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