Hawthorne: A Life by Brenda Wineapple

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Last weekend I finished the first book of my ongoing 2012 Project: Reading twelve author biographies. My January selection, “Hawthorne: A Life” by Brenda Wineapple has set the bar fairly high for subsequent entries. I’ve read several of Hawthorne’s novels (The Scarlet Letter, The House of Seven Gables, and The Marble Faun) and dozens of his short stories, but this was my first real introduction to Hawthorne, the man…

It can sometimes feel a bit profane for us mere readers to learn of the origin and genesis of our favorite stories. It’s like the old warning about not ever getting a ‘backstage pass’ to go behind the scenes to witness your favorite television program being made – it’ll lose its magic and you won’t like it any more. Wineapple, however, succeeds in allowing these glimpses in the behind the scenes motivations and origins of Hawthorne’s works without ruining our appreciation of them in the process.

The book even provides something of a “volume discount,” since peeks into the lives of some of the other famous American authors are a significant part of the book. Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, Longfellow, and Alcott to name just a few.

In spite of his associations, though, Hawthorne was at his core a loner and rather insecure. I had not known before reading this book that he frequently burned his own manuscripts that weren’t up to his own high standards. Wineapple says, “Hawthorne was a perfectionist unwilling to release any of his work to the public before he had polished it to a high gloss.” Another favorite passage related to his burning quotes him as saying, “Thoughts meant to delight the world and endure for ages, had perished in a moment, and stirred no heart but mine.” I loved that one.

(below: Hawthorne in his younger, “dashing” years…)

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I also hadn’t known of his politics (really his friends’ politics; he didn’t seem to hold many strong views himself) and his close association with president Franklin Pierce (often referred to as either the worst or weakest of our presidents), a college classmate and friend. Hawthorne’s fawning official biography of Pierce cost him “hundreds of friends” who “drop off me like autumn leaves.” This was in the time where the country was becoming increasing divided and polarized over the issue of slavery.

I was struck also by Hawthorne’s often crippling self doubt and his expressed fears that he will “never make a distinguished figure in the world, and all I hope or wish is to plod along with the multitude.” In another letter he muses that he is likely doomed to become part of “that dull race of money-getting drudges” (in other words, having to get a “real job”).

There was also the traditional lore about Hawthorne. How “the spirit of my Puritan ancestors was mighty in me,” and how “Salem was where women had dangled from the gallows, and Hawthorne’s great-grandfather had all but tied the rope.”

I’ll finish by citing one quotation which sums up Hawthorne in a great, succinct way: Hawthorne’s best stories “penetrate the secret horrors of ordinary life.”

How do you like the writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne? Too dark? Too hard to read? What are some of your favorites?

P.S. February’s selection in my author biography project: “Memory Babe” – about one of my favorite authors, Jack Kerouac. Has anyone read that one?

(Below: Hawthorne’s “Wayside” home in Concord.  He liked to write up in the tower, access to which was gained by a trapdoor, upon which he set his chair while he was writing so as not to be disturbed)

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10 Comments

  1. Nan said,

    January 30, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    I do want to read this. Some authors’ lives interest me more than their writing, and it is possible, but not positive yet, that Hawthorne is one of them. I did so love American Bloomsbury, but my husband didn’t at all. He didn’t care for the way it was written. It is a book I still think about reading again, though I’ve read it twice already.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      January 30, 2012 at 6:06 pm

      Hi Nan,
      American Bloomsbury certainly seems like a logical follow-up after reading the Hawthorne biography. In a way, it must’ve been an exciting time to be in America’s fledgling literary movement, trying to break out from under the shadow of the English literary giants.

      I’ll put it on my to-read list.
      -Jay

      Like

  2. Melody said,

    January 30, 2012 at 2:29 pm

    I like the idea of a “volume discount” in an author biography. 🙂 I read The Scarlet Letter…loved & hated it. I like the story, loved some of the imagery, but the narrated kept piping up and it bugged me.

    I’m currently working on becoming more familiar with Kerouac…up until now I’ve been mostly woefully ignorant. I’m listening to One and Only (by Nicosia) right now–LuAnne Henderson’s view of On the Road–and am planning on joining a read-along of On the Road this summer. Any other suggestions? Hope you enjoy the bio.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      January 30, 2012 at 6:12 pm

      Hi Melody,

      I can’t say that I found any of the Hawthorne novels that I’ve read to be easy reading. I did learn from this biography that Hawthorne used his own daughter as a model for his descriptions of Pearl in TSL.

      One of my favorite Kerouac reads was “Windblown World” – a non-fiction history of his writing and life with lots of excerpts from his notebooks journals, etc. Fascinating stuff. I was fortunate enough to meet the Conservator (keeping of the original “scroll” manuscript of On the Road) from the Lilly Library at Indiana University (he was even a guest at a book club meeting of ours). He also happens to be a huge Kerouac fan and led me to explore some other Kerouac-realted books.

      For fiction, in addition to On the Road, I really liked The Dharma Bums, mostly for its account of a hike up a mountain in CA. A life long hiker myself, I really enjoyed that one.

      -Jay

      Like

  3. Dale said,

    January 30, 2012 at 6:47 pm

    I’ve read The House of the Seven Gables a long time ago. I really don’t remember much about it. I liked The Scarlet Letter. I’ve never read any of his short stories. I think I might have a few on my bookshelf. Might have dig them out.

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    • Jay said,

      January 31, 2012 at 8:27 am

      Hi Dale,
      I think he wrote some great short stories. I might like them more than his novels. Of the latter, The Marble Faun was a sleeper hit with me about fifteen years ago, though.
      -Jay

      Like

  4. Nancy said,

    January 31, 2012 at 1:03 am

    This is interesting. I have read The Scarlet Letter as well but never his short stories. I want to read this book, too… because Hawthorne is definitely a distinguished figure in the world. I’m not fully familiar with Jack Kerouac. I heard he is an inspiration to many equally popular writers, including Haruki Murakami.

    Nancy

    Like

    • Jay said,

      January 31, 2012 at 8:29 am

      Hi Nancy,
      I hadn’t heard that Kerouac was an inspiration to Murakami, but since both are among my favorites, I’m happy to learn about it. 🙂
      -Jay

      Like

  5. Alex said,

    January 31, 2012 at 5:50 am

    Only read “The Scarlet Letter” and I’m afraid I found it too preachy and to heavy-handed when it came to symbolism, metaphorical and the like. I’m sure I’d appreciate it much more if I had read it with a class or bookclub.

    Like

  6. Jay said,

    January 31, 2012 at 8:31 am

    Hi Alex,
    As I mentioned above, none of his books were “easy” for me to read, and there is a heavy darkness to them which one must be able to endure to “get” him. I’m still not sure I fully do.
    -Jay

    Like


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