Salem Is My Dwelling Place

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 347

Hawthorne has attracted a large number of biographies because he was an intensely private person. Because Hawthorne, his friends, and his family cooperated so well to keep his private life private, biographers are forced to combine the public record with inferences based on indirect materials. Miller’s contribution to Hawthorne biography...

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Hawthorne has attracted a large number of biographies because he was an intensely private person. Because Hawthorne, his friends, and his family cooperated so well to keep his private life private, biographers are forced to combine the public record with inferences based on indirect materials. Miller’s contribution to Hawthorne biography is to focus on the portrait that seems to emerge from the existing correspondence among friends and members of the Hawthorne family. Combining this perspective with consideration of the places Hawthorne knew as well as with his fiction and his carefully expurgated journals and private writings, Miller fills in the portrait of one of America’s first great writers.

Miller’s Hawthorne is a shy and insecure artist, a combination of the main characters in two of his more important stories, “The Gentle Boy” and “The Artist of the Beautiful.” Having lost his father when he was five, Hawthorne and his mother and sisters became dependents in his mother’s family. The tensions this fate produced governed his life, making him feel always an outsider, always on the edge of poverty, always in need of concealing a tender inner self behind masks and veils, never really at home. Though he lived in Salem, Massachusetts for much of his life, he never felt at home there, not only because of his own insecurities but also because of his young, practical-minded nation’s ambivalence toward artists.

Though Hawthorne is its central character, Miller’s readable biography is notable for its portraits of others, especially Hawthorne’s wife, Sophia Peabody, and their children. Also interesting are Miller’s examinations at Hawthorne’s acquaintances with fellow artists, such as Herman Melville.

Sources for Further Study

American History Illustrated. XXVII, July, 1992, p. 18.

Locus. XXVIII, March, 1992, p. 37.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. December 22, 1991, p. 1.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, February 16, 1992, p. 14.

The New Yorker. LXVIII, September 28, 1992, p. 114.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII. November 15, 1991, p. 55.

Studies in Short Fiction. XXIX. Spring, 1992, p. 232.

The Times Literary Supplement. May 22, 1992, p. 16.

University Press Book News. IV, March, 1992, p. 40.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, February 2, 1992, p. 11.

Salem Is My Dwelling Place

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1954

Salem Is My Dwelling Place is an informative and readable biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne, as part of the first generation of American authors to make its mark on the literary scene, was acquainted with many of its members. Although he did not know Edgar Allan Poe well, he knew of him, and he formed acquaintances and friendships with the Concord authors: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, and other less well-known literati. He was a friend and inspiration to Herman Melville. He attended Bowdoin College with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Franklin Pierce and became the latter’s biographer, sustaining a friendship that led to his eventual appointment as U.S. consul in Liverpool.

Although much has been written about this generation of writers, several of them remain enigmatic and, therefore, challenging to the biographer. Hawthorne may be the most challenging because he was so deliberately reticent. Biographer Edwin Haviland Miller reflects that “Biography, like autobiography, is of necessity a fiction.” In the case of Hawthorne, this is more than a mere commonplace about the difficulty of capturing reality in narrative, for Hawthorne is an especially evasive subject. Hawthorne believed, partly as a result of studying himself, that the human character finally cannot be known; indeed, to try to know a person fully is a kind of unholy invasion of a sacred privacy. During his lifetime, Hawthorne formed friendships almost exclusively with people who would later guard his privacy with virtually absolute loyalty. He and Sophia Peabody, his wife, carefully edited his journals and destroyed his private correspondence so that his life would be revealed only in works he had chosen to show the outside world. Therefore, portraying the “real” Hawthorne who stands behind the masks and veils of his works is very difficult. It is therefore not surprising that Hawthorne appears in Miller’s biography as an excessively private man, reluctant to reveal himself fully even to his dearest friends, a wearer of masks to hide a tender and insecure inner self. It also is not surprising that Miller’s is at least the ninth major biographical study to appear in the twentieth century.

Miller’s portrait centers on Hawthorne’s personal and family relationships, drawing largely on inferences from his stories connected with evidence from surviving correspondence, especially Sophia’s with her family and friends. Miller locates central themes of Hawthorne’s inner life that seem to emerge in his childhood, elaborates on how these themes appear in what is known of his relationships, and then traces them into his fiction. Although Hawthorne is the central character, Miller presents detailed portraits of others, especially Hawthorne’s wife and their children. Miller also details Hawthorne’s acquaintances with contemporaries such as Herman Melville and Margaret Fuller.

Like Melville and Poe, Hawthorne lost his father when he was a child, but his family situation thereafter was rather different from those of his two contemporaries. The fairly prosperous Manning family took in their daughter, Captain Nathaniel Hathorne’s widow, along with her three children and provided for the family conscientiously. In Miller’s view, however, this care was not suited ideally to Hawthorne’s needs. Nathaniel was extraordinarily sensitive, imaginative, and intelligent, and he grew to be exceptionally handsome as well. Perhaps more than most children, he needed a stable and affectionate family in order to flourish happily. He saw little of his father before Captain Hathorne died, and he apparently formed no close relationship with any father figure in the Manning family, though he was looked after by several uncles, including Robert, who shared his bed with Nathaniel for a while. Nathaniel’s mother was not demonstrative in her affection, so Hawthorne received the most attention from his sisters, who idolized him.

Miller sees inner divisions and secret desires pervading Hawthorne’s life and fiction, and he locates their sources in Hawthorne’s childhood experiences of loss and death, ambiguous and uncertain affection, and longing for family stability. One main result is Hawthorne’s lifetime effort to occupy middle positions, between romantic artistic aspiration and practical self-interest, between conservative middle-class respectability and wilder play among the more disreputable working classes (and their democratic politics), and between skepticism and faith: “With more than a little of Montaigne’s skepticism but with qualified faith, at least some of the time, in amelioration Hawthorne, as observer always rather than participant, huddled in the middle way, saying neither yea nor nay.” From this position of studied neutrality, Hawthorne observed life and character carefully and constructed fiction in which versions of himself acted out complex and provocative scenarios, many of which seem to reveal Hawthorne in search of a father, a mother, and perhaps a brother. It is not surprising then that among the recurring themes of Hawthorne’s fiction are bad fathers, parents who fail to love their children, suffering children, forbidden sexual desire, artistic aspiration after the ideal in a materialistic world, alienation of the sensitive soul, the fascinations of evil, and the dark side of the soul. These dark fears and desires appear more clearly in his fiction than in his life, which on the whole was conventional and respectable. Although he enjoyed “slumming,” frequenting places where lower-class and disreputable people gathered and worked, he apparently did not earn a reputation for dissipation.

Miller sees two of Hawthorne’s early stories as paradigmatic, revealing the central concerns and themes that repeat throughout the fiction: “The Gentle Boy” and “The Artist of the Beautiful.” Both contain fictional self-portraits.

At the center of “The Gentle Boy” is an abandoned child, Ilbrahim. His parents are Quaker zealots, persecuted in colonial Massachusetts. Neither is willing to compromise beliefs in order to take proper responsibility for their beautiful and gentle child. They have led him on a wandering life, denying him roots in any place. His father is hanged for heresy, and his mother runs away. He is taken in by a kindly Puritan, Tobias Pearson, and his wife, who like Ilbrahim’s parents seem to have sacrificed their children to their religion, all of them having died after their migration to the New World. Ilbrahim and the Pearsons get a second chance, but the community sees Ilbrahim as an outcast, and the Pearsons are not easily able to endure the community’s attitude toward those who have rescued a child of heretics from death. Repeatedly, various characters wound the tender-hearted boy, both physically and emotionally. Finally, the boy dies unloved but believing that in the afterlife he will find his true family. Miller acknowledges that in Hawthorne’s real life he found love and friendship, valued them highly, and lived in reasonable happiness, but Hawthorne’s inner self shows most clearly in his portrait of the gentle boy. This sort of self appears in various forms from this point onward in Hawthorne’s fiction, from Pearl in The Scarlet Letter (1850) through Clifford in The House of the Seven Gables (1851), Priscilla in The Blithedale Romance (1852), and many other major and minor characters.

In “The Artist of the Beautiful” appears the sensitive artist, Owen Warland, who is trying in a hostile world to realize an internal vision of beauty. According to Miller, this ambiguous tale reveals Hawthorne’s inner doubts about himself, his abilities, and his value, uncertainties that Hawthorne never put behind him. Owen gives most of his youth to building a tiny machine, a working mechanical butterfly that, when he finally succeeds, is so perfect and so beautiful that it seems to bring the essence or spirit of nature into one’s hands, before one’s eyes for new contemplation. The difficult and often-interrupted process of creating this object forces Owen to give up the kind of life that his society values, one including marriage, children, the attainment of material security, and productive and useful contributions to the welfare—mainly material—of the community. He sees the woman he loves married to his opposite, the large, strong, rough, less intellectual but much more practically successful blacksmith. Owen’s labors are represented in the story as effeminate, private, perhaps sacrilegious, and essentially useless. His triumphant success is, for his small audience, a brief and incomprehensible pleasure. The child of his rival and his beloved soon crushes the delicate insect. This story, says Miller, reflects the complexity and ambiguity of Hawthorne’s self-conception as an artist in a very practical society and family. This sort of character, with many variations, also appears repeatedly in Hawthorne’s fiction. Examples include Arthur Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter, Clifford in The House of the Seven Gables, Miles Coverdale in The Blithedale Romance, and Kenyon in The Marble Faun (1860).

Although Hawthorne’s life did not mirror precisely that of any of his artist characters, like many of them he worked in intense privacy, thought himself to be rootless and without a permanent home, and found that he could not write while engaged in other remunerative work. He was unable to be easy in his role as an artist; he was always afraid that his culture did not value him and ultimately would abandon him to poverty in an almshouse.

Miller has arranged the biography as a loosely chronological narrative. Worked into it are chapters on each of the major publications, from Fanshawe: A Tale (1828) through the early tales and the rich decade of the 1850’s, when the four major romances appeared. There is also a chapter on the unfinished romances of the 1860’s. As he moves through the narrative, Miller provides a wealth of information about contemporary life, especially in the various Massachusetts homes in Salem, Concord, and Lenox. Miller introduces and often provides fairly extensive sketches of Hawthorne’s closer associates, such as the Peabodys, the Emersons, Thoreau, William Ellery Channing, the Alcotts, and Pierce. Singled out for extensive treatment are Margaret Fuller and Herman Melville. Fuller, who was admired greatly in the American literary world, entered Hawthorne’s life decisively at Concord in the first year of his marriage, when she cultivated his acquaintance and apparently attempted to initiate sexual relations with him as well as with Emerson and Channing. Her success seems to have been no greater than Melville’s. Miller devotes several chapters to the examination of the Hawthorne and Melville friendship, presenting evidence for Melville’s apparently at least partially declared, but unrealized, homosexual love for Hawthorne. Miller finds echoes of their crisis in The Blithedale Romance and more extensive hints in Melville’s Pierre: Or, The Ambiguities (1852) and Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876).

Of at least equal interest to the materials on Hawthorne’s acquaintances and his places of residence are the portraits of Sophia and their marriage. Sophia is described as attractive, charming, and perceptive, but also as duty driven and self-effacing. These qualities made her in many ways an ideal complement for a shy but egotistical artist, since she was eager to indulge and protect him, but they also made motherhood very difficult for her. Her children tended to resent her intrusiveness in their lives, Una especially rebelling against her overprotectiveness. The children remembered their father as the more fun-loving and pleasant companion.

Miller’s book is readable, vastly informative, and thought provoking. He offers a fine opportunity to become acquainted with the life, the works, and the period of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Sources for Further Study

American History Illustrated. XXVII, July, 1992, p. 18.

Locus. XXVIII, March, 1992, p. 37.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. December 22, 1991, p. 1.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, February 16, 1992, p. 14.

The New Yorker. LXVIII, September 28, 1992, p. 114.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII. November 15, 1991, p. 55.

Studies in Short Fiction. XXIX. Spring, 1992, p. 232.

The Times Literary Supplement. May 22, 1992, p. 16.

University Press Book News. IV, March, 1992, p. 40.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, February 2, 1992, p. 11.

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