Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1385

The author of Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times, James R. Mellow, comes well suited to the task of interpreting a major American writer’s life, not only having had considerable experience as a literary critic for The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The New Republic, Commonweal, and other publications, but also having written the acclaimed biography, Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company, published in 1974. At present, he is writing a life of Hawthorne’s friend, Margaret Fuller.

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With this study of Hawthorne, Mellow focuses on things other than the growth and development of his subject’s mind, demonstrating how the writer struggled with his art and finally gained the enviable reputation he continues to enjoy. What Mellow brings forth is a vivid sense of the age in which Hawthorne wrote, a time of growth for the young Republic. He sets out to show that unlike Henry David Thoreau, with whom he is often compared, Hawthorne was a person consciously and voluntarily immersed in events of his day. No idle bystander, he helped his old friend, Franklin Pierce, run for the office of President.

Hawthorne is best known as the political appointee musing over ancient Salem, Massachusetts, docks portrayed in his novel, The Scarlet Letter. His self-portrait in the novel is that of a dissatisfied Custom House keeper at once haunted by ghosts of his ancestors and anxious to escape his dull duties. If Hawthorne became restless as Custom House director, he was happier when he took the Consul’s position in Liverpool, England. There he became an active American representative, personally intervening in disputes and rescueing hapless Americans caught in British red tape or in trouble with British authorities.

The writer’s early days were lived in the midst of increasing stress between Northern and Southern states and he, like many intellectuals of the day, was deeply bothered by the coming storm over states’ rights and slavery. In Salem and Concord, it was easier to escape the tensions of the times than it was in New York and Boston, but still news of the outside penetrated his enclosed world and that news, especially in the 1850’s, became very bad indeed.

The Northern ports were in varying states of repair, Salem being numbered among those that were in decline. Its sleepy and decaying docks allowed him a place to dream of the past and write The Scarlet Letter. Concord too, although not a port city, was quiet and, for the most part, rather dull. Its advantages were that Thoreau and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lived there and that books could be written there. Elsewhere, America was stirring, which intrigued Hawthorne. Canals and railroads were being constructed and towns were going up quickly across the Northeast and into the newly opening lands to the West. Yet, as fascinated as Hawthorne was by all the hurly-burly taking place outside of his home cities, it was not proper grist for his literary mill.

For inspiration, Hawthorne turned to reading ancient chronicles and records and to intense dreaming of days gone by. All the while, he was lovingly cared for by wife Sophia, herself a gentle intellectual who enjoyed walks in the country and long talks with her husband. Mellow does a fine job of describing the close relationship that grew between husband and wife. From him, one discovers that Sophia was not only an inspiration for some of Hawthorne’s books, but also that she alone guided him through difficult times and kept him writing. Her insistence that he keep developing as a writer paid off after The Scarlet Letter became a decent selling book. That Sophia and her husband were unusually close is very apparent. They would write diaries for each other and discuss things carefully for hours on end.

If Sophia was important, so were other people who passed in and out of Hawthorne’s life: Margaret Fuller, editor of the important journal The Dial; George Ripley, founder of the utopian colony called Brook Farm of which Hawthorne was briefly a member; Edgar Allan Poe, who was violently jealous of his fellow writer’s talent; Herman Melville, a good friend and confidant; Franklin Pierce, fourteenth President of the United States who was Hawthorne’s friend in high places; and Charles Sumner, another friend in high places, to name but a few. All of the people he came in contact with seemed to enjoy Hawthorne’s company, thus dispelling his traditional image of an ivory-tower writer.

What comes through strongest in this book is Hawthorne’s happiness. He seems happy and fulfilled and has everything worth having: a loving family, friends, a fine avocation, leisure time, travel, and enough money to live decently if not luxuriously. Mellow, like any good biographer, makes the reader aware of the humanity of his subject. One sees Hawthorne in the round, as it were: fully human, fully believable.

Also what comes through is Hawthorne’s decency and tact. He is shown doing all he can to help unfortunate friends such as Melville and tension-wracked Franklin Pierce. Friends, however, were not the only people he assisted; he aided strangers as well, especially those he helped in England. If ever a person deserved literary fame and the admiration of his fellow man, it was Hawthorne.

Somehow or other, it is difficult to reconcile Hawthorne the open, loving father, husband, and friend with the haunted creator of “Young Goodman Brown” or The House of the Seven Gables, and yet he is often caught up in visions of evil and madness. He is able to disassociate himself from his happy world and withdraw into the strange twilit world found so often in his writing. One thing Mellow does not do is explain why Hawthorne wrote about what he did. Was he really possessed by a kind of demonic spirit?

That Hawthorne turned to the past so often in his work rather than to present-day America has bothered certain critics, some of whom have felt that he neglected to capture his own time, while instead focusing on a time long gone and unknowable. From what Mellow says, he was unable to write about America in the early nineteenth century because it was simply too new, too raw, without real traditions or picturesque ruins or the requisite tragic feelings of romance. Only the earliest colonial times could furnish him with the proper setting for his tales and the appropriate far-away world of sun and blackest shadow. Witch trials were dramatic things and so were pillories and scarlet letters.

Hawthorne seems to be in love not only with family and career but also with the history of his native turf. One sees him constantly investigating his surroundings, noting leaves on the trees and their configurations as well as the contours of hills and the colors of native wild flowers. Certainly, it would be difficult to imagine Hawthorne outside of New England, for he fits so perfectly there. One sees, for instance, how deeply and profoundly his ancestors have affected him. They live again in his teeming imagination. Their sins are his sins. He feels the pain of guilt over their past deeds as well as his inability to match their more heroic exploits. His Puritan past is his stalking horse, its moral code, his to contend with, its narrow vision of earthly life, his ultimately to forsake.

For anyone interested in literary analysis, this is the wrong book, for what is discussed is the man in his times, not the kind of symbolism or theme he employed in what he wrote. Also, there is no real attempt on Mellow’s part to say that this or that person became this or that character in this or that story. One is given the chance to make one’s own decisions. Perhaps the closest the author gets to this kind of approach is when he speaks of Una, Hawthorne’s daughter, as a very close likeness of the little sprite, Pearl, in The Scarlet Letter and there are hints that Hester may be patterned after his wife.

The best reason on earth to read Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times is to get to know Hawthorne as someone other than simply a famous writer. He was, after all, a splendid human being living in an exciting time of national expansion and tension.

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