Hawthorne in Concordby Philip McFarland
“McFarland’s book takes the prize for readability. His is an impressionistic account that could only result from sensitivity and empathy for its subject.” —David Locker, Evansville Courier & Press
To coincide with the bicentennial of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birth, this illuminating biography captures pivotal periods in the fascinating life of one of our most beloved authors.
Acclaimed historian Philip McFarland illuminates three distinct periods when Nathaniel Hawthorne lived in the bucolic village of Concord, Massachusetts.
On his wedding day in 1842, the author escorts his new wife, Sophia, to their first home, the Old Manse. There, enriched by friendships with Thoreau and Emerson, he enjoys an idyllic time. But three years later, unable to make enough money from his writing, he returns ingloriously, with his wife and infant daughter, to live in his mother’s home in Salem.
In 1853 Hawthorne moves back to Concord, now the renowned author of The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables. Eager to resume writing fiction at the scene of his earlier happiness, he assembles a biography of his college friend Franklin Pierce, who is running for president. When Pierce wins the election, Hawthorne is appointed the lucrative post of consul in Liverpool.
Coming home from Europe in 1860, as America hovers on the verge of civil war, Hawthorne settles down in Concord once more, a town brimming with abolitionist sentiment. He tries to take up writing one last time, but deteriorating health finds him withdrawing into private life. In Hawthorne in Concord, McFarland “paints a selective, complex, and ultimately enriching portrait of America’s earliest psychological novelist in his middle years” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review).
Published on the bicentennial of Hawthorne’s birth, July 4, 2004.
“Warm and vivid. McFarland provides charming glimpses of Hawthorne’s life in Concord.” —Michael Kenney, The Boston Globe
“McFarland has painted a vivid double portrait: of the great writer, and of Concord’s remarkable community of philosophers, poets, essayists, reformers, and miscellaneous intellectuals. The whole cast of luminous characters is here, their lives, loves, and comings and goings, not just as minds but as people—Emerson, Thoreau, Longfellow, Margaret Fuller, Horace Mann, the Alcotts, the Peabodies—all circling around the central figures of Hawthorne and his wife. It’s a fine, readable book of biography and cultural history.” —Bernard Bailyn, Professor of American History, emeritus, at Harvard University
“I don’t know when I have read a book as satisfying as Hawthorne in Concord. Not since Van Wyck Brooks’s The Flowering of New England has anyone else so perfectly recreated the world of the New England Renaissance.” —David Herbert Donald, Harvard historian and author of We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends
“A novel historical spin on the typical Hawthorne biography. [McFarland’s] innovative focus on Hawthorne’s years in Concord, Mass., enables him to reconsider Hawthorne’s place in the history of the town’s fascinating writers, intellectuals and reformers.” —Joel Pfister, St. Petersburg Times
“McFarland’s book takes the prize for readability. His is an impressionistic account that could only result from sensitivity and empathy for its subject.” —David Locker, Evansville Courier & Press
“In his fine historical biography, Hawthorne in Concord, . . . Lexington author Philip McFarland takes readers on a thoughtful and absorbing tour of the Concord that Nathaniel and Sophia knew. Filled with evocative scenes of social visits, long walks, family gatherings, and companionable meals, the book underscores the ties that existed between the Hawthornes and some of the most extraordinary men and women of their time. . . . McFarland chooses just enough detail to bring them to life while maintaining the spotlight on the handsome, magnetic and mercurial figure of Hawthorne.” —Lucille Stott, The Concord Journal
“A substantial, informative, and superbly presented in-depth account of the great American man of letters . . . a powerful survey of not just one man, but his entire circle.” —The Bookwatch
“McFarland paints a selective, complex, and ultimately enriching portrait of America’s earliest psychological novelist. . . . The biography’s defining premise requires jumping around and backtracking, though McFarland provides excellent historical context to solidify the gaps. . . . [Hawthorne] remains an enigmatic writer, drawn to the dark, fatal forces of the human psyche. . . as McFarland amply illustrates.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“In this pleasing biography, seasoned American history writer McFarland focuses on two elements that defined New England as the center of America’s 19th century literary world: the village of Concord, Mass. (a center for luminaries like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott), and the blue-eyed ‘recluse’ able to see ‘evil in every human heart,’ Nathaniel Hawthorne. . . . The physical precariousness of 19th-century life is also revealed, in the many examples of diseases and drownings within Hawthorne’s family and community. The writer’s meaningful friendships are well drawn, particularly with his college chum and future president, Franklin Pierce. In the end, by depicting his subject’s three sojourns in Concord, McFarland illuminates Hawthorne’s art and the intellectual ferment originating in that small, bucolic town.” —Publishers Weekly
“By contrast with his literary peers—contrasts McFarland points up in incisive recountings of several of their foibles—Hawthorne was uncranky, lovable, and . . . essentially apolitical. It would be easy to characterize him as a cool conservative among flaming liberals. McFarland does nothing so crude. Instead, he enters Hawthorne’s milieu (his prose even echoes Hawthorne’s textures, cadences, and grammar) and illumines it with intelligence and affection.” —Ray Olson, Booklist
“Many readers. . . know Hawthorne’s reputation but not the man. Philip McFarland aims at both audiences in his vivid and dramatic book, Hawthorne in Concord. . . . Although his detail and extensive notes will satisfy academics, he writes without assuming that a reader has prior familiarity with the subject. He is also admirably concise in this age of bloated biographies. . . . Provided with enough texture and emotional drama for a period novel, we find ourselves caught up in the prospects of this fascinating man whose writing was marked by so much imagination and compassion. . . . It is a tribute to McFarland’s skills that we are so moved by the inevitable end of a biography.” —Michael Sims, Bookpage
“Many books have been written about Hawthorne, but this one’s distinctive geographic focus results in an intimate portrait of both a man and his times in the 19th-century Northeast.” —Jaime Anderson, Library Journal
“Hawthorne in Concord probes, with exquisite insight, the close and intricate relations of the most gifted circle of writers America has ever had. It is a beautiful, indispensable and quietly stunning piece of work.” —Elizabeth Frank, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Louise Bogan: A Portrait
“Hawthorne in Concord is an intimate, tender, and unusually attractive account of a great American writer. Vividly rendered, the high-minded and quirky community of Concord is itself a major actor in this superb narrative. I can’t think of a more engrossing way to mark the anniversary of Hawthorne’s birth.” —Justin Kaplan, author of Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain: A Biography
Praise for Sojourners:
“[Sojourners] is sophisticated, erudite and eminently readable. It takes Irving off the shelf and makes him human.” —Alden Whitman, The Boston Globe
Praise for Philip McFarland:
“[McFarland has an] almost Faulknerian intensity . . . to make things come alive.” —R. W. B. Lewis, The New York Times
Learning to Be Happy
Wedding in Boston
Both the groom and the bride were well past the bloom of their youth. Nathaniel Hawthorne had reached his late thirties, and Sophia Peabody was already thirty-two. Nor was it that either had been married before, the bride—sickly since infancy—never having expected to marry at all. As for the groom, others had assumed that he would have found a wife long before a certain summer day in July 1842. Years earlier, a college friend had made a bet to that effect and had done so very reasonably; for not only was the gentleman in the Peabodys’ parlor this Saturday morning strikingly handsome. He was, as he himself might have put it, endowed as well “with the liveliest sensibility to feminine influence.”
Nearly two decades earlier a classmate at Bowdoin, Jonathan Cilley, had made the bet about Hawthorne’s marrying within a dozen years.
In due time Cilley had written his friend jocularly: “Bridge informs me that ‘you are about to publish a book, and are coming into repute as a writer very fast.’” This was in 1836. “I am gratified to hear it; but just now it would have pleased me more to have heard that you were about to become the author and father of a legitimate and well-begotten boy than book. What! suffer twelve years to pass away, and no wife, no children, to soothe your care, make you happy, and call you blessed. Why, in that time I have begotten sons and daughters to the number of half a dozen, more or less.”
According to their friend Horatio Bridge, during the same long interval since leaving college Hawthorne had been writing, and through such effort was soon to be the author of a book. “I did not mistake your vein in that particular,” Cilley had bantered his former classmate good-naturedly, “if I did in the line matrimonial. Damn that barrel of old Madeira; who cares if I have lost it! If only you and Frank Pierce and Joe Drummer and Sam Boyd and Bridge and Bill Hale were together with me, we would have a regular drunk, as my chum in college used to call it, on that same barrel of wine.”
The collegians, once all chums together, were widely scattered now. Indeed, one of their number by Hawthorne’s wedding morning in 1842—and he the writer of this very letter—was already four years dead. “What sort of a book have you written, Hath?” the doomed Cilley had been led to wonder before bringing his letter to an end.
The book comprised sketches and tales that had appeared anonymously in various newspapers, magazines, and annuals over most of a decade, some of them collected and published finally in 1837, the year before Jonathan Cilley, by then a member of Congress, was murdered in a duel that left his wife and those sons and daughters to the number of half a dozen husbandless, fatherless. Hawthorne would be deeply affected by the news. Meanwhile, the book, Twice-Told Tales, had been published in March 1837, leading to its author’s introduction before year’s end to the Peabody family, neighbors in his hometown of Salem, Massachusetts. A daughter in the family proved the belated choice of the handsome author for the wife who—fulfilling Cilley’s hopes—might call him blessed and soothe his cares and make him happy.
The choice would have appeared imprudent for such purposes. The bride herself had doubted the wisdom of the union; her health remained too feeble to allow her to contemplate housework, and neither she nor her suitor had the means to set up a proper domestic establishment. Might they not better remain friends, she as his “sister,” or the two of them no more than spiritual “husband” and “wife”? For his part, Hawthorne, though thoroughly in love, had nonetheless delayed for months and months telling his family of his secret engagement to Miss Peabody, who, as the summer of 1842 approached and the date was reset for their wedding, was increasingly tormented with bouts of her sometimes excruciating invalidism.
Even so, in the midst of a wet yesterday the groom had at last taken the decisive step of approaching the reverend brother of Sophia’s friend Sarah Clarke. “My dear Sir,” he had written, “Though personally a stranger to you, I am about to request of you the greatest favor which I can receive from any man. I am to be married to Miss Sophia Peabody tomorrow, and it is our mutual desire that you should perform the ceremony. Unless it should be decidedly a rainy day, a carriage will call for you at half past eleven oclock in the forenoon.”
Accordingly, the Reverend James Freeman Clarke, then in his early thirties, arrived the next morning, July 9, 1842, at West Street between Tremont and Washington, just off the Common. Much of that area, now aggressively commercial in the heart of Boston, was residential then. In one such brick home, No. 13, celebrants had been rejoicing to see the sun pierce morning clouds, so that the wedding at noon was conducted in sunlight, happily enough, although the simplest of ceremonies sparsely attended. Only members of the bride’s family were on hand, and the Reverend Mr. Clarke, of course, along with his sister Sarah as friend of Sophia’s, a servant, and one other friend. “There were present,” as the bride recorded later in her journal, “beside the family Cornelia and Sarah and the cook Bridget.”
The groom’s family did not attend. After the ceremony, the new Mr. and Mrs. Hawthorne boarded a carriage bound northwest into the countryside, toward the village of Concord some fifteen miles away. And it was a miracle. “Dear, dear Mother,” the ecstatic bride wrote back to Boston the following day, “Every step the horses took, I felt better and not in the least tired. I was not tired at the tavern and not tired when I arrived. My husband looked upon me as upon a mirage which would suddenly disappear. It seemed miraculous that I was so well.” Sophia’s health, which had caused her agony as far back in the past as her teething days, was all at once blissfully untroublesome. In her new role the bride felt wonderful—woke next morning feeling wonderful still, though hardly more so than did the groom. Hawthorne found time that same Sunday, on the first full day of married life, to inform his younger sister of what had lately transpired. “The execution took place yesterday,” he wrote Louisa at the family home in Salem. “We made a christian end, and came straight to Paradise, where we abide at this present writing. We are as happy as people can be, without making themselves ridiculous, and might be even happier; but, as a matter of taste, we choose to stop short at this point. Sophia is very well, and sends her love.”
A weekly newspaper published in the couple’s new home of Concord may help us retrieve the Hawthornes’ wedding day. Crisp on the eve of the Boston wedding, the first of the four pages of the Concord Freeman for July 8, 1842, entertains its readers with a fictional tale, as anonymous tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne had earlier entertained readers of a similar newspaper in Salem. This present story, in the column farthest left, is entitled “The Night-Shriek,” by one Charles Ollier, coolly lifted from an English periodical, Bentley’s Miscellany: culture pirated from eastward overseas. At the same time, on the same front page appears a glance at the vast West, still hardly known, with an account of how North American Indians tame wild horses and buffalo calves. Included as well on page 1 are the text of President Tyler’s veto of the Provisional Tariff Bill, dated June 29, and a report of a “dreadful Storm in Philadelphia last evening,” shared with Concord readers from Saturday’s Philadelphia Inquirer (so the newsworthy storm in those more leisurely times had raged last Friday a week ago): “The rain poured down in torrents, the lightning flashed, and the thunder pealed in the most terrific manner.”
Page 2 of the Freeman gives news of the arrival of the steamship Caledonia at Boston from Liverpool the previous Tuesday morning. The vessel had brought forty passengers and the London and Liverpool papers to June 19—three weeks old by then. From the pages of the latter, readers in Concord were to learn that the youth John Francis had been tried for high treason in London on Friday, June 17, for shooting at the queen; Francis was found guilty on two of three counts. “The prisoner, who was dreadfully affected, was sentenced in the usual form, to be hanged, drawn and quartered.” Meanwhile, people in Cork, Limerick, and Ennis had rioted because of the high price of potatoes; four to five thousand miners had been thrown out of work in Truro; and at the Cheltenham Sessions, George Jacob Holyoke had been fined 100 for giving a lecture in which he denied the existence of God.
News from nearer home appears elsewhere in the Freeman: of a robbery in Dracut, of a murder in the public square in Nashville, and of the death by lightning in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, of a lovely young woman of eighteen. Mr. Lauriat made a beautiful balloon ascension from Taft’s garden at Chelsea on Monday, descending safely in Lynn. And the Louisville Sun shares particulars of a duel, growing out of a love affair, “fought near that city between two boys of the ages of fifteen and thirteen! Upon their return home they were greeted with a sound spanking from their mothers for being out without permission—an excellent medicine for unruly children.”
The times were different from ours. On the national scene, the paper reports that Secretary of State Webster and Lord Ashburton were about to sign a treaty that would settle the border between Maine and New Brunswick. Here in Concord, meanwhile, the criminal court was keeping busy; in a flawed world that much abides. On page 3 we learn of a larceny, of assault and battery, of highway robbery, and of a barn burning for which the young perpetrator will spend three years incarcerated. A shopbreaker in Waltham can ponder four years behind bars. Sarah Anne Willson of Lowell, having concealed the death of a child, is committed to the common jail for three months. Joseph Bulgar, guilty of lascivious cohabitation in the same town, has been sentenced to a year in state prison; and for the like offense Lucy Terrier of Lowell will spend six months in the House of Correction.
Burgeoning criminality in those nearby mill towns might have been read as a sign of change. But Concord itself appeared unalterable on the Saturday afternoon that was the Hawthornes’ wedding day, a sleepy agricultural village of seventeen hundred souls with a history that reached back more than two hundred years already, back far before the birth of the Republic sixty-six years ago, back to the very settlement of New England.
Hawthorne had informed his sister in Salem that the bridal couple, having made a Christian end at their wedding, came straight to paradise. Paradise in this instance took the form of a clapboard house on the northwest edge of Concord, which Mr. and Mrs. Hawthorne laid claim to as tenants at about five on the afternoon of their wedding day. It stood, as it stands still, at the far end of a drive reaching to derelict gateposts at the public road; in view from the road were an old horse and a couple of cows munching the overgrown grass. Poplar trees lined the rutted avenue, the house at the end of the shaded path long faded from its original white to a sober grayish hue. A vegetable garden had been planted in the side yard to the left; an apple orchard was visible out back between the house and a little river a short walk away. Around the place sprawled shadows that lay glimmering between the front door and the highway, the light somehow creating an effect, it seemed to the groom, of a spot not quite belonging to the material world.
Set off in its accessible seclusion, this gray-hued paradise rose two stories to an attic under a gambrel roof. At its entrance, the wedding couple were stepping beyond the doorway into a hall that ran front to back, and into rooms filled with flowers that a neighbor had furnished in welcome. A lone servant girl was there to greet them as well: Sarah, still in her teens, whom the bride’s eldest sister in Boston had provided to assist her with the unfamiliar matrimonial responsibilities that loomed. One such early chore was the wedding dinner. But the servant couldn’t cook in that antiquated kitchen, didn’t know how. Dinner accordingly was hours late, so that the first purchase needed would be an up-to-date stove to cook on.
Yet none of that mattered. Three years before, an enamored Hawthorne had written (in the ardent language of nineteenth-century love, which seems musty now, though it was fresh enough then): “Oh, beloved, if we had but a cottage, somewhere beyond the sway of the East Wind, yet within the limits of New-England, where we could be always together, and have a place to be in—” What more could the lovers want? “Nothing—save daily bread, (or rather bread and milk; for I think I should adopt your diet) and clean white apparel every day for mine unspotted Dove. Then . . . I could not be other than good and happy, when your kiss would sanctify me at all my outgoings and incomings, and when I should rest nightly in your arms.”
The tardiness of dinner would have mattered scarcely at all that wondrous first evening, the two at last in their cottage long dreamed of, after their dinner retired at last in each other’s arms. A month later, Hawthorne would return to dwell on the joys of their first intimacy—joys derived from a different kind of feasting—as he set down words for only Sophia to read. Would that she might allow him, he wrote, to record “the ethereal dainties” that a kind heaven had furnished the bridal couple on their magical day of arrival here! “Never, surely, was such food heard of on earth.”
The Manse and Historic Concord
This new tenant would make the house where he and his wife had moved on their wedding day famous around the world. To be sure, the Old Manse, as he called it, was not really a manse at all, not a domicile that the village church had provided its minister. Rather, it was a private residence where, before the Hawthornes moved in, ministers had happened to live from the beginning. The previous owner had lived in the place for over sixty years, during which time a new kitchen had turned antique and old Dr. Ripley (not always old, it is true, as Hawthorne himself would muse about it) was “gradually getting wrinkles and gray hairs, and looking more and more the picture of winter.” Until last fall, when after having for so long reliably baptized, married, and buried the members of his Concord flock, the pastor in his nineties, his own time come, had finally left them. The Reverend Ezra Ripley had died downstairs in the front room early on Tuesday morning, September 21, 1841, by then having so long and with such anxious tenderness watched over his parishioners that he had made himself, as one who knew him noted, “universally respected and loved by the old and young.”
Now strangers had moved into the late parson’s home, secular tenants from Boston, a bridal couple. “I wish I could give a description of our house,” the groom recorded soon after his and Sophia’s arrival there, “for it really has a character of its own—which is more than can be said of most edifices in these days.” When Hawthorne had first seen the place, on a visit with his betrothed early in May, eight or nine weeks before the wedding, it had looked as it had during Dr. Ripley’s lifetime, showing the disarray and dust of sixty years of occupancy. But through busy days around the wedding, gloomy dilapidation had been transformed into what was now a comfortable modern residence. Dr. Ripley’s bedroom on the ground floor had been turned into a parlor; “and by the aid of cheerful paint and paper, a gladsome carpet, pictures and engravings, new furniture, bijouterie, and a daily supply of flowers, it has become,” according to this grateful newlywed, “one of the prettiest and pleasantest rooms in the whole world. The shade of our departed host will never haunt it,” so cheerily unecclesiastical was the renovated atmosphere.
Behind the parlor, looking out over orchard, meadow, and river, lay the bright room where husband and wife were taking their meals. We may, incidentally, see all of this still, may stand in the little room with its window facing north toward the adjoining fields, its two windows on the adjacent wall looking west over the orchard and the river at its edge. Across a hallway is the kitchen, no longer quite as it was when those nineteenth-century tenants with their new stove put it to use. But the hallway survives intact in its generous dimensions downstairs and up, “occupying more space,” as Hawthorne noted, “than is ever devoted to such a purpose, in modern times. This feature contributes to give the whole house an airy, roomy, and convenient appearance; we can breathe the freer for the sake of this broad passage-way.”
Three rooms had been fitted out upstairs. The Hawthornes’ bedroom was in front, over the parlor. Opposite, across the hall, was the guest room, containing the most presentable of Dr. Ripley’s ancient furniture. And in the rear of the house, above the dining room, was the author’s study, embellished with a bride’s touches: a vase of flowers on the bookcase, a larger bronze vase of ferns on the bureau. Then—this being Hawthorne’s house, at least for a while—“there are dark closets,” he added in completing his description of the interior, “and strange nooks and corners, where the ghosts of former occupants might hide themselves in the day time, and stalk forth, when night conceals all our sacrilegious improvements.” In truth, on many evenings during their early residence at the Manse, these present occupants heard strange noises, in the kitchen mostly, sometimes as of paper being crumpled, or felt a breeze that couldn’t be accounted for, like someone passing; “and last night my wife heard thumping and pounding, as of somebody at work in my study.”
That would have been the Reverend Dr. Ripley’s ghost, still composing sermons of which its living incarnation had written so many hundreds over a diligent lifetime. As long ago as 1780 Ezra Ripley had come into possession of this house by marrying the widow who was living here then. Phebe Bliss, herself the daughter of an earlier Concord minister, had first wed her father’s successor in the parish, so that Parson Bliss’s daughter had become first the wife of Parson Emerson, before marrying, a couple of years after that young cleric’s untimely death, the long-lived Parson Ripley. It was the Reverend William Emerson, thus, who over seventy years earlier had moved his family—the former Miss Phebe Bliss and their infant son, Billy—into the then-new home (its deed dated April 6, 1770) now occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Hawthorne.
William Emerson had come to Concord when he was twenty-one, in 1765, the year of the Stamp Act crisis. Already more than a century old at the time, Concord had been the first inland settlement in the English colonies, the first to be founded away from tidewater. At tidewater in Boston as long ago as 1635 a small group of Puritans had been given leave to start a plantation at a place that the Indians called Musketaquid, or Grassy Brook. Those early seventeenth-century settlers had accordingly lunged forth—Peter Bulkeley and Simon Willard with about twelve families—over torturous days hacking a path through the wilderness for their teams and their wives and children, in search of the spot a few miles inland on which to erect their future. From the Indians they had acquired, for hatchets, hoes, knives, and the like, “six myles of land square,” which they had renamed Concord, to acknowledge the goodwill of the transaction and the Puritans’ own continued unity of spirit. And despite severe initial hardships, those few early settlers had survived and prospered, their descendants living in concord through the seventeenth century and far into the century that followed. Thus the settlement appeared well named, undoubtedly so until the 1760s, until His Majesty’s Parliament overseas saw fit to pass the Stamp Act in 1765, the year of young William Emerson’s arrival as the new minister. Thereafter, from that fateful year forward for nearly two decades, the records of Concord are filled with defiance, breathing (in the words of a nineteenth-century student of them) “a resolute and warlike spirit, so bold from the first as hardly to admit of increase.”
From the start, then, the Reverend Mr. Emerson’s ministry had unfolded amid strife. The Stamp Act had been passed and was violently protested and repealed. The hated Townshend duties, the posting of British troops to Boston, the Massacre, the Tea Party, all accompanied the cleric’s first decade in the village. By the autumn of 1774 an extralegal Provincial Congress had met in the Concord meetinghouse. There the Congress had elected John Hancock president. Parson Emerson as chaplain opened each session with prayer, and within those same walls were heard the voices of Otis, Cushing, Dr. Warren, and Samuel Adams. Having adopted measures for the colony’s defense against English encroachments on its liberties, the Congress would meet here again the following spring, its activities and the town’s provoking Governor Gage back in Boston to send forth spies to determine Concord’s vulnerability to a military strike.
For, in addition to entertaining the Congress, citizens of this New England village had been mustering and drilling militia and accumulating military stores: bell tents, lead balls, field pieces. Concord was a shire town, its location central in the west country with good roads in and out. Besides, almost all of its citizens appeared vigorously opposed to the policies of His Majesty’s government. Thus stern logic lay behind the role that the village was about to play in an imminent, world-shaking episode.
The action commenced in the morning of April 19, 1775, and of the many eyewitness accounts of happenings in Concord that day, the most accurate proves to have been the Reverend William Emerson’s: “This Morning between 1 & 2 O’clock we were alarmed by the ringing of ye Bell, and upon Examination found that ye Troops, to ye No. of 800, had stole their March from Boston in Boats and Barges from ye Bottom of ye Common over to a Point in Cambridge, near to Inman’s farm, & were at Lexington Meeting House, half an hour before Sunrise.” A messenger had ridden out to warn the Concord Minutemen, who, with supporters from neighboring settlements, hastened to assemble above the North Bridge. At the bridge the first English blood would be spilled, as redcoats were fired on and fell, survivors fleeing in panic back to the clamorous center of the village. Suddenly Britain’s vaunted army was in retreat, following the road out of Concord under patriot fire for fifteen terrifying miles toward the distant safety of Charlestown, which weary remnants of His Majesty’s forces reached only as nighttime was falling.
Thus this earliest inland village took its place in history. In Hawthorne’s time the old North Bridge had been washed away, but its western abutment could be seen still; and near there, after a protracted delay, a grateful progeny had at last erected, in 1836, a monument to commemorate the historic clash: a shaft carved from a granite boulder found within the original “six myles of land square” that had been purchased two centuries earlier from the Indians. On property that the Reverend Dr. Ezra Ripley had given the town, the shaft was dedicated on July 4, 1837, in a ceremony where Concord’s leading citizen, Squire Samuel Hoar, delivered a thrilling address that was said to awaken the true patriotic spirit, and a choir sang to the tune of “Old Hundred” words that another villager, the patriot Reverend William Emerson’s grandson, had written for the occasion:
By the rude bridge that arched the flood, Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled;Here once the embattled farmers stood And fired the shot heard round the world.
Five years later, Nathaniel Hawthorne in the Old Manse might lift his eyes and gaze through his study window down upon that plain granite obelisk at the river’s edge.
Concord’s Reverend William Emerson had exulted in the rousing times that followed upon the skirmish at the bridge on the edge of his village. In June 1775 the colonists fought bravely at Bunker Hill; in early July General Washington reached Cambridge to take command of the Continental forces; and on the 11th, “Breakfast with General Washington and General Lee at Headquarters this morning,” Emerson wrote in his diary. “Tarried this week in the Army as Chaplain.” For this was a fighting parson, not inclined to linger in the vestry when he could be out among his congregants leading, inspiring. Thus, a year later, after the Congress in Philadelphia had issued the Declaration of Independence, Emerson bade a hasty farewell to his family, leaving them behind in the Manse while he set out to serve as chaplain with colonial forces at Ticonderoga.
But Chaplain Emerson had hardly reached that outpost on Lake Champlain before he came down with a mongrel fever that soon forced him to seek release from his new duties. Reluctantly he was obliged to mount his horse once more, to retrace the long path across Vermont toward his distant home. He got as far as Rutland, five days after his discharge, and could go no farther. He was thirty-three years old. From the residence of the local minister, who had taken him in, Emerson wrote his wife a last time to tell her that he was on his way, although very uncertain of arriving. Thereafter for nearly a month he lingered moribund in a stranger’s house before dying finally on a Sunday morning, October 20, 1776. Among Chaplain Emerson’s last words were these, written to his wife:
“My dear, strive for Patience, let not a murmuring Thought, and sure not a murmuring Word drop from your Lips. Pray against Anxiety—don’t distrust God’s making Provision for You. He will take care of You and by Ways you could not think of.”
How God provided for Phebe Emerson was through the agency of the new young pastor whom Concord called to succeed its departed minister. Young Ezra Ripley came to the village in 1778, two years after his predecessor’s death, and two years later married the widow and moved into her house. Phebe Bliss Emerson became Phebe Bliss Emerson Ripley, the couple living out their years together in the Manse that was later to be the bridal home of Mr. and Mrs. Nathaniel Hawthorne.
It was Chaplain Emerson’s grandson, the son of the Revolutionary parson’s eldest child, Billy, who had urged the Hawthornes to settle in Concord. Billy had grown up to become another Reverend William Emerson, beginning his own ministry in the village of Harvard before being called, as the century turned, to the pastorate of Boston’s First Church. There this second William Emerson served until his death in his early forties, in 1811. Ralph Waldo Emerson was two weeks shy of eight when his father died.
Waldo (as the young man chose to be called from his college years onward) had been born thus in Boston, like his four brothers, and like three of them he took a degree from Harvard College. After briefly teaching school, Waldo Emerson in his turn entered the ministry, in January 1829 becoming junior pastor at Boston’s Second Church. But young Emerson grew uncomfortable in his clerical role. In September 1832, he preached a final sermon to his congregation and resigned from his pastorate. His adored young wife had died of tuberculosis a year and a half earlier, after less than eighteen months of marriage. In dismay, in poor health himself, shattered and adrift, Waldo Emerson on Christmas Day 1832 set sail for Europe.
The voyage cured him of his illness; and the travels that followed, through Italy, France, and England, lifted the young American’s spirits as they introduced him to stimulating European company. In the fall of 1833, a rejuvenated Emerson embarked for home, and in the next year or two he would make a career of sorts lecturing in Boston on such topics as Water, and The Naturalist, and The Uses of Natural History.
Emerson’s mother all this while had remained close to her departed husband’s mother, Phebe Emerson Ripley, as well as to Dr. Ezra Ripley of Concord. In the autumn of 1834, that sociable village parson invited the widower Waldo and his mother, who had been living in various temporary homes in and around Boston, to reside with the Ripleys in Concord.
Accordingly, in October the two moved in, remaining in the Manse as guests of Emerson’s grandmother and stepgrandfather for most of a year. During the stay, in the same upstairs room that Hawthorne would later choose for his study, Emerson was to draft and refine Nature, a little book of some ninety pages containing the kernel of ideas that would mark their author as the most compelling American thinker of his age.
Before long, in 1835, Emerson would purchase a home in Concord, on the other side of the village from the Manse. Settled for good with his second wife, he proceeded to assemble around him a little society of like-minded friends as neighbors: poets, thinkers, conversationalists. Some came on their own, drawn by the growing fame of the author of Nature; others Emerson encouraged to come. As for the Hawthornes, although he hardly knew Mrs. Hawthorne’s husband, he was well acquainted with the family of the bride; so that when Emerson’s stepgrandfather died and the Ripley home was left standing empty, Miss Peabody and Mr. Hawthorne were urged to consider starting their married life there. The two rode out from Boston to Concord to look at the parsonage in the spring of 1842, and a couple of months later, on their wedding day, they moved in.
With that, Mr. Emerson lost no time in getting to know his new neighbors better.
An End to Solitude
The newlyweds were both natives of Salem, a town on the coast north of Boston and some twenty-five miles east of Concord. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s father, a ship’s captain, had died of fever in South America in 1808, when his only son and namesake was not yet four. The captain’s death had left the family poorly provided for; so the Hathornes (as the name was spelled then) had moved in with maternal relatives in Salem: the Mannings, commercial people, operators of a stagecoach line. Nathaniel had been born on Independence Day 1804. His older sister, Elizabeth, or Ebe, was nearly six when her father died; his younger sister, Louisa, was three months old; and their mother, Betsey, was in her late twenties when she was widowed.
Hawthorne’s fatherless childhood appears in most respects to have been unexceptional until age nine, when he injured his leg, as his older sister recalled, while playing bat-and-ball. Nathaniel stayed out of school for more than two years, during his prolonged convalescence developing a lifelong habit of reading. He would never become a bibliophile, never owned many books and seldom read systematically. But from that early age he did read continually, often whatever came to hand, and very widely, too, with Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, Bunyan, and Scott as particular favorites.
His leg healed. In due time Hawthorne attended Bowdoin College, out on the frontiers of Maine. Back then, in 1821, the college was barely a quarter century old; but for all its newness, its curriculum was demanding. Exposed to such rigor for four years, young Hathorne graduated eighteenth in a class of thirty-eight. He had hardly been diligent, and in later life professed to regret the time he had wasted as a student. He had read what he wanted, done well at what he enjoyed—English, Latin—been regularly fined for various venial transgressions, and made some lifelong friends. Jonathan Cilley was one such. Horatio Bridge was another. Frank Pierce was a third. Those three would all leave Bowdoin after commencement and plunge into the practical business of earning a livelihood, swept up in a nation-building America that provided abundant space to exercise their considerable talents. All three friends studied law, Bridge ending by following a long career in the navy. The other two, Pierce and Cilley, stepped from the bar into politics.
As for the twenty-one-year-old Hawthorne, it was his “fortune or misfortune,” as he later wrote, “to have some slender means of supporting myself; and so, on leaving college, in 1825, instead of immediately studying a profession, I sat myself down to consider what pursuit in life I was best fit for.” A father’s career on the quarterdeck or various uncles’ in the countinghouse held no allure. “Oh that I was rich enough to live without a profession. What do you think”—he had posed the question earlier, at sixteen, to his mother—“of my becoming an Author, and relying for support upon my pen. Indeed I think the illegibility of my handwriting is very authorlike. How proud you would feel to see my works praised by the reviewers.”
Yet wealth did not lie in the path of American literature in 1825. Such literature as existed then, in a predominantly commercial and agricultural society, was regarded as matter for idle moments. Moreover, much of the literature that did exist was still being copied from the English, either directly by means of pirated texts or through imitation. True, the age had already been subjected to considerable discussion about the desirability of cultivating a genuine native literature, something nonimitative and homegrown. Hawthorne—or Hathorne as he still was; he would change the spelling of his name soon after leaving college—had, in fact, been listening at his Bowdoin commencement, on September 25, 1825, to yet another contribution to the ongoing national debate. On that festive Sunday a member of the senior class, addressing the subject “Our Native Writers,” had acknowledged the utilitarian society in which he and his fellow graduates were about to take their place. Yet the speaker discerned out there a love of the arts, if only just now emerging. What had delayed the progress of literature in America had been a lack of serious commitment to it. People bent over their plows and ledgers had no time to develop belles lettres. Even so, this New World was rich in literary materials, and in a bright future, the speaker predicted, such wealth would cause America to become “the land of song.” Meanwhile, our citizenry must support its artists, and aspiring writers (the young orator being one such) must hold “a deep and thorough conviction of the glory of their calling—an utter abandonment of everything else—and a noble self-devotion to the cause of literature.”
Did Hawthorne take such devotion with him home to Massachusetts? After commencement at Bowdoin he did go back to Salem and settled into a room under the eaves in the Manning household on Herbert Street, where his mother and sisters were living. “And year after year,” he later attempted to explain in accounting for what happened then, “I kept on considering what I was fit for, and time and my destiny decided that I was to be the writer that I am.”
Year after year turned into twelve—twelve long years after his graduation before the Salem recluse had a palpable success. The first book bearing Hawthorne’s name appeared in the spring of 1837, whereupon the author made sure that Twice-Told Tales was sent to that senior orator at Bowdoin who had articulated a need for such contributions to a budding American literature. In the intervening years the speaker, Harry Longfellow, had gone on to become a fairly well known writer himself, the author of poems and a book of travel prose. “Dear Sir,” the newly published Hawthorne wrote Longfellow from Salem on March 7, 1837: “The agent of the American Stationers Company will send you a copy of a book entitled “Twice-told Tales”—of which, as a classmate, I venture to request your acceptance. We were not, it is true, so well acquainted at college, that I can plead an absolute right to inflict my ‘twice-told’ tediousness upon you; but I have often regretted that we were not better known to each other, and have been glad of your success in literature, and in more important matters.”
Longfellow, who by then was professor of modern languages at Harvard, would accept his unexpected gift graciously and go on to praise the book in the influential North American Review. Meanwhile, Hawthorne had written his acquaintance a second, quite remarkable letter, alluding to the strange life that he had been leading since their Bowdoin days. The second letter to Longfellow, of early June, refers to the “owl’s nest” in which he had been living; for like an owl, Hawthorne wrote, “I seldom venture abroad till after dusk. By some witchcraft or other—for I really cannot assign any reasonable why and wherefore—I have been carried apart from the main current of life, and find it impossible to get back again.” Since leaving college he had been secluding himself from society, “and yet I never meant any such thing, nor dreamed what sort of life I was going to lead. I have made a captive of myself, and put me into a dungeon; and now,” Hawthorne confessed, “I cannot find the key to let myself out—and if the door were open, I should be almost afraid to come out.”
Perhaps he was exaggerating his isolation during those twelve years after Bowdoin, the fiction writer overdramatizing. Yet in late life his sister Ebe confirmed that Hawthorne’s postcollege period was different from what had preceded it. In old age she wrote that her brother had begun to withdraw into himself only after finishing college and returning to Salem, “when he felt as if he could not get away from there and yet was conscious of being utterly unlike every one else in the place.”
According to a family source, a feeling of superiority was a curse besetting the Hawthornes, even though the Hathorne name that fed the family pride had long since declined from an earlier glory. Hathornes had lived in Salem from the very beginning, the earliest of them, William Hathorne, having settled there by 1636. That earliest Hathorne had risen to prominence as the sternest of magistrates, ordering Quakers to be soundly whipped for their heresies. His son John, another pillar of the community, had participated in Salem’s notorious witchcraft trials late in the seventeenth century. But thereafter, such public spirit had eluded the Hathorne progeny, sea captains for the most part down to this present specimen, home from Bowdoin, neither mariner nor magistrate, proud, dreamy, and longing to be a writer.
In fact, both of those earliest, worthy forebears would likely have scorned this distant descendant. “No aim, that I have ever cherished, would they recognize as laudable,” Hawthorne himself would observe in introducing the greatest of the novels that he would come to write. “‘What is he?’ murmurs one gray shadow of my forefathers to the other. ‘A writer of story-books! What kind of a business in life—what mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in his day and generation—may that be? Why, the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler!’ . . . And yet, let them scorn me as they will,” the author insisted, “Strong traits of their nature have intertwined themselves with mine.”
Dedication would have been one such trait, and faith, and a deep moral sense, and commitment to a higher calling—in Hawthorne’s case, to literature. The business of being a storyteller would require all of this author’s time. When circumstances dictated that he do something else as well—work in a customhouse, say—the writing stopped. And Hawthorne must have faith, for through years and years the tangible rewards of storytelling would be meager. And the tales all that while came slowly, after much thought and musing and brooding. Stories, he would instruct an impatient editor, “grow like vegetables, and are not manufactured, like a pine table.” Meanwhile, as he awaited such growth, the author would have appeared idle in that very busy age. He would have looked like a man sitting in a room, or walking along a beach, or reading. For Hawthorne did read extensively, and in depth on the Puritan world of his ancestors, but not with obvious industry, not to take notes or fill commonplace books. Instead, he read and absorbed and, as though idle, sat and brooded until the ideas and the stories came.
Surviving notebooks reveal some of what he was musing over during twelve years of isolation in his room in Herbert Street under the eaves. Among much else, Hawthorne was thinking about those who are different from others, alienated, tormented, have secrets, must confess. He brooded on cruelty, suffering, and guilt, on decay and death, on loneliness. “A recluse, like myself, or a prisoner, to measure time by the progress of sunshine through his chamber.”
“The various guises under which Ruin makes his approaches to his victims: to the merchant, in the guise of a merchant offering speculations; to the young heir, a jolly companion; to the maiden, a sighing, sentimentalist lover.”
“There is evil in every human heart, which may remain latent, perhaps, through the whole of life; but circumstances may rouse it to activity. To imagine such circumstances. A woman, tempted to be false to her husband, apparently through mere whim—or a young man to feel an instinctive thirst for blood, and to commit murder.” Hawthorne’s early notebooks are filled with scores of such suggestive fancies, some startling, some profound, some no more consequential than a passing image (“A gush of violets along a wood-path”), many of them morbid. The morbidity would find its way into the author’s published fiction almost as though against his will.
“You are, intellectually speaking, quite a puzzle to me,” a friend wrote Hawthorne in later years. “How comes it that with so thoroughly healthy an organization as you have, you have such a taste for the morbid anatomy of the human heart, and such knowledge of it, too? I should fancy from your books that you were burdened with secret sorrow; that you had some blue chamber in your soul, into which you hardly dared to enter yourself; but when I see you, you give me the impression of a man as healthy as Adam was in Paradise.” Hawthorne worried about that contradiction himself, and strove to let more sunshine into his writing. Yet it is precisely those dark gleams of insight, so troubling to Victorian gentility, that help account for the author’s exalted literary standing these long years later, among us witnesses to horrors that antebellum America could scarcely have conceived of.
From whatever sources, and from such musings as his notebooks partially record, Hawthorne in seclusion wrote his earliest stories, anonymous tales including some of his most disturbing and provocative: “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” “Roger Malvin’s Burial,” “Young Goodman Brown,” “Wakefield,” “The Minister’s Black Veil.”
“These stories were published,” he noted later, “in Magazines and Annuals, extending over a period of ten or twelve years, and comprising the whole of the writer’s young manhood, without making (so far as he has ever been aware) the slightest impression on the public.”
Amid such neglect Horatio Bridge in Maine had all the while been encouraging his sometimes despondent college friend. Bridge did more. He offered $250 to cover the risk if a publisher would undertake a collection of the writer’s stories and sketches. On those secure terms Samuel Goodrich had been willing to move forward, with the result that Twice-Told Tales appeared in 1837. “Though not widely successful in their day and generation,” Hawthorne would later recall, “they had the effect of making me known in my own immediate vicinity; insomuch that, however reluctantly, I was compelled to come out of my owl’s nest and lionize in a small way. Thus I was gradually drawn somewhat into the world, and became pretty much like other people.”
In the spring of 1837 Hawthorne’s book had appeared, and in that same autumn the author was invited by a neighbor, Elizabeth Peabody, to pay a call on her Salem family. She would remember the call for the rest of her long life, as she treasured a subsequent occasion on a November evening when the handsome author returned. Elizabeth’s youngest sister, Sophia, invalid in her room upstairs before, now emerged. “As I said, ‘My sister Sophia—Mr Hawthorne,’ he rose and looked at her—he did not realize how intently, and afterwards, as we went on talking, she would interpose frequently a remark in her low sweet voice. Every time she did so, he looked at her with the same intentness of interest. I was struck with it, and painfully. I thought, what if he should fall in love with her; and I had heard her so often say, nothing would ever tempt her to marry, and inflict upon a husband the care of such a sufferer.”
Already strongly attracted to the handsome gentleman herself, Elizabeth may have felt pain as much for her own sake as for her youngest sister’s. And yet it does seem extraordinary that one random evening an invalid, twenty-eight at the time and resigned to spinsterhood, should have entered her parlor to discover an eligible, Apollo-like neighbor whose existence had been previously unsuspected. Scarcely less amazing is it that the private, discriminating Hawthorne should have ventured forth in Salem to find five blocks away a cultivated and loving spirit living all the while apparently “in the shadow of a seclusion,” he wrote Sophia later, “as deep as my own had been.”
In a modest way the visitor’s career had been prospering over the few months since he had emerged from his Herbert Street chamber. Cilley down in Washington had been talking him up to an editor friend, so that Hawthorne had heard last April from John Louis O’sullivan, of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, expressing interest in receiving contributions from him for generous payments. Cilley, meanwhile, was doing more than mentioning Hawthorne to editors. He was looking around for a political appointment for his friend that would provide an income with free time to continue writing. But a fateful duel intervened before Jonathan Cilley was able to find a government post for his college mate. It was left then to Elizabeth Peabody, equally determined to help, to inveigle from the collector of the port back in Massachusetts a position for Hawthorne in the Boston customhouse. Thus in 1839 the author was set to work earning a livelihood from the city wharves, measuring cargoes of coal and salt. Bound to those labors, he would find neither time nor inclination to write more tales. What Hawthorne did write in the years after meeting Elizabeth’s youngest sister were love letters. Over a hundred of them have survived.
The earliest of Hawthorne’s letters to Sophia Peabody dates from March 6, 1839. In it he assures his Sophie that her words are providing spiritual food to nourish him on the squalid docks of Boston. Hawthorne’s spirituality is not to be taken as opposed to materialism—matter versus spirit—but rather as meaning beyond matter, as an intensification and heightened consciousness of what behind the changing surfaces of life is real. “All the world hereabouts,” he would write, “seems dull and drowsy—a vision, but without any spirituality—and I, likewise an unspiritual shadow, struggle vainly to catch hold of something real. Thou art my reality, and nothing else is real for me, unless thou give it that golden quality by thy touch.” Matter without spirit is a corpse, a body without life. The spiritual life reaches through matter, through evanescent appearances to the reality behind, beneath, beyond: matter made instinct with spirit—brought to life. So the spirituality that Hawthorne found with his Sophia in no way denied the sexual. “Dearest,” he wrote in October 1839, their marriage still three years off, “it will be a yet untasted bliss, when, for the first time, I have you in a domicile of my own, whether it be in a hut or a palace, a splendid suite of rooms or an attic chamber. Then I shall feel as if I had brought my wife home at last. Oh, beloved, if you were here now, I do not think I could possibly let you go till morning—my arms should imprison you—I would not be content, unless you nestled into my very heart.”
His beloved was Hawthorne’s peace and happiness. She had waked him from a dream into reality. She was his Dove, his holy spirit who had fashioned light out of darkness. “Indeed, we are but shadows,” he told her; “we are not endowed with real life, and all that seems most real about us is but the thinnest substance of a dream—till the heart is touched. That touch creates us . . . thereby we are beings of reality, and inheritors of eternity. Now, dearest, dost thou comprehend what thou hast done for me?”
The lovers may have become secretly engaged as early as January 1839, although they were not married until three and a half years later. Much stood in the way of an impoverished storyteller’s alliance with an impoverished invalid. But at last from West Street in Boston Sophia was writing ecstatically to a Salem friend in her final days unmarried: “Mr. Hawthorne has been here, looking like the angel of the Apocalypse, so powerful and gentle. It seems as if I were realizing the dreams of the poets in my own person.” By that time Emerson had offered the couple his late step-grandfather’s empty residence, which they had resolved to rent. “The agent of Heaven in this Concord plan,” Sophia explained to her friend Mary Foote, “was Elizabeth Hoar, a fit minister on such an errand, for minister means angel of God. Her interest has been very great in every detail.”
Four days later, on Saturday, July 9, 1842, the Concord plan came to fruition. Nathaniel Hawthorne and Sophia Peabody were joined in wedlock and rode off from Boston to spend their first night together, in the Old Manse that Elizabeth Hoar had filled with flowers.