A review of Hawthorne: A Life, by Brenda Wineapple

In the preface to his last completed novel, The Marble Faun (1860), Nathaniel Hawthorne spoke of America as that place "where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a common-place prosperity, in broad and simple daylight." Nearly twenty years later, in 1879, Henry James picked up this thread and, from his own transatlantic point of view, amplified it in his Hawthorne. Hawthorne was obliged to write romances, he said, because the "elements of high civilization" were absent in America during Hawthorne's time: "no state…[no] sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service," James began, and then continued on through a long list of lacunae. When so much of "customs, manners, usages, habits, [and] forms," were missing, James inquired, what was left for the novelist to draw upon?

James was largely right about Hawthorne's art. Hawthorne made the necessity of romance into a triumph of art, and his varied investigations of American legends and his rigorous examination of the inmost heart of man made up for the lack of a developed society. What James termed large absences and "destitutions" became, for Hawthorne, the advantages and additions of imagination and minute perceptivity. In her Hawthorne: A Life, Brenda Wineapple skillfully delineates Hawthorne's gain, from his earliest sketches and tales, to his novels, essays, and his works for children.

But another side of Hawthorne is sketched in her book, though not emphasized. James said about Hawthorne and his American contemporaries that though they lacked so much of social life one thing still remained for Americans; and this was, he ventured obscurely to say, the American's "secret joke." It turns out that what Americans decidedly had, and had in abundance to counterbalance all that was missing, was politics! Tocqueville, of course, commented perceptively on the superabundance of political activity in America during the decades of Hawthorne's career. The life that Wineapple sets forth shows Hawthorne enmeshed in politics every bit as much as he was engaged in literature and the literary life. 

It would be, to use Hawthorne's own phrase, a "twice-told tale" to rehearse Hawthorne's development and accomplishments as a man of letters. Most American high-schoolers or college readers of anthologies know something of his literary career. But Wineapple's book reminds us that Hawthorne lived in a tumultuous time politically; that he knew many major political figures, profiting from his association with them; that he wrote frequently for political journals; that he sought political offices; that he gained from politics the income that allowed him to write fiction; and finally, that through a political appointment he got hold of the subject about which he wrote his best book, The Scarlet Letter. Earlier biographers, of course, have written about Hawthorne's politics and political associations. But for those readers who have never examined a Hawthorne biography in full, Wineapple offers a healthy and happy corrective to the predominant one-sided image of Hawthorne as a delicate, withdrawn recluse who penned remarkably subtle fictions of the dark dramas of tortured inner lives.

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Some of Hawthorne's earliest published essays were written in 1836 for the American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge, which he came to Boston to edit; he himself wrote sketches of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John C. Calhoun. About his personal interest in American politics there was nothing surprising. At Bowdoin College, Hawthorne had been friends with Franklin Pierce, Horatio Bridge, and Jonathan Cilley. Like them, Hawthorne became a committed neo-Jeffersonian Jacksonian Democrat, and remained one all his life. Advocating the political principles of limited government, states' rights, and individual liberty committed him to a conservative republican view that federal powers must be kept at a minimum. Cilley was soon elected to Congress, where his promise of a brilliant political career was ended fatally by a duel. Hawthorne wrote his memorial. Pierce, like Cilley, rose rapidly into influential positions in the Democratic Party; Bridge, too, had political connections in Maine and Washington, D.C. Hawthorne soon became friends with John O'Sullivan who served in the New York legislature, was a follower of Martin Van Buren, and, in 1837, became editor of the Democratic Review, in which, between 1837 and 1845, Hawthorne published twenty stories. The masthead of O'Sullivan's party organization rang with Jeffersonian and Jacksonian fervor: "The Best Government is that which
Governs Least."

Through these friends Hawthorne had been working as hard to get some political post or preferment as he had labored on his stories. The "spoils system" was in glorious ascendancy, and Hawthorne sought to be its beneficiary. Pierce and Bridge tried to get him taken on as historian for a Congressionally-supported South Seas Expedition eventually led by Charles Wilkes. Just before his death, Cilley was laboring to obtain a place for Hawthorne at the Salem Post Office, or perhaps an office in the Capitol. Later, other friends of Hawthorne's urged Orestes Brownson to represent Hawthorne's merits to George Bancroft, collector of the Port of Boston and political boss of the Democratic Party. In this case, Bancroft loomed larger as a politician than as the great historian. Bancroft did, in fact, offer Hawthorne an inspectorship in the Boston Custom House and later a post there as measurer of coal and salt, which the impoverished author and party loyalist gladly accepted. In 1840, when Martin Van Buren failed at reelection, Hawthorne resigned his post. "He'd not serve under Whigs…," Wineapple remarks. Four years later, with the election of Polk, Hawthorne declared himself available again for an office.

In 1846 it came. With Franklin Pierce, Maine's Senator John Fairfield, and the chairman of the Essex County Democratic Committee all promoting the cause of Hawthorne to President Polk, he was appointed surveyor of the Salem Custom House at a salary of $1,200 a year, entailing little work. "I have grown considerable of a politician," Hawthorne wrote to Horatio Bridge. He returned some favors with articles in the Democratic Review and by inviting such speakers as Daniel Webster to lecture at the Salem Lyceum, where Hawthorne became secretary. It was from the Custom House in Salem that Hawthorne got the idea for The Scarlet Letter. That book made him internationally famous. True, when the wheel turned and the Whigs came back into power in 1848, Hawthorne was summarily dismissed—"an act of wanton and unmitigated oppression by the Whigs," William Cullen Bryant wrote in his Democratic paper, the New York Evening Post. For his part, Hawthorne retaliated in the spirit of Machiavellian politics, attempting to get the Senate to reject his proposed successor; and as to his chief local political opponent, he vowed to "do my best to kill and scalp him in the public prints." In the preface to The Scarlet Letter, he did just that—roasting the Whig incumbents at the Custom House. Hawthorne had gotten an income as well as a subject in Salem: literature, politics, and economics had gone hand in hand. And once The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850 Hawthorne's fame made him eligible for even more lucrative posts. 

Now that he was famous, he was a sterling candidate for political preferment. When Franklin Pierce was nominated for the presidency, Hawthorne volunteered to write his "campaign biography." He did so with dispatch, got the best known publishing house in America to issue it prominently, and advertised his other books in it. He flatly told his publisher: "We are politicians now; and you must not expect to conduct yourself like a gentlemanly publisher." The $300 he earned was far less important that the fact that this favor for his friend, when Pierce became president, dropped a very lucrative political spoil in Hawthorne's lap—the American consulship of Liverpool. This was then a great plum because Liverpool was the main port through which England transported goods to America, and the Consul there was authorized to charge two dollars for his signature each time a vessel departed. Hawthorne calculated that he could, as he said, "bag" enough to save about $10,000 a year. And he was happy to give up his solitary life at a novelist's desk for the political preferment and the daily chink of coin in the Liverpool Consul's office. At the peak of his fame he gave up literature and would publish nothing during the next seven years.

Hawthorne liked the job at the consulate; he worked steadily and well at it. He liked the social life that it allowed him in England. If he were turned out of office, he lamented, he would "have to begin scribbling romances again…." With the election of James Buchanan he was turned out. And then, as easily as he had become a political appointee, he returned to literature, moving to Italy, where he gathered material for his last romance, The Marble Faun, concerning American expatriates in Italy. And then he went back home to Concord. To the end his political allegiances remained with Pierce's Kansas policy and the Democratic Party; he despised the Whigs and the Free Soilers who abandoned the Democratic Party, and he feared the policies of the new Republican Party and its 1856 candidate John C. Frémont. He lived just long enough to see Lincoln elected and the country plunged into war. He was a prominent member of a Massachusetts delegation led by Representative Charles Russell Train that traveled to Washington to meet with the new president. "On the whole," Hawthorne wrote, "I like this sallow, queer sagacious visage, with the homely human sympathies that warmed it; and, for my small share in the matter, would as life have Uncle Abe for a ruler as any man whom it would have been practicable to put in his place."

Hawthorne died at the age of 59, before the end of the Civil War, a cataclysm to which he had never become reconciled. His doubts about the war required that his essay, "Chiefly about War Matters by a Peaceable Man," had to be censored to permit its publication. Our Old Home, his last book, was castigated on political, not literary grounds, for Hawthorne's dedication to Pierce, who was still held in contempt in New England for his support of the compromise in Kansas. But Hawthorne remained faithful to his earliest political principles. He was perhaps the last Jeffersonian in American politics and the last true romancer in American letters. Brenda Wineapple's biography allows us to see how much Hawthorne unified and intertwined political activity with a literary life.