Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times by James R. Mellow

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Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

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.

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;...

(The entire section is 1,385 words.)