Scarlet A for 'Anonymity' ; Nathaniel Hawthorne, Salem's Favorite Son, Remains as Inscrutable Today as He Was to Friends and Family

By Ratiner, Steven | The Christian Science Monitor, November 4, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Scarlet A for 'Anonymity' ; Nathaniel Hawthorne, Salem's Favorite Son, Remains as Inscrutable Today as He Was to Friends and Family


Ratiner, Steven, The Christian Science Monitor


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Born Nathaniel Hawthorne on July 4, 1804, he developed into a painfully withdrawn child, sustained only by a devoted family and his astonishingly vivid imagination.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.

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Scarlet A for 'Anonymity' ; Nathaniel Hawthorne, Salem's Favorite Son, Remains as Inscrutable Today as He Was to Friends and Family
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