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LITERARY AND SOCIAL ESSAYS
GEORGE WILLIAM CURTIS
_Homes of American Authors, 1854._
_Homes of American Authors, 1854._
THE WORKS OF NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE
_North American Review_, Vol. XCIX., 1864.
_Putnam’s Magazine_, Vol. VI., 1855.
THACKERAY IN AMERICA
_Putnam’s Magazine_, Vol. I., 1853.
SIR PHILIP SIDNEY
Hitherto unpublished. Written in 1857.
HARPER’S MAGAZINE, Vol. LXV., 1882.
OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES
HARPER’S MAGAZINE, Vol. LXXXIII., 1891.
Read at Ashfield, 1889. Printed by the Grolier Club, 1892.
The village of Concord, Massachusetts, lies an hour’s ride from Boston, upon the Great Northern Railway. It is one of those quiet New England towns, whose few white houses, grouped upon the plain, make but a slight impression upon the mind of the busy traveller hurrying to or from the city. As the conductor shouts “Concord!” the busy traveller has scarcely time to recall “Concord, Lexington, and Bunker Hill” before the town has vanished and he is darting through woods and fields as solitary as those he has just left in New Hampshire. Yet as it vanishes he may chance to “see” two or three spires, and as they rush behind the trees his eyes fall upon a gleaming sheet of water. It is Walden Pond–or Walden Water, as Orphic Alcott used to call it–whose virgin seclusion was a just image of that of the little village, until one afternoon, some half-dozen or more years since, a shriek, sharper than any that had rung from Walden woods since the last war-whoop of the last Indians of Musketaquid, announced to astonished Concord, drowsing in the river meadows, that the nineteenth century had overtaken it. Yet long before the material force of the age bound the town to the rest of the world, the spiritual force of a single mind in it had attracted attention to it, and made its lonely plains as dear to many widely scattered minds as the groves of the Academy or the vineyards of Vaucluse.
Except in causing the erection of the railway buildings and several dwellings near it, steam has not much changed Concord. It is yet one of the quiet country towns whose charm is incredible to all but those who, by loving it, have found it worthy of love. The shire-town of the great agricultural county of Middlesex, it is not disturbed by the feverish throb of factories, nor by any roar of inexorable toil but the few puffs of the locomotive. One day, during the autumn, it is thronged with the neighboring farmers, who hold their high festival –the annual cattle-show–there. But the calm tenor of Concord life is not varied, even on that day, by anything more exciting than fat oxen and the cud-chewing eloquence of the agricultural dinner. The population of the region is composed of sturdy, sterling men, worthy representatives of the ancestors who sowed along the Concord shores, with their seed-corn and rye, the germs of a prodigious national greatness. At intervals every day the rattle, roar, and whistle of the swift shuttle darting to and from the metropolitan heart of New England, weaving prosperity upon the land, remind those farmers in their silent fields that the great world yet wags and wrestles. And the farmer-boy–sweeping with flashing scythe through the river meadows, whose coarse grass glitters, apt for mowing, in the early June morning–pauses as the whistle dies into the distance, and, wiping his brow and whetting his blade anew, questions the country-smitten citizen, the amateur Corydon struggling with imperfect stroke behind him, of the mystic romance of city life.
The sluggish repose of the little river images the farmer-boy’s life. He bullies his oxen, and trembles at the locomotive. His wonder and fancy stretch towards the great world beyond the barn-yard and the village church as the torpid stream tends towards the ocean. The river, in fact, seems the thread upon which all the beads of that rustic life are strung–the clew to its tranquil character. If it were an impetuous stream, dashing along as if it claimed and required the career to which every American river is entitled, a career it would have. Wheels, factories, shops, traders, factory-girls, boards of directors, dreary white lines of boarding-houses, all the signs that indicate the spirit of the age, and of the American age, would arise upon its margin. Some shaven magician from State Street would run up by rail, and, from proposals, maps, schedules of stock, etc., educe a spacious factory as easily as Aladdin’s palace arose from nothing. Instead of a dreaming, pastoral poet of a village, Concord would be a rushing, whirling, bustling manufacturer of a town, like its thrifty neighbor Lowell. Many a fine equipage, flashing along city ways–many an Elizabethan-Gothic-Grecian rural retreat, in which State Street woos Pan and grows Arcadian in summer, would be reduced, in the last analysis, to the Concord mills. Yet if these broad river meadows grew factories instead of corn, they might perhaps lack another harvest, of which the poet’s thought is the sickle.
“One harvest from your field
Homeward brought the oxen strong. Another crop your acres yield,
Which I gather in a song,”
sings Emerson, and again, as the afternoon light strikes pensive across his memory, as over the fields below him:
“Knows he who tills this lonely field, To reap its scanty corn,
What mystic crops his acres yield, At midnight and at morn?”
The Concord River, upon whose winding shores the town has scattered its few houses–as if, loitering over the plain some fervent day, it had fallen asleep obedient to the slumberous spell, and had not since awakened–is a languid, shallow stream, that loiters through broad meadows, which fringe it with rushes and long grasses. Its sluggish current scarcely moves the autumn leaves showered upon it by a few maples that lean over the Assabet–as one of its branches is named. Yellow lily-buds and leathery lily-pads tessellate its surface, and the white water-lilies–pale, proud Ladies of Shalott–bare their virgin breasts to the sun in the seclusion of its distant reaches. Clustering vines of wild grape hang its wooded shores with a tapestry of the South and the Rhine. The pickerel-weed marks with blue spikes of flowers the points where small tributary brooks flow in, and along the dusky windings of those brooks cardinal-flowers with a scarlet splendor paint the tropics upon New England green. All summer long, from founts unknown, in the upper counties, from some anonymous pond or wooded hillside moist with springs, steals the gentle river through the plain, spreading at one point above the town into a little lake, called by the farmers “Fairhaven Bay”, as if all its lesser names must share the sunny significance of Concord. Then, shrinking again, alarmed at its own boldness, it dreams on towards the Merrimac and the sea.
The absence of factories has already implied its shallowness and slowness. In truth it is a very slow river, belonging much more to the Indian than to the Yankee; so much so, indeed, that until within a very few years there was an annual visit to its shores from a few sad heirs of its old masters, who pitched a group of tents in the meadows, and wove their tidy baskets and strung their beads in unsmiling silence. It was the same thing that I saw in Jerusalem among the Jews. Every Friday they repair to the remains of the old temple wall, and pray and wail, kneeling upon the pavement and kissing the stones. But that passionate Oriental regret was not more impressive than this silent homage of a waning race, who, as they beheld the unchanged river, knew that, unlike it, the last drops of their existence were gradually flowing away, and that for their tribes there shall be no ingathering.
So shallow is the stream that the amateur Corydons who embark at morning to explore its remoter shores will, not infrequently in midsummer, find their boat as suddenly tranquil and motionless as the river, having placidly grounded upon its oozy bottom. Or, returning at evening, they may lean over the edge as they lie at length in the boat, and float with the almost imperceptible current, brushing the tips of the long water-grass and reeds below them in the stream–a river jungle, in which lurk pickerel and trout–with the sensation of a bird drifting upon soft evening air over the tree-tops. No available or profitable craft navigate these waters, and animated gentlemen from the city who run up for “a mouthful of fresh air” cannot possibly detect the final cause of such a river. Yet the dreaming idler has a place on maps and a name in history.
Near the town it is crossed by three or four bridges. One is a massive structure to help the railroad over. The stern, strong pile readily betrays that it is part of good, solid stock, owned in the right quarter. Close by it is a little arched stone bridge, auxiliary to a great road leading to some vague region of the world called Acton upon guide-posts and on maps. Just beyond these bridges the river bends and forgets the railroad, but it is grateful to the graceful arch of the little stone bridge for making its curve more picturesque, and, as it muses towards the Old Manse, listlessly brushing the lilies, it wonders if Ellery Channing, who lives beyond, upon a hill-side sloping to the shore, wrote his poem of “The Bridge” to that particular one. There are two or three wooden bridges also, always combining well with the landscape, always making and suggesting pictures.
The Concord, as I said, has a name in history. Near one of the wooden bridges you turn aside from the main road, close by the Old Mause –whose mosses of mystic hue were gathered by Hawthorne, who lived there for three years–and a few steps bring you to the river and to a small monument upon its brink. It is a narrow, grassy way; not a field nor a meadow, but of that shape and character which would perplex the animated stranger from the city, who would see, also, its unfitness for a building-lot. The narrow, grassy way is the old road, which in the month of April, 1775, led to a bridge that crossed the stream at this spot. And upon the river’s margin, upon the bridge and the shore beyond, took place the sharp struggle between the Middlesex farmers and the scarlet British soldiers known in tradition as “Concord fight”. The small monument records the day and the event. When it was erected Emerson wrote the following hymn for the ceremony:
APRIL 19, 1836.
“By the rude bridge that arched the flood, Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled, Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
“The foe long since in silence slept; Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept Down the dark stream that seaward creeps.
“On this green bank, by this soft stream, We see to-day a votive stone,
That memory may their deed redeem, When, like our sires, our sons are gone.
“Spirit that made these heroes dare
To die, or leave their children free, Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and Thee.”
Close under the rough stone wall at the left, which separates it from the little grassy orchard of the Manse, is a small mound of turf and a broken stone. Grave and headstone shrink from sight amid the grass and under the wall, but they mark the earthly bed of the first victims of that first fight. A few large trees overhang the ground, which Hawthorne thinks have been planted since that day, and he says that in the river he has seen mossy timbers of the old bridge, and on the farther bank, half hidden, the crumbling stone abutments that supported it. In an old house upon the main road, nearly opposite the entrance to this grassy way, I knew a hale old woman who well remembered the gay advance of the flashing soldiers, the terrible ring and crack of fire-arms, and the panic-stricken retreat of the regulars, blackened and bloody. But the placid river has long since overborne it all. The alarm, the struggle, the retreat, are swallowed up in its supreme tranquillity. The summers of more than seventy years have obliterated every trace of the road with thick grass, which seeks to bury the graves, as earth buried the victims. Let the sweet ministry of summer avail. Let its mild iteration even sap the monument and conceal its stones as it hides the abutment in foliage; for, still on the sunny slopes, white with the May blossoming of apple-orchards, and in the broad fields, golden to the marge of the river, and tilled in security and peace, survives the imperishable remembrance of that day and its results.
The river is thus the main feature of the Concord landscape. It is surrounded by a wide plain, from which rise only three or four low hills. One is a wooded cliff over Fairhaven Bay, a mile from the town; one separates the main river from the Assabeth; and just beyond the battle-ground one rises, rich with orchards, to a fine wood which crowns it. The river meadows blend with broad, lonely fields. A wide horizon, like that of the prairie or the sea, is the grand charm of Concord. At night the stars are seen from the roads crossing the plain, as from a ship at sea. The landscape would be called tame by those who think no scenery grand but that of mountains or the sea-coast. But the wide solitude of that region is not so accounted by those who live there. To them it is rich and suggestive, as Emerson shows, by saying in the essay upon “Nature”, “My house stands in low land, with limited outlook, and on the skirt of the village. But I go with my friend to the shore of our little river, and with one stroke of the paddle I leave the village politics and personalities, yes, and the world of villages and personalities behind, and pass into a delicate realm of sunset and moonlight, too bright almost for spotted man to enter without novitiate and probation. We penetrate bodily this incredible beauty; we dip our hands in this painted element; our eyes are bathed in these lights and forms. A holiday, a villeggiatura, a royal-revel, the proudest, most heart-rejoicing festival that valor and beauty, power and taste ever decked and enjoyed, establishes itself upon the instant”. And again, as indicating where the true charm of scenery lies: “In every landscape the point to astonishment is the meeting of the sky and the earth, and that is seen from the first hillock, as well as from the top of the Alleghanies. The stars stoop down over the brownest, homeliest common, with all the spiritual magnificence which they shed on the Campagna or on the marble deserts of Egypt.” He is speaking here, of course, of the spiritual excitement of Beauty, which crops up everywhere in nature, like gold in a rich region; but the quality of the imagery indicates the character of the scenery in which the essay was written.
Concord is too far from Boston to rival in garden cultivation its neighbors, West Cambridge, Lexington, and Waltham; nor can it boast, with Brookline, Dorchester, and Cambridge, the handsome summer homes of city wealth. But it surpasses them all, perhaps, in a genuine country freshness and feeling, derived from its loneliness. If not touched by city elegance, neither is it infected by city meretriciousness; it is sweet, wholesome country. By climbing one of the hills, your eye sweeps a wide, wide landscape, until it rests upon graceful Wachuset, or, farther and mistier, Moriadnoc, the lofty outpost of New Hampshire hills. Level scenery is not tame. The ocean, the prairie, the desert, are not tame, although of monotonous surface. The gentle undulations which mark certain scenes–a rippling landscape, in which all sense of space, of breadth, and of height is lost–that is tame. It may be made beautiful by exquisite cultivation, as it often is in England and on parts of the Hudson shores, but it is, at best, rather pleasing than inspiring. For a permanent view the eye craves large and simple forms, as the body requires plain food for its best nourishment.
The town of Concord is built mainly upon one side of the river. In its centre is a large open square, shaded by fine elms. A white wooden church, in the most classical style of Yankee-Greek, stands upon the square. The Court-house is upon one of the corners. In the old Courthouse, in the days when I knew Concord, many conventions were held for humane as well as merely political objects. One summer day I especially remember, when I did not envy Athens its forum, for Emerson and William Henry Channing spoke. In the speech of both burned the sacred fire of eloquence, but in Emerson it was light, and in Channing heat.
From this square diverge four roads, like highways from a forum. One leads by the Courthouse and under stately sycamores to the Old Manse and the battle-ground, another goes directly to the river, and a third is the main avenue of the town. After passing the shops this third divides, and one branch forms a fair and noble street, spaciously and loftily arched with elms, the houses standing liberally apart, each with its garden-plot in front. The fourth avenue is the old Boston road, also dividing, at the edge of the village, into the direct route to the metropolis and the Lexington turnpike.
The house of Mr. Emerson stands opposite this junction. It is a plain, square white dwelling-house, yet it has a city air and could not be mistaken for a farm-house. A quiet merchant, you would say, unostentatious and simple, has here hidden himself from town. But a thick grove of pine and fir trees, almost brushing the two windows upon the right of the door, and occupying the space between them and the road, suggests at least a peculiar taste in the retired merchant, or hints the possibility that he may have sold his place to a poet or philosopher–or to some old East India sea-captain, perhaps, who cannot sleep without the sound of waves, and so plants pines to rustle, surf-like, against his chamber window.
The fact, strangely enough, partly supports your theory. In the year 1828 Charles Coolidge, a brother of J. Templeman Coolidge, a merchant of repute in Boston and grandson of Joseph Coolidge, a patriarchal denizen of Bowdoin Square in that city, came to Concord and built this house. Gratefully remembering the lofty horse-chestnuts which shaded the city square, and which, perhaps, first inspired him with the wish to be a nearer neighbor of woods and fields, he planted a row of them along his lot, which this year ripen their twenty-fifth harvest. With the liberal hospitality of a New England merchant he did not forget the spacious cellars of the city, and, as Mr. Emerson writes, “he built the only good cellar that had then been built in Concord”.
Mr. Emerson bought the house in the year 1835. He found it a plain, convenient, and thoroughly built country residence. An amiable neighbor of Mr. Coolidge had placed a miserable old barn irregularly upon the edge of that gentleman’s lot, which, for the sake of comeliness, he was forced to buy and set straight and smooth into a decent dependence of the mansion house. The estate, upon passing into Mr. Emerson’s hands, comprised the house, barn, and two acres of land. He has enlarged house and barn, and the two acres have grown to nine. Our author is no farmer, except as every country gentleman is, yet the kindly slope from the rear of the house to a little brook, which, passing to the calm Concord beyond, washes the edge of his land, yields him at least occasional beans and pease–or some friend, agriculturally enthusiastic and an original Brook-Farmer, experiments with guano in the garden, and produces melons and other vines with a success that relieves Brook Farm from every slur of inadequate practical genius. Mr. Emerson has shaded his originally bare land with trees, and counts near a hundred apple and pear trees in his orchard. The whole estate is quite level, inclining only towards the little brook, and is well watered and convenient.
The Orphic Alcott–or Plato Skimpole, as Aspasia called him–well known in the transcendental history of New England, designed and with his own hands erected a summer-house, which gracefully adorns the lawn, if I may so call the smooth grass-plot at the side of the house. Unhappily, this edifice promises no longer duration, not being “technically based and pointed”. This is not a strange, although a disagreeable fact, to Mr. Emerson, who has been always the most faithful and appreciative of the lovers of Mr. Alcott. It is natural that the Orphic Alcott should build graceful summer-houses. There are even people who declare that he has covered the pleasant but somewhat misty lawns of ethical speculation with a thousand such edifices, which need only to be a little more “technically based and pointed” to be quite perfect. At present they whisper, the wind blows clean through them, and no figures of flesh and blood are ever seen there, but only pallid phantoms with large, calm eyes, eating uncooked grain, out of baskets, and discoursing in a sublime shibboleth of which mortals have no key. But how could Plato Skimpole, who goes down to Hingham on the sea, in a New England January, clad only in a suit of linen, hope to build immortal summer-houses?
Mr. Emerson’s library is the room at the right of the door upon entering the house. It is a simple square room, not walled with books like the den of a literary grub, nor merely elegant like the ornamental retreat of a dilettante. The books are arranged upon plain shelves, not in architectural bookcases, and the room is hung with a few choice engravings of the greatest men. There was a fair copy of Michael Angelo’s “Fates”, which, properly enough, imparted that grave serenity to the ornament of the room which is always apparent in what is written there. It is the study of a scholar. All our author’s published writings, the essays, orations, and poems, date from this room, as much as they date from any place or moment. The villagers, indeed, fancy their philosophical contemporary affected by the novelist James’s constancy of composition. They relate, with wide eyes, that he has a huge manuscript book, in which he incessantly records the ends of thoughts, bits of observation and experience, and facts of all kinds–a kind of intellectual and scientific ragbag, into which all shreds and remnants of conversations and reminiscences of wayside reveries are incontinently thrust. This work goes on, they aver, day and night, and when he travels the rag-bag travels too, and grows more plethoric with each mile of the journey. And a story, which will one day be a tradition, is perpetuated in the village, that one night, before his wife had become completely accustomed to his habits, she awoke suddenly, and hearing him groping about the room, inquired anxiously,
“My dear, are you unwell?”
“No, my love, only an idea.”
The library is not only the study of a scholar, it is the bower of a poet. The pines lean against the windows, and to the student deeply sunk in learned lore or soaring upon the daring speculations of an intrepid philosophy, they whisper a secret beyond that of the philosopher’s stone, and sing of the springs of poetry.
The site of the house is not memorable. There is no reasonable ground to suppose that so much as an Indian wigwam ever occupied the spot; nor has Henry Thoreau, a very faithful friend of Mr. Emerson’s and of the woods and waters of his native Concord, ever found an Indian arrowhead upon the premises. Henry Thoreau’s instinct is as sure towards the facts of nature as the witch-hazel towards treasure. If every quiet country town in New England had a son who, with a lore like Selborne’s and an eye like Buffon’s, had watched and studied its landscape and history, and then published the result, as Thoreau has done, in a book as redolent of genuine and perceptive sympathy with nature as a clover-field of honey, New England would seem as poetic and beautiful as Greece. Thoreau lives in the berry pastures upon a bank over Walden Pond, and in a little house of his own building. One pleasant summer afternoon a small party of us helped him raise it–a bit of life as Arcadian as any at Brook Farm. Elsewhere in the village he turns up arrowheads abundantly, and Hawthorne mentions that Thoreau initiated him into the mystery of finding them. But neither the Indians nor nature nor Thoreau can invest the quiet residence of our author with the dignity or even the suspicion of a legend. History stops short in that direction with Charles Coolidge, Esq., and the year 1828.
There is little prospect from the house. Directly opposite a low bluff overhangs the Boston road and obstructs the view. Upon the other sides the level land stretches away. Towards Lexington it is a broad, half-marshy region, and between the brook behind and the river good farms lie upon the outskirts of the town. Pilgrims drawn to Concord by the desire of conversing with the man whose written or spoken eloquence has so profoundly charmed them, and who have placed him in some pavilion of fancy, some peculiar residence, find him in no porch of philosophy nor academic grove, but in a plain white house by the wayside, ready to entertain every comer as an ambassador from some remote Cathay of speculation whence the stars are more nearly seen. But the familiar reader of our author will not be surprised to find the “walking eye-ball” simply sheltered, and the “endless experimenter with no past at my back” housed without ornament. Such a reader will have felt the Spartan severity of this intellect, and have noticed that the realm of this imagination is rather sculpturesque than pictorial, more Greek than Italian. Therefore he will be pleased to alight at the little gate, and hear the breezy welcome of the pines and the no less cordial salutation of their owner. For if the visitor knows what he is about, he has come to this plain for bracing mountain air. These serious Concord reaches are no vale of Cashmere. Where Plato Skimpole is architect of the summer-house, you may imagine what is to be expected in the mansion itself. It is always morning within those doors. If you have nothing to say, if you are really not an envoy from some kingdom or colony of thought and cannot cast a gem upon the heaped pile, you had better pass by upon the other side. For it is the peculiarity of Emerson’s mind to be always on the alert. He eats no lotus, but for-ever quaffs the waters which engender immortal thirst.
If the memorabilia of his house could find their proper Xenophon, the want of antecedent arrowheads upon the premises would not prove very disastrous to the interest of the history. The fame of the philosopher attracts admiring friends and enthusiasts from every quarter, and the scholarly grace and urbane hospitality of the gentleman send them charmed away. Friendly foes, who altogether differ from Emerson, come to break a lance with him upon the level pastures of Concord, with all the cheerful and appreciative zeal of those who longed
“To drink delight of battle with their peers Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.”
It is not hazardous to say that the greatest questions of our day and of all days have been nowhere more amply discussed, with more poetic insight or profound conviction, than in the comely, square white house upon the edge of the Lexington turnpike. There have even been attempts at something more formal and club-like than the chance conversations of occasional guests, one of which will certainly be nowhere recorded but upon these pages.
It was in the year 1845 that a circle of persons of various ages, and differing very much in everything but sympathy, found themselves in Concord. Towards the end of the autumn Mr. Emerson suggested that they should meet every Monday evening through the winter in his library. “Monsieur Aubepine”, “Miles Coverdale”, and other phantoms, since generally known as Nathaniel Hawthorne, who then occupied the Old Manse; the inflexible Henry Thoreau, a scholastic and pastoral Orson, then living among the blackberry pastures of Walden Pond; Plato Skimpole, then sublimely meditating impossible summer-houses in a little house upon the Boston road; the enthusiastic agriculturist and Brook-Farmer already mentioned, then an inmate of Mr. Emerson’s house, who added the genial cultivation of a scholar to the amenities of the natural gentleman; a sturdy farmer neighbor, who had bravely fought his weary way through inherited embarrassments to the small success of a New England husbandman, and whose faithful wife had seven times merited well of her country; two city youths, ready for the fragments from the feast of wit and wisdom; and the host himself, composed this club. Ellery Channing, who had that winter harnessed his Pegasus to the New York _Tribune_, was a kind of corresponding member. The news of this world was to be transmitted through his eminently practical genius, as the club deemed itself competent to take charge of tidings from all other spheres.
I went, the first Monday evening, very much as Ixion may have gone to his banquet. The philosophers sat dignified and erect. There was a constrained but very amiable silence, which had the impertinence of a tacit inquiry, seeming to ask, “Who will now proceed to say the finest thing that has ever been said?” It was quite involuntary and unavoidable, for the members lacked that fluent social genius without which a club is impossible. It was a congress of oracles on the one hand, and of curious listeners upon the other. I vaguely remember that the Orphic Alcott invaded the Sahara of silence with a solemn “saying”, to which, after due pause, the honorable member for blackberry pastures responded by some keen and graphic observation; while the Olympian host, anxious that so much good material should be spun into something, beamed smiling encouragement upon all parties. But the conversation became more and more staccato. Miles Coverdale, a statue of night and silence, sat, a little removed, under a portrait of Dante, gazing imperturbably upon the group; and as he sat in the shadow, his dark hair and eyes and suit of sables made him, in that society, the black thread of mystery which he weaves into his stories, while the shifting presence of the Brook-Farmer played like heat-lightning around the room.
I recall little else but a grave eating of russet apples by the erect philosophers, and a solemn disappearance into night. The club struggled through three Monday evenings. Plato was perpetually putting apples of gold in pictures of silver; for such was the rich ore of his thoughts, coined by the deep melody of his voice. Orson charmed us with the secrets won from his interviews with Pan in the Walden woods; while Emerson, with the zeal of an engineer trying to dam wild waters, sought to bind the wide-flying embroidery of discourse into a web of clear sweet sense. But still in vain. The oracular sayings were the unalloyed saccharine element; and every chemist knows how much else goes to practical food–how much coarse, rough, woody fibre is essential. The club struggled on valiantly, discoursing celestially, eating apples, and disappearing in the dark, until the third evening it vanished altogether. But I have since known clubs of fifty times its number, whose collective genius was not more than that of either one of the Dii Majores of our Concord coterie. The fault was its too great concentration. It was not relaxation, as a club should be, but tension. Society is a play, a game, a tournament; not a battle. It is the easy grace of undress; not an intellectual full-dress parade.
I have already hinted this unbending intellectual alacrity of our author. His sport is serious–his humor is earnest. He stands like a sentinel. His look and manner and habit of thought cry “Who goes there?” and if he does not hear the countersign, he brings the intruder to a halt. It is for this surprising fidelity and integrity that his influence has been so deep and sure and permanent upon the intellectual life of the young men of New England; and of old England, too, where, in Manchester, there were regular weekly meetings at which his works were read. What he said long ago in his preface to the American edition of Carlyle’s _Miscellanies_, that they were papers which had spoken to the young men of the time “with an emphasis that hindered them from sleep”, is strikingly true of his own writings. His first slim, anonymous duodecimo, _Nature_, was as fair and fascinating to the royal young minds who met it in the course of their reading, as Egeria to Numa wandering in the grove. The essays, orations, and poems followed, developing and elaborating the same spiritual and heroic philosophy, applying it to life, history, and literature, with a vigor and richness so supreme that not only do many account him our truest philosopher, but others acknowledge him as our most characteristic poet.
It would be a curious inquiry how much and what kind of influence the placid scenery of Concord has exercised upon his mind. “I chide society, I embrace solitude,” he says; “and yet I am not so ungrateful as not to see the wise, the lovely, and the noble-minded, as from time to time they pass my gate.” It is not difficult to understand his fondness for the spot. He has been always familiar with it, always more or less a resident of the village. Born in Boston upon the spot where the Chauncey Place Church now stands, part of his youth was passed in the Old Manse, which was built by his grandfather and in which his father was born; and there he wrote _Nature_. From the magnificent admiration of ancestral England he was glad to return two years since to quiet Concord and to acres which will not yield a single arrowhead. The Swiss sigh for their mountains; but the Nubians, also, pine for their desert plains. Those who are born by the sea long annually to return and to rest their eyes upon its living horizon. Is it because the earliest impressions, made when the mind is most plastic, are most durable? or because youth is that golden age bounding the confines of memory and floating forever–an alluring mirage as we recede farther from it?
The imagination of the man who roams the solitary pastures of Concord, or floats, dreaming, down its river, will easily see its landscape upon Emerson’s pages. “That country is fairest,” he says, “which is inhabited by the noblest minds”. And although that idler upon the river may have leaned over the Mediterranean from Genoese and Neapolitan villas, or have glanced down the steep green valley of Sicilian Enna, seeking “herself the fairest flower”, or walked the shores where Cleopatra and Helen walked, yet the charm of a landscape which is felt rather than seen will be imperishable. “Travelling is a fool’s paradise,” says Emerson. But he passed its gates to learn that lesson. His writings, however, have no imported air. If there be something Oriental in his philosophy and tropical in his imagination, they have yet the strong flavor of his mother earth–the underived sweetness of the open Concord sky, and the spacious breadth of the Concord horizon.
Hawthorne has himself drawn the picture of the Old Manse in Concord. He has given to it that quiet richness of coloring which ideally belongs to an old country mansion. It seemed so fitting a residence for one who loves to explore the twilight of antiquity–and the gloomier the better–that the visitor, among the felicities of whose life was included the freedom of the Manse, could not but fancy that our author’s eyes first saw the daylight enchanted by the slumberous orchard behind the house, or tranquillized into twilight by the spacious avenue in front. The character of his imagination, and the golden gloom of its blossoming, completely harmonize with the rusty, gable-roofed old house upon the river-side, and the reader of his books would be sure that his boyhood and youth knew no other friends than the dreaming river and the melancholy meadows and drooping foliage of its vicinity.
Since the reader, however, would greatly mistake if he fancied this, in good sooth, the ancestral halls of the Hawthornes–the genuine Hawthorne-den–he will be glad to save the credit of his fancy by learning that it was here our author’s bridal tour–which commenced in Boston, then three hours away–ended, and his married life began. Here, also, his first child was born, and here those sad and silver mosses accumulated upon his fancy, from which he heaped so soft a bed for our dreaming. “Between two tall gate-posts of rough hewn stone (the gate itself having fallen from its hinges at some unknown epoch) we beheld the gray front of the old parsonage, terminating the vista of an avenue of black-ash trees.” It was a pleasant spring day in the year 1843, and as they entered the house nosegays of fresh flowers, arranged by friendly hands, welcomed them to Concord and summer.
The dark-haired man, who led his wife along the avenue that afternoon, had been recently an officer of the customs in Boston, before which he had led a solitary life in Salem. Graduated with Longfellow at Bowdoin College, in Maine, he had lived a hermit in respectable Salem, an absolute recluse even from his own family, walking out by night and writing wild tales by day, most of which were burnt in his bachelor fire, and some of which, in newspapers, magazines, and annuals, led a wandering, uncertain, and mostly unnoticed life.
Those tales among this class which were attainable he collected into a small volume, and apprizing the world that they were “twice-told”, sent them forth anew to make their own way, in the year 1841. But he piped to the world, and it did not sing. He wept to it, and it did not mourn. The book, however, as all good books do, made its way into various hearts. Yet the few penetrant minds which recognized a remarkable power and a method of strange fascination in the stories did not make the public nor influence the public mind. “I was,” he says in the last edition of these tales, “the most unknown author in America”. Full of glancing wit, of tender satire, of exquisite natural description, of subtle and strange analysis of human life, darkly passionate and weird, they yet floated unhailed barks upon the sea of publicity–unhailed, but laden and gleaming at every crevice with the true treasure of Cathay. Bancroft, then Collector in Boston, prompt to recognize and to honor talent, made the dreaming story-teller a surveyor in the custom-house, thus opening to him a new range of experience. From the society of phantoms he stepped upon Long Wharf and plumply confronted Captain Cuttle and Dirk Hatteraick. It was no less romance to our author. There is no greater error of those who are called “practical men” than the supposition that life is, or can be, other than a dream to a dreamer. Shut him up in a counting-room, barricade him with bales of merchandise, and limit his library to the ledger and cash-book and his prospect to the neighboring signs; talk “Bills receivable” and “Sundries Dr. to cash” to him forever, and you are only a very amusing or very annoying phantom to him. The merchant-prince might as well hope to make himself a poet, as the poet a practical or practicable man. He has laws to obey not at all the less stringent because men of a different temperament refuse to acknowledge them, and he is held to a loyalty quite beyond their conception.
So Captain Cuttle and Dirk Hatteraick were as pleasant figures to our author in the picture of life as any others. He went daily upon the vessels, looked and listened and learned, was a favorite of the sailors as such men always are, did his work faithfully, and, having dreamed his dream upon Long Wharf, was married and slipped up to the Old Manse and a new chapter in the romance. It opened in “the most delightful little nook of a study that ever offered its snug seclusion to a scholar”. Of the three years in the Old Manse the prelude to the _Mosses_ is the most perfect history, and of the quality of those years the _Mosses_ themselves are sufficient proof. They were mostly written in the little study, and originally published in the _Democratic Review_, then edited by Hawthorne’s friend O’Sullivan.
To the inhabitants of Concord, however, our author was as much a phantom and a fable as the old pastor of the parish, dead half a century before, and whose faded portrait in the attic was gradually rejoining its original in native dust. The gate, fallen from its hinges in a remote antiquity, was never rehung. “The wheel-track leading to the door” remained still overgrown with grass. No bold villager ever invaded the sleep of “the glimmering shadows” in the avenue. At evening no lights gleamed from the windows. Scarce once in many months did the single old knobby-faced coachman at the railroad bring a fare to “Mr. Hawthorne’s”. “_Is_ there anybody in the old house?” sobbed the old ladies in despair, imbibing tea of a livid green. That knocker, which everybody had enjoyed the right of lifting to summon the good old pastor, no temerity now dared to touch. Heavens! what if the figure in the mouldy portrait should peer, in answer, over the eaves, and shake solemnly its decaying surplice! Nay, what if the mysterious man himself should answer the summons and come to the door! It is easy to summon spirits–but if they come? Collective Concord, moving in the river meadows, embraced the better part of valor and left the knocker untouched. A cloud of romance suddenly fell out of the heaven of fancy and enveloped the Old Manse:
“In among the bearded barley
The reaper reaping late and early”
did not glance more wistfully towards the island of Shalott and its mysterious lady than the reapers of Concord rye looked at the Old Manse and wondered over its inmate.
Sometimes in the forenoon a darkly clad figure was seen in the little garden-plot putting in corn or melon seed, and gravely hoeing. It was a brief apparition. The farmer passing towards town and seeing the solitary cultivator, lost his faith in the fact and believed he had dreamed when, upon returning, he saw no sign of life, except, possibly, upon some Monday, the ghostly skirt of a shirt flapping spectrally in the distant orchard. Day dawned and darkened over the lonely house. Summer with “buds and bird-voices” came singing in from the South, and clad the old ash-trees in deeper green, the Old Manse in profounder mystery. Gorgeous autumn came to visit the story-teller in his little western study, and, departing, wept rainbows among his trees. Winter impatiently swept down the hill opposite, rifling the trees of each last clinging bit of summer, as if thrusting aside opposing barriers and determined to search the mystery. But his white robes floated around the Old Manse, ghostly as the decaying surplice of the old pastor’s portrait, and in the snowy seclusion of winter the mystery was as mysterious as ever.
Occasionally Emerson or Ellery Channing or Henry Thoreau–some poet, as once Whittier, journeying to the Merrimac, or an old Brook-Farmer who remembered Miles Coverdale with Arcadian sympathy–went down the avenue and disappeared in the house. Sometimes a close observer, had he been ambushed among the long grasses of the orchard, might have seen the host and one of his guests emerging at the back door and, sauntering to the river-side, step into the boat, and float off until they faded in the shadow. The spectacle would not have lessened the romance. If it were afternoon–one of the spectrally sunny afternoons which often bewitch that region–he would be only the more convinced that there was something inexplicable in the whole matter of this man whom nobody knew, who was never once seen at town-meeting, and concerning whom it was whispered that he did not constantly attend church all day, although he occupied the reverend parsonage of the village and had unmeasured acres of manuscript sermons in his attic, besides the nearly extinct portrait of an utterly extinct clergyman. Mrs. Radcliffe and Monk Lewis were nothing to this, and the awe-stricken observer, if he could creep safely out of the long grass, did not fail to do so quietly, fortifying his courage by remembering stories of the genial humanity of the last old pastor who inhabited the Manse, and who for fifty years was the bland and beneficent Pope of Concord. A genial, gracious old man, whose memory is yet sweet in the village, and who, wedded to the grave traditions of New England theology, believed of his young relative Waldo Emerson, as Miss Flite, touching her forehead, said of her landlord, that he was “_m_, quite _m_”, but was proud to love in him the hereditary integrity of noble ancestors.
This old gentleman–an eminent figure in the history of the Manse and in all reminiscences of Concord–partook sufficiently of mundane weaknesses to betray his mortality. Hawthorne describes him watching the battle of Concord from his study window. But when the uncertainty of that dark moment had so happily resulted, and the first battle-ground of the Revolution had become a spot of hallowed and patriotic consideration, it was a pardonable pride in the good old man to order his servant, whenever there was company, to assist him in reaping the glory due to the owner of a spot so sacred. Accordingly, when some reverend or distinguished guest sat with the pastor in his little parlor, or, of a summer evening, at the hospitable door under the trees, Jeremiah or Nicodemus, the cow-boy, would deferentially approach and inquire,
“Into what pasture shall I turn the cow tonight, sir?”
And the old gentleman would audibly reply:
“Into the battle-field, Nicodemus, into the battle-field.”
Then naturally followed wonder, inquiry, a walk in the twilight to the river-bank, the old gentleman’s story, the corresponding respect of the listening visitor, and the consequent quiet complacency and harmless satisfaction in the clergyman’s bosom. That throb of pride was the one drop of peculiar advantage which the pastor distilled from the Revolution. He could not but fancy that he had a hand in so famous a deed accomplished upon land now his own, and demeaned himself accordingly with continental dignity.
The pulpit, however, was his especial sphere. There he reigned supreme; there he exhorted, rebuked, and advised, as in the days of Mather. There he inspired that profound reverence of which he was so proud, and which induced the matrons of the village, when he was coming to make a visit, to bedizen the children in their Sunday suits, to parade the best teapot, and to offer the most capacious chair. In the pulpit he delivered everything with the pompous cadence of the elder New England clergy, and a sly joke is told at the expense of his even temper, that on one occasion, when loftily reading the hymn, he encountered a blot upon the page quite obliterating the word; but without losing the cadence, although in a very vindictive tone at the truant word, or the culprit who erased it, he finished the reading as follows:
“He sits upon His throne above,
Attending angels bless,
While Justice, Mercy, Truth–and another word which is blotted out–
Compose His princely dress.”
We linger around the Old Manse and its occupants as fondly as Hawthorne, but no more fondly than all who have been once within the influence of its spell. There glimmer in my memory a few hazy days, of a tranquil and half-pensive character, which I am conscious were passed in and around the house, and their pensiveness I know to be only that touch of twilight which inhered in the house and all its associations. Beside the few chance visitors I have named there were city friends occasionally, figures quite unknown to the village, who came preceded by the steam-shriek of the locomotive, were dropped at the gate-posts, and were seen no more. The owner was as much a vague name to me as to any one.
During Hawthorne’s first year’s residence in Concord I had driven up with some friends to an aesthetic tea at Mr. Emerson’s. It was in the winter, and a great wood-fire blazed upon the hospitable hearth. There were various men and women of note assembled, and I, who listened attentively to all the fine things that were said, was for some time scarcely aware of a man who sat upon the edge of the circle, a little withdrawn, his head slightly thrown forward upon his breast, and his bright eyes clearly burning under his black brow. As I drifted down the stream of talk, this person, who sat silent as a shadow, looked to me as Webster might have looked had he been a poet–a kind of poetic Webster. He rose and walked to the window, and stood quietly there for a long time, watching the dead white landscape. No appeal was made to him, nobody looked after him, the conversation flowed steadily on as if every one understood that his silence was to be respected. It was the same thing at table. In vain the silent man imbibed aesthetic tea. Whatever fancies it inspired did not flower at his lips. But there was a light in his eye which assured me that nothing was lost. So supreme was his silence that it presently engrossed me to the exclusion of everything else. There was very brilliant discourse, but this silence was much more poetic and fascinating. Fine things were said by the philosophers, but much finer things were implied by the dumbness of this gentleman with heavy brows and black hair. When he presently rose and went, Emerson, with the “slow, wise smile” that breaks over his face, like day over the sky, said, “Hawthorne rides well his horse of the night.”
Thus he remained in my memory, a shadow, a phantom, until more than a year afterwards. Then I came to live in Concord. Every day I passed his house, but when the villagers, thinking that perhaps I had some clew to the mystery, said, “Do you know this Mr. Hawthorne?” I said “No,” and trusted to time.
Time justified my confidence, and one day I, too, went down the avenue and disappeared in the house. I mounted those mysterious stairs to that apocryphal study. I saw “the cheerful coat of paint, and golden-tinted paper-hangings, lighting up the small apartment; while the shadow of a willow-tree, that swept against the overhanging eaves, attempered the cheery western sunshine.” I looked from the little northern window whence the old pastor watched the battle, and in the small dining-room beneath it, upon the first floor, there were
“Dainty chicken, snow-white bread,”
and the golden juices of Italian vineyards, which still feast insatiable memory.
Our author occupied the Old Manse for three years. During that time he was not seen, probably, by more than a dozen of the villagers. His walks could easily avoid the town, and upon the river he was always sure of solitude. It was his favorite habit to bathe every evening in the river, after nightfall, and in that part of it over which the old bridge stood, at which the battle was fought. Sometimes, but rarely, his boat accompanied another up the stream, and I recall the silent and preternatural vigor with which, on one occasion, he wielded his paddle to counteract the bad rowing of a friend who conscientiously considered it his duty to do something and not let Hawthorne work alone; but who, with every stroke, neutralized all Hawthorne’s efforts. I suppose he would have struggled until he fell senseless, rather than ask his friend to desist. His principle seemed to be, if a man cannot understand without talking to him, it is quite useless to talk, because it is immaterial whether such a man understands or not. His own sympathy was so broad and sure that although nothing had been said for hours his companion knew that not a thing had escaped his eye, nor had a single pulse of beauty in the day or scene or society failed to thrill his heart. In this way his silence was most social. Everything seemed to have been said. It was a Barmecide feast of discourse, from which a greater satisfaction resulted than from an actual banquet.
When a formal attempt was made to desert this style of conversation, the result was ludicrous. Once Emerson and Thoreau arrived to pay a call. They were shown into the little parlor upon the avenue, and Hawthorne presently entered. Each of the guests sat upright in his chair like a Roman senator. “To them” Hawthorne, like a Dacian king. The call went on, but in a most melancholy manner. The host sat perfectly still, or occasionally propounded a question which Thoreau answered accurately, and there the thread broke short off. Emerson delivered sentences that only needed the setting of an essay to charm the world; but the whole visit was a vague ghost of the Monday-evening club at Mr. Emerson’s–it was a great failure. Had they all been lying idly upon the river brink, or strolling in Thoreau’s blackberry pastures, the result would have been utterly different. But imprisoned in the proprieties of a parlor, each a wild man in his way, with a necessity of talking inherent in the nature of the occasion, there was only a waste of treasure. This was the only “call” in which I ever knew Hawthorne to be involved.
In Mr. Emerson’s house, I said, it seemed always morning. But Hawthorne’s black-ash trees and scraggy apple-boughs shaded
In which it seemed always afternoon.”
I do not doubt that the lotus grew along the grassy marge of the Concord behind his house, and it was served, subtly concealed, to all his guests. The house, its inmates, and its life lay, dream-like, upon the edge of the little village. You fancied that they all came together and belonged together, and were glad that at length some idol of your imagination, some poet whose spell had held you and would hold you forever, was housed as such a poet should be.
During the lapse of the three years since the bridal tour of twenty miles ended at the “two tall gate-posts of rough-hewn stone”, a little wicker wagon had appeared at intervals upon the avenue, and a placid babe, whose eyes the soft Concord day had touched with the blue of its beauty, lay looking tranquilly up at the grave old trees, which sighed lofty lullabies over her sleep. The tranquillity of the golden-haired Una was the living and breathing type of the dreamy life of the Old Manse. Perhaps, that being attained, it was as well to go. Perhaps our author was not surprised nor displeased when the hints came, “growing more and more distinct, that the owner of the old house was pining for his native air”. One afternoon I entered the study, and learned from its occupant that the last story he should ever write there was written. The son of the old pastor yearned for his homestead. The light of another summer would seek its poet in the Old Manse, but in vain.
While Hawthorne had been quietly writing in the “most delightful little nook of a study”, Mr. Polk had been elected President, and Mr. Bancroft, in the cabinet, did not forget his old friend, the surveyor in the custom-house. There came suggestions and offers of various attractions. Still loving New England, would he tarry there, or, as inspector of woods and forests in some far-away island of the southern sea, some hazy strip of distance seen from Florida, would he taste the tropics? He meditated all the chances, without immediately deciding. Gathering up his household gods, he passed out of the Old Manse as its heir entered, and before the end of summer was domesticated in the custom-house of his native town of Salem. This was in the year 1846. Upon leaving the Old Manse he published the _Mosses_, announcing that it was the last collection of tales he should put forth. Those who knew him and recognized his value to our literature trembled lest this was the last word from one who spoke only pearls and rubies. It was a foolish fear. The sun must shine, the sea must roll, the bird must sing, and the poet write. During his life in Salem, of which the introduction to _The Scarlet Letter_ describes the official aspect, he wrote that romance. It is inspired by the spirit of the place. It presents more vividly than any history the gloomy picturesqueness of early New England life. There is no strain in our literature so characteristic or more real than that which Hawthorne had successfully attempted in several of his earlier sketches, and of which _The Scarlet Letter_ is the great triumph. It became immediately popular, and directly placed the writer of stories for a small circle among the world’s masters of romance.
Times meanwhile changed, and presidents with them. General Taylor was elected, and the Salem collector retired. It is one of the romantic points of Hawthorne’s quiet life that its changes have been so frequently determined by political events, which, more than all others, are the most entirely foreign to his tastes and habits. He retired to the hills of Berkshire, the eye of the world now regarding his movements. There he lived a year or two in a little red cottage upon the “Stockbridge Bowl”, as a small lake near that town is called. In this retreat he wrote _The House of the Seven Gables_, which more deeply confirmed the literary position already acquired for him by the first romance. The scene is laid in Salem, as if he could not escape a strange fascination in the witch-haunted town of our early history. It is the same black canvas upon which plays the rainbow-flash of his fancy, never, in its brightest moment, more than illuminating the gloom. This marks all his writings. They have a terrible beauty, like the siren, and their fascination is as sure.
After six years of absence Hawthorne returned to Concord, where he purchased a small house formerly occupied by Orphic Alcott. When that philosopher came into possession it was a miserable little house of two peaked gables. But the genius which recreated itself in devising graceful summer-houses, like that for Mr. Emerson, already noticed, soon smoothed the new residence into some kind of comeliness. It was an old house when Mr. Alcott entered it, but his tasteful finger touched it with picturesque grace.
Not like a tired old drudge of a house, rusting into unlionored decay, but with a modest freshness that does not belie the innate sobriety of a venerable New England farm-house, the present residence of our author stands, withdrawn a few yards from the high-road to Boston, along which marched the British soldiers to Concord bridge. It lies at the foot of a wooded hill, a neat house of a “rusty olive hue”, with a porch in front, and a central peak, and a piazza at each end. The genius for summer-houses has had full play upon the hill behind. Here, upon the homely steppes of Concord, is a strain of Persia. Mr. Alcott built terraces and arbors and pavilions of boughs and rough stems of trees, revealing–somewhat inadequately, perhaps–the hanging gardens of delight that adorn the Babylon of his orphic imagination. The hill-side is no unapt emblem of his intellectual habit, which garnishes the arid commonplaces of life with a cold poetic aurora, forgetting that it is the inexorable law of light to deform as well as adorn. Treating life as a grand epic poem, the philosophic Alcott forgets that Homer must nod or we should all fall asleep. The world would not be very beautiful nor interesting if it were all one huge summit of Mont Blanc.
Unhappily, the terraced hill-side, like the summer-house upon Mr. Emerson’s lawn, “lacks technical arrangement”, and the wild winds play with these architectural toys of fancy, like lions with humming-birds. They are gradually falling, shattered, and disappearing. Fine locust-trees shade them and ornament the hill with perennial beauty. The hanging gardens of Semiramis were not more fragrant than Hawthorne’s hill-side during the June blossoming of the locusts. A few young elms, some white-pines and young oaks, complete the catalogue of trees. A light breeze constantly fans the brow of the hill, making harps of the tree-tops and singing to our author, who, “with a book in my hand, or an unwritten book in my thoughts”, lies stretched beneath them in the shade.
From the height of the hill the eye courses, unrestrained, over the solitary landscape of Concord, broad and still, broken only by the slight wooded undulations of insignificant hillocks. The river is not visible, nor any gleam of lake. Walden Pond is just behind the wood in front, and not far away over the meadows sluggishly steals the river. It is the most quiet of prospects. Eight acres of good land lie in front of the house, across the road, and in the rear the estate extends a little distance over the brow of the hill.
This latter is not good garden-ground, but it yields that other crop which the poet “gathers in a song”. Perhaps the world will forgive our author that he is not a prize farmer, and makes but an indifferent figure at the annual cattle-show. We have seen that he is more nomadic than agricultural. He has wandered from spot to spot, pitching a temporary tent, then striking it for “fresh fields and pastures new”. It is natural, therefore, that he should call his house “The Wayside”–a bench upon the road where he sits for a while before passing on. If the wayfarer finds him upon that bench he shall have rare pleasure in sitting with him, yet shudder while he stays. For the pictures of our poet have more than the shadows of Rembrandt. If you listen to his story, the lonely pastures and dull towns of our dear old homely New England shall become suddenly as radiant with grace and terrible with tragedy as any country and any time. The waning afternoon in Concord, in which the blue-frocked farmers are reaping and hoeing, shall set in pensive glory. The woods will forever after be haunted with strange forms. You will hear whispers and music “i’ the air”. In the softest morning you will suspect sadness; in the most fervent noon a nameless terror. It is because the imagination of our author treads the almost imperceptible line between the natural and the supernatural. We are all conscious of striking it sometimes. But we avoid it. We recoil and hurry away, nor dare to glance over our shoulders lest we should see phantoms. What are these tales of supernatural appearances, as well authenticated as any news of the day–and what is the sphere which they imply? What is the more subtle intellectual apprehension of fate and its influence upon imagination and life? Whatever it is, it is the mystery of the fascination of these tales. They converse with that dreadful realm as with our real world. The light of our sun is poured by genius upon the phantoms we did not dare to contemplate, and lo! they are ourselves, unmasked, and playing our many parts. An unutterable sadness seizes the reader as the inevitable black thread appears. For here genius assures us what we trembled to suspect, but could not avoid suspecting, that the black thread is inwoven with all forms of life, with all development of character.
It is for this peculiarity, which harmonizes so well with ancient places, whose pensive silence seems the trance of memory musing over the young and lovely life that illuminated its lost years–that Hawthorne is so intimately associated with the Old Manse. Yet that was but the tent of a night for him. Already, with the _Blithedale Romance_, which is dated from Concord, a new interest begins to cluster around “The Wayside”.
I know not how I can more fitly conclude these reminiscences of Concord and Hawthorne, whose own stories have always a saddening close, than by relating an occurrence which blighted to many hearts the beauty of the quiet Concord river, and seemed not inconsistent with its lonely landscape. It has the further fitness of typifying the operation of our author’s imagination: a tranquil stream, clear and bright with sunny gleams, crowned with lilies and graceful with swaying grass, yet doing terrible deeds inexorably, and therefore forever after of a shadowed beauty.
Martha was the daughter of a plain Concord farmer, a girl of delicate and shy temperament, who excelled so much in study that she was sent to a fine academy in a neighboring town, and won all the honors of the course. She met at the school, and in the society of the place, a refinement and cultivation, a social gayety and grace, which were entirely unknown in the hard life she had led at home, and which by their very novelty, as well as because they harmonized with her own nature and dreams, were doubly beautiful and fascinating. She enjoyed this life to the full, while her timidity kept her only a spectator; and she ornamented it with a fresher grace, suggestive of the woods and fields, when she ventured to engage in the airy game. It was a sphere for her capacities and talents. She shone in it, and the consciousness of a true position and general appreciation gave her the full use of all her powers. She admired and was admired. She was surrounded by gratifications of taste, by the stimulants and rewards of ambition. The world was happy, and she was worthy to live in it. But at times a cloud suddenly dashed athwart the sun–a shadow stole, dark and chill, to the very edge of the charmed circle in which she stood. She knew well what it was and what it foretold, but she would not pause nor heed. The sun shone again; the future smiled; youth, beauty, and all gentle hopes and thoughts bathed the moment in lambent light.
But school-days ended at last, and with the receding town in which they had been passed the bright days of life disappeared, and forever. It is probable that the girl’s fancy had been fed, perhaps indiscreetly pampered, by her experience there. But it was no fairy-land. It was an academy town in New England, and the fact that it was so alluring is a fair indication of the kind of life from which she had emerged, and to which she now returned. What could she do? In the dreary round of petty details, in the incessant drudgery of a poor farmer’s household, with no companions of any sympathy–for the family of a hard-working New England farmer are not the Chloes and Clarissas of pastoral poetry, nor are cow-boys Corydons–with no opportunity of retirement and cultivation, for reading and studying–which is always voted “stuff” under such circumstances–the light suddenly quenched out of life, what was she to do?
“Adapt herself to her circumstances. Why had she shot from her sphere in this silly way?” demands unanimous common-sense in valiant heroics.
The simple answer is, that she had only used all her opportunities, and that, although it was no fault of hers that the routine of her life was in every way repulsive, she did struggle to accommodate herself to it–and failed. When she found it impossible to drag on at home, she became an inmate of a refined and cultivated household in the village, where she had opportunity to follow her own fancies, and to associate with educated and attractive persons. But even here she could not escape the feeling that it was all temporary, that her position was one of dependence; and her pride, now grown morbid, often drove her from the very society which alone was agreeable to her. This was all genuine. There was not the slightest strain of the _femme incomprise_ in her demeanor. She was always shy and silent, with a touching reserve which won interest and confidence, but left also a vague sadness in the mind of the observer. After a few months she made another effort to rend the cloud which was gradually darkening around her, and opened a school for young children. But although the interest of friends secured for her a partial success, her gravity and sadness failed to excite the sympathy of her pupils, who missed in her the playful gayety always most winning to children. Martha, however, pushed bravely on, a figure of tragic sobriety to all who watched her course. The farmers thought her a strange girl, and wondered at the ways of a farmer’s daughter who was not content to milk cows and churn butter and fry pork, without further hope or thought. The good clergyman of the town, interested in her situation, sought a confidence she did not care to bestow, and so, doling out a, b, c, to a wild group of boys and girls, she found that she could not untie the Gordian knot of her life, and felt, with terror, that it must be cut.
One summer evening she left her father’s house and walked into the fields alone. Night came, but Martha did not return. The family became anxious, inquired if any one had noticed the direction in which she went, learned from the neighbors that she was not visiting, that there was no lecture or meeting to detain her, and wonder passed into apprehension. Neighbors went into the adjacent woods and called, but received no answer. Every instant the awful shadow of some dread event solemnized the gathering groups. Every one thought what no one dared whisper, until a low voice suggested “the river”. Then, with the swiftness of certainty, all friends, far and near, were roused, and thronged along the banks of the stream. Torches flashed in boats that put off in the terrible search. Hawthorne, then living in the Old Manse, was summoned, and the man whom the villagers had only seen at morning as a musing spectre in his garden, now appeared among them at night to devote his strong arm and steady heart to their service. The boats drifted slowly down the stream–the torches flared strangely upon the black repose of the water, and upon the long, slim grasses that, weeping, fringed the marge. Upon both banks silent and awe-stricken crowds hastened along, eager and dreading to find the slightest trace of what they sought. Suddenly they came upon a few articles of dress, heavy with the night-dew. No one spoke, for no one had doubted the result. It was clear that Martha had strayed to the river and quietly asked of its stillness the repose she sought. The boats gathered around the spot. With every implement that could be of service the melancholy search began. Long intervals of fearful silence ensued, but at length, towards midnight, the sweet face of the dead girl was raised more placidly to the stars than ever it had been to the sun.
“Oh! is it weed or fish or floating hair– A tress o’ golden hair,
O’ drowned maiden’s hair,
Above the nets at sea?
Was never salmon yet that shone so fair Among the stakes on Dee.”
So ended a village tragedy. The reader may possibly find in it the original of the thrilling conclusion of the _Blithedale Romance_, and learn anew that dark as is the thread with which Hawthorne weaves his spells, it is no darker than those with which tragedies are spun, even in regions apparently so torpid as Concord.
THE WORKS OF NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE
The traveller by the Eastern Railroad, from Boston, reaches in less than an hour the old town of Salem, Massachusetts. It is chiefly composed of plain wooden houses, but it has a quaint air of past provincial grandeur, and has indeed been an important commercial town. The first American ship for Calcutta and China sailed from this port; and Salem ships opened our trade with New Holland and the South Seas. But its glory has long since departed, with that of its stately and respectable neighbors, Newburyport and Portsmouth. There is still, however, a custom-house in Salem, there are wharves and chandlers’ shops and a faint show of shipping and an air of marine capacity which no apparent result justifies. It sits upon the shore like an antiquated sea-captain, grave and silent, in tarpaulin and duck trousers, idly watching the ocean upon which he will never sail again.
But this touching aspect of age and lost prosperity merely serves to deepen the peculiar impression of the old city, which is not derived from its former commercial importance, but from other associations. Salem village was a famous place in the Puritan annals. The tragedy of the witchcraft tortures and murders has cast upon it a ghostly spell, from which it seems never to have escaped; and even the sojourner of to-day, as he loiters along the shore in the sunniest morning of June, will sometimes feel an icy breath in the air, chilling the very marrow of his bones. Nor is he consoled by being told that it is only the east wind; for he cannot help believing that an invisible host of Puritan spectres have breathed upon him, revengeful, as he poached upon their ancient haunts.
The Puritan spirit was neither gracious nor lovely, but nothing softer than its iron hand could have done its necessary work. The Puritan character was narrow, intolerant, and exasperating. The forefathers were very “sour” in the estimation of Morton and his merry company at Mount Wollaston. But for all that, Bradstreet and Carver and Winthrop were better forefathers than the gay Morton, and the Puritan spirit is doubtless the moral influence of modern civilization, both in Old and New England. By the fruit let the seed be judged. The State to whose rough coast the _Mayflower_ came, and in which the Pilgrim spirit has been most active, is to-day the chief of all human societies, politically, morally, and socially. It is the community in which the average of well-being is higher than in any State we know in history. Puritan though it be, it is more truly liberal and free than any large community in the world. But it had bleak beginnings. The icy shore, the sombre pines, the stealthy savages, the hard soil, the unbending religious austerity, the Scriptural severity, the arrogant virtues, the angry intolerance of contradiction–they all made a narrow strip of sad civilization between the pitiless sea and the remorseless forests. The moral and physical tenacity which is wrestling with the Rebellion was toughened among these flinty and forbidding rocks. The fig, the pomegranate, and the almond would not grow there, nor the nightingale sing; but nobler men than its children the sun never shone upon, nor has the heart of man heard sweeter music than the voices of James Otis and Samuel Adams. Think of Plymouth in 1620, and of Massachusetts to-day! Out of strength came forth sweetness.
With some of the darkest passages in Puritan history this old town of Salem, which dozes apparently with the most peaceful conscience in the world, is identified, and while its Fourth of July bells were joyfully ringing sixty years ago Nathaniel Hathorne was born. He subsequently chose to write the name Hawthorne, because he thought he had discovered that it was the original spelling. In the introduction to _The Scarlet Letter_, Hawthorne speaks of his ancestors as coming from Europe in the seventeenth century, and establishing themselves in Salem, where they served the State and propitiated Heaven by joining in the persecution of Quakers and witches. The house known as the Witch House is still standing on the corner of Summer and Essex streets. It was built in 1642 by Captain George Corwin, and here in 1692 many of the unfortunates who were palpably guilty of age and ugliness were examined by the Honorable Jonathan Curwin, Major Gedney, Captain John Higginson, and John Hathorn, Esquire.
The name of this last worthy occurs in one of the first and most famous of the witch trials, that of “Goodwife Gory”, in March, 1692, only a month after the beginning of the delusion at the house of the minister Parris. Goodwife Gory was accused by ten children, of whom Elizabeth Parris was one; they declared that they were pinched by her and strangled, and that she brought them a book to sign. “Mr. Hathorn, a magistrate of Salem”, says Robert Calef, in _More Wonders of the Invisible World_, “asked her why she afflicted these children. She said she did not afflict them. He asked her who did then. She said, I do not know; how should I know? She said they were poor, distracted creatures, and no heed ought to be given to what they said. Mr. Hathorn and Mr. Noyes replied, that it was the judgment of all that were there present that they were bewitched, and only she (the accused) said they were distracted. She was accused by them that the _black man_ whispered to her in her ear now (while she was upon examination), and that she had a yellow bird that did use to suck between her fingers, and that the said bird did suck now in the assembly.” John Hathorn and Jonathan Curwin were “the Assistants” of Salem village, and held most of the examinations and issued the warrants. Justice Hathorn was very swift in judgment, holding every accused person guilty in every particular. When poor Jonathan Gary of Charlestown attended his wife charged with witchcraft before Justice Hathorn, he requested that he might hold one of her hands, “but it was denied me. Then she desired me to wipe the tears from her eyes and the sweat from her face, which I did; then she desired that she might lean herself on me, saying she should faint. Justice Hathorn replied, she had strength enough to torment these persons, and she should have strength enough to stand. I speaking something against their cruel proceedings, they commanded me to be silent, or else I should be turned out of the room”. What a piteous picture of the awful colonial inquisition and the village Torquemada! What a grim portrait of an ancestor to hang in your memory, and to trace your kindred to!
Hawthorne’s description of his ancestors in the Introduction to _The Scarlet Letter_ is very delightful. As their representative, he declares that he takes shame to himself for their sake, on account of these relentless persecutions; but he thinks them earnest and energetic. “From father to son, for above a hundred years, they followed the sea; a gray-headed ship-master, in each generation, retiring from the quarter-deck to the homestead, while a boy of fourteen took the hereditary place before the mast, confronting the salt spray and the gale, which had blustered against his sire and grand-sire. The boy also, in due time, passed from the forecastle to the cabin, spent a tempestuous manhood, and returned from his world-wanderings, to grow old, and die, and mingle his dust with the natal earth.” Not all, however, for the last of the line of sailors, Captain Nathaniel Hathorne, who married Elizabeth Clarke Manning, died at Calcutta after the birth of three children, a boy and two girls. The house in which the boy was born is still standing upon Union Street, which leads to the Long Wharf, the chief seat of the old foreign trade of Salem. The next house, with a back entrance on Union Street, is the Manning house, where many years of the young Hawthorne’s life were spent in the care of his uncle, Robert Manning. He lived often upon an estate belonging to his mother’s family, in the town of Raymond, near Sebago Lake, in Maine. The huge house there was called Manning’s Folly, and is now said to be used as a meeting-house. His uncle sent Hawthorne to Bowdoin College, where he graduated in 1825. A correspondent of the Boston _Daily Advertiser_, writing from Bowdoin at the late commencement, says that he had recently found “in an old drawer” some papers which proved to be the manuscript “parts” of the students at the Junior exhibition of 1824; among them was Hawthorne’s “De Patribus Conscriptis Romanorum”. “It is quite brief,” writes the correspondent, “but is really curious as perhaps the only college exercise in existence of the great tragic writer of our day (has there been a greater since Shakespeare?). The last sentence is as follows (note the words which I put in italics): ‘Augustus equidem antiquam magnificentiam patribus reddidit, _sed fulgor tantum fuit sine fervore_. Nunquam in republica senatoribus potestas recuperata, postremum species etiam amissa est.’ On the same occasion Longfellow had the salutatory oration in Latin–‘Oratio Latina; Anglici Poetae.'”
Hawthorne has given us a charming glimpse of himself as a college boy in the letter to his fellow-student, Horatio Bridge, of the Navy, whose _Journal of an African Cruiser_ he afterwards edited. “I know not whence your faith came; but while we were lads together at a country college, gathering blueberries, in study-hours, under those tall academic pines; or watching the great logs as they tumbled along the current of the Androscoggin; or shooting pigeons and gray squirrels in the woods; or bat-fowling in the summer twilight; or catching trouts in that shadowy little stream which, I suppose, is still wandering riverward through the forest–though you and I will never cast a line in it again–two idle lads, in short (as we need not fear to acknowledge now), doing a hundred things that the faculty never heard of, or else it had been the worse for us,–still it was your prognostic of your friend’s destiny that he was to be a writer of fiction.” From this sylvan university Hawthorne came home to Salem; “as if,” he wrote later, “Salem were for me the inevitable centre of the universe.”
The old witch-hanging city had no weirder product than this dark-haired son. He has certainly given it an interest which it must otherwise have lacked; but he speaks of it with small affection, considering that his family had lived there for two centuries. “An unjoyous attachment,” he calls it. And, to tell the truth, there was evidently little love lost between the little city and its most famous citizen. Stories still float in the social gossip of the town, which represent the shy author as inaccessible to all invitations to dinner and tea; and while the pleasant circle awaited his coming in the drawing-room, the impracticable man was–at least so runs the tale–quietly hobnobbing with companions to whom his fame was unknown. Those who coveted him as a phoenix could never get him, while he gave himself freely to those who saw in him only a placid barn-door fowl. The sensitive youth was a recluse, upon whose imagination had fallen the gloomy mystery of Puritan life and character. Salem was the inevitable centre of his universe more truly than he thought. The mind of Justice Hathorn’s descendant was bewitched by the fascination of a certain devilish subtlety working under the comeliest aspects in human affairs. It overcame him with strange sympathy. It colored and controlled his intellectual life.
Devoted all day to lonely reverie and musing upon the obscurer spiritual passages of the life whose monuments he constantly encountered, that musing became inevitably morbid. With the creative instinct of the artist, he wrote the wild fancies into form as stories, many of which, when written, he threw into the fire. Then, after nightfall, stealing out from his room into the silent streets of Salem, and shadowy as the ghosts with which to his susceptible imagination the dusky town was thronged, he glided beneath the house in which the witch-trials were held, or across the moonlit hill upon which the witches were hung, until the spell was complete. Nor can we help fancying that, after the murder of old Mr. White in Salem, which happened within a few years after his return from college, which drew from Mr. Webster his most famous criminal plea, and filled a shadowy corner of every museum in New England, as every shivering little man of that time remembers, with an awful reproduction of the scene in wax-figures, with real sheets on the bed, and the murderer, in a glazed cap, stooping over to deal the fatal blow–we cannot help fancying that the young recluse who walked by night, the wizard whom as yet none knew, hovered about the house, gazing at the windows of the fatal chamber, and listening in horror for the faint whistle of the confederate in another street.
Three years after he graduated, in 1828, he published anonymously a slight romance with the motto from Southey, “Wilt thou go with me?” Hawthorne never acknowledged the book, and it is now seldom found; but it shows plainly the natural bent of his mind. It is a dim, dreamy tale, such as a Byron-struck youth of the time might have written, except for that startling self-possession of style and cold analysis of passion, rather than sympathy with it, which showed no imitation, but remarkable original power. The same lurid gloom overhangs it that shadows all his works. It is uncanny; the figures of the romance are not persons, they are passions, emotions, spiritual speculations. So the _Twice-told Tales_ that seem at first but the pleasant fancies of a mild recluse, gradually hold the mind with a Lamia-like fascination; and the author says truly of them, in the Preface of 1851, “Even in what purport to be pictures of actual life, we have allegory not always so warmly dressed in its habiliments of flesh and blood as to be taken into the reader’s mind without a shiver.” There are sunny gleams upon the pages, but a strange, melancholy chill pervades the book. In “The Wedding Knell”, “The Minister’s Black Veil”, “The Gentle Boy”, “Wakefield”, “The Prophetic Pictures”, “The Hollow of the Three Hills”, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”, “The Ambitious Guest”, “The White Old Maid”, “Edward Fane’s Rose-bud”, “The Lily’s Quest”–or in the “Legends of the Province House”, where the courtly provincial state of governors and ladies glitters across the small, sad New England world, whose very baldness jeers it to scorn–there is the same fateful atmosphere in which Goody Cloyse might at any moment whisk by upon her broomstick, and in which the startled heart stands still with unspeakable terror.
The spell of mysterious horror which kindled Hawthorne’s imagination was a test of the character of his genius. The mind of this child of witch-haunted Salem loved to hover between the natural and the supernatural, and sought to tread the almost imperceptible and doubtful line of contact. He instinctively sketched the phantoms that have the figures of men, but are not human; the elusive, shadowy scenery which, like that of Gustave Dore’s pictures, is Nature sympathizing in her forms and aspects with the emotions of terror or awe which the tale excites. His genius broods entranced over the evanescent phantasmagoria of the vague debatable land in which the realities of experience blend with ghostly doubts and wonders.
But from its poisonous flowers what a wondrous perfume he distilled! Through his magic reed, into what penetrating melody he blew that deathly air! His relentless fancy seemed to seek a sin that was hopeless, a cruel despair that no faith could throw off. Yet his naive and well-poised genius hung over the gulf of blackness, and peered into the pit with the steady nerve and simple face of a boy. The mind of the reader follows him with an aching wonder and admiration, as the bewildered old mother forester watched Undine’s gambols. As Hawthorne describes Miriam in _The Marble Faun_, so may the character of his genius be most truly indicated. Miriam, the reader will remember, turns to Hilda and Kenyon for sympathy. “Yet it was to little purpose that she approached the edge of the voiceless gulf between herself and them. Standing on the utmost verge of that dark chasm, she might stretch out her hand and never clasp a hand of theirs; she might strive to call out ‘Help, friends! help!’ but, as with dreamers when they shout, her voice would perish inaudibly in the remoteness that seemed such a little way. This perception of an infinite, shivering solitude, amid which we cannot come close enough to human beings to be warmed by them, and where they turn to cold, chilly shapes of mist, is one of the most forlorn results of any accident, misfortune, crime, or peculiarity of character, that puts an individual ajar with the world.”
Thus it was because the early New England life made so much larger account of the supernatural element than any other modern civilized society, that the man whose blood had run in its veins instinctively turned to it. But beyond this alluring spell of its darker and obscurer individual experience, it seems neither to have touched his imagination nor even to have aroused his interest. To Walter Scott the romance of feudalism was precious for the sake of feudalism itself, in which he believed with all his soul, and for that of the heroic old feudal figures which he honored. He was a Tory in every particle of his frame, and his genius made him the poet of Toryism. But Hawthorne had apparently no especial political, religious, or patriotic affinity with the spirit which inspired him. It was solely a fascination of the intellect. And although he is distinctively the poet of the Puritans, although it is to his genius that we shall always owe that image of them which the power of The Scarlet Letter has imprinted upon literature, and doubtless henceforth upon historical interpretation, yet what an imperfect picture of that life it is! All its stern and melancholy romance is there–its picturesque gloom and intense passion; but upon those quivering pages, as in every passage of his stories drawn from that spirit, there seems to be wanting a deep, complete, sympathetic appreciation of the fine moral heroism, the spiritual grandeur, which overhung that gloomy life, as a delicate purple mist suffuses in summer twilights the bald crags of the crystal hills. It is the glare of the scarlet letter itself, and all that it luridly reveals and weirdly implies, which produced the tale. It was not beauty in itself nor deformity, not virtue nor vice, which engaged the author’s deepest sympathy. It was the occult relation between the two. Thus while the Puritans were of all men pious, it was the instinct of Hawthorne’s genius to search out and trace with terrible tenacity the dark and devious thread of sin in their lives.
Human life and character, whether in New England two hundred years ago or in Italy to-day, interested him only as they were touched by this glamour of sombre spiritual mystery; and the attraction pursued him in every form in which it appeared. It is as apparent in the most perfect of his smaller tales, _Rappaccini’s Daughter_, as in _The Scarlet Letter, The Blithedale Romance, The House of the Seven Gables_, and _The Marble Faun_. You may open almost at random, and you are as sure to find it as to hear the ripple in Mozart’s music, or the pathetic minor in a Neapolitan melody. Take, for instance, The _Birth-Mark_, which we might call the best of the smaller stories, if we had not just said the same thing of _Rappaccini’s Daughter_–for so even and complete is Hawthorne’s power, that, with few exceptions, each work of his, like Benvenuto’s, seems the most characteristic and felicitous. In this story, a scholar marries a beautiful woman, upon whose face is a mark which has hitherto seemed to be only a greater charm. Yet in one so lovely the husband declares that, although it is the slightest possible defect, it is yet the mark of earthly imperfection, and he proceeds to lavish all the resources of science to procure its removal. But it will not disappear; and at last he tells her that the crimson hand “has clutched its grasp” into her very being, and that there is mortal danger in trying the only means of removal that remains. She insists that it shall be tried. It succeeds; but it removes the stain and her life together. So in _Rappaccini’s Daughter_. The old philosopher nourishes his beautiful child upon the poisonous breath of a flower. She loves, and her lover is likewise bewitched. In trying to break the spell, she drinks an antidote which kills her. The point of interest in both stories is the subtile connection, in the first, between the beauty of Georgiana and the taint of the birth-mark; and, in the second, the loveliness of Beatrice and the poison of the blossom.
This, also, is the key of his last romance, _The Marble Faun_, one of the most perfect works of art in literature, whose marvellous spell begins with the very opening words: “Four individuals, in whose fortunes we should be glad to interest the reader, happened to be standing in one of the saloons of the sculpture-gallery in the Capitol at Rome.” When these words are read, the mind familiar with Hawthorne is already enthralled. “What a journey is beginning, not a step of which is trodden, and yet the heart palpitates with apprehension! Through what delicate, rosy lights of love, and soft, shimmering humor, and hopes and doubts and vanishing delights, that journey will proceed, on and on into utter gloom.” And it does so, although “Hilda had a hopeful soul, and saw sunlight on the mountain-tops”. It does so, because Miriam and Donatello are the figures which interest us most profoundly, and they are both lost in the shadow. Donatello, indeed, is the true centre of interest, as he is one of the most striking creations of genius. But the perplexing charm of Donatello, what is it but the doubt that does not dare to breathe itself, the appalled wonder whether, if the breeze should lift those clustering locks a little higher, he would prove to be faun or man? It never does lift them; the doubt is never solved, but it is always suggested. The mystery of a partial humanity, morally irresponsible but humanly conscious, haunts the entrancing page. It draws us irresistibly on. But as the cloud closes around the lithe figure of Donatello, we hear again from its hidden folds the words of “The Birth-Mark”: “Thus ever does the gross fatality of earth exult in its invariable triumph over the immortal essence, which, in this dim sphere of half-development, demands the completeness of a higher state”. Or still more sadly, the mysterious youth, half vanishing from our sympathy, seems to murmur, with Beatrice Rappaccini, “And still as she spoke, she kept her hand upon her heart,–‘Wherefore didst thou inflict this miserable doom upon thy child?'”
We have left the story of Hawthorne’s life sadly behind. But his life had no more remarkable events than holding office in the Boston Customhouse under Mr. Bancroft as collector; working for some time with the Brook–Farmers, from whom he soon separated, not altogether amicably; marrying and living in the Old Manse at Concord; returning to the Custom-house in Salem as surveyor; then going to Lenox, in Berkshire, where he lived in what he called “the ugliest little old red farm-house that you ever saw”, and where the story is told of his shyness, that, if he saw anybody coming along the road whom he must probably pass, he would jump over the wall into the pasture, and so give the stranger a wide berth; back again to Concord; then to Liverpool as consul; travelling in Europe afterwards, and home at last and forever, to “The Wayside” under the Concord hill. “The hillside,” he wrote to a friend in 1852, “is covered chiefly with locust-trees, which come into luxuriant blossom in the month of June, and look and smell very sweetly, intermixed with a few young elms and some white-pines and infant oaks, the whole forming rather a thicket than a wood. Nevertheless, there is some very good shade to be found there; I spend delectable hours there in the hottest part of the day, stretched out at my lazy length with a book in my hand or an unwritten book in my thoughts. There is almost always a breeze stirring along the side or the brow of the hill.”
It is not strange, certainly, that a man such as has been described, of a morbid shyness, the path of whose genius diverged always out of the sun into the darkest shade, and to whom human beings were merely psychological phenomena, should have been accounted ungenial, and sometimes even hard, cold, and perverse. From the bent of his intellectual temperament it happens that in his simplest and sweetest passages he still seems to be studying and curiously observing, rather than sympathizing. You cannot help feeling constantly that the author is looking askance both at his characters and you, the reader; and many a young and fresh mind is troubled strangely by his books, as if it were aware of a half-Mephistophelean smile upon the page. Nor is this impression altogether removed by the remarkable familiarity of his personal disclosures. There was never a man more shrinkingly retiring, yet surely never was an author more naively frank. He is willing that you should know all that a man may fairly reveal of himself. The great interior story he does not tell, of course, but the Introduction to the _Mosses from an Old Manse_, the opening chapter of _The Scarlet Letter_, and the _Consular Experiences_, with much of the rest of _Our Old Home_, are as intimate and explicit chapters of autobiography as can be found. Nor would it be easy to find anywhere a more perfect idyl than that introductory chapter of the _Mosses_. Its charm is perennial and indescribable; and why should it not be, since it was written at a time in which, as he says, “I was happy?” It is, perhaps, the most softly-hued and exquisite work of his pen. So the sketch of “The Custom-house”, although prefatory to that most tragically powerful of romances,
_The Scarlet Letter_, is an incessant play of the shyest and most airy humor. It is like the warbling of bobolinks before a thunder-burst. How many other men, however unreserved with the pen, would be likely to dare to paint, with the fidelity of Teniers and the simplicity of Fra Angelico, a picture of the office and the companions in which and with whom they did their daily work? The surveyor of customs in the port of Salem treated the town of Salem, in which he lived and discharged his daily task, as if it had been, with all its people, as vague and remote a spot as the town of which he was about to treat in the story. He commented upon the place and the people as modern travellers in Pompeii discuss the ancient town. It made a great scandal. He was accused of depicting with unpardonable severity worthy folks, whose friends were sorely pained and indignant. But he wrote such sketches as he wrote his stories. He treated his companions as he treated himself and all the personages in history or experience with which he dealt, merely as phenomena to be analyzed and described, with no more private malice or personal emotion than the sun, which would have photographed them, warts and all.
Thus it was that the great currents of human sympathy never swept him away. The character of his genius isolated him, and he stood aloof from the common interests. Intent upon studying men in certain aspects, he cared little for man; and the high tides of collective emotion among his fellows left him dry and untouched. So he beholds and describes the generous impulse of humanity with sceptical courtesy rather than with hopeful cordiality.
He does not chide you if you spend effort and life itself in the ardent van of progress, but he asks simply, “Is six so much better than half a dozen?” He will not quarrel with you if you expect the millennium to-morrow. He only says, with that glimmering smile, “So soon?” Yet in all this there was no shadow of spiritual pride. Nay, so far from this, that the tranquil and pervasive sadness of all Hawthorne’s writings, the kind of heartache that they leave behind, seem to spring from the fact that his nature was related to the moral world, as his own Donatello was to the human. “So alert, so alluring, so noble”, muses the heart as we climb the Apennines towards the tower of Monte Beni; “alas! is he human?” it whispers, with a pang of doubt.
How this directed his choice of subjects, and affected his treatment of them, when drawn from early history, we have already seen. It is not, therefore, surprising, that the history into which he was born interested him only in the same way.
When he went to Europe as consul, _Uncle Tom’s Cabin_ was already published, and the country shook with the fierce debate which involved its life. Yet eight years later Hawthorne wrote with calm ennui, “No author, without a trial, can conceive of the difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight, as is happily the case with my dear native land.” Is crime never romantic, then, until distance ennobles it? Or were the tragedies of Puritan life so terrible that the imagination could not help kindling, while the pangs of the plantation are superficial and commonplace? Charlotte Bronte, Dickens, and Thackeray were able to find a shadow even in “merrie England”. But our great romancer looked at the American life of his time with these marvellous eyes, and could see only monotonous sunshine. That the devil, in the form of an elderly man clad in grave and decent attire, should lead astray the saints of Salem village, two centuries ago, and confuse right and wrong in the mind of Goodman Brown, was something that excited his imagination, and produced one of his weirdest stories. But that the same devil, clad in a sombre sophism, was confusing the sentiment of right and wrong in the mind of his own countrymen he did not even guess. The monotonous sunshine disappeared in the blackest storm. The commonplace prosperity ended in tremendous war. What other man of equal power, who was not intellectually constituted precisely as Hawthorne was, could have stood merely perplexed and bewildered, harassed by the inability of positive sympathy, in the vast conflict which tosses us all in its terrible vortex?
In political theories and in an abstract view of war men may differ. But this war is not to be dismissed as a political difference. Here is an attempt to destroy the government of a country, not because it oppressed any man, but because its evident tendency was to secure universal justice under law. It is, therefore, a conspiracy against human nature. Civilization itself is at stake; and the warm blood of the noblest youth is everywhere flowing in as sacred a cause as history records–flowing not merely to maintain a certain form of government, but to vindicate the rights of human nature. Shall there not be sorrow and pain, if a friend is merely impatient or confounded by it–if he sees in it only danger or doubt, and not hope for the right–or if he seem to insinuate that it would have been better if the war had been avoided, even at that countless cost to human welfare by which alone the avoidance was possible?
Yet, if the view of Hawthorne’s mental constitution which has been suggested be correct, this attitude of his, however deeply it may be regretted, can hardly deserve moral condemnation. He knew perfectly well that if a man has no ear for music he had better not try to sing. But the danger with such men is that they are apt to doubt if music itself be not a vain delusion. This danger Hawthorne escaped. There is none of the shallow persiflage of the sceptic in his tone, nor any affectation of cosmopolitan superiority. Mr. Edward Dicey, in his interesting reminiscences of Hawthorne, published in _Macmillan’s Magazine_, illustrates this very happily.
“To make his position intelligible, let me repeat an anecdote which was told me by a very near friend of his and mine, who had heard it from President Pierce himself. Frank Pierce had been, and was to the day of Hawthorne’s death, one of the oldest of his friends. At the time of the Presidential election of 1856, Hawthorne, for once, took part in politics, wrote a pamphlet in favor of his friend, and took a most unusual interest in his success. When the result of the nomination was known, and Pierce was President-elect, Hawthorne was among the first to come and wish him joy. He sat down in the room moodily and silently, as he was wont when anything troubled him; then, without speaking a word, he shook Pierce warmly by the hand, and at last remarked, ‘Ah, Frank, what a pity!’ The moment the victory was won, that timid, hesitating mind saw the evils of the successful course–the advantages of the one which had not been followed. So it was always. Of two lines of action, he was perpetually in doubt which was the best; and so, between the two, he always inclined to letting things remain as they are.
“Nobody disliked slavery more cordially than he did; and yet the difficulty of what was to be done with the slaves weighed constantly upon his mind. He told me once that, while he had been consul at Liverpool, a vessel arrived there with a number of negro sailors, who had been brought from slave States, and would, of course, be enslaved again on their return. He fancied that he ought to inform the men of the fact, but then he was stopped by the reflection–who was to provide for them if they became free? and, as he said, with a sigh, ‘while I was thinking, the vessel sailed.’ So, I recollect, on the old battle-field of Manassas, in which I strolled in company with Hawthorne, meeting a batch of runaway slaves–weary, foot-sore, wretched, and helpless beyond conception; we gave them food and wine, some small sums of money, and got them a lift upon a train going northward; but not long afterwards Hawthorne turned to me with the remark, ‘I am not sure we were doing right after all. How can these poor beings find food and shelter away from home?’ Thus this ingrained and inherent doubt incapacitated him from following any course vigorously. He thought, on the whole, that Wendell Phillips and Lloyd Garrison and the Abolitionists were in the right, but then he was never quite certain that they were not in the wrong after all; so that his advocacy of their cause was of a very uncertain character. He saw the best, to alter slightly the famous Horatian line, but he never could quite make up his mind whether he altogether approved of its wisdom, and therefore followed it but falteringly.
“‘Better to bear those ills we have, Than fly to others that we know not of,’
“expressed the philosophy to which Hawthorne was thus borne imperceptibly. Unjustly, but yet not unreasonably, he was looked upon as a pro-slavery man, and suspected of Southern sympathies. In politics he was always halting between two opinions; or, rather, holding one opinion, he could never summon up his courage to adhere to it and it only.”
The truth is that his own times and their people and their affairs were just as shadowy to him as those of any of his stories, and his mind held the same curious, half-wistful poise among all the conflicts of principle and passion around him, as among those of which he read and mused. If you ask why this was so–how it was that the tragedy of an old Italian garden, or the sin of a lonely Puritan parish, or the crime of a provincial judge, should so stimulate his imagination with romantic appeals and harrowing allegories, while either it did not see a Carolina slave-pen, or found in it only a tame prosperity–you must take your answer in the other question, why he did not weave into any of his stories the black and bloody thread of the Inquisition. His genius obeyed its law. When he wrote like a disembodied intelligence of events with which his neighbors’ hearts were quivering–when the same half-smile flutters upon his lips in the essay _About War Matters_, sketched as it were upon the battle-field, as in that upon _Fire Worship_, written in the rural seclusion of the mossy Manse–ah me! it is Donatello, in his tower of Monte Beni, contemplating with doubtful interest the field upon which the flower of men are dying for an idea. Do you wonder, as you see him and hear him, that your heart, bewildered, asks and asks again, “Is he human? Is he a man?”
Now that Hawthorne sleeps by the tranquil Concord, upon whose shores the Old Manse was his bridal bower, those who knew him chiefly there revert beyond the angry hour to those peaceful days. How dear the Old Manse was to him he has himself recorded; and in the opening of the _Tanglewood Tales_ he pays his tribute to that placid landscape, which will always be recalled with pensive tenderness by those who, like him, became familiar with it in happy hours. “To me,” he writes, “there is a peculiar, quiet charm in these broad meadows and gentle eminences. They are better than mountains, because they do not stamp and stereotype themselves into the brain, and thus grow wearisome with the same strong impression, repeated day after day. A few summer weeks among mountains, a lifetime among green meadows and placid slopes, with outlines forever new, because continually fading out of the memory, such would be my sober choice.” He used to say, in those days–when, as he was fond of insisting, he was the obscurest author in the world, because, although he had told his tales twice, nobody cared to listen–that he never knew exactly how he contrived to live. But he was then married, and the dullest eye could not fail to detect the feminine grace and taste that ordered the dwelling, and perceive the tender sagacity that made all things possible.
Such was his simplicity and frugality that, when he was left alone for a little time in his Arcadia, lie would dismiss “the help”, and, with some friend of other days who came to share his loneliness, he cooked the easy meal, and washed up the dishes. No picture is clearer in the memory of a certain writer than that of the magician, in whose presence he almost lost his breath, looking at him over a dinner-plate which he was gravely wiping in the kitchen, while the handy friend, who had been a Western settler, scoured the kettle at the door. Blithedale, where their acquaintance had begun, had not allowed either of them to forget how to help himself. It was amusing to one who knew this native independence of Hawthorne, to hear, some years afterwards, that he wrote the “campaign” _Life of Franklin Pierce_ for the sake of getting an office. That such a man should do such a work was possibly incomprehensible to those who did not know him upon any other supposition, until the fact was known that Mr. Pierce was an old and constant friend. Then it was explained. Hawthorne asked simply how he could help his friend, and he did the only thing he could do for that purpose. But although he passed some years in public office, he had neither taste nor talent for political life. He owed his offices to works quite other than political. His first and second appointments were virtually made by his friend Mr. Bancroft, and the third by his friend Mr. Pierce. His claims were perceptible enough to friendship, but would hardly have been so to a caucus.
In this brief essay we have aimed only to indicate the general character of the genius of Hawthorne, and to suggest a key to his peculiar relation to his time. The reader will at once see that it is rather the man than the author who has been described; but this has been designedly done, for we confess a personal solicitude, shared, we are very sure, by many friends of Nathaniel Hawthorne, that there shall not be wanting to the future student of his works such light as acquaintance with the man may throw upon them, as well as some picture of the impression his personality made upon his contemporaries.
Strongly formed, of dark, poetic gravity of aspect, lighted by the deep, gleaming eye that recoiled with girlish coyness from contact with your gaze; of rare courtesy and kindliness in personal intercourse, yet so sensitive that his look and manner can be suggested by the word “glimmering;” giving you a sense of restrained impatience to be away; mostly silent in society, and speaking always with an appearance of effort, but with a lambent light of delicate humor playing over all he said in the confidence of familiarity, and firm self-possession under all, as if the glimmering manner were only the tremulous surface of the sea, Hawthorne was personally known to few, and intimately to very few. But no one knew him without loving him, or saw him without remembering him; and the name Nathaniel Hawthorne, which, when it was first written, was supposed to be fictitious, is now one of the most enduring facts of English literature.
One evening in Paris, we were strolling through that most Parisian spot the Palais Royal, or, as it was called at that moment, the Palais National. It was after the revolution of February; but, although the place was full of associations with French revolutions, it seemed to have no special sympathy with the trouble of the moment, and was as gay as the youngest imagination conceives Paris to be. There was a constant throng loitering along the arcades; the cafes were lighted and crowded; men were smoking, sipping coffee, playing billiards, reading the newspapers, discussing the debates in the Chamber and the coming “Prophete” of Meyerbeer at the opera; women were chatting together in the boutiques, pretty grisettes hurrying home; little blanchisseuses, with their neatly-napkinned baskets, tripping among the crowd; strangers watched the gay groups, paused at the windows of tailors and jewellers, and felt the fascination of Paris. It was the moment of high-tide of Parisian life. It was an epitome of Paris, and Paris is an epitome of the time and of the world.
At the corner of the Palais Royal is the Comedie Francaise, and to that we were going. There Rachel was playing. There she had recently recited the “Marseillaise” to frenzied Paris; and there, in the vestibule, genius of French comedy, of French intellect, and of French life, sits the wonderful Voltaire of Houdon, the statue which, for the first time, after the dreadful portraits which misrepresent him, gives the spectator some adequate idea of the personal appearance and impression of the man who moulded an age. You can scarcely see the statue without a shudder. It is remorseless intellect laid bare. The cold sweetness of the aspect, the subtle penetration of the brow, the passionless supremacy of a figure which is neither manly nor graceful, fill your mind with apprehension and with the conviction that the French Revolution you have seen is not the last.
The curtain rises, and Paris and France roll away. A sad, solitary figure, like a dream of tragic Greece, glides across the scene. The air grows cold and thin, with a sense of the presence of lost antiquity. The feeling of fate, vast, resistless, and terrible, rises like a suffocating vapor; and the hopeless woe of the face, the pathetic dignity of the form, assure you, before she speaks, that this is indeed Rachel. The scenery is poor and hard; but its severe outlines and its conventional character serve to suggest Greece. The drapery which hangs upon Rachel is exquisitely studied from the most perfect statue. There is not a fold which is not Greek and graceful, and which does not seem obedient to the same law which touches her face with tragedy. As she slowly opens her thin lips, your own blanch; and from her melancholy eyes all smiles and possibility of joy have utterly passed away. Rachel stands alone, a solitary statue of fate and woe.
When she speaks, the low, thrilling, distinct voice seems to proceed rather from her eyes than her mouth. It has a wan sound, if we may say so. It is the very tone you would have predicted as coming from that form, like the unearthly music which accompanies the speech of the Commendatore’s statue in “Don Giovanni”. That appearance and that voice are the key of the whole performance. Before she has spoken, you are filled with the spirit of an age infinitely remote, and only related to human sympathy now by the grandeur of suffering. The rest merely confirms that impression. The whole is simple and intense. It is conceived and fulfilled in the purest sense of Greek art.
Of the early career and later life of Rachel such romantic stories are told and believed that only to see the heroine of her own life would be attraction enough to draw the world to Paris. Dr. Vernon, in his _Memoires d’un Bourgeois_, has described her earliest appearance upon the Boulevards–her studies, her trials, and her triumph. That triumph has been unequalled in stage annals for enthusiasm and permanence. Other actors have achieved single successes as brilliant; but no other has held for so long the most fickle and fastidious nation thrall to her powers; owning no rival near the throne, and ruling with a sway whose splendor was only surpassed by its sternness.
For Rachel has never sought to ally her genius to goodness, and has rather despised than courted the aid of noble character. Not a lady by birth or breeding, she is reported to have surpassed Messalina in debauchery and Semiramis in luxury. Paris teems with tales of her private life, which, while they are undoubtedly exaggerated, yet serve to show the kind of impression her career has produced. Those modern Sybarites, the princes and nobles of Russia, are the heroes of her private romances; and her sumptuous apartments, if not a Tour de Nesle, are at least a bower of Rosamond.
As if to show the independent superiority of her art, she has been willing to appear, or she really is, avaricious, mean, jealous, passionate, false; and then, by her prodigious power, she has swayed the public that so judged her as the wind tosses a leaf. There has, alas, been disdain in her superiority. Perhaps Paris has found something fascinating in her very contempt, as in the _Memoires du Diable_ the heroine confesses that she loved the ferocity of her lover. Nor is it a traditional fame that she has enjoyed; but whenever Rachel plays, the theatre is crowded, and the terror and the tears are what they were when she began.
Rachel is the greatest of merely dramatic artists. Others are more beautiful; others are more stately and imposing; others have been fitted by external gifts of nature to personify characters of very marked features; others are more graceful and lovely and winning; most others mingle their own personality with the characters they assume, but Rachel has this final evidence of genius, that she is always superior to what she does; her mind presides over her own performances. It is the perfection of art. In describing this peculiar supremacy of genius, a scholar, in whose early death a poet and philosopher was lost, says of Shakespeare: “He sat pensive and alone above the hundred-handed play of his imagination.” And Fanny Kemble, in her journal, describes a conversation upon the stage, in the tomb-scene of “Romeo and Juliet”, where she, as Juliet, says to Mr. Romeo Keppel, “Where the devil is your dagger?” while all the tearful audience are lost in the soft woe of the scene.
This is very much opposed to the general theory of acting, and the story is told with great gusto of a boy who was sent to see Garrick, we believe, and who was greatly delighted with the fine phrasing and