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Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1804-1864

Memories of Hawthorne

By Rose Hawthorne Lathrop



The Artist at Work


I WAS once asked to write of my father's "literary methods," and the idea struck me as delightfully impossible. I wish I knew just what those methods were--I might hope to write a romance. But as the bird on the tree-bough catches here and there a glimpse of what men are about, although he hardly aspires to plough the field himself, or benefit by human labor until the harvest comes, so I have observed some facts and gathered some notions as to how my father thought out his literary work.

One method of obtaining his end was to devote himself constantly to writing, whether it brought him money or not. He might not have seemed to be working all the time, but to be enjoying endless leisure in walking through the country or the city streets. But even a bird would have had more penetration than to make such a mistake as to think this. Another wise provision was to love and pity mankind more than he scorned them, so that he never created a character which did not possess a soul--the only puppet he ever contrived of straw, "Feathertop," having an excellent soul until the end of the story. Still another method of gaining his success was to write with a noble respect for his own best effort, on which account he never felt satisfied with his writing unless he had exerted every muscle of his faculty; unless every word he had written seemed to his severest self-criticism absolutely true. He loved his art more than his time, more than his ease, and could thrust into the flames an armful of manuscript because he suspected the pages of weakness and exaggeration.

One of his methods of avoiding failure was to be rigorous in the care of his daily existence. A preponderance of frivolous interruption to a modicum of thorough labor at thinking was a system utterly foreign to him. He would not talk with a fool; as a usual thing he would not entertain a bore. If thrown with these common pests, he tried, I think, to study them. And they report that he did so very silently. But he did not waste his time, either by politely chattering with people whom he meant to sneer at after they had turned their backs, or in indulgences of loafing of all sorts which leave a narcotic stupidity in their wake. He had plenty of time, therefore, for thought, and he could thank while walking either in the fresh air, or back and forth in his study. Men of success detest inactivity. It is a hardship for them to be as if dead for a single moment. So, when my father could not walk out of doors during meditation, he moved back and forth in his room, sturdily alert, his hands clasped behind him. quietly thinking, his head either bent forward or suddenly lifted upward with a light in his gray eyes.

He wrote principally in the morning, with that absorption and regularity which characterize the labor of men who are remembered. When his health began to show signs of giving way, in 1861, it was suggested by a relative, whose intellect, strength of will, and appetite for theories were of equally splendid proportions, that my father only needed a high desk at which to stand when writing, to be restored to all his pristine vigor. With his usual tolerance of possible wisdom he permitted such a desk to be arranged in the tower-study at The Wayside; but with his inexorable contempt for mistakes of judgment he never, after a brief trial, used it for writing. Upon his simple desk of walnut wood, of which he had nothing to complain, although it barely served its purpose, like most of the inexpensive objects about him, was a charming Italian bronze ink-stand over whose cover wrestled the infant Hercules in the act of strangling a goose--in friendly aid of "drivers of the quill." My father wrote with a gold pen, and I can hear now, as it seems, the rapid rolling of his chirography over the broad page, as he formed his small, rounded, but irregular letters, when filling his journals, in Italy. He leaned very much on his left arm while writing, often holding the top of the manuscript book lovingly with his left hand, quite in the attitude of a boy. At the end of a sentence or two he would sometimes unconsciously bow his head, as if bidding good-by to a thought well rid of for the present in its new garb of ink.

In writing he had little care for paper and ink. To be sure, his large, square manuscript was firmly bound into covers, and the paper was usually of a neutral blue; and when I say that he had little care for his mechanical materials I mean that he had no servile anxiety as to how they looked to another person, for I am convinced that he himself loved his manuscript books. There was a certain air of humorous respect about the titles, which he wrote with a flourish, as compared with the involved minuteness of the rest of the script, and the latter covers every limit of the page in a devoted way. His letters were formed obscurely, though most fascinatingly, and he was almost frolicsome in his indifference to the comfort of the compositor. Still he had none of the frantic reconsiderations of Scott or Balzac. If he made a change in a word it was while it was fresh, and no one could obliterate what he had written with a more fearless blot of the finger, or one which looked more earnest and interesting. There was no scratching nor quiddling in the manner with which he fought for his art. Each day he thought out the problems he had set himself before beginning to write, and if a word offended him, as he recorded the result, he thrust it back into chaos before the ink had dried. I think that the manuscript of "Dr. Grimshawe's Secret" is an exception, to some extent. There are many written self-communings and changes in it. My father was declining in health while was being evolved. But yet, in "The Dolliver Romance," the last work of all in process of development, written while he was physically breaking down, we see the effect of will and heroic attempt. It is the most beautiful of his compositions, because his mind was greater at that time than ever, and because death could not frighten him, and in its very face he desired to complete the proof of his whole power, as the dying soldier rises to the greatest act of his life, having given his life-blood for his country's cause. Though the script of this manuscript is extremely difficult to read, the speculation had evidently been done before taking up the pen. I am not sure but that my father sometimes destroyed first drafts, of which his family knew nothing. Indeed, we have his own word for it that "he passed the day in writing stories and the night in burning them." Nevertheless, his tendency we know to have been that of thinking out his plots and scenes and characters, and transcribing them rapidly without further change.

Since he did not write anything wholly for the pleasure of creative writing, but had moral motives and perfect artistic harmony to consider, he could not have indulged in the spontaneous, passionate effusions which are the substance of so much other fiction. He was obliged to train his mind to reflection and judgment, and therefore he never tasted luxury of any kind. The mere enjoyment of historical settings in all their charm and richness, rehabilitated for their own sake or for worldly gain; and that of caricatures of the members of the human family, because they are so often so desperately funny; the gloating over realistic pictures of life as it is found, because life as it is found is a more absorbing study than that of geology or chemistry; the tasting of redundant scenes of love and intrigue, which flatter the reader like experiences of his own,--these excesses he was not willing to admit to his art, a magic that served his literary palate with still finer food. He wrote with temperateness, and in pitying love of human nature, in the instinctive hope of helping it to know and redeem itself. His quality was philosophy, his style forgiveness. And for this temperate and logical and laconic work--giving nothing to the world for its mere enjoyment, but going beyond all that to ennoble each reader by his perfect renunciation of artistic claptrap and artistic license--for this aim he needed a mental method that could entirely command itself, and, when necessary, weigh and gauge with the laborious fidelity of a coal-surveyor, before the account was rendered with pen and ink upon paper. When he brought within his art the personality of a human devil, he honored its humanity, and proved that the real devil is quite another thing. In fact, perhaps he would not have permitted the above epithet. In one of her letters my mother remarks, "I think no sort of man can be called a devil, unless it be a slanderer."

Though he dealt with romance he never gave the advantage of an inch to the wiles of bizarre witchery, the grotesque masks of wanton caprice in imagination--those elements which exhibit the intoxication of talent. His terrors were those of our own hearts; his playfulness had the merit of the sunlight. In short, he was artistically consecreted, guiding the forces he used with the reins of truth; and he could do this unbrokenly because he governed his character by Christian fellowship. If he shrank from unnecessary interruptions, which jarred the harmony of his artistic life, he nevertheless met courteously any that were to him inevitable. Could he have written with the heart's blood of old Hepzibah if he had failed to put his own shoulder to the domestic wheel, on the plea that it was too deep in the slough of disaster to command his assistance? He did not dread besmirching his hands with any affairs sent him by God.

"The heart knoweth its own bitterness, and a stranger intermeddleth not with its joy;" and the joy and the bitterness of creative work are not intermeddled with as much as one might suppose by the outside weather of praise or non-comprehension, if the artist is great enough to keep his private self-respect. I am of the opinion that my father enjoyed his own indifference to his accomplished work, yet knew its value to the minutest ray of the diamond; that he had sharply challenged the enchantment of his first conception, and heard the right watchword, yet recognized that no human conception can fathom the marvels of the superhuman. I believe that the men we admire most, in the small group of great minds, are sufficiently necromantic to look two ways at once--to appreciate and to condemn themselves. So my father heard himself praised with composure, and blamed his skill rejoicingly.

Some passages from a copy of an article in "The North British Review" of Edinburgh during 1851 were capable of filling a wife's heart with exultation, and my mother quotes: "'The most striking features in these tales are the extraordinary skill and masterly care which are displayed in their composition.... It would be difficult to pick out a page which could be omitted without loss to the development of the narrative and the idea, which are always mutually illustrative to a degree not often attained in any species of modern art.... His language, though extraordinarily accurate, is always light and free.... We know of nothing equal to it, in its way [the portrayal of Dimmesdale], in the whole circle of English literature;' and much more in the same superlative vein."

But if my father could weigh his artistic success with the precision of a coal-heaver, who will ever be able to weigh and gauge the genius which carries methods and philosophies and aims into an atmosphere of wonderful power, where the sunlight and the color and the lightning and frowning clouds transfigure the familiar things of life in glorious haste and inspiration? While following his rules and habits my father was constantly attended by the rapturous spirit of such a genius, transmuting swarming reality into a few symbolic types.

Another way in which he effected telling labor was to conserve his force in the matter of wrangling. He kept his temper. He was not without the fires of life, but he banked them. He did not permit disgust at others or at the adverse destiny of the moment to absorb his vitality, by throwing it off in long harangues of rage, long seasons of the sulks. There are no such good calculators as men of consummate genius. They dread the squandering of energy of an Edgar Allan Poe or of a boiling Walter Savage Landor. Temperateness implies the control of fierce elements; and in all management of volcanic power we perceive sweetness and beauty.

When my father handled sin, it became uncontaminating tragedy; when he handled vulgarity, as in "The Artist of the Beautiful," it became inevitable pathos; when he handled suspicion, as in "The Birthmark" and "Rappaccini's Daughter," it evolved devoted trust.

The frequent question as to whether Hawthorne drew from his family or friends in portraying human nature shows an unfamiliarity with literary art. Portraiture is not art, in literature, though a great artist includes it, if he chooses, in the category of his productions. To any one permeated by the atmosphere of art (though not quite of it) as I was, it seems strange that a truly artistic work should be thought to be an imitation of individual models. The distance of inspiration is the distance of a heavenly fair day, or of a night made luminous by mystery, giving a new quality and a new species of delight to facts about us. In reading the sympathetic merriment of the introduction to "The Scarlet Letter," and then the story itself, we perceive the difference between the charm of a Dutch-like realism and the thrill of imaginative creation, which uses material made incomprehensibly wonderful by God in order to make it comprehensibly wonderful to men. But, of course, the material thus transmuted by the distance of inspiration is only new and fine to men who have ears to hear and eyes to see. My father never imitated the men and women he met, nor man nor woman, and such conceptions of his way would bring us to a dense forest of mistake.

In the afternoon my father went, if practicable, into the open spaces of nature, or at least into the fresh air, to gather inspiration for his work. He had no better or stronger or more lavish aids than air and landscape, unless I except his cigar. He never, I think, smoked but one cigar a day, but it was of a quality to make up for this self-denial and I am sure that he reserved his most puzzling literary involutions for the delicious half-hour of this dainty enjoyment.

In 1861 and thereafter he traversed, as has been said, the wooded hilltop behind his home, which was reached by various pretty climbing paths that crept under larches and pines, and scraggy, goat-like apple-trees. We could catch sight of him going back and forth up there, with now and then a pale blue gleam of sky among the trees, against which his figure passed clear. Along this path, made by his own steps only, he thought out the tragedy of "Septimius Felton," who buried the young English officer at the foot of one of the large pines which my father saw at each return. At one end of the hilltop path was a thicket of birch and maple trees; and at the end towards the west and the village was the open brow of the hill, sloping rapidly to the Lexington Road, and overlooking meadows and distant wood-ranges, some of the cottages of humble folk, and the neighboring huge, owlet-haunted elms of Alcott's lawn. Along this path in spring huddled pale blue violets, of a blue that held sunlight, pure as his own eyes. Masses also of sweet-fern grew at the side of these abundant bordering violets, and spacious apartments of brown-floored pine groves flanked the sweet-fern, or receded a little before heaps of blackberry branches and simple flowers. My father's violets were the wonder of the year to us. We never saw so many of these broad, pale-petaled ones anywhere else, until the year of his death, when they greeted him with their celestial color as he was borne into Sleepy Hollow, as if in remembrance of his long companionship on The Wayside hill.

It is well with those who forget themselves in generous interest for the hopes, possibilities, and spiritual loftiness of human beings all over the world. Such men may remain poor, may never in life have the full praise of their fellows; they could easily give testimony as to the delights of praise from God,--that which comes to our lips after little spiritual victories, like spring water on a hot day, and of which the workers in noble thought or adventure drink so deep. These representative men, if they cheer their fancy with fair thoughts of wide public approbation, choose the undying sort, that blooms like the edelweiss beyond the dust of sudden success. Hawthorne worked hard and nobly. Not even the mechanic who toils for his family all day, all week-days of the year, and never swears at wife or child, toils more nobly than this sensitive, warm-hearted, brave, recluse, much-seeing man. He teaches the spiritual greatness of the smallest fidelity, and the spiritual destruction in the most familiar temptations. The Butterfly which he describes floats everywhere through his pages, and it is broken wherever the heart of one of his characters breaks, for there sin has clutched its victim. It floats about us lovingly to attract our attention to higher things; and I am sure the radiant delicacy of the winged creature throbbed on a flower near David Swan, as he slept honestly through the perils of evil.

Every touch of inner meaning that he gives speaks of his affection, his desire to bring us accounts of what he has learned of God's benevolence, in his long walks on the thoroughfares and in the byways, and over the uncontaminated open country of human hope. Poverty, trouble, sin, fraudulent begging, stupidity, conceit,--nothing forced him absolutely to turn away his observation of all these usual rebuffs to sympathy, if his inconvenience could be made another's gain. But he was firm with a manliness that was uncringing before insolence, and did not shrink from speaking home truths that pruned the injurious branches of the will; yet he never could be insulting, because he had no selfish end. As a comrade he led to higher perceptions and moods. The men who chatted with him in the Salem Custom House, the Liverpool Consulate, and elsewhere, never forgot that he was the most inspiring man they had known. All this was work. The idle man, lazy in a drunken carouse, is in a world of his own. His sphere stretches out no connecting tendrils to the spheres of others; he seems to us dead in spirit ; he will tell you he believes in no one's true friendship, and wishes for no companionship; we do not know how touch his heart, nor in what language to make him hear when we call,--he is in Mars. But the sentinel, still as marble, or moving like a well-adjusted machine that will not defy law--he stirs us by his energy, his laboring vigilance. His care for others would make him surrender his life at once. The trusted soldier has left selfishness and cowardice on the first tenting-ground, and works hard though, though he stands statue-like. It is his business to be of use, and he is never useless. So with a great artist. He is brother to gentleman or churl. Hawthorne had not an atom of the poison of contempt. As I have said before, if he did not love stupidity, he forgave it.

He was fond of using his hands for work, too; and he had skill in whatever he did. His activity of this manual sort may be inferred from the fact that when a young man he gradually whittled away one of the leaves of his writing-table, while musing over his stories. He did not know, unpleasantly, that he was doing it. What fun he must have had! Think of the rich scenery of thought that spread about him, the people, the subtle motives, the eerie truths, the entrancing outlooks into divine beauty, that entertained him as his sharp blade carved and sliced his table, which gladly gave itself up to such destruction! When he was writing "The Scarlet Letter," as Julian's nurse Dora long delighted to tell, his wife with her dainty care in sewing was making the little boy a shirt of the finest linen, and was putting in one sleeve, while the other lay on the table. Dora saw Hawthorne, who was reading, lay down his book and take up something which he proceeded to cut into shreds with some small scissors that exactly suited him.

"Where can the little sleeve be which I finished, and wished to sew in here, my love?" said his blissful wife. Hawthorne (blissfully thinking of his novel) only half heard the question; but on the table was a heap of delicate linen shavings, and the new scissors testified over them.

His jack-knife was a never-ending source of pleasure, and he was seldom without the impulse, if a good opportunity offered, to subject a sapling to it for a whistle or to make Some other trifle, or to cut a bit of licorice with a slow, sure movement that made the black lump most acceptable.

His mind was never in a stound. It was either observing, or using observations. Of course he lost his way while walking, and destroyed commonplace things while musing; and the world hung just so much the less heavily upon his moving pinions of thought.

His diligence of mind is reported of him at an early age. His sister, Ebie Hawthorne, gave me a bust of John Wesley, in clerical white bib, and of a countenance much resembling Alcott's , to the long, white, waving hair. Its very aspect cried out, though never so mercifully, "My sermon is endless!"

Aunt Ebie, hunching her shoulders in mirthful appreciation, said, "Nathaniel always hated it!"

Why not? At four years of age he had already had enough of Wesley; and my aunt, with a rejoicing laugh, described how, not being able to induce his elders to act upon his abhorrence of the melancholy, tinted object, at last, in dead of winter, he filled it with water through a hole in the pedestal, which had revealed its hollowness. He then stood the bust upside down against the wall in a cold place, confidently awaiting the freezing of the water, in which event it was to be hoped that the puppet sermonizer would burst, like a pitcher under similar odds. But John Wesley never burst, to the disgust of a broader mind and the offended wonder of childish eyes.

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