the execution of this momentous duty. Well — I have conquered the rebels, and proclaimed an amnesty; so tomorrow I shall return to that paradise of measurers, the end of Long Wharf — not to my former salt-ship, she being now discharged, but to another, which will probably employ me well-nigh a fortnight longer.”

A month later we meet with this ominous remark in his diary:

“I was invited to dine at Mr. Bancroft’s yesterday with Miss Margaret Fuller; but Providence had given me some business to do, for which I was very thankful.”

Had Hawthorne already encountered this remarkable woman with the feminine heart and masculine mind, and had he already conceived that aversion for her which is almost painfully apparent in his Italian diary? Certainly in many respects they were antipodes.

The Whig party came into power on March 4, 1841, with “Tippecanoe” for a figure-head and Daniel Webster as its conductor of the “grand orchestra.” A month later Bancroft was removed, and Hawthorne went with him, not at all regretful to depart. In fact, he had come to feel that he could not endure the Custom House, or at least his particular share of it, any longer. One object he had in view in accepting the position was, to obtain practical experience, and this he certainly did in a rough and unpleasant manner. The experience of a routine office, however, is not like that of a broker who has goods to sell and who must dispose of them to the best advantage, in order to keep his reputation at high-water mark; nor is it like the experience of a young doctor or a lawyer struggling to obtain a practice. Those are the men who know what life actually is; and it is this thoroughness of experience which makes the chief difference between a Dante and a Tennyson.

These reflections lead directly to Hawthorne’s casual and oft-repeated commentary on American politicians. He wrote March 15:

“I do detest all offices — all, at least, that are held on a political tenure. And I want nothing to do with politicians. Their hearts wither away, and die out of their bodies. Their consciences are turned to india-rubber, or to some substance as black as that, and which will stretch as much. One thing, if no more, I have gained by my custom-house experience — to know a politician.” 54

This seems rather severe, but at the time when Hawthorne wrote it, American politics were on the lowest plane of demagogism. It was the inevitable result of the spoils-of-office system, and the meanest species of the class were the ward politicians who received small government offices in return for services in canvassing ignorant foreign voters. They were naturally coarse, hardened adventurers, and it was such that Hawthorne chiefly came in contact with in his official business. Cleon, the brawling tanner of Athens, has reappeared in every representative government since his time, and plays his clownish part with multifarious variations; but it is to little purpose that we deride the men who govern us, for they are what we and our institutions have made them. If we want better representatives, we must mend our own ways and especially purge ourselves of political cant and national vanity — which is the food that ward politicians grow fat on. The profession of a politician is based on instability, and he cannot acquire, as matters now stand, the solidity of character that we look for in other professions.

So far, however, was Hawthorne at this juncture from considering men and things critically, that he closes the account of his first government experience in this rather optimistic manner:

“Old Father Time has gone onward somewhat less heavily than is his wont when I am imprisoned within the walls of the Custom-house. My breath had never belonged to anybody but me. It came fresh from the ocean. . . .

“ . . . It was exhilarating to see the vessels, how they bounded over the waves, while a sheet of foam broke out around them. I found a good deal of enjoyment, too, in the busy scene around me. It pleased me to think that I also had a part to act in the material and tangible business of this life, and that a portion of all this industry could not have gone on without my presence.” 55

When Hawthorne philosophizes it is not in old threadbare proverbs or Orphic generalities, but always specifically and to the point.

49 J. Hawthorne, 176.

50 American Note-book, 130.

51 American Note-book, 153.

52 The present Boston Custom House. George S. Hillard called it an architectural monstrosity.

53 American Note-book.

54 American Notebook, i. 220.

55 American Note-book, i. 230.

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