From Atlantic Unbound:
Flashbacks: "America's Bard" (November 7, 2001)
A collection of writings by and about Walt Whitman, the free-spirited poet who championed democracy and America.
Flashbacks: "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" (September 18, 2001)
Americans today are finding new inspiration in Julia Ward Howe's anthem—originally published in The Atlantic in 1862 to rally Union troops.
Flashbacks: "The House of Wharton" (July 25, 2001)
The story of Wharton's association with The Atlantic, and a sampling of her poems, short stories, and critical reviews of her work.
Flashbacks: "Mark Twain in The Atlantic Monthly" (June 25, 2001)
The story of Twain's association with The Atlantic, and a sampling of his writings.
Flashbacks: "Recollecting Longfellow" (October 19, 2000)
In The Atlantic's early years, he was the poet of the age. But was he a great poet? David Barber introduces a selection of Longfellow's poems that were originally published in The Atlantic.
Flashbacks: "Thoreau's 'Wild Apples'" (March 9, 2000)
At the end of his life Henry David Thoreau was working on essays commissioned by The Atlantic. One of them, "Wild Apples," has recently resurfaced. David Barber reflects on Thoreau's last writings
Flashbacks: "Henry James and The Atlantic Monthly" (April 15, 1997)
A retrospective collection.
Flashbacks: "The Stories of Louisa May Alcott" (July 1995)
Four short stories from The Atlantic Monthly demonstrate Alcott's little-known penchant for romantic fantasy.
Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Atlantic Monthly
December 3, 2003
his fall a new biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne entitled Hawthorne: A Life has been published by Alfred A. Knopf. The book renews interest in an author whom Edgar Allan Poe described in the mid-nineteenth century as "one of the few men of indisputable genius to whom our country has yet given birth."
Hawthorne lived most of his life in Massachusetts and was, for a time, a neighbor of Ralph Waldo Emerson's in Concord. He was also a college classmate of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's at Bowdoin.
By the time Emerson, Longfellow, and others founded The Atlantic, in 1857, Hawthorne had become a prominent literary figure as a result of publishing his collection of short stories, Twice-told Tales (1837), and The Scarlet Letter (1850). His work appeared regularly in the magazine during its early years.
One of his most famous pieces—an essay entitled "Chiefly About War Matters," on his encounter with the Civil War—appeared in the July 1862 issue. Here Hawthorne described his trip south from Massachusetts to visit the nation's capital and interview many of the country's civil and military leaders. Because, contrary to the convictions of most members of the New England literary milieu of the age, Hawthorne wasn't entirely convinced of the necessity of abolition, he considered the Civil War to be at best an ambiguous exercise, and took a dim view of many of the war's Northern principals. The Atlantic, however, was founded and edited by passionate abolitionists. As a result, many passages in the draft Hawthorne turned in ended up being altered by editors, whose views on these matters differed from his own. In response, Hawthorne is said to have grumbled, "What a terrible thing it is to try to let off a little bit of truth into this miserable humbug of a world!" In protest he added a series of humorous editorial "footnotes," written in the voice of a somewhat dimwitted editor. In place of a not entirely flattering description of President Lincoln that the editors had deleted, for example, he wrote:
We are compelled to omit two or three pages, in which the author describes the interview, and gives his idea of the personal appearance and deportment of the President. The sketch appears to have been written in a benign spirit, and perhaps conveys a not inaccurate impression of its august subject; but it lacks reverence.
And in place of another deleted section he wrote:
We do not thoroughly comprehend the author's drift in the foregoing paragraph, but are inclined to think its tone reprehensible, and its tendency impolitic in the present stage of our national difficulties.
Convinced that The Atlantic was overly biased toward a radical point of view, he warned one editor,
The political complexion of the Magazine has been getting too deep a black Republican tinge, and ... there is a time pretty near at hand when you will be sorry for it. The politics of the Magazine suit Massachusetts tolerably well (and only tolerably) but it does not fairly represent the feeling of the country at large.
Throughout his life, and especially before publication of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne had found it a constant challenge to support himself and his family while attempting to write on the side. For several years Hawthorne had worked as a surveyor in Boston's Custom-House, measuring shipments of coal and other goods along the waterfront. He recorded these experiences, keeping extensive notebooks describing his daily thoughts and emotions. In January 1868, four years after his death, extracts from notebook entries he had written while working at the Custom-House appeared in The Atlantic. One can see in these writings not only how boring and unpleasant Hawthorne found the work to be, but also how much he struggled to keep his mind on loftier matters. In one such entry he wrote,
It appears to me to have been the most uncomfortable day that ever was inflicted on poor mortals.... Besides the bleak, unkindly air, I have been plagued by two sets of coal-shovelers at the same time, and have been obliged to keep two separate tallies simultaneously. But I was conscious that all this was merely a vision and a fantasy, and that, in reality, I was not half frozen by the bitter blast, nor tormented by the those grimy coal-heavers, but that I was basking quietly in the sunshine of eternity.... But the wind has blown my brains into such confusion that I cannot philosophize now.
Elsewhere one sees him trying to find ways to make his menial job useful to him as a writer:
On board my salt vessels and colliers there are many things happening, many pictures which in future years, when I am again busy at the loom of fiction, I could weave in.... I am forced to trust them to my memory, with the hope of recalling them at some more favorable period.
Perhaps because of his own struggles early on as a novelist, Hawthorne was later able to identify with another struggling young writer named Herman Melville. As Nancy Caldwell describes in "First Encounters," (January 1995), the two became acquainted while taking a hike through the Berkshires with Oliver Wendell Holmes and the publisher James T. Fields. Hawthorne became interested in Melville and the difficulties the young writer was having with a whaling novel he was working on. Hawthorne invited Melville to come and stay with him for a few days and helped Melville think through how to rework the novel. That work was later published as Moby Dick and dedicated to "the genius of Nathaniel Hawthorne."
When Hawthorne died at the age of sixty, he was still having difficulty making ends meet. He was also depressed, and was having trouble completing new projects. At the time he died he was in the midst of working on a novel called The Dolliver Romance, which The Atlantic had planned to publish in installments. Two years after his death The Atlantic did decide to publish the first installment, with a forward by Hawthorne's friend Oliver Wendell Holmes. Holmes reminisced about his departed colleague, and recounted his final visit with him:
It was my fortune to be among the last of the friends who looked upon Hawthorne's living face.... How changed from his former port and figure! There was no mistaking the long iron-gray locks, the carriage of the head, and the general look of natural outlines and movement; but he seemed to have shrunken in all his dimension, and falter along with an uncertain, feeble step, as if every movement were an effort.
After describing Hawthorne's funeral he went on to describe the bucolic spot at Concord's Sleepy Hollow Cemetery where Hawthorne's body had been buried:
... in a patch of sunlight, flecked by the shade of tall, murmuring pines, at the summit of a gently swelling mound where the wild-flowers had climbed to find the light and the stirring of fresh breezes.
Hawthorne would not be forgotten, Holmes emphasized, because "he has left enough [important writing] to keep his name in remembrance as long as the language in which he shaped his deep imagination is spoken by human lips."
Six years later The Atlantic published more excerpts from literary notebooks that Hawthorne had kept. These notebooks recorded his time in England as the United States Consul at Liverpool—a position to which he had been appointed by another friend from Bowdoin, President Franklin Pierce. These excerpts were accompanied by a long introduction by G. S. Hillard, who discussed both Hawthorne's character and the effect that his time in England may have had on him personally and as a writer. He described Hawthorne's surprising combination of imposing stature and painful shyness:
He was tall and strongly built, with broad shoulders, deep chest, a massive head, black hair, and large dark eyes. Wherever he was he attracted attention by his imposing presence. He looked like a man who might have held the stroke-oar in a university boat.... But, on the other hand, no man had more of the feminine element than he. He was feminine in his quick perceptions, his fine insight, his sensibility to beauty, his delicate reserve, his purity of feeling.... So, too, he was the shyest of men. The claims and courtesies of social life were terrible to him.
Hillard speculated that for someone as socially awkward as Hawthorne was, the social obligations of a U.S. consul must have been rather trying. But he also suggested that jobs like this one were in some ways helpful to Hawthorne, because "they took him out of the world of dreams into the world of life."
In several excerpted entries from the English notebooks, Hawthorne expressed in his own words just how unpleasant he found some of his social obligations as consul. In one entry he recounted how nervous he was delivering a simple dinner speech. "I hardly thought it was me, but, being once started, I felt no embarrassment, and went through it as coolly as if I were going to be hanged."
Hawthorne's social isolation and shyness were the subject of another article, published thirty years later. In "The Solitude of Nathaniel Hawthorne" (November 1901), Paul Elmer More considered Hawthorne's reclusive temperament and discussed how it manifested itself in nearly all of his literary works.
It needs but a slight acquaintance with his own letters and Note-Books, and with the anecdotes current about him, to be assured that never lived a man to whom ordinary contact with his fellows was more impossible, and that the mysterious solitude in which his fictitious characters move is a mere shadow of his own imperial loneliness of soul.
More argued that this essential solitariness, and the "penalty" of it on the human soul is a theme that runs through all of Hawthorne's work. "I believe no single tale [of Hawthorne's], however short or insignificant," More wrote, "can be named in which, under one guise or another, this recurrent idea does not appear." In The Scarlet Letter, for example,
From the opening scene at the prison door, which, "like all that pertains to crime, seemed never to have known a youthful era," to the final scene on the scaffold, where the tragic imagination of the author speaks with a power barely surpassed in the books of the world, the whole plot of the romance moves about this one conception of our human isolation as the penalty of transgression.
More tried to discern what might have made Hawthorne so drawn to his own inner, solitary world. He ventured a few theories including everything from an inherited disturbance of temperament—Hawthorne's ancestors, after all, had been among the judges to condemn alleged witches to death at Salem—to his isolation as a boy. But ultimately More settled on a less dark explanation, attributing his inwardness to "the everlasting mystery of genius inhabiting his brains."
Half a century later the literary critic Alfred Kazin took a look back at Hawthorne and sought to put his work into context. In "Hawthorne: The Artist of New England" (December 1966) Kazin wrote that despite the fact that Hawthorne "had ceased to be an example to writers of fiction—if indeed he had ever been ... [he] was still the most interesting artist in fiction whom New England has produced."
Because Hawthorne's preoccupations went deeper than mere surface matters, Kazin argued, he was able to convey the "inner life" of New England better than any other writer.
All that the local colorists and satirists of the New England scene were to paint as provincial stiffness, inarticulate hardness, Hawthorne had presented as the self-questioning, the debate of so many claims within the human heart, that goes on all the time....
Unfortunately, Kazin argued, most modern readers and writers tended to perceive such themes as anachronistic, and therefore failed to feel a sense of personal connection to Hawthorne and his works.
Hawthorne's great subject was, indeed, the sense of guilt, that is perhaps the most enduring theme in the moral history of the West—guilt that is the secret tie that binds us to others and to our own past, guilt that all the characters in these stories accept and live in, because guilt, theologically conceived, is human identity. In guilt is the great rationale of human history, as Hawthorne knew it; in guilt alone is there a task for man to accomplish, a redemption of the past and promise of a future.
The central character in all [his] stories is the inward man, the human soul trying to represent itself.
To those who value past writers because they influence our living and thinking now, Hawthorne is unreal. Those who create literature in our own day have never been touched by Hawthorne as they have been by Melville, Thoreau, and even Emerson.
Thus, although he was, according to Kazin, "the only New England artist in fiction whose works form a profound imaginative world of their own—and the only one who represents more than some phase of New England history," to most of us, Kazin explained, by the mid-twentieth century he had become "safely established in the past."
"It was almost as if he had aimed at that," Kazin wrote: "He had become 'New England'.... [He] was writing myths for New England to remember itself by."
Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.
More Flashbacks from The Atlantic's archive.
Sean Weiner is a new media intern for The Atlantic.
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.