grotesque castaway: permanent alienation

After the success of The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne was one of the most famous American writers. But in the twelve years following his graduation from college in 1825, he was the most invisible. He went back to his mother’s house in Salem and, while he began to write steadily and in fact to produce some of his best stories, became an eccentric recluse. There seems to be some exaggeration in the legend that he never went outdoors until after dark and never shared a meal with his mother or sisters. Nevertheless, he was shaping himself into such a grotesque castaway from life as the ones that people his stories. He must have watched what was happening to himself with horrific fascination, to which we have some clue in this notebook jotting: “A person to be writing a tale, and to find that it shapes itself against his intentions…( toward) a catastrophe which he strives in vain to avert. It might shadow forth his own fate- he having made himself one of the personages.”

---Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts, a descendant of Puritan ancestors, including one of the judges of the Salem witchcraft trials. He graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine, where he had become friends with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and later president of the United States Franklin Pierce, and then returned to Salem to write. Hawthorne's early endeavors were mostly short stories, but even though he published many of these tales in magazines and literary annuals, they always appeared anonymously and did little to advance his literary career. Only when he published these stories in collections, as in Twice-Told Tales (1837) and Mosses from an Old Manse (1846), did Hawthorne become a recognized literary force.--- Read More:

Those who ask where Hawthorne got his sense of personal sin might ponder this, reflecting that a man who binds his soul to any art has made a pact of an uncanny sort. He has chosen something like a permanent alienation from the community of human devotions.

Even when he was publishing several stories each year and those stories had begun to acquire a small, fine reputation, their authorship was kept secret. Queer doings for a young man who had once come from college with the hope of seeing his name among those of the “scribbling sons of John Bull”!

It was Elizabeth Peabody, a neighbor and the daughter of a doctor who had treated Hawthorne in childhood, who smoked out his secret and began to introduce him to Salem society as a man of accomplishment. She arranged too, for his first appointment in the customs service, in Boston. When the Peabody family also moved to that city, it was through them and the circle of intellectuals they cultivated that Hawthorne found a part in the glorious comedy of Brook Farm.

---Hawthorne rendered the scene in his children's history Grandfather's Chair: The volumes of Hutchinson's library, so precious to a studious man, were torn out of their covers, and the leaves sent flying out of the windows. Manuscripts containing secrets of our country's history, which are now lost forever, were scattered to the wind. In the same book, Hawthorne also reprinted a letter from Hutchinson describing the riot. You can read the young merchant Henry Bass's admission that his group the Loyal Nine preferred to keep their names hidden behind that of Ebenezer McIntosh in his letter to Samuel P. Savage, ...---Read More:

Brook Farm was an experiment in socialist reformation established in 1841 on two hundred acres of land eight miles from Boston. The project was so small in scale, except for the reputations and character of the personalities involved in it, so poor in resources and deficient in planning, that only the most incontinent of dreamers could have expected its example to change the social currents of the century. Hawthorne was never so impractical as to think it might. Furthermore, he was enough of a conservative to doubt the worth of most social reforms even if they should take hold. But there, in the spring of 1841, we find him investing a thousand dollars for two shares in Utopia and riding out of Boston through a snowstorm to begin work as a farmer.

The move was less a repudiation of existing society than a wild gamble at finding a way into it through the back door. He hoped to find at Brook Farm a living that would permit him to marry. Now approaching forty, he was anxiously in love with Elizabeth Peabody’s sister Sophia. Since Elizabeth had shooed him out of his recluse study he had tried his hand at editing as well as serving the customhouse. Neither occupation supplemented his tiny writing income enough to give him confidence that he could sustain a family.

At Brook Farm he predictably caught a cold before he did anything else at all. Recovered, he was put to work on one of the hugest manure piles in the literature of American farming. This and the other hand-hardening chores that were his communal lot produced no more enlightenment than the opinion that “a man’s soul may be buried and perish under a dung-heap or in a furrow of the field, just as

as under a pile of money.” This is hardly one of the weightier rebuttals of romantic sentimentality.

But Brook Farm gave him something, after all. Although his hopes of settling Sophia near its sweetly chattering stream went glimmering from the moment of his first sneeze in the farmhouse parlor, he got his second best novel, The Blithedale Romance, from his observations there.


( see link at end) …One thing about Hawthorne, he does tell the truth in his writing, whether fiction or not. He still gets the truth in there when he tells a story.

He says:

After a reasonable training, the yeoman-life throve well with us. Our faces took the sunburn kindly; our chests gained in compass, and our shoulders in breadth and squareness; our great brown fists look as if they had never known kid gloves…

The peril of our new way of life was not lest we should fail in becoming practical agriculturalists, but that we should probably cease to be anything else.

…The clods of earth, which we so constantly belabored, were never etherealized into thoughts. Our thoughts, on the contrary, were fast becoming cloddish…

Remember, Hawthorne associated cities with civilization. He assicated rural areas with rusticity and a lack of the refinements of gracious living.

Hawthorne states quite bluntly that the experiment failed.

Socialism, communism, social equality, a perfect democracy in action; communal living–these experiments in social equity have been tried over and over again and have failed repeatedly.

Hawthorne implies though he does not state that a levelling influence is not always a good thing–that which is highest is lost.

He states quite clearly that while he and his fellow writers and artists had more leisure and a softer life, they had much more energy and spirit with which to create.

Hawthorne also implies that no matter what form society takes, individual members cause friction. He implies that an ideal society is unrealizable, and that no society is capable of sustaining social equity.Read More:


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