Hawthorne at North Adams

THE westward-bound passenger on the Fitchburg railroad, emerging from the long roar of the Hoosac tunnel, sees the smoke-blurred electric lamps quenched in sudden daylight, shuts his watch, and finds himself in North Adams. The commercial travelers leave the car, and a boy comes in with the Troy papers. A grimy station hides the close-built town, though upon the left one can see row above row of boarding-houses clinging to the face of a rocky foothill of Greylock, and further to the south a bit of meadow land not yet covered with railroad sidings. Then the train moves on, and in a moment plunges into another tunnel, and so out of the Tunnel City.

Twenty years ago, the traveler’s first glimpse of North Adams was more picturesque. The big six-horse coaches, starting from Rice’s, away over in the winding valley of the Deerfield, and climbing Hoosac Mountain, used to swing at full gallop along the two or three miles of tableland on the summit of the range, past the queer old houses of Florida, the highest township in Massachusetts, and pull up for a moment where the road turned sharply down the western slope. On the right were the last reluctant spurs of the Green Mountains; directly in front, over the broad Williamstown valley, stretched the clear-cut Taconies; at the left rose the massive lines of Greylock. At one’s feet, far below, were two or three church spires, and the smoke of factories. Tiny houses were already perching here and there on the steep sides of the mill streams; for North Adams has no site whatever, and from the beginning has had to climb for its life. Completely enfolded by hills as the village seemed, one could yet catch a glimpse, as the driver gathered up his reins for the long descent, of a valley extending southward, between Ragged Mountain and the Hoosac range, toward the towns of lower Berkshire.

It was up this valley, more than half a century ago, that the Pittsfield stage brought Hawthorne to North Adams. He was taking, in rather aimless fashion, one of those summer outings, which gave him more pleasure, he said, than other people had in the whole year beside. Nothing drew him to northern Berkshire, apparently, except the mere chance of travel; but he found the place congenial, and there are facts connected with his stay there that throw a clear light upon Hawthorne, at a period critical both for himself and his art. There are persons still living who well remember his sojourn in North Adams. His favorite companions were men prominent in the little community, and of such marked personal qualities that story and legend are busy with them to this hour ; so that even if the graphic delineations of the American NoteBooks were not at hand, one might still form a fairly accurate picture of the North Adams of 1838.

Halfway down the straggling main street, upon the site of the present Wilson House, was a noted inn, called either after its proprietor, Smith’s Tavern, or according to its politics, the Whig Tavern, or else, and more pretentiously, the North Adams House. Those were the days of Martin Van Buren, and the Democratic, or Waterman Tavern, was across the way, on the corner now occupied by the Richmond House. But Hawthorne, though on the very eve of becoming a Democratic office-holder, weakly yielded to the attractions of the Whig Tavern, being doubtless lured by the reputation of Orrin Smith as a hotel-keeper. Up to the many-pillared piazza of Smith’s Tavern drove the stages from Greenfield and Pittsfield, from Troy and Albany. The broad stoop was the favorite loafing-place of the village characters. Here sat mild-mannered Captain Carter, with butternut meats and maple sugar for sale in little tin measures, which Hawthorne has described with curious precision; and which descended, by the way, after the captain’s death, to a well-known vagrant in the adjoining village of Williamstown. Hither hobbled “Uncle John” Sheldon, the Revolutionary pensioner. Here was to be found the one-armed soap-maker, Daniel Haynes, nicknamed “ Black Hawk, ” who had once been a lawyer, and had been ruined by drink, though there was still “a trace of the gentleman and man of intellect ” in him. And here, accompanied by his Newfoundland dog, was the brandy-possessed “ Doctor Bob ” Robinson, a sort of fearless and savage Falstaff, the fame of whose single combats and evil ways and miraculous gifts of healing lingers even yet in the Tunnel City.

Along the piazza, or within the hospitable bar-room, sat village worthies of a higher grade: Otis Hodge the millwright. Orrin Witherell the blacksmith, Squire Putnam and Squire Drury, and the rest, filling their broad-bottomed chairs with the dignity acquired by years of habitude. Jovial old fellows were these patrons of the Whig Tavern, — Rhode Island Baptists, most of them, — hard-handed and level-headed, with hearty laughs and strongly flavored stories, with coarse appetites for meat and drink, and “a tendency to obesity.” Doubtless they scrutinized each new arrival, drew shrewd inferences as to his occupation and character, and decided whether he was worthy of their intimacy. We do not know their first impressions of the young man who stepped out of the Pittsfield stage on the 26th of July, but there is every evidence that he was strongly attracted to these broad-backed tavern-haunters, and was promptly initiated into their circle. Curiously enough, their new friend was the most delicately imaginative genius this country has yet produced; gifted with such elusive qualities, such swift, bright, fairy-like fancies, that his college mates had nicknamed him “Oberon; ” so shy and solitary that for years he had scarcely gone upon the streets of his native town except at night; so modest that he concealed his identity as a story-writer under a dozen different signatures ; with a personal reserve so absolute and insistent that no liberty was ever taken with him; beautiful in face and form, fresh-hearted and puresouled. A strange associate, indeed, for Orrin Witherell and Otis Hodge, Orrin Smith and “ Doctor Bob ” Robinson ! Ragged, one-armed “Black Hawk, ” soap-boiler and phrenologist, stopped in his “wild and ruined and desperate talk ” to look at the new guest. “My study is man,” he said. “ I do not know your name, but there is something of the hawk-eye about you, too.” And thus the two students of man entered into fellowship.

Hawthorne tarried at the North Adams House until the 11th of September. He bathed in the pools along Hudson’s Brook,and climbed the hills at sunset. He chatted on the tavern stoop with “Uncle John ” Sheldon and with Captain Carter, of whose name he was not quite certain, and which he enters in the journal as “I believe, Capt. Gavett.” On rainy days he sat in the barroom and consorted with Methodistical cattle drovers, stage agents, agents for religious and abolition newspapers, and an extraordinary variety of other people. He attended court, the menagerie, and the funeral of a child. Sometimes he took brief excursions in the neighborhood; as, for instance, to the Williams Commencement. Here he might have seen Mark Hopkins, presiding for the second time, flanked by dignitaries of the church and state; he might have listened to twenty-three orations, upon themes of which The Influence of Deductive and Inductive Habits on the Character, by William Bross, and The Effect of Music on the Feelings, by Henry M. Field, are perhaps fair examples, — to say nothing of the polished periods of the Rev. Orville Dewey’s address before the alumni. But, as a matter of fact, this conscienceless graduate of Bowdoin apparently spent most of his time behind the church, watching the peddlers and the negroes. The only evidence that he entered the big white meeting-house at all is his remark that there were welldressed ladies there, “the sunburnt necks in contiguity with the delicate fabrics of the dresses showing the yeoman’s daughters.”

Some of the people with whom the usually taciturn Hawthorne conversed, in the course of his walks and drives, made a deep impression upon his imagination. Of an old man whose children were connected with a circus establishment, he noted, as Wordsworth might have done, “While this old man is wandering among the hills, his children are the gaze of multitudes.” On the top of Hoosac Mountain he met, one day, a German Jew, traveling with a diorama. After Hawthorne had looked at it, a curious elderly dog made his appearance, which the romance-writer has described with such extreme fidelity as to give Mr. Henry James the impression of a “general vacancy in the field of Hawthorne’s vision.” although it will appear that Hawthorne knew what he was about. One moonlight night he ascended the mountain side, startling the lonely watcher by one of those huge lime-kilns that then, and for many years, abounded near North Adams; and, going up to the top of the kiln, the future author of Ethan Brand gazed down upon the redhot marble, burning with its “bluish, lambent flame.” Experiences like this were destined to reappear, more or less transformed, in his creative work; but often the incidents recorded in the journal are of the very simplest character, as, for instance, the fact that two little girls, bearing tin pails, who met him on the Notch road, “whispered one another and smiled.”

North Adams is a strange place, after all, to find Oberon in, — Oberon, the king of the fairies. We are not likely to understand the secret of Hawthorne’s stay there unless we remember that the summer of 1838 was the most important epoch of his life.

What is first to be observed in the North Adams portion of the American Note-Books is the professional point of view. The writer is an artist in search of material. “Conceive something tragical to be talked about, ” he adds, after describing the old man whose children were in the circus, “and much might be made of this interview in a wild road among the hills.” He notes elsewhere: “A little boy named Joe, who haunts about the bar-room and the stoop, four years old, in a thin, short jacket, and full-breeched trousers, and bare feet. . . . Take this boy as the germ of a tavern-haunter, a country roué, to spend a wild and brutal youth, ten years of his prime in the state prison, and his old age in the poorhouse.” Thus generously does the Hawthorne who himself haunts the Whig Tavern suggest to that other Hawthorne who invents stories that he might “take this boy.” The suggestion was adopted, though Joe was not made to run through the melancholy course so vividly outlined for him ; and readers of the NoteBooks, who have wondered what ever became of the little fellow, — whose real name was not Joe, but Edward,— will doubtless be glad to learn that he grew up to be an eminently respectable citizen, and moved West! But the paragraph about Joe is a typical one.

Hawthorne was thirty - four years old that summer, and for a dozen years had devoted himself, in a solitary and more or less ineffective way, to the art of fiction. A gentleman who well remembers his sojourn at the North Adams House says that he used to walk along the street with his eyes down, and that he presented the tavern-keeper’s niece with a book he had written. This book, published the year before, was Twice - Told Tales. In Hawthorne’s well-known criticism upon these stories, written many years afterward, he accounted for their negative character —

“ the pale tint of flowers that blossomed in too retired a shade”—by his way of life while composing them. It had been a hermit life, a life of shadows, yet now and then of almost pathetic grasping after realities. The articles in Twice-Told Tales which pleased the author best were those elaborate exercises in description, valuable indeed as illustration of the accuracy of Hawthorne’s self-training in detailed observation, but more valuable as evidences of his struggle to turn from his airdrawn fancies, and morbid though often extremely powerful imaginings, to the common sunshine, the trivial sweet realities of the actual world.

Now, the author of the North Adams journal is the Hawthorne of The TollGatherer’s Day and Little Annie’s Ramble, rather than the Hawthorne of The Prophetic Pictures and Fancy’s Show Box. He turns eagerly to the life about him; he notes its details with fascinated interest. Nothing comes amiss to him: the long valley of the Notch, as it sweeps up to the Bellowspipe, and a grunting drove of pigs passing the tavern at dusk, are alike entered in his note-book. Fifty years before the preface to Pierre et Jean was written, here was a young man in an obscure corner of Massachusetts practicing a “theory of observation” which would have satisfied De Maupassant himself. The extraordinary precision of Hawthorne’s descriptions thus early in his career can be fully appreciated only by one who discovers how a mere line from the Note-Books will to-day serve, with the older citizens of North Adams, to identify the village characters sketched therein; or by one who will stand, with Hawthorne’s words before him, by the side of Hudson’s Brook, or on the desolate summit of Bald Mountain, or at that point on the Notch road where there is a view of Williamstown, “ with high, mountainous swells heaving themselves up, like immense subsiding waves, far and wide around it.”

There was a reason for this passion for the outer world. Solitude had done its utmost for Hawthorne, at least for the time being, and he had come to a parting of the ways. A single sentence from a letter to an intimate friend in 1838 is like a cry from the man’s inmost soul, — “I want to have something to do with the material world.” Wedged in between Otis Hodge and Orrin Witherell around the huge fire in the public room of the Whig Tavern, his elbows touching those stout-built, cheery-souled embodiments of pioneer virtues and vices, and casting himself into the life of the village in all its varied activities, Hawthorne found the “material world ” with which he longed to come in touch, When he left North Adams, it was to enter almost at once upon the life of a weigher and gauger in the Boston Custom House, and to stand thenceforth in the ranks with his fellowmen.

But Hawthorne’s new contact with actualities was something more than a mere quickening of interests, a broadening of his range, a closer focusing of his professional eye upon the object. He was a writer; he had the passion for observing, recording, recombining; he could not help it. It may well be that when such a man throws himself upon the actual, the result is simply a keener physical vision, a more perfect analysis, a more pitiless art. This fate was quite possible for Hawthorne. The fear of it haunted him, and never more so than in this very year when he made his escape from it. He wrote to Longfellow, “There is no fate in this world so horrible as to have no share in its joys and sorrows.” To the mere observer as well as to the mere dreamer—and Hawthorne had been both by turns — may come that paralysis which lays hold of the very roots of life and art together; which begins in artistic detachment, and ends in the sterility of isolation. From the horror of that death in life, which has fallen in our day upon artists like Flaubert and his more brilliant nephew, Hawthorne was saved, as he believed, by the influence of the woman who afterward became his wife. In his own simple phrase, his heart was touched. “I used to think I could imagine all passions, all feelings and states of the heart and mind, but how little did I know! Indeed, we are but shadows; we are not endowed with real life; and all that seems most real about us is but the thinnest substance of a dream till the heart be touched. That touch creates us; then we begin to be; thereby we are beings of reality and inheritors of eternity.”

Hawthorne had already felt that creative touch in the summer of 1838. It accounts — does it not ? — for the new sense of reality so apparent in the journal. It was not simply his artistic interest, but his sympathy, that started into a quicker life. His extraordinarily sensitive mind brooded upon the risk he had run of becoming a cool observer, untaught that he had a heart; it became, in his own words, “a fearful thought ” to him, and, being an artist to the finger-tips, he put his fearful thought into artistic form. In Ethan Brand, the story of the man who committed the Unpardonable Sin, Hawthorne embodied not only his North Adams character studies, but the very emotion that must have stirred his deepest heart during those weeks of sojourn at the Whig Tavern. He laid upon the shoulders of the lime-burner on the slope of Hoosac the awful burden whose weight he himself had almost felt.

Ethan Brand, a Chapter from an Abortive Romance, was first published in The Dollar Magazine under the title of The Unpardonable Sin, in 1851. The date of its composition is uncertain. Mr. Lathrop thinks that Hawthorne’s removal to Berkshire in 1850 may have revived his interest in the old material provided by the Note-Books ; Mr. Conway is inclined to believe that the story was written in 1848. Nor is it clear how literally the subtitle is to be taken. There are allusions in Ethan Brand to preceding episodes connected with the theme, of such dramatic possibilities that Hawthorne may well have sketched them in his fancy, but whether he ever seriously tried his hand upon anything more than the culminating chapter is doubtful. Two things, however, are certain : for the setting of the story, its author drew exclusively upon notes taken in North Adams; and the moral problem involved in it was Hawthorne’s own problem, as a man and an artist, in the summer of 1838. Remembering how long he brooded over the Septimius Felton theme and the Scarlet Letter theme before writing a word, it will not seem improbable that the conception of Ethan Brand should date from the time of his first visit to Berkshire, even if the story remained unwritten for a dozen years; though, as a matter of fact, it is not at all unlikely that its composition is to be placed much earlier than the critics have surmised.

Ostensibly a fragment, and undoubtedly bearing internal evidence of some haste or dissatisfaction on the author’s part, Ethan Brand remains one of the most powerful things that Hawthorne ever wrote. Rarely has he shown such dramatic instinct as when he marshaled his old North Adams acquaintances into the moonshine and narrow streaks of firelight that illuminated the open space before the lime - kiln on the sombre mountain side. They are all there: the stage agent, the crippled soap-boiler, the brandy-possessed doctor, the old man whose daughter had wandered away with the circus, the German Jew with his diorama, and the curious old dog. It is little Joe who guides them into the presence of their former associate, Ethan Brand, who has committed “the one only crime for which Heaven can afford no mercy.” Many notes from the journal are adopted without change. Sometimes there is a mere shifting of descriptive phrases that seem to suit Hawthorne’s fancy: as when the “wild and ruined and desperate talk ” attributed in the Note-Books to the cripple is here given to the doctor; or the sentence “Earth was so mingled with sky that it was a day-dream to look at it, ” originally written of Williamstown, is applied to the village of the tale. But there are more subtle adaptations of his material in two allusions to events not narrated in the story itself, however definitely Hawthorne may have outlined them in his imagination. The old man’s missing daughter has become “the Esther of our tale,” “whom with such cold and remorseless purpose Ethan Brand had made the subject of a psychological experiment.” Reference is also made to “a professional visit of the village doctor to Ethan Brand, during the latter’s supposed insanity.” Hawthorne has perhaps wrought out the psychological experiment motive often enough elsewhere to indicate what would probably have been his method here; but the idea of bringing“Doctor Bob,” with his huge animalism and mordant humor, “savage as a wild beast and miserable as a lost soul, ” to minister to the spiritual malady that preyed upon Ethan Brand might easily have resulted in a scene unmatched in the whole range of Hawthorne’s work.

If it is a pure bit of romanticism to transform the Jew of Hoosac Mountain to “the Jew of Nuremberg,” the mask of the fiend himself, there is, on the other hand, in the description of the antics of the old dog an instance of the power of Hawthorne’s realism. In the Note-Books, the trivial incident of the dog’s chasing his own tail is minutely narrated, as a fact somehow worth recording. In Ethan Brand, the fact is nothing except as it illustrates a truth: the man who had chased the world over for something that was in his own breast, “moved by a perception of some remote analogy between his own case and that of the self-pursuing cur, ” broke into the awful laugh that sent the jovial party hurrying homewards through the darkening woods.

For Ethan Brand himself there is no model in the journal. None was needed. Hawthorne’s own problem, in that critical year, was to keep “the counterpoise between his mind and heart.” The doom he dreaded most of all was, to be “no longer a brother man, opening the chambers or the dungeons of our common nature by the key of holy sympathy, which gave him a right to share in all its secrets, ” but to be, like Ethan Brand, “a cold observer, looking on mankind as the subject of his experiment.” The scene of the tale is the very hillside where Hawthorne wandered, brooding over the isolation that kills and the touch that makes alive. Its personages are the people that jostled against him in the tavern. But Hawthorne found Ethan Brand — or a potential Ethan Brand — in his own heart. He believed in an Unpardonable Sin; and it is by this faith in the reality of the moral life, after all is said, that he takes his rank as an artist. He chose moral problems, the truths of the human heart, and made them plastic; he created, not abstract types, but men and women, charging them with spiritual force; and the result is that Ethan Brand, with his homely garments and heavy shoes, bending over the fiery lime-kiln on the slope of Hoosac, is a figure with all the moral passion, the tragic dignity, of Empedocles of old casting himself despairingly into the crater of Mount Etna.

It is more than fifty years since Hawthorne left the village at the foot of Greylock, never to return. Most of the companions of his sojourn there lie buried in the cone-shaped sand-hills of the crowded cemetery just beyond the Little Tunnel. The Whig Tavern changed hands shortly after his departure ; and although Orrin Smith later kept another hostelry by the side of the old coaching road on the crest of Hoosac, that, too, has long since disappeared, and the site is overgrown, with alders. But within ten minutes’ walk of the Tunnel City may still be seen a gray lime-kiln upon which Hawthorne’s eyes have rested, and the intense personal emotion of that long-past year is still vibrant in Ethan Brand. The romance-writers of our day have learned to stray far afield in their search for material, and they come back, too often, with such empty hands! The more’s the pity, since a factory village, set in a narrow space among New England hills, was once field enough for a Hawthorne.

Bliss Perry.