Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

"We Remember No Biography Having So Many Poorly Concealed Antagonisms": Character Assassination in Julian Hawthorne's Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife

Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

"We Remember No Biography Having So Many Poorly Concealed Antagonisms": Character Assassination in Julian Hawthorne's Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife

Article excerpt

"I have allowed the subjects of the biography, and their friends, to speak for themselves whenever possible; and, fortunately, they have done so very largely," Julian Hawthorne asserted in the preface to his biography of his parents. "This book is a simple record of lives; and whatever else the reader wishes to find in it must be contributed by himself." (1) Despite his pose of objectivity, Julian wrote it with an agenda: less to sanctify Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne's reputations than to vilify virtually every contemporary figure who rivaled them. This "pretentious neutrality is only an advertisement of several poisoned Parthian arrows," as John Albee remarked in his review of the book. (2) That is, Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife (1884) debunks Hawthorne's critics, and it illustrates a pattern of personal attack and character assassination the younger Hawthorne practiced throughout his life.

Juilian Hawthorne began his writing career in the early 1870s as the author of weird tales and romances in the tradition of his father. More to the point, as the oldest surviving male in his immediate family, Julian Hawthorne believed he had inherited the mantle of his father. After Nathaniel Hawthorne died in 1864, as Julian averred in his anecdotage, "I had become the Head of the Family, and mustn't leave them unprotected." (3) He also had a proprietary interest to protect: he believed he owned his family history. The strenuously objected when, in 1876, his brother-in-law George Parsons Lathrop, husband of his sister Rose, wrote a book based partly on manuscripts belonging to the family--that is, to Julian as self-anointed keeper of the family flame. The controversy set the tone for every public comment Julian subsequently made on the subject of his father. Prior to the appearance of Lathrop's A Study of Hawthorne, he warned James R. Osgood that, should it be issued, he would "have recourse to the newspapers" and threatened that "[he] should feel compelled to discontinue" his own "pleasant and satisfactory relations" with Osgood's firm. (4) As he had promised, upon its publication Julian denied Lathrop's claims to authority on the topic of his father. In a letter to the editor of the New York Tribune, he presumed to "speak as the chosen mouthpiece of all the surviving members of the late Nathaniel Hawthorne's family who yet bear his name; and furthermore I speak in behalf of those whom death has deprived of the power to defend themselves." Lathrop had had the temerity not only to reveal details of Hawthorne's private life "sacred" to his family, but he had done so by citing a "legacy of papers and letters [that] came into his possession" by accident. Though he had been repeatedly asked "to surrender the papers" that did not belong to him, he had refused until he "had opportunity to make himself familiar with their contents," according to Julian. Nor had Lathrop ever so much as "personally met Mr. Hawthorne," unlike his son. Unable to suppress the publication of Lathrop's book, Julian conceded that "the evil has been done and cannot be recalled." But he warned the reading public that Lathrop had gained access to "many letters of a peculiarly private and delicate nature" that had been "left unprotected" (note the echo of his declaration that as Head of the Family he "mustn't leave them unprotected") after Sophia Hawthorne's death and that "no member of Mr. Hawthorne's own family would have ventured" to publish such a book. (5) Never mind that, on his part, Lathrop insisted he had paraphrased only a few of the papers and those not "of a confidential nature." (6) His sister's husband was a pretender, not a prince.

The problem became even more acute when, in 1882, Julian edited a series of scraps in his father's handwriting and published them under the title Doctor Grimshawe's Secret, as though it was a complete, newly discovered romance. In his preface, he took another sarcastic poke at Lathrop: "So many inspired prophets of Hawthorne have arisen of late, that the present writer, whose relation to the great Romancer is a filial one merely, may be excused for feeling some embarrassment in submitting his own uninstructed judgments in competition with theirs. …

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