It was certainly predictable for me to leap at the opportunity to participate in the NEH Institute on Hawthorne and Longfellow this summer. I had already served as a contributor during the three years of the NEH grant that established the Hawthorne in Salem website (2000-2002) and subsequently contributed three papers to the site’s Scholars’ Forum. Since the Institute fulfilled my hopes of learning much more about Hawthorne, I once again have the opportunity to send along a contribution to the website.
The Maine Humanities Council sponsored this summer’s NEH Institute on the two great authors who graduated in Bowdoin’s Class of 1825. Council staff member and Longfellow biographer Charles Calhoun (Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life, 2004) served as Project Director. We thirty educators accepted into the Institute began our study well before its July 17 opening by reading Calhoun’s work as well as the recent biography of Hawthorne by Brenda Wineapple: Hawthorne: A Life (2003).
Among the most interesting revelations in Calhoun’s eloquent biography, is his summary of the April 5, 1840, dinner in Longfellow’s rooms in Cambridge, attended by Hawthorne and [it is believed] his Salem friend, the Reverend Horace Conolly. Conolly is supposed to have conveyed then the story he had heard from a French-Canadian woman about a young couple’s cruel separation during the British expulsion of Acadians from Nova Scotia in 1755 and the wife’s lifelong quest to be reunited with her husband. He thought it a topic suitable for a Hawthorne novel, but the novelist felt it lacked the “strong lights and heavy shadows” of his characteristic material, a view he regretted later, as he told Conolly, after Longfellow had asked for and received from Hawthorne permission to use the story himself. Thus was born Longfellow’s world-famous narrative poem Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie.
Calhoun’s notes include some other interesting connections between the two authors, including the reference to Hawthorne’s use in the chapter “A Forest Walk” in The Scarlet Letter of the famous expression from “Evangeline’s” opening: “the primeval forest.” Calhoun also parallels the rooms of Hawthorne’s narrator Coverdale in The Blithedale Romance” with those of Longfellow in the Craigie House (the location of the aforementioned dinner between the authors) in Cambridge, and he likens Coverdale’s patronage of the dining room of Boston’s Albion Hotel to that of Longfellow in the years between his two marriages.
Bowdoin College’s Hawthorne-Longfellow Library has a variety of rare resources on both authors. On the afternoon of the Institute’s first day, we were treated to the opportunity of viewing and handling the following materials related to Hawthorne:
A first edition of The Scarlet Letter.
One of only thirty extant copies of the original Fanshawe, Hawthorne’s early college-setting novel, which he suppressed so effectively that even his wife Sophia was unaware of its existence during his lifetime.
Hawthorne’s personal copy of Bowdoin’s “Laws,” on which he had penned both versions of his surname (with and without the “w”) repeatedly in beautiful script.
A copy of the Hawthorne-edited work by his friend and Bowdoin classmate Horatio Bridge, Journal of an African Cruiser, detailing a voyage along the West Coast of Africa and addressing various slavery topics.
Various pieces of personal correspondence.
Although Hawthorne and Longfellow had not been close as classmates, perhaps owing to the three years’ age difference between them and/or Hawthorne’s more iconoclastic temperament compared to Longfellow’s characteristic drive to please, they became closer as adults who shared remarkable parallels. It is certainly notable that when Hawthorne died in 1864, he was the preeminent American writer of narrative fiction, while Longfellow, who lived into 1882, was revered as America’s foremost poet.
Harvard Professor and author of the award-winning Emerson (2003) Lawrence Buell addressed the Institute on Wednesday, July 19, enumerating parallels between Hawthorne and Longfellow. He opened with the ironic observation that, while Hawthorne is praised for originality but Longfellow denigrated for being derivative, in fact both the former writer’s Twice Told Tales and the latter’s Outre-Mer reflect Washington Irving’s Sketch Book. Further, as Buell details in his article “Hawthorne and the Problem of ‘American’ Fiction: The Example of The Scarlet Letter,” there are explicit connections between Hester Prynne’s epitaph and wording found in works by both Scott and Marvel. Hawthorne, moreover, certainly followed the example of Cooper in importing the conventions of historical romance. Notions of isolated innovations in American Renaissance literature, therefore, can be misleading without recognition of influences from other cultures. Like their other literary colleagues, both Hawthorne and Longfellow were “nativizers” of European models, a fact which should not diminish either author’s achievements.
Buell also noted that Hawthorne and Longfellow were among the first generation of Americans for whom authorship served as a viable profession. In a post-pioneer, utilitarian culture, they shared not only aspirations for a national literature but also a degree of defensiveness when it came to the legitimacy of the arts. Both men, moreover, exhibit “feminized voices” in their writing, belles lettres being widely viewed as the province of women during their time. While neither author endorsed radical feminism, the “feminized-voiced” creators of Hester Prynne and Evangeline clearly shared the capacity as well as predilection to create strong female figures.
In their writing, Buell pointed out that both Hawthorne and Longfellow also exhibit similar emotional restraint. In their personal lives, by contrast, it is noteworthy that each was paired for a time with far more volatile personalities, who were more or less known for their homosexuality: Hawthorne’s intense admirer Melville and Longfellow’s lifelong intimate friend, abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner (See Calhoun’s Longfellow, Page 136, for the reference “Sumner probably was gay, if you will excuse the anachronism . . .”).
Finally, Buell noted that Hawthorne and Longfellow exhibited somewhat similar racial attitudes, the descendant of the Salem Puritans evincing the view of his nation as an Anglo-America, while the descendant of the Plymouth Separatists envisioned more of a Euro-America. Politically, Hawthorne remained affiliated with another Bowdoin classmate, slavery-tolerant Democrat Franklin Pierce; Longfellow, a conservative Whig, composed some anti-slavery poetry but failed to insist upon its incorporation in collections of his work when told that some readers would find it offensive.
Bowdoin’s dynamic English Professor Peter Coviello delivered the Institute’s lessons on Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance. The author of Intimacy in America: Dreams of Affiliation in Antebellum America (2005) and (as editor) Walt Whitman’s Memoranda during the War (2006), Coviello’s focus in Blithedale is upon its place in the evolution of sexual taxonomies. Indeed, he ascribes the perception of Hawthorne as modern to the “anguished ambivalence,” which Henry James so aptly identified, especially as it relates to the perversity of Puritanism and the “dangerously unknowable” topic of sex.
Coviello views Blithedale as Hawthorne’s investigation of the question of possibilities that open as a result of the casting off of bourgeois conventions. In this respect, the book is about narrator Miles Coverdale’s reactions to his own attractions, most powerfully to Hollingsworth but also to Zenobia. Coviello points out, moreover, that the French Utopian Fourier, a source of inspiration for Blithedale, was largely a theorist about alternative sexual life.
Coverdale’s early mention in the novel of enjoying a bottle of wine in his rooms before going to bed the night before leaving Boston for Blithedale and finishing it “with a friend, the next forenoon” hints at the likelihood that discrete or closeted same sex relationships are not at all objectionable to him; and Coviello points out that an era with few terms that inherently limited such relationships was far different from the post-Oscar Wilde world of strict sexual taxonomies. He explains Coverdale’s subsequent fleeing from Blithedale, however, as a response of sexual panic in reaction to Hollingsworth’s overtures, not because of repulsion, though there is a degree of it, but primarily because of attraction to his overtly unconventional maleness: its nurturing rather than competitive nature. (Similarly, Zenobia’s unconventional femaleness also appeals to Coverdale.) A relationship with Hollingsworth at Blithedale would not, in other words, be in a “closet.” (See my “Scholars’ Forum” paper on the Hawthorne in Salem website, “The Hawthorne-Melville Relationship,” for an examination of ways that Hawthorne appears to some extent to have worked through his relationship with Melville as he composed details of interactions between Coverdale and Hollingsworth.)
Despite Coviello’s well-supported analysis of the unconventional sexual dynamics of The Blithedale Romance, a number of Institute participants viewed Coverdale’s anticlimactic end-of-the-novel revelation of his “love” for the model of Victorian womanhood, Priscilla, less as evidence of his seeking refuge in conventionality than a consistent development of character that readers should expect in advance. One wonders how such an interpretation can account for Coverdale’s actions and words prior to this announcement, but evidently the “tortured ambivalence” that Coviello finds in Hawthorne as well as his fiction serves to allow for surprising responses from some readers. In any case, the insights that Coviello shared were greatly appreciated by this member of his audience.
Although we enjoyed field trips to Longfellow’s childhood home in Portland and a variety of Hawthorne-related sites in Salem, the highlight of the Institute was our field trip to Cambridge on Friday, July 28, when we toured the Longfellow National Historic Site and visited Harvard’s Houghton Library to view manuscripts and first editions by Hawthorne and Longfellow. The Vassal-Craigie-Longfellow House on Brattle Street in Cambridge had especially attracted the poet when he began lecturing at Harvard because it had been his hero Washington’s headquarters in the winter of 1775-1776 during the Siege of Boston. The rooms Longfellow rented from the widow Mrs. Craigie, were the private apartments of George and Martha Washington during that early stage of the American Revolution; and, upon Longfellow’s marriage to the heiress Fanny Appleton in 1843, the entire home was given to the couple as a wedding present from her father.
Hawthorne’s connection with the Longfellow House has already been mentioned in reference to his 1840 dinner there and subsequent use of aspects of the building in his writing. In Longfellow’s study, moreover, there is a prominently displayed charcoal sketch of Hawthorne. Since the house remained in the hands of Longfellow’s descendants until they donated it to the nation, it contains almost entirely original furnishings from the poet’s lifetime. To be in the study where the Dante Club met, to see the upright desk at which Longfellow stood to write, to view the library where Washington’s troops once gathered and where, in 1861, the fatal accident that set Fanny’s dress on fire happened, and even to stroll the route between Harvard and Brattle Street that so many of America’s greatest authors knew so well – all of these experiences were enjoyed by those of us in the Institute and can be as well by anyone else who has the opportunity to visit this wonderful part of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The fascinating documents at the Houghton Library were selected for our viewing by the Institute’s outstanding lecturer on Longfellow and author of Longfellow Redux (2006), Professor Christoph Irmscher of Indiana University. The Hawthorne-related pieces included the following:
Melville’s copy of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, with the inscription in Hawthorne’s hand, “Herman Melville from Nathaniel Hawthorne Jan. 22, 1850.”
Longfellow’s copy of a first edition of The Blithedale Romance.
Publisher James T. Fields’ copy of the manuscript of Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, donated to Harvard by Annie Fields and including in the back a manuscript copy of Longfellow’s poetic tribute “Hawthorne.”
For Hawthorne and Longfellow students, being in places where the authors had lived, worked and recreated and then seeing and handling their actual writing were truly thrilling experiences. One of the National Park rangers at the Longfellow House said of Longfellow, “He was a superstar in his time”; and for those of us in the Institute, our trip to Cambridge certainly felt like very special access to the world of literary “superstardom.”
Irmscher brought another link between Hawthorne and Longfellow to the rapt attention of the Institute’s participants during our second week together when he lectured on the authors’ mutual publisher James T. Fields and his remarkable wife, irrepressible Brahmin Annie Adams Fields. The Wineapple biography of Hawthorne also provides a great deal of information about the closeness between the Hawthornes and the Fields, perhaps most interestingly in regard to Sophia’s closeness with Annie during Hawthorne’s declining years. Annie’s subsequent “Boston marriage” with novelist Sarah Orne Jewett indicates that Nathaniel was not the only member of the Hawthorne family to be charmed by the nineteenth century’s “gay” icons of both genders.
Annie Fields’ Charles Street salon in Boston remained a magnet for great American authors until her death in 1915, Henry James and Willa Cather among the most prominent. As a bridge between the literati of two centuries, Fields herself constitutes one of the nation’s most interesting figures. She contributed greatly to literary scholarship by composing and publishing her recollections of a number of famous authors, including Hawthorne.
Bowdoin Professor William Watterson addressed the Institute on August 1 on Hawthorne’s Fanshawe. Terming it a “generic first novel” and lacking the “DNA” of the rest of Hawthorne’s work, he made a strong case for the suppression of the novel by its creator. On the other hand, Watterson finds some threads of characteristic Hawthorne topics in the novel, including a degree of gender inversion.
Our final guest lecturer was University of Southern Maine Professor Joseph Conforti, author of Imagining New England (2001). He identifies veils as Hawthorne’s “calling card” but misses some of their significance in The Blithedale Romance when he seems to accept the unreliable narrator’s reports uncritically. He is more on target when he notes that Puritanism’s invasive attempt to “lift veils,” consequently, represented a threat that the world of Hawthorne’s fiction dramatizes. Hawthorne resists easy classification, of course, so to say that he faults Puritanism is not to say that he does not share its assessment of people as fallen. While Transcendentalists preferred to think of people as essentially good and applauded the murderous John Brown as a liberator, for example, Conforti notes that Hawthorne not surprisingly observed, “No man more deserved to be hanged.”
Final words on the last day of the Institute on August 4 included the following:
Project Director Charles Calhoun underlined a consistent theme of our study: the importance of making efforts to see collaborative efforts behind works that come to be celebrated. Rather than viewing Hawthorne’s accomplishments, for example, as purely the results of heroic individualism, recognition of the circle of writers and publishers with whom he was so closely linked is essential to a full understanding of what he was able to achieve. A very important member of Hawthorne’s circle, of course, was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Professor Christoph Irmshcer closed by sharing Melville’s “Monody,” the poem believed to express his great grief at the death of Hawthorne, and he contrasted its passion with the restraint of Longfellow’s poem of tribute “Hawthorne.”
Professor Peter Coviello left us with the observation that “Evolving codes of sexual meaning, which now make sense, are in Blithedale”: and he urged that the “queer content” of such works be identified “for those who need it.” While this charge echoes the rationale behind similar efforts of Massachusetts’ Safe Schools for Gay and Lesbian Youths program, it must apply as well to those heterosexuals who wish to understand and appreciate rather than marginalize varieties of human sexual identity.
The National Endowment officer who visited to check on the progress of our Institute obviously heard unanimous kudos from us for the whole course of study and especially for the trio of Calhoun, Irmscher, and Coviello, who were with us throughout our work. We were not surprised to learn, however, that NEH funding has not been increased for some time, thus effectively losing value each year as the dollar’s worth has declined. We can only hope that a more enlightened government will recognize that lip service to supporting education will never get the job done that training teachers in their fields can accomplish. What we bring back to our students and, indeed, what I am able to share with anyone who accesses the Hawthorne in Salem website, serve to underline the excitement that fieldwork and contact with experts offer to professional educators and all members of their audiences. Thank you, NEH!
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