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"My Dear Longfellow": The Collegiality of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

by Rita K. Gollin
SUNY Geneseo, professor emerita

Dr. Rita Gollin, SUNY, Geneseo,
photograph by permission of author

Information on Rita K. Gollin.  Books by Rita K. Gollin.
Dr. Rita Gollin, SUNY, Geneseo, photograph by permission of author Information on Rita K. Gollin. Books by Rita K. Gollin. (photography by Lou Procopio)
 

He had not properly "appreciated" Henry Wadsworth Longfellow during their undergraduate years at Bowdoin College, Nathaniel Hawthorne told his friends Annie and James T. Fields near the end of his life, recalling that Longfellow was "always finely dressed and was a tremendous student," while he himself "was careless in dress and no student." But those were hardly the only--or the most important differences between them. To begin with, Longfellow was only fifteen when he joined Bowdoin's class of 1825 as a sophomore, nearly three years younger than Hawthorne. Further, Longfellow was the son and grandson of Harvard graduates, while Hawthorne was the first person in his family to attend college; and Longfellow's father was a pillar of Portland Society and a member of Congress, but Hawthorne's sea captain father had died when the boy was four.

Predictably, Longfellow never had to confront such financial problems as unpaid tuition fees, but Hawthorne did. And Longfellow never incurred fines for cutting classes or playing cards or skipping compulsory prayers or declamations, but Hawthorne did. It was hardly surprising that Longfellow joined the more scholarly and conservative of Bowdoin's two rival literary societies, while Hawthorne joined the more easygoing pro-Jacksonian one. Nor was it surprising that Longfellow--who ranked fourth in their 38 member class--was asked to speak at the graduation exercises, while Hawthorne--who ranked eighteenth--was not. But after the President informed Hawthorne that he had not been asked to speak only because he had so often "neglected" (read "skipped") the college's required "declamations," Hawthorne rejoiced: as he told his sister Elizabeth, he had been saved from "the mortification of making my appearance in public at commencement."

Not so Longfellow. "Palms are to be won by our native writers," he confidently assured his fellow graduates, then urged them to pursue "a noble self-devotion to the cause of literature." In fact, he had already started doing so; he had been writing poems and essays for years and dozens had already appeared in print. But he could not have guessed that Hawthorne shared that commitment, nor that Hawthorne had been turning out stories as well as poems from childhood on. Nor could either of the two young graduates have guessed that Longfellow would become the country's preeminent poet, and Hawthorne its preeminent novelist. Nor that a dozen years later, they would begin an increasingly intimate and collegial friendship.

Hawthorne launched it in March 1837, in a brief letter addressed to "Dear Sir" and signed "Your obedient servant." The occasion was the appearance of Twice-told Tales, his first published book; and Hawthorne was both conferring a favor and implicitly requesting one. He had arranged for Longfellow to receive a copy, Hawthorne deferentially wrote, and "I venture to request your acceptance. We were not, it is true, so well acquainted at college, that I can plead an absolute right to inflict my `twice-told' tediousness on you," he granted, "but I have often regretted that we were not better known to each other, and have been glad of your success in literature, and in more important matters." Next came a modest brag: "I know not whether you are aware that I have made a good many idle attempts in the way of Magazine and Annual scribblings. The present volume contains such articles as seemed best to offer to the public a second time; and I should like to flatter myself that [those tales] would repay you some part of the pleasure which I have derived from your own Outre Mer"--Longfellow's first long prose work, which had appeared two years before. Surely Hawthorne meant what he said. But through that canny compliment, he tacitly asserted parity with his more successful fellow graduate.

Almost immediately, Longfellow sent a long and warm reply, studded with compliments. He had not only read but enjoyed the many Hawthorne stories that had already appeared in magazines and gift books, Longfellow said, and he now anticipated reading the new collection. Sweepingly summarizing what he had done during the past twelve years--when he had travelled abroad, became Bowdoin's first Professor of Foreign Languages, was happily married but soon bereaved, and begun teaching at Harvard--Longfellow said he had been "somewhat parched with the heat and drenched with the rain of life," yet "whenever there is any sunshine, I bask therein." Then as one professional to another, Longfellow said he would soon review Twice-told Tales for the influential Whig journal, the North American Review, and he flatteringly suggested that Hawthorne should also "write for the Review."

Hawthorne's reply--the second of his three letters to Longfellow during the spring of 1837--has become justly famous for its poignant and metaphor-filled self-definition. "By some witchcraft or other" he had "been carried apart from the main current of life," Hawthorne wrote on June 4, and he had found "it impossible to get back again." During the dozen years since their last meeting--"which I remember, was in Sawtell's room, where you read a farewell poem to the relics of the class--," Hawthorne claimed with only slight exaggeration that he had "secluded myself from society. . . . I have made a captive of myself, and now I cannot find the key to let myself out--and if the door were open, I should be almost afraid to come out." He had in fact been steadily writing and publishing during what he would call his "twelve lonely years" in Salem, albeit anonymously or pseudonymously and for very little money, and for months he had lived in Boston as the poorly paid editor of the short-lived American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge and also the author of the surprisingly successful children's book entitled Peter Parley's Universal History. Yet Hawthorne had not exaggerated his agonizing sense of being secluded from society behind a locked door. In a sense, Longfellow's reply--and the generous review of Twice-told Tales which soon followed--opened that door.

In fact, as one critic has put it, "Longfellow gave to Hawthorne the same kind of official confirmation that Emerson would later give to Whitman upon the publication of Leaves of Grass." His long review of Twice-told Tales began with the lofty image of Hawthorne as a "new star in the heavens," then defined him as a "man of genius" but also a friendly man with a "pleasant philosophy" and "quiet humor" who feels "a universal sympathy with nature, both in the material world and the soul of man," a writer who "has wisely chosen his themes among the traditions of New England," and whose style is as clear as running water." "The book, though in prose, is written nevertheless by a poet," Longfellow added, implicitly identifying with him. As a typical nineteenth century reviewer, Longfellow quoted at length from the book, then gracefully concluded, "Like children we say, `Tell us more.'" Though without even hinting at the dark and deep strains in Hawthorne's fiction that would soon captivate Melville, Longfellow offered praise that ranged from the moral to the aesthetic. "Palms are to be won by our native writers," Longfellow had declared when the class of 1825 graduated from Bowdoin College, and he was now according Hawthorne such palms. No wonder Hawthorne was "hugely pleased."

Saying so in the third of his three springtime letters to Longfellow, on June 19, Hawthorne sounded a note of intimacy that would last until his death twenty-seven years later, a note that Longfellow would repeatedly echo. Addressing the man he now--and from then on--called "Dear Longfellow" rather than "Dear Sir," Hawthorne confessed that he had not been "without hopes that you would do this kind office for the book, though I could not have anticipated how very kindly it would be done. Whether or no the public will agree to the praise which you bestow on me, there are at least five persons who think you the most sagacious critic on earth--viz. my mother and two sisters, my old maiden aunt, and finally, the sturdiest believer of the whole five, my own self." As in his first letter to Longfellow, modesty entwined with self-aware wit.

Then he signaled his desire for deeper intimacy. He hoped to come to Cambridge in a few days, Hawthorne wrote, "for I am anxious to hold a talk." Although that specific hope did not materialize, there would be many such talks. From then on, they would each ask their publishers to send review copies to the other, and they would acknowledge each of those books with discriminating praise--in their letters, their journals, and often in published reviews. And from then on, each would serve as the other's ideal reader.

Twice during the late thirties, however, Hawthorne ventured to hope for more. Twice, he seized on the possibility of collaborating with the more famous and more financially secure Longfellow, only to be disappointed. Longfellow suggested the first project--a collection of fairy tales tentatively titled "The Boys' Wonder-Horn" (echoing the title of a famous book of German folk-songs). Even while referring to it as "your book" in March 1838, Hawthorne staked a claim to it. "We might make a great hit, and entirely revolutionize that whole system of juvenile literature," he optimistically suggested, and "perchance put money in our purses." Meantime, he offered a few concrete suggestions. The stories should be connected by a narrative thread; the book should run to two to three hundred pages of large print; and (with more than a hint of ambition) he said the stories should all be "either original or translated--at least for the first volume." But the project still lay dormant in October, when Hawthorne asked if Longfellow had yet blown a blast on the "The Boys' Wonder-Horn" or whether it would turn out to be "a broken-winded concern"--as in fact happened. Although Longfellow contemplated pursuing the project on his own, he subsequently abandoned it. But perhaps with "The Boys' Wonder-Horn" in mind, Hawthorne would eventually put money in his purse by producing four volumes of stories for children, all of them "original," and each book integrated by a narrative thread.

Hawthorne seized on a second possibility of collaboration in January 1839, after a mutual friend mentioned that Longfellow was thinking about starting a literary journal. "Why not?" Hawthorne jauntily asked, and offered his help. About to begin what turned out to be an uncongenial appointment as Measurer at the Boston Custom House, Hawthorne was eager for a new literary project, and said it was "intolerable" that there was no "belles-lettres journal in New-England." But the project was still only "in embryo" a year and a half later, when Hawthorne wrote to his friend Caleb Foote, editor of the Salem Gazette, requesting detailed advice about publishing costs and procedures for a weekly paper. And for whatever reason or reasons--perhaps because Hawthorne soon joined the utopian community of Brook Farm, where he hoped to begin married life with his fiancee Sophia Peabody, but left six months later; perhaps because Longfellow had many other projects in mind--they would never produce a single issue of a "belles-lettres journal." In November 1842, after Longfellow returned to Cambridge following six months of European travel, Hawthorne invited congratulations on "the great event" of his marriage (which had occurred four months earlier), said "I exceedingly desire to see you," then entreated him "to come to Concord and deliver a lecture before the Lyceum," for "the magnificent sum of ten dollars." As Hawthorne assured him, the lecture would gratify Emerson and the other good people of Concord, including "my wife and me." Perhaps because the man Hawthorne "exceedingly desire[d] to see" was then too busy, that gratification did not occur.

Then and thereafter, however, particularly after the spring of 1843 when Longfellow had blissfully remarried and became master of the capacious Craigie House (where he had previously lodged), he often invited Hawthorne to dine, often along with other friends; and because Longfellow enjoyed dispensing hospitality and could easily do so, Hawthorne often accepted. He was "more and more struck with Hawthorne's manly beauty and strange, original fancies," Longfellow wrote in his journal after one such visit, and he noted Hawthorne's suggestion that he should resign from Harvard and devote "these golden years of life to literature alone"--a suggestion that the poet would eventually adopt. The men had long since become easy companions.

An unusual instance of collegiality centers on a portrait. In the fall of 1846, Longfellow commissioned Eastman Johnson, then a young Maine artist who specialized in crayon portraits, to make drawings of himself, several members of his family and four close friends--Hawthorne among them. "My wife is delighted with the idea," he told Longfellow; and his framed oval portrait would soon be prominently displayed in Craigie House. Sadly, however, Johnson's portrait of Hawthorne is fuller-jawed and bushier-haired than anyone else's; and anyone who has seen it must agree with the judgment Longfellow entered in his journal: "Johnson's crayon does not do him justice."

What might be called a many-layered episode of collegiality--which would continue for over a decade--had already begun. In the fall of 1838, Hawthorne's Salem friend Horace Conolly told him the heartbreaking story of the thousands of French-speaking Acadians who were expelled from Nova Scotia in 1755, among them a couple who had just been married. (Of course, many of those thousands would eventually end up as the "Cajuns" of New Orleans). "When assembled, they were all seized and shipped off to be distributed through New England--among them the new bridegroom," Hawthorne wrote in his notebook summary of Conolly's account. "His bride set off in search of him,--wandered about New England all her lifetime, and at last, when she was old, she found her bridegroom on his death-bed. The shock was so great that it killed her likewise." Two years later, he would draw on that narrative for a brief historical sketch entitled "The Acadian Exiles"--included in his second collection of history-based children's stories. At about the same time, Hawthorne brought Conolly to one of Longfellow's dinner parties, during which Conolly repeated what he had initially told Hawthorne about the Acadian expulsion.

Enormously impressed, Longfellow asked Hawthorne if he had any further plans for using the narrative; because if not, he would like to use it for a poem. Four years later Longfellow started writing what became his first book-length narrative poem--Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie; and it would take him over two years to complete.

Not until January 1847 could Longfellow tell Hawthorne that he was eager to read him parts of the nearly finished Evangeline. "I rejoice to hear that the poem is near its completion," Hawthorne immediately replied, and he rejoiced even more when it was published that autumn. He had read it "with more pleasure than it would be decorous to express," Hawthorne told Longfellow, then added, "It cannot fail, I think, to prove the most triumphant of all your successes." He was right. Evangeline would go through six printings in nine weeks, and become one of Longfellow's best-known works.

For years the poet had been expressing gratitude for Hawthorne's "generous gift" of the story; and he now modestly declared that the success of Evangeline "I owe entirely to you, for being willing to forego the pleasure of writing a prose tale, which many people would have taken for poetry, that I might write a poem which many people take for prose." But of course, no one would mistake Longfellow's lilting hexameters for prose. Take, for example, the two opening lines, which many readers from his day to our own have memorized: "This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,/ Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight." In his review of Evangeline in the Salem Advertiser, Hawthorne called it a "sweet and noble" poem that glowed "with the purest sunshine where we might least expect it," and flowed "as naturally as the current of a stream."

As a kind of reciprocation for the "gift" of Evangeline, and because he knew that Hawthorne was then looking for a new literary project, Longfellow suggested that he should write a history of the Acadians beginning before their expulsion, for which one of his colleagues would provide the relevant documents. "We will talk it over," Hawthorne replied, then said "You have made the subject so popular that a history could hardly fail of circulation." But he would never attempt it.

Curiously, however, Hawthorne's brief and wholly literary review of Evangeline figured in the loss of his job as Surveyor of the Salem Custom House following the Whigs' presidential victory. As he told Longfellow in June 1849, "On the strength of my notice of Evangeline and some half-dozen other books" in the pro-Democratic Salem Advertiser, local Whigs had accused him of "writing political articles," ammunition for having him fired and replaced by a member of their own party.

As Hawthorne also said in that same letter, that accusation had made it impossible for him to review Longfellow's new prose sketch Kavanagh in the Advertiser, a "precious and rare" narrative set in a New England village that he said no one else could have written. And no one could have enjoyed that quiet work as much as he did, Hawthorne declared (though he hastened to add that he had heard "none but favorable opinions").

And in that same letter to "Dear Longfellow," signed "ever your friend," Hawthorne uncharacteristically contemplated an act of revenge against one of the "political bloodhounds" who were scheming against him. In one of the most curious instances of identification with Longfellow, Hawthorne said doing so would not be "an act of individual vengeance, but in your behalf as well as mine, because he will have violated the sanctity of the priesthood to which we both, our different degrees, belong." He implicitly asserted what he and scores of his supporters would soon say--that his appointment stemmed from his literary celebrity rather than his political affiliation. Hawthorne then told Longfellow "I do not claim to be a poet, and yet I cannot but feel that some of the sacredness of that character adheres to me, and ought to be respected in me, unless I step out of its immunities, or make it a plea for violating any of the rules of ordinary life." Even more surprisingly, Hawthorne wryly claimed that he almost hoped he would be turned out of office (as would in fact occur a few days later), since that injustice would provide the occasion to write personal satire (as he would in fact do two years later when he modeled the villain of The House of the Seven Gables on Charles W. Upham, one of his most vindictive antagonists).

By then, Hawthorne had left Salem as well as the Custom House, his first novel The Scarlet Letter had won national acclaim, he had written A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys as well as The House of the Seven Gables and produced The Snow-Image, and Other Twice-told Tales, and he was living in the Berkshires with his wife and three children and enjoying the fervent admiration of his young neighbor Herman Melville.

In January 1851, after receiving an elaborately illustrated edition of Evangeline from James T. Fields--New England's most eminent literary publisher, and the intimate friend as well as the publisher of both writers--Hawthorne praised all the landscapes and other "designs" in the book except for the portrayals of Evangeline and her fiance by Jane E. Benham. Her "representations of the heroine have suggested to me a new theory as to the story of the poem," Hawthorne said to Fields, "and I beg you will ask Longfellow about it." Because Evangeline was "so infernally awkward and ugly as Miss Benham depicts her," Hawthorne claimed to think that the fiance she desperately sought for decades while wandering across North America "was all the time running away from her, and . . . when at last she caught him, it was naturally and inevitably the instant death of the poor fellow." And because the "poor fellow" as depicted by Miss Benham had "nothing to boast of on the score of personal charms," Hawthorne claimed to think that they had both been "flying from one another's hideousness, an hypothesis that does away with all the improbability of their not meeting sooner." We can only guess whether Fields--or perhaps Hawthorne himself--ever shared that hypothesis with Longfellow.

But of all the many occasions when Hawthorne dined at Craigie House, none was more flattering than the farewell dinner Longfellow gave in his honor in June 1853, shortly before Hawthorne sailed for England to become the American Consul in Liverpool. Around the table sat a group of New England's most eminent writers and thinkers, including Emerson, James Russell Lowell, and Charles Eliot Norton, as well as the English poet Arthur Hugh Clough. "It was a delicious farewell to my old friend," Longfellow wrote in his journal.

Their lively correspondence would continue during Hawthorne's years abroad. He repeatedly urged Longfellow to come to England to bask in his fame. And as one crony to another, he invited Longfellow to send his letters to England free of charge by having them included in the Consul's diplomatic pouch (and once teasingly referred to a letter addressed to a young woman as "one of your flirtations"). As more important evidence of their intimacy, many of Hawthorne's letters to Longfellow examine his ambivalence about his native land, as when he remarked that "America is a good land for young people, [but] I have had enough of progress." Only occasionally did he admit to homesickness, albeit with ambivalence. "We have so much country that we have really no country at all," he once said, "and I feel the want of one, every day of my life."

When the Hawthornes returned to Concord in the summer of 1860, the two writers immediately resumed their old patterns of intimacy and added a few new ones. When Hawthorne attended the monthly meetings of the newly established Saturday Club in Boston, an elite invitation-only group of literary notables to which he was immediately elected, he contrived to sit next to Longfellow (who now struck him as younger if less well groomed than before). But the following year, tragedy struck Longfellow. His beloved wife died horribly of burns, Longfellow no longer appeared at the Saturday Club, and Hawthorne was appalled by his calamity, which he called "this blackest of shadows, which no sunshine can ever penetrate."

During the summer of 1861 when the Northern army was struggling to preserve the Union, Hawthorne began formulating a work of fiction set in Concord at the onset of the American Revolution. While doing so, Hawthorne might well have recalled a passage near the end of "Paul's Revere's Ride," which he had surely read in the Atlantic Monthly. "So through the night rode Paul Revere," Longfellow summarily wrote near the poem's conclusion, "And so through the night went his cry of alarm/ To every Middlesex village and farm,--/ A cry of defiance, and not of fear,--/ A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,/ And a word that shall echo for evermore!"

It seems more than likely that Hawthorne recalled "the midnight message of Paul Revere" while composing both drafts of his abortive romance. Near the beginning of the first draft, we are told that a "cry of alarm pass[ed] all through the succession of country roads," and that "Horsemen galloped past. . . shouting alarm, alarm!" And near the beginning of the more vivid second draft, we encounter a shirtless hatless "countryman, who had perhaps taken his horse from cart or plough, and . . . was now belaboring his panting sides with a whip of twisted cowhide," and shouting `Alarm! Alarm! Alarm!'--trailing the sound behind him like a pennon." Just before the Civil War began, at a time of dire threat to the nation's very existence, both Longfellow and Hawthorne had revisited its beginnings. And whether or not Hawthorne intended it, his horsemen shouted alarms that Longfellow's midnight rider had shouted before.

In January 1864, Hawthorne would express his "comfort and delight" with Longfellow's new book which included "Paul's Revere's Ride"--Tales of a Wayside Inn. Surely Hawthorne was pleased to find himself mentioned in the Preface as the author of another narrative set just before the Revolution--"My Kinsman, Major Molineux." By then in failing health, he wryly confided to Longfellow that he had hoped to write one last book "full of wisdom and about matters of life and death. . . and yet it will be no deadly disappointment if I am compelled to drop it."

When Hawthorne died four months later, his "dear friend" Longfellow was one of the pallbearers. He also composed a long farewell poem entitled "Concord. May 23, 1864." Solicitously, he copied it out for Sophia Hawthorne; and their friend James T. Fields published it in the Atlantic Monthly. Drawing on the pastoral images which had always characterized their praise of one another's writings, Longfellow commemorated the spring day when Hawthorne was interred in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. "How beautiful it was, that one bright day/ In the long week of rain!" Longfellow marveled, "Though all its splendor could not chase away/ The omnipresent pain." Hawthorne now lay on a "hill-top hearsed with pines," Longfellow empathetically continued, hearing "Their tender undertone,/ The infinite longings of a troubled breast,/ The voice so like his own." The poem's final stanza sadly acknowledges Hawthorne's unfinished romances and invokes the tower he had added to the Wayside--the only house he had ever owned. "Ah! who shall lift that wand of magic power,/ And the lost clew regain?" Longfellow asked, then lamented, "The unfinished window in Aladdin's tower/ Unfinished must remain."

For nearly three decades, each had served the other as an ideal self, celebrating one another's writings and empathizing with one another's joys and sorrows. Longfellow would survive his old friend for eighteen years. If they never did collaborate on a single project, they nevertheless had struggled to attain and convey wisdom "about matters of life and death," and to create a national literature. The two New Englanders had often taken stock of the world about them and taken hard looks at the country's past. Rightly, each had considered the other a "genius." "Palms are to be won by our native writers," Longfellow had declared when they graduated from Bowdoin College, and they had both won them. As Longfellow had then recommended, they had both pursued "a noble self-dedication to the cause of literature." And in the course of that remarkably successful pursuit, their friendship--and their collegiality--had bolstered and enriched one another's lives.



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