LouAnn Gaeddert’s A New England Love Story: Nathaniel Hawthorne and Sophia Peabody is a romantic story of the wonderful love shared by Hawthorne and Peabody and how their lives converged. In addition, Gaeddert’s book gives young readers a view of an important period of American cultural history sometimes known as the American Renaissance. The great nineteenth century figures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Herman Melville, Margaret Fuller, Horace Mann, and others were all part of the same New England literary circle.
The book begins with a prologue capturing the atmosphere of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1837, about the time when Hawthorne and Peabody became aware of each other. Gaeddert imagines the delight that the ghosts of the women hanged there for witchcraft more than a century earlier would have taken in the sight of a decaying Salem. Ironically, it was this drab atmosphere that produced one of the brightest of American writers.
The first chapter, called “The Recluse of Herbert Street,” gives Hawthorne’s family history, traced back to sixteenth century England. Gaeddert recounts the familiar story of Hawthorne’s ancestor, Judge John Hawthorne, who played a central role in the Salem witch trials and whose infamous history and times influenced much of Hawthorne’s writing. This chapter touches on Hawthorne’s boyhood days, his college days at Bowdoin, and his twelve years of seclusion with his mother and sisters in the house on Herbert Street.
Chapter 2 is called “The Invalid of Charter Street” and tells the family history of Peabody, whose house was only five blocks away from Hawthorne’s. The Peabodys, like the Hawthornes, struggled financially in depressed New England. The Peabody sisters, however, became well-respected and influential figures in that area. Elizabeth was an educator, intellectual, and conversationalist. Mary, too, was an educator and contributed much to the life and work of her husband, Mann. Sophia, an artist, was a successful copyist, but she began to suffer headaches as a teenager and was pronounced by her mother to be an invalid for life.
The first two chapters of Gaeddert’s books show these two lives converging, and each chapter ends just as Hawthorne and Peabody are about to meet. Chapter 3 traces their early love and courtship period. Much of this chapter uses passages from letters, primarily letters from Hawthorne, since he burned most of Peabody’s letters to him. The fourth chapter, “Paradise,” looks at the Hawthornes’ idyllic first year of marriage as seen in many passages from their journals, especially from the journal that they kept together. Gaeddert also captures the undertone of financial insecurity that kept their existence together from being completely perfect.
Gaeddert’s last chapter is a summary of the rest of their lives. She again refers to the “witches” and hopes that they have found peace. An author’s note at the end gives sources and their location. In the middle of the book are six pages of illustrations, which are reproductions of old drawings and etchings.
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