Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

A Call to Humanity: Hawthorne's "Chiefly about War-Matters"

Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

A Call to Humanity: Hawthorne's "Chiefly about War-Matters"

Article excerpt

"Perhaps the noblest species of courage, is, in good cause, to brave the bad opinion of the world." Hawthorne, "Courage" (CE 23:41) (1)

"[War] leaves me sadly content to scatter a thousand peaceful fantasies upon the hurricane that is sweeping us all along with it, possibly, into a Limbo where our nation and its polity may be as literally the fragments of a shattered dream as my unwritten romance." Hawthorne, "Preface," Our Old Home (CE 5:4)

While Nathaniel Hawthorne's commitment to tempered biographical portrayal can be seen, for instance, in his preface to The Life of Franklin Pierce (1852), his dedication to moderation and compassion only strengthened as the country grew more polarized and erupted into civil war, as "Chiefly About War-Matters" (1862) reveals. (2) Relying on ironic detachment to critique the rigidity of partisanship, this highly crafted essay exemplifies his unique and unpopular approach to political rhetoric. Hawthorne redefines patriotism as he satirizes how partisanship unfairly withholds credit from rivals while it elevates one's own side. Despite the social opprobrium Hawthorne undoubtedly knew publishing the essay would bring upon him, he hoped it would moderate New England's predominantly pro-war thought. Edward Dicey, his British companion during his Washington visit, assessed New England sentiment thus, identifying the "axioms held in Washington, during the spring of 1862": "That McClellan was a heaven-born general, ... that the rebels were, one and all, villains of the deepest dye, that the North was wholly and altogether in the right, and the South wholly and altogether in the wrong" (243). Hawthorne's complicated essay questions the rhetorical fashioning of heroes and martyrs embraced by many New Englanders, as well as the reverence for tangible objects--which attained the value of relics--associated with these men. His pacifist views, (3) not to be confused with those of "Peace Democrats" or "Copperheads" who sympathized with Southern slavery, stood in opposition to the sectional production of civic saints and relics. Moreover, Hawthorne insinuates the new sufferings the recently freed slaves will face when he characterizes them as "fauns," rhetoric that also indicates their liminal status in terms of citizenship.

1. Civic Saints

Although Hawthorne used his double-voiced essay to play with the notions of censorship and political bias, Atlantic Monthly editor James T. Fields felt compelled to actually censor a portion of the essay that presented President Abraham Lincoln in an irreverent light. According to Fields, Hawthorne "said the whole description of the interview and the President's personal appearance were, to his mind, the only parts of the article worth publishing. What a terrible thing, he complained, it is to try to let off a little bit of truth into this miserable humbug of a world" (510, emphasis mine). Despite Hawthorne's strong feelings on this point, relatively few scholars have commented on his portrayal of Lincoln, although a healthy number have assessed "War-Matters" as Hawthorne's last published assertion of an artist's role, as well as his affirmation of free expression. (4) I wish to show that in "War-Matters," Hawthorne demonstrates his understanding that violence begins with unethical representation, whether it deifies or vilifies; he presents his own remedy with his sketch of Lincoln.

Hawthorne's characterization of Lincoln paled in comparison to what both political parties were making of him during the war. Democrats and Republicans characterized him as "an unscrupulous country bumpkin with political aspirations beyond his capacity," according to Grace E. Smith (154). While Smith argues that "Hawthorne reviled Lincoln and the Republican party, and beguiled erudite readers, even as he appealed to his audience as a victim of political censorship"(160), I agree with Daniel Aaron's earlier assessment that Hawthorne's "account of 'Uncle Abe' is decidedly good-natured" (50). …

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