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Nathaniel Hawthorne as Bronson Alcott’s “Coy Maiden”

by Karen English
San José State University
San José, CA

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
“Or, if we take the freedom to put a friend under our microscope, we thereby insulate him from many of his true relations, magnify his peculiarities, inevitably tear him into parts, and, of course, patch him very clumsily together again. What wonder, then should we be frightened by the aspect of a monster, which, after all—though we can point to every feature of his deformity in the real personage—may be said to have been created mainly by ourselves!”
The Blithedale Romance

As a shy boy growing up in Connecticut, Amos Bronson Alcott developed an intense intellectual and emotional relationship with his cousin William that created liberating, empowering social identities for two ambitious farm boys in a rural community. Throughout his long life, Alcott sought and maintained male friendships—a practice that intensified after he became husband of a strong-minded woman and the father of four impressive daughters. While most of Alcott’s male friendships were rewarding intellectually and socially, his close friend Charles Lane tempted Alcott to abandon his conjugal family for a theory of “consociate family” during their sojourn at Fruitlands—with nearly tragic consequences.

Although Nathaniel Hawthorne bought the Alcott family home Hillside in 1852, he and Alcott would not become neighbors and potential friends until Hawthorne and his family returned to Concord in 1860. By that time, the Alcotts had moved into Orchard House on the adjoining property. During the next four years, Alcott tried to become close friends with Hawthorne and recorded those attempts in his Civil War era journals. When attempts to establish an intimate male friendship faltered, Alcott began to see the man next door as different from himself in fundamental ways. At the same time as Alcott’s journals describe Hawthorne as a coy maiden, they also depict him as a foreigner or immigrant whose un-American politics are suspect. In the post-Civil War era, Alcott continued to play with these ideas about Hawthorne’s character—this time, however, he did his speculating in public.

In his Midwestern parlor conversations of the late 1860s and 1870s, Alcott created one of his most popular character portraits by weaving personal anecdotes about Hawthorne’s peculiarities into a discourse questioning his gender, racial, and national identities. Drawing on these oral performances, Alcott wrote an essay on Hawthorne and published it in his book Concord Days (1872). After typecasting his neighbor as a coy maiden and a dangerous foreigner, Alcott revisited his public assessment of Hawthorne in an 1880 conversation at the Concord School of Philosophy. There, in the record of Franklin B. Sanborn, we see Alcott try to restore mainstream social and political identities to Hawthorne, whose only barrier to male friendship was, apparently, an over-protective wife.

In September 1857, Bronson Alcott, with help from Emerson, Thomas Davis, and Joseph Barker, purchased Orchard House in order to move his family from Walpole, NH back to Concord (Dahlstrand 252). While Orchard House was being renovated, Franklin B. Sanborn points out the Alcotts lived in two different rentals. After Elizabeth died in March 1858, the Alcott family briefly moved back to their former Concord home (its current owners, the Hawthornes, being abroad) where they lived from April to July. As Odell Shepard’s note for Alcott’s journal of 1858 affirms, “The Alcotts had taken rooms for a few weeks, while the renovations of ‘Orchard House’ were proceeding, at their former home next door, now called ‘The Wayside.’ One of the rooms they occupied had been both Alcott’s and Hawthorne’s study.”

Two weeks after his daughter Elizabeth’s death, Alcott describes his intellectual reaction at being in his old study and browsing among books Hawthorne has left in The Wayside: “Look over Hawthorne’s books, and find few in his library for me” (April 14, 1858; Shepard 307). However, Alcott’s disaffected response to his old study is quickly mediated by a powerful nostalgia:

But the room is attractive. It suggests memories of busy days spent within these walls, and pleasing experiences in times past, when Thoreau and Channing and Emerson sometimes honoured me with their sittings. Here, too, I have written pages of Diary, letters to my wife when she was absent at Waterford in Maine, met my children at their morning conversations and studies, had some thoughts, besides nameless family satisfactions, trials—these last faded for the most part into undistinguishable colours in the memory . . . .(Shepard 307-8)

And, of course, his deepest connection to the room is inspired by the consolation that, here at least, Elizabeth had been alive and well: “Then my dear departed child was here, around whom so much of my home delights are gathered as to their image and spring” (308).

After Hawthorne and his family return from England and move back into The Wayside, Alcott still refers to the estate as “Hillside” in his journals—often using quotation marks around the word to show his sense of continuing dominion over the property. On the day of Hawthorne’s return to Concord (June 28, 1860), he politely praises Wayside’s landscaping--leading Alcott to hope for a hand in the matter: “I shall delight to assist him and build for him in my rustic way, restoring his arbours if he wishes” (Shepard 328). Perhaps Alcott’s continuing sense of ownership in Hillside/Wayside impelled him to feel a heightened desire for intimacy with the man who moved into his house and worked in his study. Living next door to Hawthorne for the next four years, Alcott records visiting at Wayside on June 28, 1860 (accompanying Mrs. Alcott and Emerson); on June 29, 1860 (after eating strawberries and cream at the Emersons); on February 17, 1861 and during late May 1861 (while walking on the property); on January 1, 1862 (bearing apples and cider to the Hawthornes as a New Year’s gift); and on February 28, 1864 (spending an evening there with Emerson).

On his rare steps through the gate between Wayside and Orchard House, Hawthorne is reported as talking to Alcott on July 1, 1860 (walking behind Orchard House); on August 14, 1860 (reporting on a visit with William Dean Howells); and on November 21, 1861 [looking over Alcott’s books and taking a copy of “a Road-Book of England as these were in 1780” (Shepard 341)]. Alcott’s journal shows that he glimpsed Hawthorne in May 1862 at Thoreau’s funeral where he noticed that his future estate was cattycornered to Hawthorne’s burial plot. Finally, Alcott’s journal records his speech, sick grandson in his arms, to his neighbor at the gate a few days before Hawthorne’s death in May 1864.

In 1860, Alcott’s brief notes about Hawthorne are congenial social observances about neighbors who share interests in gardening, home improvements, family, and literary connections. By 1861, however, Alcott is beginning to dwell on and speculate about Hawthorne’s absence from the intellectual community of Concord lectures and the homosocial world of fellow writers such as Emerson, Channing, and Thoreau. In an entry dated February 17, 1861, we see Alcott’s growing sense of Hawthorne’s otherness, manifested by his stubborn reclusiveness. At first, Alcott distinguishes Hawthorne’s eccentricities from what he identifies as Ellery Channing’s capriciousness and impudence. Shy himself as a boy, Alcott imagines that Hawthorne is “an unwilling victim” of his impulse to solitude, and admits that he feels a certain “pitying affection” for him (Shepard 335). If Hawthorne does not act like the other men in Alcott’s acquaintance, then the question arises: what sort of man is he?

Not unpredictably, Alcott associates the stereotype of femininity with Hawthorne’s unmanly behavior, and then he settles on the analogy of heterosexual courtship to describe his attempts to get to know Hawthorne better. He writes: “A coy genius, to be won as a maid is, by some bashful stratagem . . .[with] a voice that a woman might own, the hesitancy is so taking, and the tones so remote from what you expected” (Feb. 17, 1861: 335-6). In this single journal entry, thus, we see Alcott moving from a pose of sympathetic self-identification to a stance of cheerful homoeroticism: Hawthorne is a shy maiden and Alcott is her male suitor. Alcott’s courtship/friendship analogy is conventionally conveyed by the rhetoric of military engagement: a stratagem being an artifice used to deceive an enemy. Furthermore, Alcott depicts his own response as bashful: an action which excites shame or shows that the suitor feels confounded or even guilty.

Is the guilt something Alcott feels about employing stratagems to win Hawthorne, or is his shame over the homosexual implication of courting a male friend? In his comments on sentiments expressed in letters between Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens as well as those between Daniel Webster and James Hervey Bingham, Caleb Crain explains that while “the affection seems genuine, the tone is somewhat arch. Hamilton and Webster are addressing the language of courtship to a male friend; they relish the misapplication, but the extravagance of their conceits signals that they know, and their readers know, that it is a misapplication.” In contrast, Alcott’s only audience was himself—and only he could know if his tone were arch; however, he will eventually use the same conceits before public audiences.

Starting in Cincinnati in 1866, Alcott foregrounded homoerotic rhetoric in his portrait of Hawthorne’s character featured in parlor conversations on New England celebrities. As oral performances, verbal portraits of Emerson, Holmes, Whittier, Louisa May Alcott, Thoreau, Fuller, Longfellow, and Hawthorne were much in demand with Alcott’s Midwestern audiences. By all newspaper and private accounts, these portraits were set pieces repeated evening to evening, with little variation. In 1869-1870, Alcott went to fourteen cities in four months with this series in his repertory; his itinerary included Syracuse and Buffalo, NY, Cleveland, Toledo, Elyria, Tiffin, Akron and Sandusky, Ohio; Detroit, Battle Creek, and Kalamazoo, Michigan as well as Chicago, Illinois. Similar itineraries in the late 1860s provided ample opportunity for Alcott to polish his sketch, and he later published an essay based on a consolidated version of these oral performances.

When this essay on “Hawthorne” is published in Concord Days (1872), Alcott unhesitatingly asserts that his neighbor’s difficulty as a social person can be attributed to being “coy as a maiden.” Then Alcott asks his reader to consider the question of whether Hawthorne’s feminine behavior were not a sign of a deeper truth: “Was he some damsel imprisoned in that manly form pleading always for release, sighing for the freedom and companionship denied her?” (Concord Days 194). For a public, mixed- gender audience, Alcott identifies Hawthorne as a damsel in distress and potential friends as emancipators--releasing the maiden from the prison of her male body. In print, Alcott continues to express the metaphor of friendship as courtship in the rhetoric of conquest by attesting that “Your intrusion was worth the courage it cost; it emboldened future assaults to carry this fort of bashfulness” (195). Perhaps the homoerotic connotations of courageous intrusions and bold assaults on the fort of bashfulness are only ironic exaggerations that Alcott and his national audience would dismiss as extravagant. But I cannot resist saying that Alcott also emphasizes the geography of desire when he points out that his dwelling and Hawthorne’s fort were “separated only by a gate and a shaded avenue” (195).

Returning to the journals of 1861 where the image of Hawthorne as Alcott’s “coy maiden” first begins to emerge, we also see the latter simultaneously introducing his notion of Hawthorne as a displaced foreigner, or an immigrant. Putting aside the sympathetic pity associated with coy maiden/courtship imagery, Alcott expresses anxiety about the dangers of unassimilated national and racial difference in an analogy of invasion. In this analogy, Hawthorne is described first as a foreigner who is installed in a “stolen castle” (Shepard 335)— perhaps another clue that Alcott still feels that Wayside somehow remains his property. Next, Alcott dwells on the darkness of Hawthorne’s character by casting aspersions on his non-Anglo-Saxon blood: “I am sure of his coming into Britain with William the Conqueror, and there runs a drop of dingy Roman life in his veins” (Shepard 336).

Alcott also used his Midwestern conversations to delineate publicly the character of Hawthorne as unassimilated foreigner, and as, frankly, un-American. We see this image fleshed out in his Concord Days essay on “Hawthorne” when Alcott’s speculations about Hawthorne’s race and nationality are raised by suggestive questions: one being, “Or was he some Assyrian ill at ease afar from the olives and the east?” (194). Here, Alcott implies that if Hawthorne were “some Assyrian,” he would share a heritage with the most powerful and feared empire of conquest in the ancient world. Ironically, this question emphasizes the gap between Alcott’s conflicting conceptions of Hawthorne’s possible social and political identities, creating a middle ground between casting him as a completely helpless female or an all-powerful male. By making him like a displaced Middle-Easterner, Alcott can interpret Hawthorne’s unconventional masculine behavior through a relatively mild form of orientalism.

Alcott’s second question about Hawthorne’s nationality is more pointed and admonitory, coming back to his journal notion that Hawthorne’s racial heritage was deceptively Anglo-American; he muses: “Had he strayed over with William the Conqueror, and true to his Norman nature, was the baron still in republican America, secure in his castle, secure in his tower, whence he could defy all invasion of curious eyes?” (Concord Days 194). In this question, Alcott suggests that if Hawthorne were descended from Normans, he was more a danger to America than either a woman in a man’s body or a displaced, easily identified immigrant. As a Norman-American who could pass as Anglo-American, Hawthorne would be descended from the savage horde of French-speaking oppressors who destroyed the incipiently democratic, relatively multicultural society of Anglo-Saxons and Celts in eleventh-century Britain.

While polishing Hawthorne’s portrait for publication in Concord Days, Alcott read Hawthorne’s English Notebooks (1870). In response, his journal entry for June 10, 1870 articulates the dangerous political implications of Hawthorne’s subversive national and racial identity: He stood apart, having no stake in our affairs . . . . Of all our literary men, he openly espoused the side of the South, and was tremendously disturbed at the Northern victories. I believe he seldom or never voted, actually, through the long struggle with slavery. He was an observer, rather, and held aloof, practically fearing to take a responsible part. In all this I think him true to his convictions and a strictly honest man, if not a patriot. (Shepard 411)

In Concord Days, Alcott moderates some of his journal comments on Hawthorne and the question of patriotism. Instead of writing that Hawthorne “openly espoused the side of the South,” Alcott insists: “I never deemed Hawthorne an advocate of Southern ideas and institutions” (Concord Days 195). Rather than claiming that Hawthorne “was tremendously disturbed at the Northern victories,” Alcott now explains: “Of our literary men, he least sympathized with the North, and was tremulously disturbed, I remember at the time of the New-York mob” (196).

Ironically, Alcott expands his claim in Concord Days about Hawthorne’s disengagement with American politics by using a passive construction: “It is doubtful he ever attended a political meeting or voted on any occasion through the long struggle with slavery” (196). Simultaneously, Alcott undermines his earlier claim that Hawthorne’s strict honesty kept him out of the political turmoil of the Civil War when he uses another ambiguous qualifier: “doubtless,” which I always take to mean (as it does in Hawthorne): “It is to be doubted.” When Alcott writes for publication: “He stood aloof, hesitating to take a responsible part, true to his convictions, doubtless, strictly honest if not patriotic” (196), we have to wonder whether Alcott used the placement of “doubtless” to make us suspect the honesty of Hawthorne’s convictions; but there is no question that we are meant to understand that the phrase “if not patriotic” means: “not patriotic.”

By 1880, Alcott backs down from calling Hawthorne maiden in the castle and seeing himself knight to her rescue, but he finds it harder to whole-heartedly affirm Hawthorne’s patriotism. In a conversation recorded by Franklin B. Sanborn at the Concord School of Philosophy, Alcott’s portrait of Hawthorne’s social identity is the first aspect of character analysis to be revisited. We immediately notice that Hawthorne is not referred to as a maiden when Alcott states: “Mr. Hawthorne was a very coy and diffident person.” Furthermore, coyness and diffidence are no longer interpreted by Alcott as signs that Hawthorne has an essentially feminine nature trapped in a man’s body. In fact, Alcott’s follow-up remarks go further to suggest that these traits are signs of strength, not weakness: “I think of all his accomplishments his diffidence and coyness were the finest” (202). Then Alcott adds an unmistakably masculine feature to this emerging portrait of manliness, insisting: “and yet he [Hawthorne] was a man so magnificent in physique—an ideal Webster—that you could have said a sword belonged to him” (202). Finally, Alcott says he no longer views the sword-worthy Hawthorne as a sole agent of his solitude; rather, Alcott gives Sophia Hawthorne credit as one who “knew how to protect him from company” (202).

Manly? Yes. Patriotic? Maybe. In this 1880 public conversation, Alcott revisits his Civil War era private talks with Hawthorne: “I remember walking with Hawthorne when he was living at Wayside, at a time when it was feared the rebel armies might reach New York and Boston. He expressed great sorrow, and seemed to be very much moved with the sentiment of patriotism” (qtd. in Bosco and Murphy 201). Sanborn’s record also shows that Alcott reconsidered Hawthorne’s disloyalty to the cause of abolition and preserving the Union:

I infer from what he said that he wished the Union to be preserved, but did not quite see how it could be, under all circumstances, and I thought I saw a patriotism in him which, remembering what had been said about him, sympathized with the South, a fact surprising to me, because I thought it was not so. I thought he had equal sympathy with the North, and that it was a sentiment of opinion which even allowed him for a moment to seem to support the Southern side. (201)

Assuming that Sanborn (who is creating his own history of literary heroism in the 1880s) has not significantly altered the record and that Alcott’s memory was relatively intact, how do we account for Alcott’s attempts to patch his friend’s national identity back together again clumsily after putting him under a microscope for twenty years, in the manner of Miles Coverdale in The Blithedale Romance? First, I believe that in the 1860s Alcott was sincerely concerned about Hawthorne’s apparent social and political disengagement. Second, I think Alcott worried that something was forcing Hawthorne (against his will) into a state of isolation and alienation, analogous to the captivity of young women or the marginalization of unassimilated immigrants—perhaps even similar to the bondage of racial slavery. In the 1860s and 1870s, the transcendentalist Alcott could be sympathetic to a person held prisoner by stereotypes of gender, nationality, and race unless those differences endangered his or her beliefs in the American ideals of democracy and equality. Years after emancipation and the preservation of the Union were well secured, Alcott clearly perceived Hawthorne’s nonconforming social identity as less troubling and, therefore, changed his rhetoric about Hawthorne and gender. However, I think Alcott’s repatriation of Hawthorne as a true-blue, Yankee-born son of liberty was tenuous because the old transcendentalist relied on his retrospective desire to find profoundly patriotic sentiments where, decades earlier, he had seen political disengagement, at best, and, at worst, imagined a profound betrayal of American ideals.


1 Nathaniel Hawthorne: Novels, ed. Millicent Bell (New York: Library of America, 1983), 692.

2 See Frederick Dahlstrand, Amos Bronson Alcott: An Intellectual Biography (Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson, 1982) on Alcott’s ideas about heredity, race, complexion, and personality. In short, he believed that fair-skinned folks were divine; and dark-skinned people demonic. However, as Dahlstrand points out, “Alcott’s racial theories did not diminish his opposition to slavery or his desire to aid black people” (232).

3 Franklin B. Sanborn and William T. Harris, A. Bronson Alcott; his life and philosophy (Boston: Roberts Bros, 1893), 2:498.

4 Hillside had been the Alcott home in Concord from 1845-1852, when Nathaniel Hawthorne bought it from them, and renamed it The Wayside.

5 The Journals of Amos Bronson Alcott, ed. Odell Shepard (Boston: Little, Brown, 1938), 307n

6 In American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era (New York: Basic Books, 1993), E. Anthony Rotundo poses a typical response a man of Alcott’s era might have had in a similar situation: “If a man is not man, he must be like a woman” (20).

7 Alcott is not the only contemporary person who talked or wrote about Hawthorne as bi-gendered. As Professor Richard Kopley pointed out to me, James Russell Lowell’s A Fable for Critics (New York: Putnam, 1848) asserts, “When Nature was shaping him clay, was not granted / For making so full-sized a man as she wanted / So, to fill out her model, a little she spared / From some finer-grained stuff for a woman prepared” (64). I also draw attention to the poem “Hawthorne” (1864), where Oliver Wendell Holmes describes Hawthorne as a person “whose massive frame belies / The maiden shyness of his downcast eyes”; similar to Dimmesdale in being “Virile in strength, yet bashful as a girl” (qtd. in Bosco and Murphy 124-5; see n14). Alcott’s own poem XIX on Hawthorne in Sonnets and Canzonets (1882) seems directly inspired by Holmes’s earlier text which clearly shares tropes with Lowell’s work.

8 For an exploration of sexual conduct beyond the emotional bond of male friendship in the early republic, see Male-Male Intimacy in Early America: Beyond Romantic Friendships by William Benemann (New York: Haworth Park Press, 2006).

9 American Sympathy: Men, Friendship, and Literature in the New Nation (New Haven: Yale UP, 2001), 33.

10 Concord Days (Boston: Roberts Bros, 1872), 193.

11 Holmes also wrote that “talking with him was almost like love-making, and his shy, beautiful soul had to be wooed from its bashful prudency like an unschooled maiden” in “At the Saturday Club” (Atlantic Monthly 53 [January 1884]: qtd. in Bosco and Murphy 126).

12 Finally, the temperate Alcott complains that Hawthorne stays in his tower “with book and pen and the solace of the weed” (Shepard 336).

13 I owe this insight to Professor Bonita Cox.

14 Ronald A. Bosco and Jillmarie Murphy, eds. Hawthorne in His Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of his Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates (Iowa City: Univ of Iowa Press, 2007), 202.

15 Daniel Webster had an intense same gender relationship with James Hervey Bingham. See Rotundo’s account 77-80.

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