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painfully withdrawn child, sustained only by a devoted family and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. …