Scarlet A for 'anonymity'

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Salem's favorite son, remains as inscrutable today as he was to friends and family.

Standing before the Charles Osgood 1840 portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne, we cannot help thinking: Ah! the gifted young writer, poised on the threshold of greatness, a mere decade before he will produce one of the central works of American literature!

But of course, that's precisely the problem. The biographer must erase the neat romantic fantasy and replace it with something approaching the raw complexity of lived experience. And that is exactly what Brenda Wineapple has accomplished in her new painstakingly researched account of Hawthorne's life and career. Even more, she has presented us with a portrait of a crucial time in American letters when the young nation was attempting to forge its own unique voice on the world's literary stage.

Born Nathaniel Hawthorne on July 4, 1804, he developed into a painfully withdrawn child, sustained only by a devoted family and his astonishingly vivid imagination. At the same time, he was wholly enthralled from an early age by (as he later writes of one of his characters) "the dream of undying fame, which, dream as it is, is more powerful than a thousand realities." Contradiction seems the dominant strain in this writer's character.

Scion of a prominent family in Salem (at that time the most prosperous town in America), he expended great energy throughout his life to distance himself from those roots - all the while researching and documenting its stories and weaving the details into his fictional tales. He often expressed how much he hated his hometown but never seemed to stop seeking its approval. Salem was equally ambivalent about its native son, scandalized by how the community was portrayed within his pages.

Making extensive use of letters and other primary sources, the writings of both Hawthorne and his contemporaries, and the plentiful scholarship that has been produced in the nearly century and a half since the author's death, Wineapple lets us follow her subject from childhood to the grave, profiling along the way all of the significant literary, social, and political figures who played a role in his life, including Longfellow, Thoreau, Emerson, Melville, Horatio Bridge, Margaret Fuller, and future president of the United States Franklin Pierce.

The necessity for this encompassing approach becomes increasingly clear; one would be hard-pressed to find a literary figure who was more determined to resist any and all self-revelation.

Throughout his life, he burned correspondence, early drafts of manuscripts, even whole notebooks that did not meet his high standards. He published most of his early stories anonymously, and it took Bridge's efforts to finally unmask him to the public.

He sustained lifelong friendships with people who encouraged and supported his work, even through the many years in which it was disparaged and largely ignored. Yet all felt most keenly how veiled and conflicted he was at heart. "I love Hawthorne, I admire him; but I do not know him," comments Jonathan Cilley, a friend from their Bowdoin College days. "He lives in a mysterious world of thought and imagination which he never permits me to enter."

Wineapple does a fine job of describing what will seem to contemporary readers as the curious condition of 19th-century American literature: There was no such profession at the time as "writer," and Hawthorne perhaps never outgrew the shame of his chosen vocation.

When, nearly destitute, he returned to Salem to take up a patronage appointment as surveyor of the Custom House, Wineapple, with her own imaginative flair, portrays his situation this way: "Hawthorne said he purchased steel pens and ink, determined to become 'a citizen of somewhere else,' by which he meant a literary man. But his imagination is no salutary place, cozy and forgiving, and as we have seen, Hawthorne wasn't particularly comfortable there with the ancestors - all male - who peer scornfully over his shoulder just as he settles at his desk. 'What is he?' he hears them snort. 'A writer of story-books! What kind of a business in life ... may that be? Why, the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler!' "

Even more potent was the mind-set among the reading public that great writing by necessity had to be European.

His achievement was that he drew on both American history and the daily experiences of its people and fused these moments with the emotional complexity of his own emotional makeup. He crafted stories that portrayed the often tangled inner lives of his contemporaries as they came into conflict with the rigid social mores of their times.

Hawthorne was also one of the first American writers to create well-rounded female characters who did not shy away from their own passion, sexuality, and power.

When "The Scarlet Letter" was published in 1850, Hawthorne finally began to achieve a measure of that sought-after fame, but rather than securing for him the financial and literary safe harbor he envisioned, it only intensified the lifelong schism between inner domain and public self.

Hawthorne's own wife offered this opinion: "Mr. Hawthorne hid from himself even more cunningly than he hid himself from others." Wineapple might have achieved more dramatic effect by filling in the gaps with her own intuition and opinion, but for the most part she refrains, leaving readers to make their own judgments and arrive at their own sense of this man's true nature. If, in the end, her biography does not provide us with what readers most cherish - the sort of intimate, fully fleshed-out portrait whose very soul appears revealed - the fault perhaps lies with her subject.

Steven Ratiner's collection of interviews, 'Giving Their Word - Conversations with Contemporary Poets' (University of Massachusetts Press), is based on a series that originally ran in the Monitor.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.