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Excerpts from Brenda Wineapple’s Hawthorne: A Life (courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf ) pp. 26-27

A discussion of the psychology of Hawthorne’s foot injury and the effect of the injury on activities in his early adolescence
“Less than six weeks after Uncle Richard left Salem for good [to reside in Raymond, Maine], Nathaniel injured his foot at school while playing, Ebe [his sister, Elizabeth] said, with a bat and ball. He took to crutches for the next fourteen months—that is, when he walked at all, which he often refused to do. It was an early rebellion, self-punitive and vindictive, in protest against the loss of his male guardians. No one had heard from his uncle John in quite some time, though he’d reportedly been spotted in New York City, bound for the Great Lakes to ‘work at his Trade.’ That was all. With Grandfather Manning dead and Uncle Richard gone and John feared lost, Nathaniel himself threatened to run away forever, recalled his sister. Unable to do this, he did the opposite. Like Uncle Richard, he committed himself to immobility.

Paralysis and aggression, twin handmaidens of a conflicted psyche: in his early stories, they appear as relatives and doubles, as in “The Gentle Boy,” where patriarchal Puritans resembling William Hathorne harass the gentle Ilbrahim, an orphaned Quaker child. Paternal persecutors will invariably crop up in Hawthorne’s work and so will characters like Ilbrahim’s malicious friend, who cunningly breaks Ilbrahim’s spirit (26).

…Fearing an incurable deformity in Betsy’s darling son and the sole grandson of the Mannings, they consulted a series of doctors. ‘Everybody thought that, if he lived, he would always be lame,’ Ebe recalled. Under the guidance of Dr. Smith of Hanover, New Hampshire, the family tried to invigorate his leg by dousing his foot with cold water. Legend says they poured water from a window on the second story onto the foot, which they encased in a specially fitted boot.

All treatments failed.

...[A]fter Nathaniel’s injury, his teacher, Joseph Worcester, the future lexicographer, went to the Manning house to hear him recite his lessons privately. ‘One of the peculiarities of my boyhood was a grievous disinclination to go to school,’ Nathaniel later said, ‘and (Providence favoring me in this natural repugnance) I never did go half as much as other boys, partly owing to delicate health (which I made the most of for the purpose).’ Delicate health, other boys: Nathaniel regarded himself as peculiar, even bizarre—entitled, and diminished by the entitlement (27).

Taking refuge, then, from the activities he feared in an infirmity he loathed, the boy unconsciously identified not just with the men but with the women of his household, particularly his mother and two sisters. Thus Nathaniel’s handicap became his fortunate fall into literature, according to his sister Ebe (27).

By the winter of 1815, Nathaniel’s condition miraculously improved after his mother decided to decamp to Maine with her children and her sister Mary” (28).



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