“Julian Hawthorne: The Life of a Prodigal Son,” by Gary Scharnhorst. (University of Illinois)

Halfway through this engaging and authoritative biography, I decided to interrupt my reading to look at some of its subject’s many stories and novels. After all, aren’t authors’ lives supposed to lead us back to their works? While Julian Hawthorne (1846-1934) is hardly a great writer like his father, Nathaniel, he is nonetheless a key figure in 19th-century genre literature, especially supernatural fiction. His work may not be canonical, but it can certainly be entertaining.

For instance, “My Adventure with Edgar Allan Poe” takes place in an out-of-the-way Philadelphia restaurant that is almost deserted, except for a figure in the shadows reading Andrew Lang’s “Letters to Dead Authors.” The man looks uncannily familiar, and the narrator approaches closer, giving his own name as Hawthorne. “Ah!” the stranger replies, “the novelist? I have read — indeed I have reviewed your writings, but that was over fifty years — I would say they can hardly have been yours. You are too young a man.” It turns out that Poe may have been buried in Baltimore but he didn’t die there.

Even better is Hawthorne’s short novel “Archibald Malmaison” (1879). Published seven years before Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” it employs almost the same idea: That one body may contain two radically different personalities. Archibald Malmaison, second son of Sir Clarence Malmaison, is born during a leap year on Feb. 29. There is a legend that a family ancestor, a supposed wizard, once made a pact with the devil, “the terms of which were that he . . . was to prolong his terrestrial existence for one hundred and forty years by the ingenious device of living only every alternate seven years, the intervening periods to be passed in a sort of hibernation.”

The infant Archibald turns out to be “a dull and stolid baby,” slow to develop and apparently without much intellectual or physical energy. But at the age of 7, he undergoes a kind of fit, sleeps for 36 hours, and when he awakens, displays no recollection of his past life. However, the little boy now begins to mature rapidly, revealing a winning personality that charms everyone he meets, especially little Kate Battledown.

With a neatly calibrated plot that includes murder, a secret chamber, sensational reversals and a scene of the most exquisite Gothic horror, “Archibald Malmaison” earned high praise from Wilkie Collins, who nonetheless thought it should have been a three-decker like his own “The Woman in White.” Even Emily Dickinson owned a copy.

Over the course of his long life, Julian Hawthorne seems to have met every major literary and public figure of his time. As a child, he sometimes listened in as his father conversed with Emerson, Thoreau and Melville. At birthday parties, he played games with little Louisa May Alcott. As a rising young author, he became a lifelong friend of Mark Twain and when he lived in England regularly enjoyed cigars and wine with Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, James Whistler, Oscar Wilde and Henry James. After William Randolph Hearst hired him as a roving reporter, he joined Stephen Crane and the artist Frederic Remington in covering the outbreak of the Spanish-American War. During the silent-film era, Hawthorne moved to California and scripted Hollywood films (including one for “The Scarlet Letter” that was never produced) and later presented radio broadcasts about his travels, his work and — to borrow the titles of his two best biographical works — “Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife” and “Hawthorne and His Circle.”

In his youth, Julian Hawthorne loved physical games and exercises. As an undergraduate, writes biographer Gary Scharnhorst, he effectively “majored in gymnastics,” “sported a 481 / 2-inch chest and a 161 / 2-inch bicep, and his physical exploits were still legend at Harvard 60 years later.” At one point, Hawthorne even “weighed an opportunity to become a professional prizefighter.” Because of his lackluster academic record, Harvard finally expelled him in 1866.

Undeterred — the word that best describes Hawthorne’s energy and personality — he sailed to Europe to study engineering at the Dresden Polytechnik. There, he fell in love with Minne Amelung, an American beauty who was German on her father’s side but a Randolph of Virginia on her mother’s. They married in 1870 and lived initially in New York while Hawthorne began to contribute “light stories, familiar essays, and poems to some of the leading parlor magazines of the day.” In short, he launched himself as a modern freelance journalist and commercial writer.

Scharnhorst — a distinguished scholar of 19th-century American literature — clearly disdains Hawthorne’s Grub Street instincts. He even titles the middle section of his biography “The Hack.” Yet this seems too harsh. It strikes me that Hawthorne simply recognized the reality of a late 19th-century writing career: You hustled, you produced serials for newspapers and magazines, you wrote to be read by the masses. When Scharnhorst concludes that “Julian compensated for his crude technique with sensational effect,” it’s good to remember that it takes skill to produce a convincing sensational effect. Although Hawthorne did periodically capitalize on the family name, he also worked hard at the writer’s trade — even sinking so far as to review books — and precariously supported himself, his wife and, eventually, eight children by the earnings of his pen.

What’s more, his writing was genuinely admired. William James recommended Hawthorne’s gothicky first novel “Bressant” (1873) to his brother Bob. “Ken’s Mystery” soon became a horror anthology staple: It neatly employs a banjo and an old ring in the story of a young American who encounters a pallid Irish beauty on Halloween night. The children’s fairy tale “Rumpty-Dudget’s Tower” was reissued as recently as 1987, when I first read it: An evil dwarf must kidnap 1,001 children to fill the 1,001 corners of a room in his forbidding tower. As an editor, Hawthorne even oversaw The Lock and Key Library, a ground-breaking, multi-volume collection of mystery stories.

Between the 1880s and World War I, Hawthorne worked as the literary editor of the New York World, interviewed Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, covered the scandalous Stanford White murder case, reported on the 1900 Galveston hurricane and starvation in India, published five detective novels, became a friend of presidential hopeful William Jennings Bryan, and wrote frequently about sports for various newspapers (being among the first to predict the greatness of Babe Ruth). But needing money in 1908, Hawthorne foolishly lent his name and pen to what turned out to be a bogus silver mine scheme. Convicted of fraud, he served a prison term — and in 1914 produced a major exposé of penal conditions called “The Subterranean Brotherhood.”

Despite the burden and the blessing of his father’s fame, Julian Hawthorne made a distinctive literary career of his own. He could sometimes be shortsighted and improvident, but, like the prizefighter he nearly became, he always bounced back slugging. Besides Scharnhorst’s biography and “Archibald Malmaison,” I strongly recommend Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s excellent anthology of Hawthorne’s weird tales, “The Rose of Death and Other Mysterious Delusions.”

Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.


The Life of a Prodigal Son

By Gary Scharnhorst

Univ. of Illinois. 253 pp. $35