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Home [Un]Sweet Home: Hawthorne's Fear and Loathing of Home in Our Old Home

by Dr. Mark Dunphy, Lindsey Wilson College, Columbia, KY

Returning to Concord in 1863, after seven year absence as an expatriate in England and Italy, Hawthorne published Our Old Home in September and also purchased "The Wayside"-his first "real" home--from Bronson Alcott. Perversely, however, throughout Our Old Home Hawthorne exhibits a fear and loathing of being dependent upon, and attached to, a single, stable home. Perhaps, as Arnold Weinstein says in reference to the character Wakefield, Hawthorne, too, "can feel the warmth of his hearth and the affection of his wife only when he is separated from them" (18). Or perhaps, like the effect that the scarlet letter had on Hester, Hawthorne's constant movement from home to home, lodging-house to lodging-house, hotel to hotel throughout his life, including his residency in numerous residents while in England, "had the effect of a spell, taking [him] out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and inclosing [him] in a sphere by [him]self" (37). As Brenda Wineapple notes in reference to the Hawthornes' stay in England:

Sophia came back to England [from recuperating in Lisbon] on June 9, 1856, still coughing. Resuming life in Liverpool was out of the question, so the Hawthornes tumbled here and there--Blackheath, Southport, Old Trafford, Bath--in search of health, recreation, and some ineffable quality associated with home. It was impossible. (289)

In the opening pages of Our Old Home, Hawthorne confesses "that no people on earth have such vagabond habits as ourselves" (12), an observation that is equally applicable to his own household circumstances as he makes clear when he describes himself, and his family in Our Old Home, as "[w]andering and wayside-people, such as we had long since become, [who] retain a few of the instincts that belong to a more settled way of life [. . .]"(41). He later adds his belief: "The nomadic way of life has great advantages, if we can find tents pitched at every stage" (219). Hawthorne continues to have a longing for the "nomadic way of life" even after he finally settled himself and his family into "The Wayside" upon returning to America. In a May 26, 1861 letter to Ticknor, Hawthorne writes: "If I had established myself by the seashore instead of an inland town, perhaps it would have been better; but I have fastened myself down by taking a house upon my back. It is folly for a mortal man to do anything more than pitch a tent" (Letters XVIII: 382). Although Hawthorne feels rootless even in his native state, the typical American feels even more rootless when he is in a foreign land, even though it be in an English-speaking country: "[A]n American seldom feels quite as if he were home among the English people. If he does so, he has ceased to be an American" (64).

Edwin Miller, in his biography of Hawthorne, in a chapter entitled, "England: 'I Do Not Take Root Anywhere,'" devotes a paragraph to Hawthorne's perpetual sense of rootlessness, for while in England, Hawthorne's family became

Wanderers from lodging house to hotel to lodging house. "The moral effect of being without a settled abode is very wearisome," he declared, but he was unable to change his ways or to find rest. "I am a poor, wayside vagabond," he lamented on another occasion, "and only shelter for a night or so, and then trudge onward again [. . . .] [H]e eloquently voiced the lostness of his fictional wanderers: "I feel quite homeless and astray, and as if I belonged nowhere." (emphasis added 406-09)

When Hawthorne visits Chelsea Hospital, an old pensioner there tells him: "There are some people, your Honor knows, who could not be comfortable anywhere; his "Honor ," Hawthorne, "knows" he is one of those people.

After he visits Bleinham Palace, Hawthorne contrasts the lot of those who own manor homes, which "are among the splendid results of long hereditary possession" to those homes of "we Republicans, whose households melt away like new-fallen snow in a spring morning [. . . .] (191).

Moving from the palatial luxury of Bleinham Palace, Hawthorne visits the squalid hovel of Robert Burns and remarks on its "narrowness and filth. Such a habitation is calculated to make beasts of men and women [. . . .] It is sad to think of anybody--not to say a poet, but any human being--sleeping, eating, thinking, praying, and spending all his home-life in this miserable hovel [. . .] (202).

When Hawthorne visits Leigh Smith "at Hammersmith," and likewise finds him, as he found Burns, "occupying a very plain and shabby little house, in a contiguous range of others like it, with no prospect but that of an ugly village-street, and certainly nothing to gratify his craving for a tasteful environment, inside or out" (271), Hawthorne envisions that Hunt should be "inhabiting a beautiful house of his own, in an Italian climate, with all sorts of elaborate upholstery and minute elegancies about him [. . . .] (275) instead of living in another squalid hovel.

Hawthorne spent two months of the summer of 1856 at Blackheath--the suburban London home of "[a] friend [Francis Bennoch, who] had given us his suburban residence" (214). However, even here, the house was not large enough to accommodate the entire Hawthorne Family, and "Nathaniel solved the problem by finding rooms for Fanny, Una, and Rose in a house nearby, where they could sleep and eat by themselves, as a 'separate family,' 'with only a daily visit or two to us old folks' (EN, 370)" (Hull 88). Hawthorne noted in his English Notebooks of his two months at Bennoch's home: "It is a strange, vagabond, gypsy sort of life, this we are leading: and I know not whether we shall finally be spoilt for any other, or shall enjoy our quiet Wayside as we never did before, when once we reach it again" (EN, 424)" (qtd. in Hull 96).

While living in Bennoch's home, Hawthorne also "went designedly astray among precincts that reminded me of some of Dickens's grimiest pages" (277). He further notes that while "slumming," as it were, in London, he could not consider "depriving" the impoverished people "of their dram of gin, [. . . ] for methought their poor souls needed such fiery stimulant to lift them a little way out of the smothering squalor of both their outward and interior life [. . . ] " (279). Since living within the confines of the London slums is such a horrid way of life, as Hawthorne notes, he well-understands that "[t]he population of these abodes appeared to consider the side-walks and middle of the street as their common hall" since "the only comfortable or wholesome part of life, for the city-poor, must be spent in the open air [. . . . ] No wonder that they creep forth from the foul mystery of their interiors, stumble down their garrets, or scramble out of cellars [. . .]" (281).

Hawthorne also visits a Dickensian children's "work-house" (304), wherein the conditions are so utterly deplorable that he hopes and prays that its small inhabitants would be murdered in their sleep, instead of surviving to see another day:

So far as these children are concerned, at any rate, it would be a blessing to the human race, which they will contribute to enervate and corrupt--a greater blessing to themselves, who inherit no patrimony but disease and vice, and whose souls if there be a spark of God's life, this seems the only possible mode of keeping it a-glow--if every one of them could be drowned tonight, by their best friends, instead of being put to bed tenderly. (304)

While he visits the Cathedral of Manchester, Hawthorne serendipitously witnesses a group of wedding of the poor and then subsequently, immediately, the marriage of a wealthy couple, and he comments on the glaring contrast between those few English people who are wealthy enough to live in fine homes and the vast majority who comprise the homeless poor of England: "Is or is not, the system wrong that gives one married pair so immense a superfluity of luxurious home, and shuts out a million others from any home whatsoever? [. . . .] [T]he gentlemen of England will be compelled to face this question" (309).

The gentleman, Nathaniel Hawthorne--formerly of Salem, Raymond, Brunswick, Brook Farm, Concord, Salem redux, Lenox, West Newton, Liverpool, Rock Ferry, Southport, Leamington, Blackheath-London, Rome, Concord redux--also constantly confronted throughout his life, and throughout his works, including Our Old Home, the question as to whether or not it is preferable to be home or not to be home. As Monika Elbert notes:

Hawthorne had a knack for feeling alienated from every new home. When for example, he left Salem to live in Lenox, in the Berkshires, he complained, "This is a horrible . . . most hor-rible climate. . . . I detest it. I hate Berkshire with my whole soul, and would joyfully see its mountains made flat" (American Notebooks, 29 July 1851). Similarly, when he lived and worked in England in the 1850s, he complained about the surrounding and the climate, but when he moved to Italy, he described the "malignant" and "wretched" atmosphere and longed nostalgically for England. (xviii)

Although Hawthorne and his family stayed in the Southport home for the longest time while he was in England--ten months--"Nathaniel disliked Southport almost from the start [. . . .] [H]e found the scenery uninteresting--'an interminable breadth of sands, stretching out to the horizon--brown or yellow sands [. . . ] (EN, 425-426)." (Hull 100). In an October 10, 1856 letter to Ticknor, addressed from Southport, Hawthorne mentions how unhappy he is to be living in this "dull and dreary little watering-place [. . . .] I must confess I sigh for London, and consider it time mis-spent to live anywhere else" (Letters, XVII: 558).

T. Walter Herbert likewise notes that Hawthorne spent his domestic life in being an undomestic Bedouin, living without any real singular digs he could call home:

When the Hawthornes moved to the Wayside in Concord in 1852, it was the eighth home they had occupied in ten years of marriage; at least eleven more would follow in the next eight years, during the family's European sojourn, as one place or another dissatisfied one or both of them. "I do not know what sort of character it will form in the children," Hawthorne remarked on one of the English moves, "this unsettled, shifting, vagrant life, with no central home to turn to, except what we carry in ourselves (English, 425). (211)
Raymona Hull also comments on Hawthorne's perpetual vagabond existence:
Nathaniel, however, reviewing the charms of Leamington in a letter to Fields, was reminded of his own sense of homelessness: "My wife and children and myself are familiar with all kinds of lodgment and modes of living; but we have forgotten what home is--at least, the children have, poor things; and I doubt whether they will ever feel inclined to live long in one place." (131)
Hull also notes that "Una's own letters to relatives in America expressed a wish to stay put in one place instead of leading the wandering life [. . . ]" (113). However, Hawthorne notes in "The Custom-House" that he prefers his children to experience life beyond the provincial parameters of Salem because, as Hawthorne asserts: "Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations in the same worn-out sail. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth" (7). He also confesses in "The Custom-House" that although "Salem--[is] my native place, [. . .] I have dwelt much away from it, both in boyhood and maturer years" and admits he was "invariably happiest elsewhere [. . .] (5).

Hawthorne confirms Herbert's assessment of his vagabond existence in an April 14. 1852 letter to the publisher, G. P. Putnam, shortly before his first leasing, then later purchasing, the Wayside from Bronson Alcott: "Since I was married, ten years ago, I have had no less than seven homes--the one to which I am now going will be my eighth" (Letters, 1843-1853, 16: 530). The moniker "Wayside" itself, which Hawthorne gave to his home in Concord, also suggests impermanence--as though it were just a stop-gap, or a stopping-off point, a brief place to pause for respite from life, instead of a home. Virginia Giriley notes "Alcott had named the house 'The Hillside,' but Hawthorne reminiscently chose 'The Wayside' [. . . .] It recalls the familiar quotation identifying a portion of his younger years (not too happily) when he 'sat down by the wayside like a man under enchantment.'" (Np). In the conclusion to a October 24, 1863 letter to James Fields, only six months prior to his death, Hawthorne writes: "Those verses entitled 'Weariness,' in the last Magazine, seem to me profoundly touching. I too am weary, and begin to look ahead for the Wayside Inn" (Letters 1857-1864 XVIII: 606), strongly suggesting Hawthorne's longing to be permanently settled as a perpetual resident in Hotel Eternal.

It's almost an axiom of Hawthornian criticism that Melville's critical assessment of Hawthorne in "Hawthorne and His Mosses" is, in reality, more self-revelatory about Melville himself than it is revelatory about Hawthorne. Perhaps the same could be said about Hawthorne's critical assessment of Melville being more revelatory about Hawthorne than Melville when he noted in his English Notebooks, shortly after being visited by Melville both at the Consulate in Liverpool, as at Southport ,where he asserts that Melville "will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists--and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before--in wandering to-and fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting" (qtd. in Parker, II: 300).

In the poems --"Melville Receives the News of Hawthorne's Sudden Death" and "Hawthorne, End of March, 1962"--by Ed Dorn and Laurie Robertson-Lorant respectivley--they also find "it strange," as Hawthorne had previously found "It strange" that Melville had led such a restless life, that Hawthorne dies with his Bowdoin friend and fellow classmate, ex-President Franklin Pierce, as his only companion, instead of his wife, Sophia, and that he dies alone in a hotel room in Plymouth, New Hampshire, instead of at his own his home in Concord, Massachusetts:

The day he died--
The slow quiet break.
What an odd person to die beside: Franklin Pierce
Never go to the mountains. (NP)

Why would anyone want to die
In Plymouth, New Hampshire


He was found in his hotel room:
Cause of death, unknown. (12)

The state of Hawthorne's restless soul is even evident on his final trans-Atlantic journey on the Europa for home in June of 1860. According to James Fields, who accompanied Hawthorne and his family back from Liverpool to Boston in June of 1860, "Hawthorne kept repeating: 'I should like to sail on and on forever, and never touch the shore again" (196). As early as the penultimate paragraph of "The Custom-House," Hawthorne said of himself: "I am a citizen of somewhere else [. . . .] I shall do better amongst other faces; and these familiar ones, it need hardly be said, will do just as well without me" (31). And seven years later, in a March 13, 1857 letter to Ticknor, mailed from Liverpool, Hawthorne feels himself to be no more settled or rooted to any particular place now than he did in 1850:

We shall go to Paris, probably, in the course of September, and thence to Rome, via Marseilles, for the winter. I doubt whether you see us on this side of the water in less than two years from the coming summer; and if it were not for the children (who pine for America) I should consider myself a citizen of the world, and perhaps never come home. (Letters 1857-1864 XVIII: 38)

It has become a critical commonplace among American Renaissance students that Melville's supposedly critical review of Hawthorne's Mosses from an Old Manse in "Hawthorne and His Mosses" is really more revelatory about Melville than it is about Hawthorne. Likewise, perhaps Hawthorne's famous critical review of Melville in the English Notebooks is more revelatory about Hawthorne's own sense of physical rootlessness than it is about Melville's metaphysical rootlessness. Melville, after all, had only two residences from the Fall 1850 to his death in the Fall 1891: Arrowhead at Pittsfield and East 26th Street in New York. There is no work published by the title Melville and the Houses and Homes He Knew as there is on Hawthorne. When Melville arrive in Liverpool in the Fall of 1856, he "tried to locate Nathaniel Hawthorne in Rock Ferry. The Hawthornes had moved, he was told, so the following day he went to Hawthorne's office" (Robertson-Lorant, 376). The Hawthornes were then currently living in Southport, "a seaside village, 20 miles distant on the sea-shore, a watering place" [. . . .] (Robertson-Lorant, 376). Here, "[t]hey took a long walk on the beach and sat down 'in a hollow among the sand hills (sheltering ourselves from the high, cool wind) and smoked a cigar," and in his notebook, Hawthorne gave a perceptive description of Melville's spiritual state:

Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that likes beyond human ken, and informed me that he had 'pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated'; but he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists--and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before--in wandering to and for over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. (qtd in Robertson-Lorant 376-77)
It is Hawthorne then, not Melville, who could never find satisfactory rest in one place during the last half of his life--and it is Hawthorne, not Melville, who "has persisted [. . . ] in wandering to and fro over these deserts" on earth until the day he died away from home in a hotel room one May evening in 1864 in Plymouth, New Hampshire.

Works Cited

  • Dorn, Ed. Hands Up! (New York: Totem Press, 1964). 1969.
  • Elbert, Monika. "Introduction." The Scarlet Letter. Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York: Washington Square Books, 1994. 1850. VII-XXXII.
  • Grilley, Virginia.Hawthorne: Great Scribe of Salem with Homes and Houses He Knew. (NP: NP, 1981)
  • Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Letters 1853-1856. Ed. Thomas Woodson et.al. (Columbus: Ohio State U. P., 1987). XVII.
  • ----------------. Ed. Thomas Woodson et. al. (Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1987). XVIII.
  • ---------------. Our Old Home: A Series of English Sketches. Ed. Charvat, William et.al. (Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1972).V.
  • ----------------. The Scarlet Letter. (New York: Dover, 1994). 1852.
  • Herbert, T. Walter. Dearest Beloved: The Hawthornes and the Making of the Middle-Class Family. (Berkeley: U. of California P., 1993).
  • Hull, Raymona E. Nathaniel Hawthorne: The English Experience, 1853-1864. (Pittsburgh: U. of Pittsburgh P., 1980).
  • Miller, Edwin Haviland. Salem Is My Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne.(Iowa City: U. of Iowa P., 1991).
  • Parker, Hershel. Herman Melville: A Biography. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U. P., 0220). II
  • Robertson-Lorant, Laurie. "Melville Receives the News of Hawthorne's Sudden Death." Jaitur. Ed. Gordon Poole. 2: December 2001: 12.
  • Weinstein, Arnold. Nobody's Home: Speech, Self, and Place in American Fiction from Hawthorne to Delillo. (New York: Oxford U. P., 1993).
  • Wineapple, Brenda.Hawthorne: A Life. New York: Knopf, 2003.

Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Professor Frederick Newberry, the Editor of The Nathaniel Hawthorne Review, for so graciously and generously reading an early draft of this paper over his Christmas vacation and offering numerous invaluable suggestions. I would also like to thank my brother, John Dunphy, for providing me with the funds to attend the bi-annual Hawthorne Conference at Smith College and my uncle, Robert Byers, for additional financial assistance.

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