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Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)



[by George Parsons Lathrop, 1883]


AFTER the death of Hawthorne, the desire for a biography was so strongly expressed, both among his friends and by the public at large, that his widow was prompted to supply in part the information of which there was obviously much need. As she has explained in her Preface to the "English Note-Books," Hawthorne's own wish was that no one should attempt to write his life. Lapsing time and the perspective imparted by the world's settled estimate of his genius, have shown that no final restriction ought to be imposed on the natural instinct and right of students and sincere admirers to seek a more personal knowledge of the author than his imaginative writings could yield. His preference, respecting the publication of a biography, was not, indeed, an absolute injunction; but it is not strange that Mrs. Hawthorne should have chosen to conform to it. In default, then, of the life which she was unwilling to countenance or undertake, she resolved to offer these extracts from his memorandum-books or diaries, supplemented by portions of his letters. They were designed to present some suggestion of his mode of life and mental habit, and to counteract a false impression of his personality which the sombre tone of his fictions had spread abroad. 

The passages relating to his American life having been well received, and as it was necessary, in order to complete an outline of the later career, that his European experience should be presented though a similar medium, the "English Note-Books" and the "French and Italian Note-Books" were published in 1870 and 1871, respectively.

It has been remarked by a recent writer, in a light monograph on Hawthorne, that the Note-Books read like a series of rather dull letters, written by the romancer to himself, during a term of years. Whatever degree of acumen this remark may indicate in the maker, it shows clearly that he has left out of account (if he took pains to examine at all) the manner in which the notes came into existence and the circumstances of their publication. When Hawthorne was about twelve years of age, it is supposed that a blank volume was given him by one of his uncles, "with the advice"--so runs an inscription purporting to have been copied from the first leaf of this book--"to write out his thoughts, some every day, in as good words as he can, upon any and all subjects, as it is one of the best means of his securing for mature years command of thought and language." [note-1] The habit of keeping a journal as an exercise, and of describing ordinary occurrences day by day, with the impression made upon him by them, was thus formed very early in life, and partially accounts for the ease and precision of his language in the Note-Books now included among his published works. This circumstance will also explain how it became a second nature with the author, even in maturer years, to confide his daily observations to the pages of some private register, and often to enter there details which, to the careless glance, appear unaccountably slight. In the first half of this century, the custom of keeping regular diaries and voluminous journals was much more general than at the present day, owing to the greater leisureliness of life at that time. People recorded in them, as those do who still maintain the custom, the smallest transactions of each twenty-four hours; and Hawthorne himself, during some years, wrote similar memoranda in pocket-books, which allowed only a brief space to each day. The manuscript books from which the published passages have been taken were not of that sort, but were evidently used as media for the preservation of passing impressions, which might or might not prove subsequently valuable for reference, in composition. Frequently the purpose of an entry may have been merely to deepen, by the act of writing, some fleeting association of a sight or sound with an inward train of thought which does not appear in the written words at all; as in that sentence, which has been cited as an evidence of mental vacancy, "The smell of peat-smoke in the autumnal air is very pleasant." The "American Note-Books," in fine, should be taken for precisely what they are, and no more; that is, repositories of the most informal kind, for such fragments of observation and reflection as the writer chose to commit to them for his own purposes; as the results, too, of an early-formed taste for exercising his pen upon the simplest objects of notice that surrounded him. Bearing in mind the vogue of journal-writing at that period, we shall not find it surprising if items occur which do not possess universal interest, but seem to have found a place through the inertia of a long-established habit of making notes. Living for many years in a solitary way, and always invested with a peculiar sensitive and shy reserve, Hawthorne would sometimes naturally let fall from the point of his pen, in the companionship of his journal, passing remarks which another person would have made in conversation; no permanent importance being attached to them in either case.

From their character and origin, it is impossible that the Note-Books should furnish a complete picture of Hawthorne's mind and qualities, though they convey hints of them. The records themselves were scattered through books of various sizes, sometimes only half-filled and sometimes labelled "Scrap-Book." Probably the idea that they would be presented in print to the public never even occurred to the writer. Nor is the absence of the author''s opinions on literary matters at all extraordinary. Surprise has been expressed that the fact of his reading a volume of Rabelais should be mentioned, without any accompanying disquisition touching Rabelais. It was no part of Hawthorne's aim as an author to analyze other authors; and it is doubtful whether he greatly cared to form elaborate critical estimates of them, although it is manifest enough from his remarks on his own work, in his prefaces, that he could characterize and discuss literary art with fine penetration. His judgment of Anthony Trollope, given in a published letter, also exhibits his keen appreciation of a widely different kind of work. But even had he chosen to make such estimates, he would not have incorporated them in a journal kept for an entirely different purpose; a journal which obviously cannot be assumed with any justice to mirror his whole intellectual life. So that, while the "American Note-Books" contain many traces of his personality, throw some light on his habit of observing common things, and intimate the outward conditions of his modest course of living, they contain few of those deep reflections which come to light in his works of imagination; and they must not be looked to for a revelation of the entire man. In basing opinions upon them, it is well to remember, and apply in this case also, what Hawthorne once said in a letter to Mr. Fields:--

"An old Quaker wrote me, the other day, that he had been reading my Introduction to the 'Mosses' and the 'Scarlet Letter,' and felt as if he knew me better than his best friend; but I think he considerably overestimates the extent of his intimacy with me."

The finish and deliberation of the style in these fragmentary chronicles, fitly known under the name of Note-Books, are very likely to mislead any one who does not constantly recall the fact that they were written currente calamo, and merely as superficial memoranda, beneath which lay the author's deeper meditation, always reserved in essence until he was ready to precipitate it in the plastic forms of fiction. Speaking of "Our Old Home," which--charming though it be to the reader--was drawn almost wholly from the surface deposit of his "English Note-Books," Hawthorne said: "It is neither a good nor a weighty book." And this, indirectly, shows that he did not regard the journals, as concentrating the profounder substance of his genius.

The series of passages from the "American Note-Books" covers the space of eighteen years, almost to a day; the extracts running from June 15, 1835, to June 9, 1853; and in a detached way it represents the main part of Hawthorne's career throughout the period of his rise from obscurity to fame, purely as a growth of American soil and conditions, before he had ever set foot in Europe.

Doubt has been thrown upon the correctness of one date in the printed volume, that of September 7, 1835, describing "A drive to Ipswich with B----." The person referred to as "B----, is still living, and did not become acquainted with Hawthorne until 1845,--ten years later than the date of the entry in question. It is possible that an error of transcription may have occurred, owing to indistinctness of chirography or the confused manner of keeping these early Note-Books; but in the main the chronology may be relied upon as accurate. Two other passages require a brief explanation. Under date of August 31, 1836, is printed the sentence: "In this dismal chamber FAME was won." (Salem, Union Street.) Again, one reads: "Salem, Oct. 4th, Union Street [Family Mansion].--. . . Here I sit in my old accustomed chamber. . . .Here I have written my tales," etc. The reference in both instances is to Herbert Street, Salem; and the simple explanation of another street-name being substituted is as follows. Hawthorne was born in a house on Union Street, Salem. After the death of his father, a ship-captain, at Surinam, in 1808, his mother removed "to the house of her father in Herbert Street, the next one eastward from Union. The land belonging to this ran through to Union Street, adjoining the house they had left; and from his top-floor study here, in later years, Hawthorne could look down on the less lofty roof under which he was born. The Herbert Street house, however, was spoken of as being on Union Street." [note-2] Hence, in the two passages above cited, "Herbert Street" should be put in the place of "Union Street," if it be desired to identify the exact locality. Hawthorne wrote his first stories in the Herbert Street house; but that house, the family mansion (now, through the indifference of his townsmen, become a tenement-house), was always referred to by members of the family as being on Union Street.

Here and there passages of the original record have been omitted in the Note-Books as published by Mrs. Hawthorne; but the most vital and significant portions are retained in the printed version; and these, in the collected works, are all that will be given to the public.

G. P. L.



[note-1] For particulars concerning this boyish Note-Book, with extracts from it, the reader is referred to A Study of Hawthorne, III., 83, and to Appendix I. of that volume.

[note-2] A Study of Hawthorne, III., 62, 63.

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Lathrop, George Parsons. Introduction to <cite>Passages from<br /> &nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;the American Note-Books of Nathaniel Hawthorne</cite>.<br />
&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1883. 21 Sep. 1999. <br />
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Lathrop, George Parsons. Introduction to Passages from

     the American Note-Books of Nathaniel Hawthorne

     Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1883. 21 Sep. 1999.


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