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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