The Life and Genius of Nathaniel Hawthorne, by Frank Stearns

Chapter 8

Concord and the Old Manse: 1842–1845

The Ripley house dates back to the times of Captain Daniel Hathorne, or even before him, and at Concord Fight the British left wing must have extended close to it. Old and unpainted as it is, it gives a distinct impression of refinement and good taste. Alone, I believe, among the Concord houses of former times, it is set back far enough from the country-road to have an avenue leading to it, lined with balm of Gilead trees, and guarded at the entrance by two tall granite posts somewhat like obelisks. On the further side of the house, Dr. Ripley had planted an apple orchard, which included some rare varieties, especially the blue pearmain, a dark-red autumn apple with a purple bloom upon it like the bloom upon the rye. A high rounded hill on the northeast partially shelters the house from the storms in that direction; and on the opposite side the river sweeps by in a magnificent curve, with broad meadows and rugged hills, leading up to the pale-blue outline of Mount Wachusett on the western horizon. The Musketequid or Concord River has not been praised too highly. Its clear, gently flowing current, margined by bulrushes and grassy banks, produces an effect of mental peacefulness, very different from the rushing turbulent waters and rocky banks of Maine and New Hampshire rivers. From whatever point you approach the Old Manse, it becomes the central object in a charming country scene, and it does not require the peculiar effect of mouldering walls to make it picturesque. It has stood there long, and may it long remain.

There was formerly an Indian encampment on the same ground — a well-chosen position both strategically and for its southern exposure. Old Mrs. Ripley had a large collection of stone arrow-heads, corn-mortars, and other relics of the aborigines, which she used to show to the young people who came to call on her grandchildren; and there were among them pieces of a dark-bluish porphyry which she said was not to be found in Massachusetts, but must have been brought from northern New England. There was no reason why they should not have been. The Indians could go from Concord in their canoes to the White Mountains or the Maine lakes, and shoot the deer that came down to drink from the banks of the river; but the deer disappeared before the advance of the American farmer, and the Indians went with them. Now a grandson of Madam Ripley, in the bronze likeness of a minuteman of 1775, stands sentinel at “The Old North Bridge.”

Hawthorne ascended the hill opposite his house and wrote of the view from it:

“The scenery of Concord, as I beheld it from the summit of the hill, has no very marked characteristics, but has a great deal of quiet beauty, in keeping with the river. There are broad and peaceful meadows, which, I think, are among the most satisfying objects in natural scenery. The heart reposes on them with a feeling that few things else can give, because almost all other objects are abrupt and clearly defined; but a meadow stretches out like a small infinity, yet with a secure homeliness which we do not find either in an expanse of water or air.”

The great cranberry meadows below the north bridge are sometimes a wonderful place in winter, when the river overflows its banks and they become a broad sheet of ice extending for miles. There one can have a little skating, an exercise of which Hawthorne was always fond.

It was now, and not at Brook Farm, that he found his true Arcadia, and we have his wife’s testimony that for the first eighteen months or more at the Old Manse, they were supremely happy. Every morning after breakfast he donned the blue frock, which he had worn at West Roxbury, and went to the woodshed to saw and split wood for the daily consumption. After that he ascended to his study in the second story, where he wrote and pondered until dinner-time. It appears also that he sometimes assisted in washing the dishes — like a helpful mate. After dinner he usually walked to the post-office and to a reading-room in the centre of the town, where he looked over the Boston Post for half an hour. Later in the afternoon, he went rowing or fishing on the river, but his wife does not seem to have accompanied him in these excursions, for Judge Keyes, who often met him in his boat, does not mention seeing her with him. In the evenings he read Shakespeare with Mrs. Hawthorne, commencing with the first volume, and going straight through to the end, “Titus Andronicus” and all — and this must have occupied them a large portion of the winter. How can a man fail to be happy in such a mode of life!

Hawthorne also went swimming in the river when the weather suited — rather exceptional in Concord for a middle-aged gentleman; but there were two very attractive bathing places near the Old Manse, one, a little above on the opposite side of the river, and the other, afterwards known as Simmons’s Landing, where there was a row of tall elms a short distance below the bridge. It is probable that Hawthorne frequented the latter place, as being more remote from human habitations. He did not take to his gun again, although he could see the wild ducks in autumn, flying past his house. There were grouse and quail in the woods, and woodcock were to be found along the brook which ran through Emerson’s pasture; but perhaps Hawthorne had become too tenderhearted for field-sports.

If Boston is the hub of the universe, Concord might be considered as the linchpin which holds it on. Its population was originally derived from Boston, and it must be admitted that it retains more Bostonian peculiarities than most other New England towns. It does not assimilate readily to the outside world. Nor is it surprising that few local visitors called upon the Hawthornes at the Old Manse. Emerson, always hospitable and public-spirited, went to call on them at once; and John Keyes, also a liberal-minded man, introduced Hawthorne at the reading-club. Margaret Fuller came and left a book for Hawthorne to read, which may have annoyed him more than anything she could have said. Elizabeth Hoar, a woman of exalted character, to whose judgment Emerson sometimes applied for a criticism of his verses, also came sometimes; but the Old Manse was nearly a mile away from Emerson’s house, and also from what might be called the “court end” of the town. Hawthorne’s nearest neighbor was a milk-farmer named George L. Prescott, afterward Colonel of the Thirty-second Massachusetts Volunteers. He not only brought them milk, but also occasionally a bouquet culled out of his own fine nature, as a tribute to genius. A slightly educated man, he was nevertheless one of Nature’s gentlemen, and his death in Grant’s advance on Richmond was a universal cause of mourning at a time when so many brave lives were lost.

Hawthorne, as usual, was on the lookout for ghosts, and there could not have been a more suitable abode for those airy nothings, than the Old Manse. Mysterious sounds were heard in it repeatedly, especially in the nighttime, when the change of temperature produces a kind of settlement in the affairs of old woodwork. Under date of August 8 he writes in his diary:

“We have seen no apparitions as yet — but we hear strange noises, especially in the kitchen, and last night, while sitting in the parlor, we heard a thumping and pounding as of somebody at work in my study. Nay, if I mistake not (for I was half asleep), there was a sound as of some person crumpling paper in his hand in our very bedchamber. This must have been old Dr. Ripley with one of his sermons.”

Evidently he would have preferred seeing a ghost to receiving an honorary degree from Bowdoin College, and if the shade of Doctor Ripley had appeared to him in a dissolving light, like the Röntgen rays, Hawthorne would certainly have welcomed him as a kindred spirit and have expressed his pleasure at the manifestation.

Another idiosyncrasy of his, which seems like the idiom in a language, was his total indifference to distinguished persons, simply as such. It was not that he considered all men on a level, for no one recognized more clearly the profound inequalities of human nature; but he was quite as likely to take an interest in a store clerk as in a famous writer. It is not necessary to suppose that a man is a parasite of fame because he goes to a President’s reception, or wishes to meet a celebrated English lecturer. It is natural that we should desire to know how such people appear — their expression, their tone of voice, their general behavior; but Hawthorne did not care for this. At the time of which we write, Doctor Samuel G. Howe, the hero of Greek independence and the mental liberator of Laura Bridgman, was a more famous man than Emerson or Longfellow. He came to Concord with his brilliant wife, and they called at the Old Manse, where Mrs. Hawthorne received them very cordially, but they saw nothing of her husband, except a dark figure gliding through the entry with his hat over his eyes. One can only explain this by one of those fits of exceeding bashfulness that sometimes overtake supersensitive natures. School-girls just budding into womanhood often behave in a similar manner; and they are no more to be censured for it than Hawthorne — to whom it may have caused moments of poignant self-reproach in his daily reflections. But Doctor Howe was the man of all men whom Hawthorne ought to have known, and half an hour’s conversation might have made them friends for life.

George William Curtis was a remarkably brilliant young man, and gave even better promise for the future than he afterwards fulfilled — as the editor of a weekly newspaper. He was at Brook Farm with Hawthorne, and afterward followed him to Concord, but is only referred to by Hawthorne once, and then in the briefest manner. Neither has Hawthorne much to say of Emerson; but Thoreau and Ellery Channing evidently attracted his attention, for he refers to them repeatedly in his diary, and he has left the one life-like portrait of Thoreau — better than a photograph — that now exists. He surveys them both in rather a critical manner, and takes note that Thoreau is the more substantial and original of the two; and he is also rather sceptical as to Channing’s poetry, which Emerson valued at a high rate; yet he narrowly missed making a friend of Channing, with whom he afterward corresponded in a desultory way.

We should not have known of Hawthorne’s skating at Concord, but for Mrs. Hawthorne’s “Memoirs,” from which we learn that he frequently skated on the overflowed meadows, where the Lowell railway station now stands. She writes: “Wrapped in his cloak, he moved like a self-impelled Greek statue, stately and grave.” This is the manner in which we should imagine Hawthorne to have skated; but all others were a foil to her husband in the eyes of his wife. 65 He was evidently a fine skater, gliding over the ice in long sweeping curves. Emerson was also a dignified skater, but with a shorter stroke, and stopping occasionally to take breath, or look about him, as he did in his lectures. Thoreau came sometimes and performed rare glacial exploits, interesting to watch, but rather in the line of the professional acrobat. What a transfiguration of Hawthorne, to think of him skating alone amid the reflections of a brilliant winter sunset!

When winter came Emerson arranged a course of evening receptions at his house for the intellectual people of Concord, with apples and gingerbread for refreshments. Curtis attended these, and has told us how Hawthorne always sat apart with an expression on his face like a distant thunder-cloud, saying little, and not only listening to but watching the others. Curtis noticed a certain external and internal resemblance in him to Webster, who was at times a thunderous-looking person — denoting, I suppose, the electric concentration in his cranium. Emerson also watched Hawthorne, and the whole company felt his silent presence, and missed him greatly once or twice when he failed to come. Miss Elizabeth Hoar said:

“The people about Emerson, Channing, Thoreau and the rest, echo his manner so much that it is a relief to him to meet a man like Hawthorne, on whom his own personality makes no impression.” Neither did Mrs. Emerson echo her husband.

The greater a man is, intellectually, the more distinct his difference from a general type and also from other men of genius. No two personalities could be more unlike than Hawthorne and Emerson.

It would seem to be part of the irony of Fate that they should have lived on the same street, and, have been obliged to meet and speak with each other. One was like sunshine, the other shadow. Emerson was transparent, and wished to be so; he had nothing to conceal from friend or enemy. Hawthorne was simply impenetrable. Emerson was cordial and moderately sympathetic. Hawthorne was reserved, but his sympathies were as profound as the human soul itself. To study human nature as Hawthorne and Shakespeare did, and to make models of their acquaintances for works of fiction, Emerson would have considered a sin; while the evolution of sin and its effect on character was the principal study of Hawthorne’s life. One was an optimist, and the other what is sometimes unjustly called a pessimist; that is, one who looks facts in the face and sees people as they are.


While Emerson’s mind was essentially analytic, Hawthorne’s was synthetic, and, as Conway says, he did not receive the world into his intellect, but into his heart, or soul, where it was mirrored in a magical completeness. The notion that the artist requires merely an observing eye is a superficial delusion. Observation is worth little without reflection, and everything depends on the manner in which the observer deals with his facts. Emerson looked at life in order to penetrate it; Hawthorne, in order to comprehend it, and assimilate it to his own nature. The one talked heroism and the other lived it. Not but that Emerson’s life was a stoical one, but Hawthorne’s was still more so, and only his wife and children knew what a heart there was in him.

The world will never know what these two great men thought of one another. Hawthorne has left some fragmentary sentences concerning Emerson, such as, “that everlasting rejecter of all that is, and seeker for he knows not what,” and “Emerson the mystic, stretching his hand out of cloud-land in vain search for something real;” but he likes Emerson’s ingenuous way of interrogating people, “as if every man had something to give him.” However, he makes no attempt at a general estimate; although this expression should also be remembered: “Clergymen, whose creed had become like an iron band about their brows, came to Emerson to obtain relief,”— a sincere recognition of his spiritual influence.

Several witnesses have testified that Emerson had no high opinion of Hawthorne’s writing — that he preferred Reade’s “Christie Johnstone” to “The Scarlet Letter,” but Emerson never manifested much interest in art, simply for its own sake. Like Bismarck, whom he also resembled in his enormous self-confidence, he cared little for anything that had not a practical value. He read Shakespeare and Goethe, not so much for the poetry as for the “fine thoughts” he found in them. George Bradford stated more than once that Emerson showed little interest in the pictorial art; and after walking through the sculpture-gallery of the Vatican, he remarked that the statues seemed to him like toys. His essay on Michel Angelo is little more than a catalogue of great achievements; he recognizes the moral impressiveness of the man, but not the value of his sublime conceptions. Music, neither he nor Hawthorne cared for, for it belongs to emotional natures.

In his “Society and Solitude” Emerson has drawn a picture of Hawthorne as the lover of a hermitical life; a picture only representing that side of his character, and developed after Emerson’s fashion to an artistic extreme. “Whilst he suffered at being seen where he was, he consoled himself with the delicious thought of the inconceivable number of places where he was not,” and “He had a remorse running to despair, of his social gaucheries, and walked miles and miles to get the twitching out of his face, the starts and shrugs out of his shoulders.”


There is a touch of arrogance in this, and it merely marks the difference between the modest author of the “Essays,” and the proud, censorious Emerson of 1870; but his love of absolute statements ofttimes led him into strange contradictions, and the injustice which results from judging our fellow-mortals by an inflexible standard was the final outcome of his optimism. Hawthorne was more charitable when he remarked that without Byron’s faults we should not have had his virtues; but the truth lies between the two.

There have been many instances of genius as sensitive as Hawthorne’s in various branches of art: Shelley and Southey, Schubert and Chopin, Correggio and Corot. Southey not only blushed red but blushed blue — as if the life were going out of him; and in Chopin and Correggio at least we feel that they could not have been what they were without it. Napoleon, whose nerves were like steel wires, suffered nevertheless from a peculiar kind of physical sensitiveness. He could not take medicines like other men — a small dose had a terrible effect on him — and it was much the same with respect to changes of food, climate, and the like.

What Hawthorne required was sympathetic company. Do not we all require it? The hypercritical morality of the Emersonians, especially in Concord, could not have been favorable to his mental ease and comfort. How could a man in a happily married condition feel anything but repugnance to Thoreau’s idea of marriage as a necessary evil; or Alcott’s theory that eating animal food tended directly to the commission of crime?

On the first anniversary of Hawthorne’s wedding, a tragical drama was enacted in Concord, in which he was called upon to perform a subordinate part. One Miss Hunt, a school-teacher and the daughter of a Concord farmer, drowned herself in the river nearly opposite the place where Hawthorne was accustomed to bathe. The cause of her suicide has never been adequately explained, but as she was a transcendentalist, or considered herself so, there were those who believed that in some occult way that was the occasion of it. However, as one of her sisters afterward followed her example, it would seem more likely to have come from the development of some family trait. She was seen walking upon the bank for a long time, before she took the final plunge; but the catastrophe was not discovered until near evening.

Ellery Channing came with a man named Buttrick to borrow Hawthorne’s boat for the search, and Hawthorne went with them. As it happened, they were the ones who found the corpse, and Hawthorne’s account in his diary of its recovery is a terribly accurate description — softened down and poetized in the rewritten statement of “The Blithedale Romance.” There is in fact no description of a death in Homer or Shakespeare so appalling as this literal transcript of the veritable fact.


What concerns us here, however, are the comments he set down on the dolorous event. Concerning her appearance, he says:

“If she could have foreseen while she stood, at five o’clock that morning on the bank of the river, how her maiden corpse would have looked eighteen hours afterwards, and how coarse men would strive with hand and foot to reduce it to a decent aspect, and all in vain — it would surely have saved her from the deed.”

And again:

“I suppose one friend would have saved her; but she died for want of sympathy — a severe penalty for having cultivated and refined herself out of the sphere of her natural connections.”

The first remark has often been misunderstood. It is not the vanity of women, which is after all only a reflection (or the reflective consequence) of the admiration of man, which Hawthorne intends, but that delicacy of feeling which Nature requires of woman for her own protection; and he may not have been far wrong in supposing that if Miss Hunt had foreseen the exact consequences of her fatal act she would not have committed it. Hawthorne’s remark that her death was a consequence of having refined and cultivated herself beyond the reach of her relatives, seems a rather hard judgment. The latter often happens in American life, and although it commonly results in more or less family discord, are we to condemn it for that reason? If she died as Hawthorne imagines, from the lack of intellectual sympathy, we may well inquire if there was no one in Concord who might have given aid and encouragement to this young aspiring soul.

“Take her up tenderly;
Lift her with care,
Fashioned so slenderly,
Young and so fair.”

65 “Memories of Hawthorne,” 52.

66 “Sketches from Concord and Appledore.”

67 “Society and Solitude,” 4, 5.

68 J. Hawthorne, i. 300.

And one is also tempted to add:

“Alas! for the rarity
Of Christian charity.”

Hawthorne’s earthly paradise only endured until the autumn of 1843. When cool weather arrived, want and care came also. On November 26 he wrote to George S. Hillard:

“I wish at some leisure moment you would give yourself the trouble to call into Munroe’s book-store and inquire about the state of my ‘Twice-told Tales.’ At the last accounts (now about a year since) the sales had not been enough to pay expenses; but it may be otherwise now — else I shall be forced to consider myself a writer for posterity; or at all events not for the present generation. Surely the book was puffed enough to meet with a sale.”


The interpretation of this is that Longfellow, Hillard and Bridge could appreciate Hawthorne’s art, but the solid men of Boston (with some rare exceptions) could not. Even Webster preferred the grotesque art of Dickens to Hawthorne’s “wells of English undefiled.” Recently, one of the few surviving original copies of “Fanshawe” was sold at auction for six hundred dollars. Such is the difference between genius and celebrity.

The trouble then and now is that wealthy Americans as a class feel no genuine interest in art or literature. They do not form a true aristocracy, but a plutocracy, and are for the most part very poorly educated. It was formerly the brag of the Winthrops and Otises that they could go through college and learn their lessons in the recitation-room. Now they go to row, and play foot-ball, and after they graduate, they leave the best portion of their lives behind them. Then if they have a talent for business they become absorbed in commercial affairs; or if not, they travel from one country to another, picking up a smattering of everything, but not resting long enough in any one place for their impressions to develop and bear good fruit. They are not like the aristocratic classes of England, France and Germany, who become cultivated men and women, and serve to maintain a high standard of art and literature in those countries.

The captain of a Cunard steamship, who owned quite a library, said in 1869: “I have bought some very interesting books in New York, especially by a writer named Hawthorne, but the type and paper are so poor that they are not worth binding.” The reason why American publishers do not bring out books in such good form as foreign publishers — is that there is no demand for a first-rate article. Thus do the fine arts languish. When rich young Americans take as much interest in painting and sculpture as they do in foot-ball and yachting, we shall have our Vandycks and Murillos — if nothing better.

Discouraged with the ill success of “Fanshawe,” Hawthorne had limited himself since then to the writing of short sketches, such as would be acceptable to the magazine editors, and now that he had formed this habit, he found it difficult to escape from it. He informs us in the preface to “Mosses from an Old Manse” that he had hoped a more serious and extended plot would come to him on the banks of Concord River, but his imagination did not prove equal to the occasion. Most of the stories in “Mosses” must have been composed at Concord, but “Mrs. Bull–Frog’” and “Monsieur du Miroir” must have been written previously, for he refers to them in a letter at Brook Farm. A few were published in the Democratic Review, and others may have been elsewhere; but the proceeds he derived from them would not have supported a day-laborer, and toward the close of his second year at the Manse, Hawthorne found himself running in debt for the necessaries of life. He endured this with his usual stoical reticence, although there is nothing like debt to sicken a man’s heart — unless he be a decidedly light-minded man. Better fortune, however, was on its way to him in the shape of a political revolution.

On March 3, 1844, a daughter was born to the Hawthornes, whom they named Una, in spite of Hillard’s objection that the name was too poetic or too fanciful for the prosaic practicalities of real life. The name was an excellent one for a poet’s daughter, and did not seem out of place in Arcadian Concord. Miss Una grew up into a graceful, fair and poetic young lady — in all respects worthy of her name. She had an uncommonly fine figure, and, as often happens with first-born children, resembled her father much more than her mother. Her name also suggests the early influence of Spenser in her father’s style and mode of thought.

Soon after this fortunate event Hawthorne wrote a letter to Hillard, in which he said:

“I find it a very sober and serious kind of happiness that springs from the birth of a child. It ought not come too early in a man’s life — not till he has fully enjoyed his youth — for methinks the spirit can never be thoroughly gay and careless again, after this great event. We gain infinitely by the exchange; but we do give up something nevertheless. As for myself who have been a trifler preposterously long, I find it necessary to come out of my cloud-region, and allow myself to be woven into the sombre texture of humanity.”

It seems then that his conscience sometimes reproached him, but this only proves that his moral nature was in a healthy normal condition. There was a certain kind of indolence in him, a love of the dolce far niente, and an inclination to general inactivity which he may have inherited from his seafaring ancestors. Much better so, than to suffer from the nervous restlessness, which is the rule rather than the exception in New England life.

In the same letter he mentions having forwarded a story to Graham’s Magazine, which was accepted but not yet published after many months. He also anticipates an amelioration of his affairs from a Democratic victory in the fall elections.

Meanwhile, Horatio Bridge had been traversing the high seas in the “Cyane,” which was finally detailed to watch for slavers and to protect American commerce on the African coast. He had kept a journal of his various experiences and observations, which he sent to Hawthorne with a rather diffident interrogation as to whether it might be worth publishing. Hawthorne was decidedly of the opinion that it ought to be published — in which we cordially agree with him — and was well pleased to edit it for his friend; and, although it has now shared the fate of most of the books of its class, it is excellent reading for those who chance to find a copy of it. Bridge was a good observer, and a candid writer.

The election of 1844 was the most momentous that had yet taken place in American history. It decided the annexation of Texas, and the acquisition of California, with a coast-line on the Pacific Ocean nearly equal to that on the Atlantic; but it also brought with it an unjust war of greed and spoliation, and other evil consequences of which we are only now begining to reach the end. The slaveholders and the Democratic leaders desired Texas in order to perpetuate their control of the government, and it was precisely through this measure that they lost it — as happens so often in human affairs. It was the gold discoveries in California that upset their calculations. California would not come into the Union as a slave state. Enraged at this failure, the Southern politicians made a desperate attempt to recover lost ground, by seizing on the fertile prairies in the Northwest; but there they came into conflict with the industrial classes of the North, who fought them on their own ground and abolished slavery. Never had public injustice been followed by so swift and terrible a retribution.

In regard to the candidates of 1844, it was hardly possible to compare them. Polk possessed the ability to preside over the House of Representatives, but he did not rise above this; while Clay could be fairly compared on some points with Washington himself, and united with this a persuasive eloquence second only to Webster’s. He was practically defeated by fifteen or twenty thousand abolitionists who preferred to throw away their votes rather than to cast them for a slave-holder.

Hawthorne, in the quiet seclusion of his country home, did not realize this danger to the Republic. He only knew that his friends were victorious, and was happy in the expectation of escaping from his debts, and of providing more favorably for his little family.

69 London Athenæum, August 10, 1889.

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