Salem Is My Dwelling Place

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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...

(The entire section is 1954 words.)