Hawthorne's 'Inextinguishable Flame'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of the great American writers of the 19th century, died on this day 152 years ago. In the July 1864 issue of our magazine, Atlantic co-founder Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. described the funeral of his friend Nathaniel:

Hawthorne circa 1860-1864 (Wikimedia)

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, the tired poet was laid beneath the green turf.

Poet let us call him, though his chants were not modulated in the rhythm of verse. The element of poetry is air: we know the poet by his atmospheric effects, by the blue of his distances, by the softening of every hard outline he touches, by the silvery mist in which he veils deformity and clothes what is common so that it changes to awe-inspiring mystery, by the cloud of gold and purple which are the drapery of his dreams.

In the months before his death, Hawthorne “evidently had no hope of recovering his health. He spoke as if his work were done, and he should write no more.” The fact that death was on his mind is evident in Hawthorne’s last, unfinished novel, The Dolliver Romance, an excerpt of which was published in The Atlantic two months after his death. It’s the story of Dr. Dolliver, “a worthy personage of extreme antiquity,” who is troubled by the persistent symptoms of old age—arthritis and fatigue, coughs and chills—and whose memory is haunted by “a throng of ghosts.” And yet:

This weight of years had a perennial novelty for the poor sufferer. He never grew accustomed to it, but, long as he had now borne the fretful torpor of his waning life, and patient as he seemed, he still retained an inward consciousness that these stiffened shoulders, these quailing knees, this cloudiness of sight and brain, this confused forgetfulness of men and affairs, were troublesome accidents that did not really belong to him. He possibly cherished a half-recognized idea that they might pass away.

1841 portrait of Hawthorne by Charles Osgood

Youth, however eclipsed for a season, is undoubtedly the proper, permanent, and genuine condition of man; and if we look closely into this dreary delusion of growing old, we shall find that it never absolutely succeeds in laying hold of our innermost convictions. A sombre garment, woven of life’s unrealities, has muffled us from our true self, but within it smiles the young man whom we knew; the ashes of many perishable things have fallen upon our youthful fire, but beneath them lurk the seeds of inextinguishable flame.

Back to Holmes:

There the bed is made in which he whose dreams had peopled our common life with shapes and thoughts of beauty and wonder is to take his rest. This is the end of the first chapter we have been reading, and of that other first chapter in the life of an Immortal, whose folded pages will be opened, we trust, in the light of a brighter day.

If you’d like to page through more of Hawthorne’s work in The Atlantic, check out his sketches from the Boston custom house and, more famously, his controversial Civil War reporting in our July 1862 issue. Sean Weiner provides some great context for that reporting and how Hawthorne was written about in The Atlantic in the decades following his death. Julian Hawthorne reviewed his father’s greatest work, The Scarlet Letter, for our April 1886 issue. James Russell Lowell, our founding editor, reviewed another Hawthorne novel, The Marble Faun, for our April 1860 issue. Other examples of his inextinguishable influence on The Atlantic include Paul Elmore More’s “Solitude of Nathaniel Hawthorne” (November 1901) and Alfred Kazin’s “Hawthorne: The Artist of New England” (December 1966).