From the start, Hawthorne found himself struggling to produce material
to fill the pages of the magazine. With little assistance from the company,
he was forced to supply and edit nearly all of the content himself. He
wrote biographical sketches and brief essays on history, geography, science,
and the arts. He summarized information from a wide range of published
sources, often including amusing topics and anecdotes, such as, "The Science
of Noses," "The Uses of Dead Animals," and "The [Spontaneous] Combustion
of a Professor of Mathematics." To meet the considerable monthly quota
for the magazine, he often resorted to reprinting excerpts of essays or
poetry from American and English books. Unable to afford or acquire company
funds for a membership at the Boston Athenaeum, Hawthorne relied upon
the assistance of his sister Elizabeth in Salem, who responded to his
frenzied letters for help by sending him quotations and summaries from
books in the Salem Athenaeum.2 "Concoct, concoct, concoct," he wrote her.
"I make nothing of writing a history or biography before dinner. Do you
Along with locating and composing brief articles of "useful and entertaining"
knowledge, the Bewick Company officials required Hawthorne to write commentaries
or sketches to complement the wood engravings they wished to highlight.
These illustrations were often selected at the last minute and with little
or no regard for Hawthorne's opinion. The quality often varied. Samuel
Goodrich, who had published some of Hawthorne's first short stories in
The Token, was a stockholder and director in the Bewick Company.
According to B. Bernard Cohen, Goodrich's principal interest was in promoting
the work of engravers.3 Cohen indicates that it was probably Goodrich
who provided the engraving shown on the top of this page and asked Hawthorne
to write a complementary piece for the magazine. In any case, "The Duston
Family" sketch, inspired by the engraving, appeared with the print in
the May 1836 issue of the American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining
The engraving entitled "The Escape of the Duston Family" was a larger
version of a similar engraving first published in Samuel G. Goodrich's
Peter Parley's Method of Telling about the History of the World to
Children (1832). While composing his Duston Family sketch, Hawthorne
drew upon Peter Parley's Method and borrowed specifics from B.
L. Mirick's The History of Haverhill, Massachusetts (1832) and
Cotton Mather's Puritan history, Magnalia Christi Americana (1702).4
These works related the dramatic experiences of Thomas Duston and Hannah,
Hannah was a forty-year old mother of eight taken captive with
her newborn daughter during an Indian raid on Haverhill, Massachusetts,
March 15, 1697. Hannah witnessed the brutal killing of her baby and several
of her neighbors. Later in her captivity, while detained on an island
in the Merrimack River in central New Hampshire, she acquired the assistance
of two other English captives--fifty-one year old Mary Neff of Haverhill
and fourteen-year old Samuel Leonardson of Worcester, Massachusetts-and
killed ten of their Indian captors.5
Before leaving with her companions,
Hannah insisted that the three scalp the dead Indians as proof of their
accomplishment. Upon their return to the English settlements, Duston,
Neff, and Leonardson received high praises and a generous payment for
the ten scalps. 6 Hannah was viewed as a frontier hero, and her story
soon entered into American folklore.
B. Bernard Cohen points out that
"'The Duston Family' is undoubtedly typical of Hawthorne's method of writing
during his editorship of the magazine . . . . In order to lessen the pressure
created by the necessity of hasty composition, he relied heavily on books
he had already read and whose attractions had never left his memory." 7
The Duston Family sketch, in particular, Cohen believes, illustrates
that "[Hawthorne] was able to mold the material which he derived elsewhere
into a creation that definitely reveals the stamp of his maturing artistry
and imagination." 8
In his letters to his sisters, however, Hawthorne expressed little satisfaction
with his writing or his position. He complained to Louisa, "I am so busy
with agents, clerks, engravers, stereotype printers, devils-and the devil
knows what all-that I have not much time to write." In a letter to Elizabeth
he declared that his contributions to the magazine were "bad enough to
satisfy anybody," and added apologetically, "I can't help it."
Frustrated by the relentless hackwork, his lack of editorial control,
and the company's lack of payment (by May he had received only $20 from
the publishers and Goodrich still owed him payment for several stories),
Hawthorne resigned from the magazine. He stayed in Boston for a short
time to work on Goodrich's Peter Parley's Universal History. Goodrich
paid him $100, which he gave to Elizabeth as compensation for her assistance.
After eight months in Boston, feeling tired and discouraged, Hawthorne
returned home to Salem. Arlin Turner in Hawthorne as Editor explains
that the aspiring author "could not reconcile himself long to compiling
a monthly hodge-podge of 'useful and entertaining knowledge.' "9 In an
editorial note in the August issue of the magazine, Hawthorne announced
his departure and offered some comments on his experience as editor:
It is proper to remark that we have not had full controul over the contents
of the Magazine; inasmuch as the embellishments have chiefly been selected
by the executive officers of the Boston Bewick Company, or by the engravers
themselves; and our humble duty has consisted merely in preparing the
literary illustrations. In some few cases, perhaps, the interests of the
work might have been promoted by allowing the Editor the privilege of
a veto, at least, on all engravings which were to be presented to the
Public under his auspices, and for which his taste and judgment would
inevitably be held responsible.
In his 1879 biography of Hawthorne, Henry James remarked that "There
is something pitiful in this episode, and something really touching in
the sight of a delicate and superior genius obliged to concern himself
with such paltry undertakings. The simple fact was that for a man attempting
at that time in America to live by his pen, there were no larger openings;
and to live at all Hawthorne had, as the phrase is, to make himself small."10
Despite his artistic frustrations at the American Magazine and
the limits of a literary career in the 1830s, Hawthorne still managed
to produce a handful of writings that, according to Arlin Turner, "bear
the recognizable stamp of the author's genius. . . and may well be included
in the Hawthorne canon."11
"The Duston Family" sketch is not one of Hawthorne's most accomplished
works, but it reveals something of the moral imagination of its author.
The Duston captivity story-and its subsequent transformations in American
lore and literature-must have intrigued the young Hawthorne who was discovering
in his native history the subjects and themes for some of his best writing.
Given his particular interests in moral conflicts and Puritan bigotry,
it's easy to see why his Duston sketch turned out as it did. His judgement
in "The Duston Family" is noticeably clear: The Indians are victims and
Thomas Duston is the real hero. Hannah is the avenging mastermind, a "raging
tigress!" driven to heartlessness and murder by the darker impulses of
human nature. This, of course, would be the subject Hawthorne would explore
repeatedly in his greatest literary achievements.
1. The Boston Bewick Company, no. 47 Court Street, was an association
of authors, artists, printers, and bookbinders. The American Magazine
of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge (1834-1837) was founded by Freeman
Hunt of Quincy, MA. Numbers 7-12 (Mar. 1836 - Aug. 1836) of Volume 2 of
the magazine were edited anonymously by Nathaniel Hawthorne with the assistance
of his sister Elizabeth.
2. Elizabeth Manning Hawthorne (b.1802, d.1883). Hawthorne also relied
on his sister's assistance when he contributed to Samuel G. Goodrich's
children's book Peter Parley's Universal History (1837).
3. B. Bernard Cohen, "The Composition of Hawthorne's 'The Duston Family,'"
The New England Quarterly 21 (1948): 236-241.
4. The Duston story was first presented in Cotton Mather's sermon Humiliations
followed by Deliverances (1697) then in Decennium Luctuosum
(1702), and finally in Magnalia Christi American (1702). The name
has several spellings: Duston, Dustun, Dustin, Dustan.
5. The Duston house was the first to be attacked in this raid, located
on the northwesterly edge of the settlement. Thomas Duston and his seven
children escaped to safety in one of the six garrison houses in the town.
The island in the Merrimac is, according to tradition, Contoocook, sometimes
called Dustin Island in Boscawen, NH. Of the ten Indians killed by Hannah
and her two companions, six were children and two were adult women. Only
two Indians escaped alive: a young boy and a woman who was badly wounded.
6. Though the bounty on Indian scalps had expired, the Province of Massachusetts
Bay-in agreement with public support--awarded £25 to Hannah and £12 10s.
each to Mary Neff and Samuel Leonardson. The Dustons may have received
more money to compensate Thomas, the actual petitioner to the court, for
the loss of "his estate" to fire during the Haverhill Indian raid.
7. Cohen, 240-41.
8. Cohen, 241.
9. Arlin Turner, ed., Hawthorne as Editor (Baton Rouge: Louisiana
State UP, 1941).
10. Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed. Dan McCall (Ithaca:
Cornell UP, 1998).
11. Turner, Hawthorne as Editor.