Salem Is My Dwelling Place by Edwin Haviland Miller

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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...

(The entire section is 2,301 words.)