Those eyes… Everyone noticed Nathaniel Hawthorne’s remarkable eyes. Richard Henry Stoddard observed that his eyes were as “unfathomable as night.” Hawthorne’s sister-inlaw said he had “wonderful eyes, like mountain lakes seeming to reflect the heavens.” In the most famous portrait of him, painted by Charles Osgood in 1840, those light-colored irises appear unnaturally clear and luminous, as if capable of piercing through walls or of peering deep within. It is not hard to imagine that Hawthorne could see things that others couldn’t. His stories delve into subconscious motivations, dark urges that were burned permanently into the American psyche starting almost two centuries before. In those early years, New England had been a network of congregations lashed together by local covenants and sacred oaths—spiritual stockades thrown up against evil to match the physical ones the citizens had built to hold out the dense and danger-filled woods.
By all accounts Nathaniel Hawthorne was extremely handsome and gifted with a melodious speaking and reading voice. He was, however, painfully shy. He fled from most visitors and spoke hardly a word in company. Yet in his inarticulate silences he still gained many admirers, even in a town full of eloquent residents, Concord, where he spent most of his writing life. Always the observer, even in the midst of society he stood far apart. As Henry James suggested, he was a collector of “specimens… with the mark in common that they are all early products of the dry New England air.”
Indeed, his pedigree was pure New England. Hawthorne’s family hailed from the infamous Salem. He was just four when his father, a ship captain, died at sea. There being no such thing as life insurance in those days, the rest of the family moved in with relatives in Salem. He attended Bowdoin College in Maine, one of a class of 38 students that included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Franklin Pierce, future president of the United States. He possessed a streak of melancholy that was arguably his most “New England” trait. After graduating from Bowdoin, he spent 12 barren years living like a ghost under the garret in the home in Salem. He rarely saw other people. He wrote little, published anonymously, doubted the quality of his work. He languished.
Nevertheless, he had good friends. By 1837, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fortunes were looking up somewhat. His college classmate, Horatio Bridge, had put up money as a guarantee towards the publication of a collection of Hawthorne’s writing called Twice Told Tales. In the fall, Hawthorne stopped in at the well-known literary salon of the Peabody family and apparently charmed Elizabeth Peabody. But it was Elizabeth’s invalid sister Sophia that he fell for. It took five more years of toil until Hawthorne had enough money to feel comfortable marrying her. Sophia brought him out of the shadows. As he wrote to her, “All that seems real about us is but the thinnest substance of a dream—till the heart is touched. That touch creates us.”
Hawthorne may have stepped somewhat out of the shadows but he did not cease to peer into them. The married couple moved to Concord, and into the Old Manse, the first sight of which he described in his introduction to Mosses from an Old Manse: “The glimmering shadows that lay half asleep between the door of the house and the public highway were a kind of spiritual medium, seen through which the edifice had not quite the aspect of belonging to the material world.”
A “manse” is a structure built to house the minister of a local church. It is not a mansion. But the Old Manse was a substantial house. A serious, somber house. It had been home Ralph Waldo Emerson‘s grandfather, who died in Vermont of swamp fever during the Revolutionary War, and later, of course, to the great transcendentalist himself. Practically in its backyard, the first shots of the Revolutionary War had been fired, at the “Bridge that Arched the Flood.” Two British soldiers had died and are buried next to the bridge. In his introduction to Mosses from an Old Manse, Hawthorne related some hearsay: The battle had moved on when a local youth who had been chopping wood as the Revolutionary War began wandered towards the bridge and came upon the soldiers. “As the young New Englander drew nigh, the other Briton raised himself painfully upon his hands and knees and gave a ghastly stare into his face. The boy— it must have been a nervous impulse, betokening a sensitive and impressible nature rather than a hardened one—uplifted his axe and dealt the wounded soldier a fierce and fatal blow on the head.” To Hawthorne, that episode had “borne more fruit” than any other story of the fight. “Oftentimes, as an intellectual and moral exercise, I have sought to follow that poor youth through his subsequent career and observe how his soul was tortured by the blood stain…” This instinct to delve into the psychological is pure Hawthorne.
For decades before the Hawthornes moved in, the Old Manse had been home to Reverend Ripley, and it is from the Ripley family that the Hawthornes rented the house. “It was awful to reflect how many sermons had been written there,” Hawthorne observed with a characteristic detachment. Despite the agreeable silence in which he passed most of the scant hours he spent with friends, Hawthorne possessed plenty of confidence when he picked up the pen. He was not shy about passing judgment or putting things bluntly. The great Emerson’s thinking he dismissed with the statement that he, Hawthorne, “sought nothing from him as a Philosopher.” In his voluminous journals, he was frank about other Concord residents. (So, too was Emerson. He wrote: “Nathaniel Hawthorne’s reputation as a writer is a very pleasing act, because his writing is not good for anything, and this is a tribute to the man.”)
Reading Hawthorne, so eloquent on the page, was different than knowing him. In person, his beauty and his presence promised much and left much unrequited. This contributes to the sense that Hawthorne existed on a different plane, one on which only Sophia was welcome, from which he descended only when necessity dictated. Sophia, always looking on the bright side of her spouse, believed that Emerson found it “refreshing… to find this perfect individual, all himself and nobody else.” Henry James called him an “aesthetic solitary.” He was “outside of everything, and an alien everywhere.”
Other writers might have been intimidated by being in the house where Emerson had written his seminal work. Hawthorne was not. He made Emerson’s study his writing room and built himself his own writing desk. With Sophia’s diamond ring, he etched on the windowpane, “Nath. Hawthorne. This is his study. 1843.” For Hawthorne and his wife, the Old Manse was a bower of wedded bliss and a secluded refuge. They were as devoted to each other as two humans could possibly be. When Hawthorne was away he pined for Sophia. Whenever Sophia wrote about her husband, she did so in the most respectful, even laudatory of terms.
Emerson wasn’t the only enlightened individual in Concord. Hawthorne enjoyed meeting up with the wild-spirited Thoreau, from whom he bought a boat. A poet named Ellery Channing also lived there. With him, Hawthorne boated to deserted spots on the river, kindled fires of pine cones and branches, and talked (though Channing did the lion’s share of the talking, according to Hawthorne. “The evanescent spray was Ellery’s; and his, too, the lumps of golden thought.”) Hawthorne delighted in nature, and seemed to believe in the existence of spirits. “And what was strangest, neither did our mirth seem to disturb the propriety of the solemn woods; although the hobgoblins of the old wilderness and the will-of-the-wisps that glimmered in the marshy places might have come trooping to share our table talk and have added their shrill laughter to our merriment.” Even at home in the Old Manse they had several ghosts. One “used to heave deep sighs in a particular corner of the parlor.” Another, a “domestic” ghost, “used to be heard in the kitchen at deepest midnight, grinding coffee, cooking, ironing…although no traces of any thing accomplished could be detected the next morning.”
Herman Melville wrote in an anonymous appreciation of Mosses from an Old Manse that in “spite of all the Indian-summer sunlight on the hither side of Hawthorne’s soul, the other side— like the dark half of the physical sphere—is shrouded in a blackness, ten times black…Whether Hawthorne has simply availed himself of this mystical blackness as a means to the wondrous effects he makes it to produce in his lights; or whether there really lurks in him, perhaps unknown to himself, a touch of Puritanic gloom-this I cannot altogether tell.” At the time he wrote this, Melville didn’t know much about Hawthorne (for more on their meeting see the entry on Herman Melville), but he was right on target. Hawthorne’s imaginings reflect the influence of his ancestors’ Salem brand of Puritanism, out of which arose what many consider to be his best novel, The Scarlet Letter, and after that The House of the Seven Gables.
By the time he wrote The Scarlet Letter, the Hawthornes (the two parents and three children) had been forced out of the Old Manse. The alterations that the Hawthornes had made to the house (for instance, adding a modern stove to a kitchen that had only held a pre-Revolutionary War fireplace for cooking, or etching words in the venerable old house’s windowpanes) had not endeared them to the surviving Ripleys. But that might have been forgivable if they could pay the rent. If he could have collected what he was owed for stories he’d sold, the Hawthornes would have been financially solvent. Instead, they left the Old Manse with ten dollars between them, forced into exile in the house of his family in Salem. It is there, while struggling along in what he called “the darkest hour I ever lived,” that an enterprising book publisher named James Fields made a visit to Salem to see if Hawthorne had anything to sell. Ticknor & Fields, by that time, was the publisher of Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. As the story goes, Hawthorne maintained he had nothing but finally handed him a manuscript, saying, “It is either very good or very bad—I don’t know which.” The Scarlet Letter was very good.
The titular letter was the letter “A” for “Adultery,” which in the story is first seen by a Salem crowd on the dress of the beautiful Hester Prynne as she emerges from the dimness of prison with her bastard baby in her arms. She is required to wear the A for the rest of the time she lives in the town. For years, Hester keeps the secret of who the father might be hidden from all. “Truly, friend,” one of the townsmen tells a visitor to Salem, “me thinks it must gladden your heart, after your troubles and sojourn in the wilderness, to find yourself, at length, in a land where iniquity is searched out, and punished in the sight of rulers and people, as here in our godly New England.” In his brief novel, Hawthorne lays out the case of the godly Puritans as well as that of Hester Prynne, who felt something like love, and refused, on that score, to betray her lover. As Robert Spiller noted, in this book Hawthorne “had become in ethics the total skeptic who could view calmly the paradox of human will working its own destruction.”
Ticknor & Fields were a great relief for him. The two men understood his personality and acted extremely solicitously as his agents. In fact it was Ticknor who recommended the “cheap, pleasant, and healthy” Little Red House in Lenox, Massachusetts, where the family lived from 1850-1852. There, Hawthorne wrote The House of the Seven Gables and Tanglewood Tales.
It is due to them that Hawthorne was able to muster up the money to eventually buy a house in Concord that had once belonged to the muster master during the Revolutionary War and then had been expanded by Bronson Alcott, brilliant thinker and educator, assiduous journal keeper, father of Louisa May Alcott of Little Women fame, financial failure. And what a house it was. What Alcott lacked in practicality he made up for in energy. He had made an addition to the old house by taking another house, cutting it in half, and putting one half on either side of the house.
Hawthorne described the setting of the house in a posthumously published novel, Septimius Felton. The house was located along the great Lexington road…
…along a ridgy hill that rose abruptly behind them, its brow covered with a wood, and which stretched, with one or two breaks and interruptions, into the heart of the village of Concord, the county town. It was in the side of this hill that, according to tradition, the first settlers of the village had burrowed in caverns which they had dug out for their shelter, like swallows and woodchucks. As its slope was towards the south, and its ridge and crowning woods defended them from the northern blasts and snow-drifts, it was an admirable situation for the fierce New England winter; and the temperature was milder, by several degrees, along this hill-side than on the unprotected plains, or by the river, or in any other part of Concord.
Bronson Alcott had named the residence Hillside, consciously or unconsciously recognizing the significance of the spot where the first burrows of Concord residents had been dug. Nathaniel Hawthorne re-named it The Wayside because it was situated quite close to the edge of the road. It was the first and last house he was ever to own. The Wayside is an enormous, rambling yellow structure that is rumored to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad. After serving as the home to the bestselling novelists Louisa May Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne it was bought once again in 1883 by literary folk. The new owner was, publisher Daniel Lothrop, whose wife, Margaret Sidney, wrote the “Five Little Peppers” books, which were very popular at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries and remained a favorite among parents and children for years afterward. Now part of the National Park Service but woefully underfunded, the house is, for all its literary history, undergoing a gradual, mostly unchecked senescence.
Shortly after they moved in to The Wayside, the Hawthornes were posted to Liverpool, England, where Hawthorne acted as general consul—a position he was given as thanks for writing the official biography of his friend and classmate, the recently elected President of the United States, Franklin Pierce. Upon his return six years later, he set to adding a tower to the house like the towers that they had loved during a long visit to Italy. But the graceful tower he had in mind did not much resemble the heavy structure that the native New England builders, not having had the luxury of visiting Europe, constructed.
While Hawthorne had affection for the house, perhaps it was the hillside behind it, from the top of which peaceful Concord lay spread out, that he liked the best. He wore a path up its steep side and paced its narrow peak while musing about what to write. The hill was also a way to avoid intrusions. His neighbor Bronson Alcott described him up there, “screened behind the shrubbery and disappearing like a hare into the bush when surprised.” Hawthorne once said; “This path is the only remembrance of me that will remain.” Indeed, it still exists, though houses have grown up on the other side of the hill, startlingly close as one ascends to the top.
The fact that the hill was little more than a nub (its “peak” can be reached in minutes) would have been, to Hawthorne, beside the point. His imagination was able to make of the humble hill a windswept pinnacle rising above the mist on which he was the solitary adventurer. Such a flight of fancy was not unusual for him. Out of his imagination and his Yankee background he was able to turn the New England countryside—the white steepled churches, the public roads, the tree-furred rolling hills—into settings of gothic suspense and fear.
In “The Great Carbuncle,” a “Mystery of the White Mountains” of New Hampshire, we meet a set of adventurers out in the wild hills, all drawn by a quest for a great shining red gem, visible at night even from the ocean. In a footnote that simply deepens the mystery, Hawthorne dubs the story an “Indian tradition” and adds that “Sullivan, in his History of Maine, written since the revolution, remarks, that even then the existence of the Great Carbuncle was not entirely discredited.” In Hawthorne’s tale, which took on the dimensions of a moral allegory, no one ended up with the carbuncle, although some were given a glimpse of it, one perished in the attempt and one adventurer was carried away by the Indians to be ransomed off in distant Montreal.
“What Hawthorne encountered he instinctively embroidered,” Henry James wrote, “working it over with a fine slow needle and with flowers pale, rosy or dusky, as the case might suggest.” Not only did he have the constant urge to embroider his experiences, he was a master craftsman as well, his ease with words remarkable. His writing shimmers with that light that both women and men admired in his eyes.
But eventually the pen became heavy in his hand. By the time the tower was built at The Wayside, Hawthorne was struggling at the end of a glorious career. He was sick with what was probably cancer, and sickened, too, by the Civil War. In those final years, his handsome New England face thickened and was obscured by a walrus mustache. The shadows he had flirted with all his writing life were drawing closer now than ever.
In 1863, his longtime publisher and friend, William Ticknor, brought him to Washington D.C. to try to stimulate him. But instead, Hawthorne endured the horrible experience of finding Ticknor dead in his room. With whatever strength he had, he got a train back to Concord. Finding no carriages at the station, he walked back to The Wayside, appeared like an apparition before the startled Sophia, and collapsed. “Were man to live longer on earth, the spiritual would die out of him…” Hawthorne wrote at the outset of his career in Mosses from an Old Manse. “There is a celestial something within us that requires, after a certain time, the atmosphere of heaven to preserve it from ruin.” When Hawthorne’s certain time came, he was back in New England, where he had spent so much of his celestial gift. Franklin Pierce brought the aged author on a restorative trip into the rugged beauty of New Hampshire. There, Hawthorne’s body finally gave up. With Hawthorne’s death, a psychological bridge to old New England—a “touch of Puritanic gloom,” in Melville’s words—was lost.