WE THINK we know him, the author of those schoolroom classics, The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gabless -- no face looks more familiarly, handsome and genteel, from the schoolbook frontispiece. Yet just as Hawthorne's fiction turns out to contain more ambiguities than we once suspected, so the man remains a puzzle. We are likely to share Emerson's disappointment in failing to atain "unreserved intercourse" with him. "He said so little that I talked too much," Emerson remembered; we feel the same, offering our theories while he merely gazes past with those splendid eyes. He was a charming man, but even his wife wrote in awe, after his death, about "his uniform majesty . . . in the most retired privacy it was the same as in the presence of men," and of the "unviolated sanctuary" of his nature.
He did, indeed, pretend to reveal himself in the prefaces to his books, calling himself, for example, "a mild, shy, gentle, melancholic, exceedingly sensitive, and ot very forcible man." But we must imagine the humorous shrug that migh accompany such a statement; it is part of his literary pose. He was both tough and gentle. If he was mild and shy and sensitive, he was also practical and active. The "I" of the prefaces -- like the narrating persona of his stories and sketches -- is a wistful idealist, a man of fancy. But Hawthorne -- more than Melville, who had worked as a common seaman and lived among cannibals -- undrstood both the poetry and the prose of experience. His transcendentalist-minded wife said that she never saw him in Time -- meaning in the day-to-day -- only in Eternity, in the real of the ideal. But he was a man who accepted "the times" he lived in as the medium of survival. He navigated the polluted waters -- unknown to Melville -- of contemporary politics while keeping clear of reformers and utopians. Yet he was tenacious of personal loyalties, forcible in his own way, possessing that requisite of the "ideal artist" stipulated in his "The Artist of the Beautiful," "a force of character hardly compatible with its delicacy." o
The complexity of Hawthorne's personality has baffled the best biographers from the first, Henry James, who complained that the life of his subject was too simple, so simple, so simple as to be hardly worth telling. Most of his biographers took him at his whimsical word when he spoke about himself. They accepted his description -- in love letter to Sophia Peabody -- of the years before his marriage at 38; he had been, he declared a man spellbound, a solitary dreamer. Or they accepted his identification with his Salem ancetors (in the "Custom-House preface) and saw him burdened by the witch-burners' guilt as well as by their obsession with God and the Devil.
In 1948, Randall Stewart published the first thoroughly researched account of Hawthorne's life, however, which showed him as more matter-of-face and sociable, more "normal." Stewart presented a young bachelor who noticed pretty girls and talked with all sorts of people on the "solitary" country rambles with which he broke up his bouts of writing. He enjoyed lifelong the company of friends like Horatio Bridge and Franklin Pierce, convivial and commonplace men who never found him odd and did not complain of his reserve. He was a happy family man. He bore his non-litrary labors at the Salem Custom Housee and the Liverpool consulate cherfully, even interestedly.
Though standard till now, Stewart's biography has come to be seen as overstating its case. He abstained from extensive analysis of Hawthorne's fiction. The critics of the '50s, conversely, eschewed biography and concentrated intensely on the closed world of Hawthorne's texts. But they discovered also that "alienation," the major experience reflected in the literature of their own time, was the theme this 19th-century American "handles with greatest power," as Hyatt Waggoner notes in his collection of essays, The Presence of Hawthorne . Perhaps Hawthorne, like the moderns, had suffered what he described. One came again to the conviction that the man and his art must be connected, at least essentially. But the biography that would discover the deeper Hawthorne in his exterior life remained obstinately unwritten. "Hawthorne's life explains his work even less than is normally the case with men of excellent imagination," Mark Van Doren observed. Though the records of his public life have been more completely assembled, the intersecting lives of relatives and friends more thoroughly known, more letters assembled, and evena lost journal turned up, no inpressive replacement has appeared.
That is until now. Arlin Turner, who died suddenly this spring, leaves us a worthy monument to mark his long dedication to the subject. His Nathaniel Hawthrone: A Biography is in the Stewart mode, straightforward and sober, modestly speculative, subordinating consideration of Hawthorne's writing. James R. Mellow in Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times has utilized much of the same material in a more risk-taking fashison, offering psychological diagnosis of the writer's personality.
Thus, both use our fuller knowledge of Hawthorne family history -- Turner even includes a chapter of the Salem witchcraft trials of the 17th century to show that the real villains were Niicholas Noyes and Cotton Mather. But Mellow identifies an obsession with menacing father figures in Hawthorne's early stories and traces it to a hidden hostility for uncle Robert Manning, Hawthorne's guardian. He even guesses that the source of the writer's "deep mystery of sin" may be an early homosexual assault by Manning. Was Hawthone's obstinate secret sexual? Edwin Haviland Miller, in his 1975 biography of Melville, speculated that Hawthorne could have experienced a homosexual bid from his friend of genius, and panicked. Perhaps there had been an early trauma. Hawthorne's solitariness, his passionate gratitude when it was ended by his love for Sophia, may reflect inhibition. Waggoner observes that Hawthorne's famous description of his bedroom in his mother's house -- "in this dismal chamber FAME was won, "reads, in the recentely recovered notebook, "in this dismal and squalid chamber . .fs. ", and reminds us that "squalid" can mean sexually dirty -- or masturbation. This, Waggoner says, startlingly, may account for Hawthorne's obsesive association of loneliness with guilt.
With such guesswork, Turner has nothing to do. He does, like Mellow, relate Hawthorne's involvement with Mary Silsbee, the Salem flirt who provoked him to challenge a valuable friend, John Louis O'Sullivan, editor of the Democratic Review (the episode, long rumored, but dismissed as groundless by earlier biographers including Stewart, was confirmed iin 1958 by Norman Holmes Pearson). The duel was averted just in time by O'Sullivan's explanation, but Mellow feels that Mis Silsbee's mischief may be the source of Hawthorne's representation of a deadly beauty in "Rappaccini's Daughter." Soon afterwards, another friend, Jonathan Cilley, was manipulated by politcal enemies into a duel which proved fatal to him. Had Hawthorne's own readiness to fight encouraged Cilley? Mellow thinks so, and believes that htis, too, strengthened Hawthorne's preoccupation with themes of guilt. Turner is skeptical.
Mellow has given his history less disputable substance by setting Hawthorne in his age, utilizing existing research into the lives of Hawthorne's contemporaries. There are vivid portraits -- some, like Margaret Fuller or Charles Sumner, hardly connected with Hawthorne personally -- others, like Melville or Elizabeth Peabody, intimately a part of his experience either for a crucial moment or over years. What Harthorne experienced in Boston in the 1840s, in the milieu of Concord or at Brook Farm as well as in the Salem Custom House, the Liverpool consulate, in Rome and finally at the Wayside in Concord, is evoked. Turner is less panoramic, though his chronicle of personal events is carefully detailed.
From both accounts one perceives that Hawthorne's passage through what Mellow calls "the dark wood of American politics" is one of the more obscure aspects of his history. When he was swept from his Salem post by the Whig victory in 1848, he protested that he was only an "inoffensive man of letters" who had never sought office in the first place. The record shows that, in fact, he actively maneuvered for his own appointment, suggesting to his friends in the Democratic part various possibilities by which the hopes of rivals might be deflected. He also claimed that during his administration he had charitably left undisturbed the deadwood of previous surveyers, but in fact he replaced at least two subordinates by "firm friends of the administration," as he reported to Polk's secretary of the treasury. His dismissal raised a furor, and the Whigs charged that he had collected party kickbacks from his inspectors and tolerated inequities of salary favoring employes of his own party. His responsibility is not clear. But he had not been as he claimed in "The Custom-House" si inactive a politican as to make "it questionable with his brother Democrats whether he was a friend." The experience, anyhow, was a saturation in complicity, and Mellow may be right in seeing that it stands behind the whole of The Scarlet Letter in which all except the unhuman innocent, Pearl -- Hester, Dimmesdale, Chillingworth, and even the righteous community -- are guilty.
Hawthone's attitude toward the broader political issues of his day puzzled his contemporaries. Was he as reactionary as Elizabeth Peabody felt when he intercepted her anti-slavery letters to Sophia in the 1850's and told her that "like every other Abolitionist, you look at matters with an awful squint"? Or was he impatient, merely, of what he deemed modish and willful agitation, and doubtful, philosophically, of the efficacy of reforms that leave human nature unaltered? He wrote the campaign biography of Franklin Pierce, representative of the coalition between slave-interest and Northern business, tot he disgust of his wife's family and circle. Worse still, he dedicated his book about England, Our Old Home , to Pierce, after the war, just when it had been disclosed that the ex-president had written Jefferson Davis in 1860 that there would be fighting "in our own [that is, the North's] streets." What! Patronize such a traitor to our faces! I can scarcely believe," wrote Harriet Beecher Stowe to his publisher, Fields, who warned Hawthorne that sales of the book would suffer. This only stiffened Hawthorne's back. Pierce was one of his oldest friends. He had appointed him to Liverpool and given him a chance to know England, and he would not withhold his thanks.
He had opposed the Fugitive Slave Law in 1851, though he admitted that he had "not the slightest sympathy for the slaves; at least not half as much as for laboring whitess." When the war broke out, he "longed for military success as much as any man or woman of the North," he said, but he "would not fight to the death for Northern Slave-States" and felt that it might be better to let the seceders go. His wife observed that he could "look serenely on opposing forces and do justice to each." Towards the most contentious issue of his time he maintained that temperamental aloofness that held him apart from anay individual.
His writing, notable for its susceptibility to contrary interpretations, is the reflection of so resolutely unpartisan a personality. As Waggoner says in his essay, "Art and Belief," Hawthorne "followed the implications of images, dwelt on paradox, and was content not to resolve certain mysteries." Not merely his political but his religious and philosophic positions may be indeterminable. "He has been labeled a transcendentalist, a Puritan, an essentially orthodox Christian, a skeptical heir of the Enlightenment, and a naturalist" -- and there is argument for each claim. Waggoner believes that he refused the choice between idealism and the viewpoint of science and invented an art form that did not commit the reader either to "mind in abdication" or the pure record of event, or too "mind triumphant" or allegory. His biographers themselves perhaps must admit indeterminancy into their versions of his life.