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The Duston Family

B. Bernard Cohen on Hawthorne's Borrowings from B. L. Mirick's The History of Haverhill, Massachusetts, 1832

As Professor [Arlin] Turner points out, Hawthorne "made no attempt to conceal" his borrowings from Mather. But some of the details in his article are not in Mather's book. They do appear, however, in The History of Haverhill; for example: after he has realized that the Indians have attacked his town, Mr. Duston races home on horseback; when later he returns to his children to save at least one from the imminent slaughter, they stretch their arms out to him to welcome his protection; out of fear of Mr. Duston, the Indians do not attack him openly, but skulk and fire from behind trees; the Indians take Mrs. Duston and her nurse to an encampment on a small island in the Contocook River, and the island is later named in honor of Mrs. Duston; when she, her nurse, and the English lad who has helped them slaughter the Indians escape, they travel by water, obviously across the Contocook River.

In addition to these elements, Hawthorne found two others of importance in The History of Haverhill: the literary device which he uses when Mr. Duston tries to decide which of his children he should save, and the finial judgment of the actions of Mr. and Mrs. Duston during their perilous trial. Hawthorne narrates that when Mr. Duston rushes back to his children to select the one whom he loves most, an endearing characteristic of each one is recalled to his troubled mind:

There was his first born; there, too, the little one who, till within a week past, had been the baby; there was a girl with her mother's features, and a boy, the picture of himself, and another in whom the looks of both parents were mingled; there was one child, whom he loved for his mild, quiet, and holy disposition, and destined him to be a minister; and another, whom he loved not less for his rough and fearless spirit, and who, could he live to be man, would do a man's part against these bloody Indians. Goodman Duston looked at the poor things, one by one; and with yearning fondness, he looked at them all, together; then he gazed up to Heaven for a moment, and finally waved his hand to his seven beloved ones. 'Go on, my children,' said he calmly. 'We will live or die together!' 1

Hawthorne perhaps derived this artistic device--the effective focusing on the outstanding physical feature or trait of each child-from a poem quoted in The History of Haverhill. The poem "The Father's Choice," written by Mrs. Sarah J. Hale in honor of Mr. Duston, contains the following significant lines:

And from those dear ones make thy choice;
The group he wildly eyed,
    When 'father!' burst from every voice,
And 'child!' his heart replied.
   There's one that now can share his toil,
And one he meant for fame,
    And one that bears his mother's smile,
And one that bears her name.
   And one will prattle on his knee,
Or slumber on his breast;
    And one whose joys of infancy
Are still by smiles expressed.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
He saves his children, or he dies
    The sacrifice of love. 2
In general, the details of the two quoted passages are somewhat different; the two authors, however, were exercising their imaginations in the same direction.

Second, Hawthorne followed Mirick's attempt to weigh the merits of the deeds of Mr. and Mrs. Duston. Mirick seeks to excuse Mrs. Duston of her bloody murder and scalping of the Indians, yet he admits that her conduct was somewhat unladylike. Hawthorne, on the other hand, converts this admission to a belligerent accusation of her for being "a bloody old hag"--a cruel murderess. Both Mirick and Hawthorne praise the heroism of Mr. Duston. Mirick emphatically states, "But let what will be said of her conduct, there is something in the actions of the father and husband, disinterested perhaps, beyond comparison, and noble beyond example." 3 Hawthorne [in "The Duston Family"] implies acceptance of Mirick's judgment of the father: "This awful woman, and that tender hearted, yet valiant man, her husband, will be remembered as long as the deeds of old times are told round a New England fireside. But how different is her renown from his."

1. Nathaniel Hawthorne, American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge, II, 396.
2. Sarah J. Hale, The History of Haverhill, 94.
3. B. L. Mirick, The History of Haverhill, 93.

Source: B. Bernard Cohen, "The Composition of Hawthorne's 'The Duston Family.'" The New England Quarterly. Vol. 21 (1948): 236-241.

Page citation: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/12194/

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