This is a cleanly written, compelling study of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s life and work in the context of his family life. While Herbert convincingly demonstrates how his work differs from earlier criticism and biography, he generously acknowledges and discusses those sources (especially recent work on Hawthorne and on the middle class family) that have contributed to his contention that the traditional view of a Hawthorne who enjoyed an unusually peaceful and contented homelife at odds with the gloomy, unsettling themes of his fiction is to a large extent a fiction reflecting the sort of domestic ideal fostered in the nineteenth century. That fiction, Herbert argues, is sustained to this day in the face of mounting evidence that marriages such as Hawthorne’s were far more troubled than husband and wife, their friends, and scholars have admitted.
The biography is divided into four parts, beginning with Nathaniel’s mid-life crisis on the eve of the family’s departure for Europe. Then Herbert returns to the beginning of the marriage between Nathaniel and Sophia, tracing their family origins and accounting for the initial tensions in their marriage. Part 3 explores the “psychic interior” of the Hawthorne’s domestic life, culminating in the creation of THE SCARLET LETTER, which Herbert reads as a great work of literature that reveals the “joys and torments of domestic intimacy.” Part 4 comes full circle by returning to Rome, the setting for Hawthorne’s last complete novel, THE MARBLE FAUN, and for his daughter’s mental breakdown, which disabled him “in the midst of his success.”
Herbert’s book is part of the series, THE NEW HISTORICISM: STUDIES IN CULTURAL POETICS, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, the founder of a new school of literary criticism that attempts to reinterpret works of literature by recapturing the historical and cultural conditions in which they were first created.