Magazine article The American Enterprise

Frank and Nat. (Flashback: To Know Nothing of What Happened before You Were Born Is to Remain Ever a Child-Cicero)

Magazine article The American Enterprise

Frank and Nat. (Flashback: To Know Nothing of What Happened before You Were Born Is to Remain Ever a Child-Cicero)

Article excerpt

In the summer of 1821, two young men met on a stagecoach bound for Bowdoin College and struck up a fast friendship that would last throughout their lives. Fourteen-year-old Henry Wadsworth Longfellow may have impressed his classmates as Bowdoin's "Most Likely to Succeed," but stagecoach passengers Franklin Pierce and Nathaniel Hawthorne did all right for themselves too.

As midlife approached, Pierce was elected to the U.S. Senate from New Hampshire, while Hawthorne scratched along as a purse-poor writer of fantasies. The author had a recurring dream: "I am still at college ... and there is a sense that I have been there unconscionably long, and have quite failed to make such progress as my contemporaries have done; and I seem to meet some of them with a feeling of shame and depression that broods over me as I think of it, even when awake."

Eventually things got better. Hawthorne's tales began to earn notice, if not royalties. And the solicitous Pierce sought a government position for his friend, finally helping Hawthorne land the post of surveyor in the Salem Custom House.

The fortunes of the Bowdoin buddies peaked in the early 1850s, when one wrote the imperishable Scarlet Letter and the other secured the Democratic nomination for president in 1852. After the candidate asked the now-estimable novelist to bang out a quickie campaign bio--surely an infra dig assignment for a genius--Hawthorne nobly acceded to his old friend's request, toiling for ten weeks to produce The Life of Franklin Pierce.

If the book was a dutiful production, it did evince a genuine fondness for its subject. Hawthorne, who was a conservative Democrat and generally disdainful of politicians, told a friend, "I have come seriously to the conclusion that [Pierce] has in him many of the chief elements of a great ruler.... He is deep, deep, deep.... Nothing can ruin him."

In the end, the "Young Hickory of the Granite Hills" defeated the Whig candidate, General Winfield Scott, whose supporters jeered that the bibulous Pierce was the "hero of many a well-fought bottle." Hawthorne later said, charmingly, of his powerful friend, "I do not love him one whit the less for having been President. …

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