Hawthorne in Salem Search Hawthorne in Salem

Facebook Page

To Be My Own Human Child: Parenting and Romance

Hawthorne and the Culture of the Family Panel ALA, May 2003
"To Be My Own Human Child: Parenting and Romance"

by Dr. Karen Sanchez-Eppler, Professor of American Studies and English, Amherst College, Amherst, MA

Dr. Karen Sanchez-eppler, Professor of American Studies and English, Amherst College, Amherst, MA
Dr. Karen Sanchez-eppler, Professor of American Studies and English, Amherst College, Amherst, MA
If I pride myself on anything, it is because I have a smile that children love; and on the other hand, there are few grown ladies that could entice me from the side of little Annie; for I delight to let my mind go hand in hand with the mind of a sinless child. So, come, Annie; but if I moralize as we go, do not listen to me; only look about you, and be merry!

This scene of a grown man entering the public sphere hand in hand with a young child is repeated throughout Nathaniel Hawthorne's fiction. Hawthorne wrote more pieces directly aimed at a juvenile audience than any other canonical male author of the antebellum period. I will argue that his self-presentation as a writer who wishes to make public on the streets of the town, or the pages of a book, his connection with childhood, provides important insights into his conception of authorship, and the role of the Romance in what our panel calls "The Culture of the Family."

"Little Annie's Ramble" was first published in the annual Youth's Keepsake, a Christmas and New Year's Gift for Young People in 1835, almost a decade before Hawthorne had children of his own, and a few years before his courtship of Sophia Peabody. It is a fantasy of communion with a child which simultaneously remains oddly anti-domestic, telling as it does of Annie's ramble away from home. The Youth's Keepsake clearly intended its stories as holiday gifts for children and the copy at Smith College suggests that the volumes were indeed used in this way: the first page is inscribed "Eliza P. Humphrey, from her father Jan 1st 1835." Hawthorne both addresses and speaks-past such young readers; his story is as much for Eliza's father, suggesting the pleasure that grown men should or could take in little girls, as it is for Eliza herself. Ultimately the story would be re-printed in Twice-Told Tales-the shift in audience reflecting on the disturbing shifts of tone in the piece itself.

What would Annie think if, in the book which I mean to send her, on New Year's day, she should find her sweet little self, bound up in silk or morocco with gilt edges, there to remain till she become a woman grown, with children of her own to read about their mother's childhood! That would be very queer. (9:124)

Such confusions of outside and inside, author and narrator, reader and character, world and book are the principal charm of this story, but also the principal source of threat. The editors of Youth's Keepsake were particularly pleased by this conceit and used a picture labeled "Little Annie" as the frontispiece of the entire volume. Then, on page 151, immediately below this passage with its playful conflation of child and book lies a note, "Does not our Frontispiece resemble your 'Little Annie'? EDITOR" calling the author's attention to the press's fine treatment of his story, calling the readers' attention to the gift-book's expensive plates, but even more offering to make true Hawthorne's whimsical fantasy in the suggestion that Eliza Humphrey and all the daughters of all the fathers that purchased this book could find themselves "bound up" in it. The relation between book, man and child is, as Hawthorne puts it, "very queer."

In the didactic tradition of early nineteenth-century children's literature the tale of a child who "strayed from her home" (9:128) is a familiar conceit, one that reveals the dangers of town and affirms that children should be obedient and at home. In such accounts a hearth-side pastime like reading would keep a child safe. Hawthorne's story appears to reject such traditional didacticism; the narrator insists that this ramble into the world is a harmless pleasure that leaves Annie "untainted" (9:129). The story proclaims itself similarly detached from monitory responsibilities: to "be merry" is better than to "moralize." But the conclusion of the sketch makes clear that the narrator's version of this afternoon ramble is not the only perspective. The bell of the town crier that opened the story, that clang of communal order and public knowledge, ends it as well, this time announcing not circuses but "the loss of a little girl who has not once let go of my hand!" (9:129). In the nonchalance with which the narrator discounts the mother's fear of losing Annie, in the worldly cynicism with which he describes all that they see as they roam the streets of the town, and most of all in his obsessive fascination with Annie's "pure, instinctive delicacy of taste" ( 9:127), the narrator himself appears as the source of taint. In presenting himself as a writer of children's stories, then, Hawthorne suggests the perverse as well as the innocent possibilities of that role. To "go hand in hand with the mind of a sinless child" intrudes hands into minds in a manner that will echo as horror throughout Hawthorne's mature fiction, as "the Unpardonable Sin" of "Ethan Brand," or as the torture Chillingsworth dispenses to Dimmesdale who "knew that no friendly hand was pulling at his heart-strings."

Presenting itself as an innocent children's story "Little Annie's Ramble" thus also tells a story of adult lechery and disillusionment: "I have gone too far astray for the town crier to call me back!" the narrator moans ( 9:129). Yet even this layered understanding of the story is too simple, for if it distrusts the narrator's self presentation it still endorses the image of Annie as a "sinless child." One of the most destabilizing things about this story, however, is how Annie is cast as initiating this "strange couple": at least as the narrator sees and describes it, Annie is the one who feels "that impulse to go strolling away"and so takes a stranger's hand ( 9:121). One of the most seductive things about this story, in other words, is how it presents the little girl as herself the source of seduction. The narrator insists at the story's end that it is not a story at all, that nothing has happened in it, and that Annie can return home "with an untainted and unwearied heart, and be a happy child again" ( 9:129). Yet perhaps nothing has happened for the quite different reason that Annie never was such a "happy child" in the first place. The stroll began, after all, because the narrator could "see that the pretty child is weary of this wide and pleasant street" ( 9:121). The adult life weariness that he claims at the end can be alleviated by contact with the "still fresh existence" and "sweet magic" of "an hour or two with children" (129) proves part of childhood itself since Annie too is weary. The shifting character of innocence and taint in this story comes to haunt Hawthorne's experience of parenting. A similar idealization of childhood innocence prompts Nathaniel and Sophia to name their first daughter "Una"-much against the advice of family and friends-as "the symbol of the one true union in the world" as Nathaniel put it in a letter to Sophia, and as a harbinger "of a most delicate spirit, impatient of wrong & ugliness-demanding beauty of all things & persons-& like the 'heavenly Una' of Spenser" as Sophia noted in the family journal that she and Nathaniel both wrote in sporadically until 1852. Though she is careful to counter these beatific predictions for her daughter with the assurance that "At the same time she will recognize the Real." Sophia began this notebook on April 3rd 1844, exactly a month after Una's birth; Nathaniel did not write in it until June 20th 1847 when he recorded some of Una's words:

"I'm tired of all sings, and want to slip into God. I'm tired of little Una Hawsorne." "Are you tired of Mama?" "No." "But are you tired of Papa?" "No." "I am tired of Dora, and tired of little Julian, and tired of little Una Hawsorne." (8:398)

Tired of nurse and brother and self, here is a world weariness greater even than "Little Annie's." Sophia records this scene as well in her different style, Nathaniel's detached quotation tempered in her version by sympathetic explanation "Rain & cold. Una had a day of infinite ennui, like a bird with wings tied to its side[....] 'I am tired of all thsings'" (151). It is easy to imagine "I am tired of all sings" becoming a kind of family code. What are these parents doing when they fondly and critically write these remembrances of Una, the world-weary, self-weary child, moping in the Hawthorne parlor? The family notebook is full of such observations. There is clearly a pleasure for both parents in recording childish oddities and badness at least as great as that offered by accounts of the children's goodness. As Sophia puts it, "In short there never were such divine children, far diviner than if more spotless of blame-I cannot explain this remark now" (161). What Sophia cannot explain is the way that she is charmed by her child, how affection transmutes moral categories and evades ideology. Though critics are right to note the idealizing and gendering pressures that the Hawthornes' put on their children, and most forcefully on their first child Una, the predominant feeling in these notebook entries is one of wonder, of the uncanny mysteriousness of children.

But to return to Una, there is something that almost frightens me about the child-I know not whether elfin or angelic, but, at all events, supernatural [....] I now and then catch an aspect of her, in which I cannot believe her to be my own human child, but a spirit strangely mingled with good and evil, haunting the house where I dwell. The little boy is always the same child, and never varies in his relation to me. (8:431)

Hawthorne writes these notes in the days awaiting his mother's death, discomfitted in part by Una's fascination with her grandmother's sickroom. Critics often quote this passage because it is so closely echoed in the phrases Hawthorne will use to describe Pearl in The Scarlet Letter. But its portrait of Una's startling changeability is one that both parents repeat throughout these pages. Here is Sophia:

I never knew such a combination of the highest refinement & rudest boorishness-one lies at the door of the other- When she was a little infant, in one position as she lay asleep, she reminded me us of Pan-almost Caliban-& in another the most sweet, angelical etherial-spiritual aspect beamed forth. (166)

Sophia's correction from "me" to "us" marks the pressure of family unity-to parent as one-but in so doing it emphasizes the shared sense of this evaluation, how since infancy the couple have been telling stories, assigning symbolic, mythic, literary names to make sense of this life that they have produced but that they cannot contain or predict. Child-rearing manuals stressed the parental duty to mold the moral being of children. What the Hawthornes record most powerfully in this notebook is the limits to adult command, the autonomy of these beings, the impossibility of control or authorship over what should be "my own human child." That Julian seems less troubling in these terms may be a mark of gender difference (there apparently being less need to explain aggression or wildness in a boy), or even a matter of character. But there is also the difference made by Una's position as first child-how in the parenting of Una the Hawthornes define for themselves what the mysterious relations between parent and child, may be. The questions the notebook raises as questions about Una, are thus also questions about childhood itself, about how infantile lives come to take a recognizable human form, to be inscribed within moral and social codes, and what role parents might occupy in that process.

Pearl has long fascinated and confused readers of The Scarlet Letter. As Barbara Garlitz first noted, the responses of early reviewers described her either as "an embodied angel from the skies" or as "a void little demon" and such polarities have continued to characterize critical response. Garlitz's efforts to make sense of this duality, like those more recently of Franny Nudelman, convincingly show how Pearl conforms to nineteenth-century child-rearing doctrine: naturally innocent-"worthy to have been brought forth in Eden" (1:90)-Pearl had nevertheless imbibed from her mother the passion and sinfulness of the act that conceived her. In The Mother's Book, Lydia Maria Child had warned "it is not possible to indulge anger, or any other wrong feeling, and conceal it entirely. If not expressed in words, a child feels the baneful influence. Evil enters into his soul as the imperceptible atmosphere he breathes enters his lungs" (9). Hawthorne describes Pearl's moral inheritance precisely in terms of such atmospheric transmission.

The mother's impassioned state had been the medium through which were transmitted to the unborn infant the rays of its moral life; and, however white and clear originally, they had taken the deep stains of crimson and gold, the fiery luster, the black shadow, and the untempered light, of the intervening substance. Above all the warfare of Hester's spirit at that epoch was perpetuated in Pearl. (1:91)

Drawing on The Mother's Book and similar manuals, Nudelman explains that the "intersubjectivity" of mother and child reveals the circular nature of familial authority, in such a system "a mother's efforts to discipline her child cannot be easily distinguished from her efforts to discipline herself." Such mutual effects had been apparent to Hawthorne as early as "Little Annie," whose narrator concludes of children "Their influence on us is at least reciprocal with ours on them" (9:129). These readings make sense of the doubleness of Pearl, how her spirit, like Una's is "strangely mingled with good and evil." They suggest as well, why it is that Pearl who "could not be made amenable to rules" (1:91) nevertheless serves to forestall her parents' flight into lawlessness. Why it is she who issues the command "Come thou and take it up!" (1:210) restoring the scarlet letter and the punitive power of communal judgement to her mother's breast.

In the chapter "The Child at the Brook-Side" Hawthorne stresses the multiple and reflective nature of the child's power. As many scholars have noted, Pearl's authority here is communal authority, emphasizing the bonds of relationship and responsibility against Hester's antinomian vision of personal freedom and escape. The multiplication of Pearls in her reflected image and echoing cries, makes her many, "a hidden multitude" (1:210). But if this doubling serves to conjure communal disapproval, allowing Pearl to express societal claims and enforce Puritan law, it simultaneously manages to mark the mysteriousness of relationship and identity: "This image so nearly identical with the living Pearl, seemed to communicate somewhat of its own shadowy and intangible quality to the child herself [....] In the brook beneath stood another child,-another and the same" (1:208). This play of separation and oneness, "another and the same"-how ones own human child can be nevertheless so alien-is mirrored in Hawthorne's writing about his own parenting. Alongside the understanding of the family circle as the source of reciprocal, circular, social discipline runs a sense of the family as "shadowy and intangible," and of childhood as ungraspable as a reflection in a forest pool. The imagery of "haunting" provides one of Hawthorne's most potent tools for Romance. In the Custom-House introduction to The Scarlet Letter, "Moonlight in a familiar room" works this transformation making "the domestic scenery" of the middle-class parlor into "spiritualized" "things of intellect."

Nothing is too small or too trifling to undergo this change and acquire dignity thereby. A child's shoe; the doll seated in her little wicker carriage; the hobby-horse;-whatever, in a word, has been used or played with, during the day, is now invested with a quality of strangeness and remoteness, though still almost as vividly present as by daylight. Thus, therefore, the floor of our familiar room has become a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet and each imbue itself with the nature of the other. Ghosts might enter here without affrighting us. (SL 1:36)

It seems only fitting that Hawthorne should first work this magic on childhood toys, things which he chooses precisely because "trifling" and yet which were always in their daily usage subject to just the sort of transformation he describes. The normal, expected, purpose of doll or hobby-horse is to become real in a child's imagination, to cry or gallop. The production of this neutral territory, the work of Romance, not only transforms the domestic scene, but is modeled on it and particularly on the play of children. Hawthorne may be disquieted by his daughter's way of "haunting the house where I dwell," but it is a discomfort tinged with wonder and desire, and it is, moreover, a practice that he seeks to emulate in his writing of Romance.

The Wonder Book, Hawthorne's most successful of children's books, largely imagines the idealization of childhood and the expectations of society as seamlessly united. Written in Lennox during the summer of 1851, in the light of the critical success of The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, it marks Hawthorne's most sanguine domestic and literary period, a moment when he feels most confident that his creative vision and public taste might indeed coincide. Here the innocence of children, the felicity of literary production, and the clarity of authorial control all appear certain. In this book the college student Eustace Bright tells six stories based on Greek mythology to a group of loosely related children with such simultaneously prosaic and blossomy names as "Milkweed," "Squash-Blossom" or "Dandelion." The frame narrative of Eustace and the flower-children is lively and detailed presenting a year's worth of storytelling on hillside walks and by a winter fire and providing one of Hawthorne's fullest literary portraits of affluent and pleasurable domesticity. It is a domesticity clearly propped by this storytelling, suggesting how much literary enjoyment and the kind of shared cultural norms carried by Greek mythology inform the ideal middle-class household. Sophia writes in the notebook about acting out these myths with the children, Una cast as Pandora, and Julian in "a jaunty cap" as Mercury (158). At the end of A Wonder Book Hawthorne himself figures as a character, "That silent man, who lives in the old red house near Tanglewood avenue, and whom we sometimes meet, with two children at his side" and Eustace makes clear that his authority is not to be doubted :

If our babble were to reach his ears and happen not to please him, he has but to fling a quire or two of paper into the stove and you, Primrose, and I, and Periwinkle, Sweet Fern, Squash-Blossom, Blue Eye, Huckleberry, Clover [...] would all turn to smoke, and go whisking up the funnel! Our neighbor in the red house is a harmless sort of person enough, for aught I know, as concerns the rest of the world; but something whispers to me that he has a terrible power over ourselves, extending to nothing short of annihilation. (7:169-70)

In a sense A Wonder Book, though perhaps the most "sunny and happy" of Hawthorne's books, is also the most deluded since it wins that sunniness through a dual simplification that imagines both parenting and writing as acts of simple fiat. Here childhood appears truly as a parental paradise, Locke's tabula rasa offered literally as a blank page on which the father-author can write.

The notebooks suggest that however happy these months may have been in the Hawthorne household, their happiness is not of this controlled or controlling variety. Hawthorne mailed the manuscript for A Wonder Book to his publisher Ticknor and Fields on July 15th 1851, and on July 28th Hawthorne records in the notebook "at seven o'clock, A.M. Wife, E. P. P. [Sophia's sister Elizabeth Palmer Peabody], Una, and Rosebud, took their departure, leaving Julian and me in possession of the Red Shanty" (8:436). The notebook account "Twenty Days with Julian & Little Bunny, By Papa" is full of the glee of domestic inversions-Julian shrieking because he can with "baby gone" (8:436), or Nathaniel smoking and taking "the little man" on a picnic with Melville where Julian eats only gingerbread (8:464). There are some domestic trials as well: "The little man woke me with his exclamation between two and three o'clock; and I found him, wonderful to say, in a perfectly soppy state. There had been a deluge in his bed and nowhere else" (8:452). But there is no sense of authorial omnipotence, rather if anyone is the wielder of words it is Julian,

Either I have less patience to-day than ordinary, or the little man makes larger demands upon it; but it really does seem as if he had bated me with more questions, references, and observations, than mortal father ought to be expected to endure. He does put me almost beside my propriety; never quitting me, and continually thrusting in his word between the clauses of every sentence of all my reading, and smashing every attempt at reflection into a thousand fragments. (8: 454)

The Hawthorne children do scribble in the pages of this notebook, their own words, drawings and wildly wielded pens erupting around their parent's words, insisting on being part of this writing thing that their parents do. Clearly they know that one way that they matter for their father is as a subject of writing.

Enter Una-"Where is little Julian?" "He has gone out to walk." "No; but I mean where is the place of little Julian that you've been writing about him." So I point to the page, at which she looks with all possible satisfaction; and stands watching the pen as it hurries forward. "I'll put the ink nearer to you," says she. "Father are you going to write all this?" [....] I tell her that I am now writing about herself-"that's nice writing," says she. (8:403)

Una, with narcissistic satisfaction, finds the writing that is her, "nice writing" indeed. Pearl seems herself "the scarlet letter in another form; the scarlet letter endowed with life!" (1:102). I contend that it is in this mirror bond between child and writing that Hawthorne stakes the nature and meaning of authorship, both for the family and for the Romance.


Page citation: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/11834/

About US Privacy Policy Copyright Credits Site Map Site Help