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The Mystery of Old Moodie

The Mystery of Old Moodie

by Margaret B. Moore
Independent Scholar
Athens, GA
Margaret B. Moore, Independent Scholar, Athens, GA
Margaret B. Moore, Independent Scholar, Athens, GA (photography by Lou Procopio)

To call Old Moodie a mystery will add one more puzzle to the cast of characters of The Blithedale Romance.1 From Zenobia who uses a pseudonym, to Hollingsworth who disguises his purpose in coming to Blithedale; from Priscilla who hides the fact that she is the Veiled Lady, to Miles Coverdale who is, in Nina Baym's words, "in search of his inner core": each of these personae is not easy to know. 2 Old Moodie is an enigma too; indeed, he does not want the others to comprehend him.

Yet this minor character is treated at length in the novel. He appears prominently in more than three chapters. He is there in the first chapter,"Old Moodie," and in the chapter intended by Hawthorne to be the last, "Blithedale Pasture." He appears also in "A Visitor From Town,""An Old Acquaintance," and "Fauntleroy." His person is described minutely:

He was an elderly man, dressed rather shabbily, yet decently enough, in a gray frock-coat, faded towards a brown hue, and wore a broad-brimmed white hat, of the fashion of several years gone by. His hair was perfect silver, without a dark thread in the whole of it; his nose, though it had a scarlet tip, by no means indicated the jollity of which a red nose is the generally admitted symbol. He was a subdued, undemonstrative old man, who would doubtless drink a glass of liquor, now and then, and probably,more than was good for him; not, however, with a purpose of undue exhilaration, but in the hope of bringing his spirits up to the ordinary level of the world's cheerfulness. Drawing nearer, there was a shy look about him, as if he were ashamed of his poverty, or, at any rate, for some reason or other, would rather have us glance at him sidelong than take a full-front view. He had a queer appearance of hiding himself behind the patch of his left eye. (3:82).
He is also described as "very shy,""freakish and obstinate"(3:6,7). He "lurks" in corners or by getting behind a door(3:83). He reminds Miles Coverdale of a "rat." He sells little "silk purses" to passersby. His view of the world is like that one sees through a "smoke-blackened glass"(3:84) He "creeps" around. Hollingsworth says that he "has been a little out of his right mind," but Coverdale thinks "only that his mind needed screwing up, like an instrument long out of tune"(3:86). Coverdale confesses that he "often amused my fancy with wondering what he was, before he came to be what he is"(3:82). He compares him to a tame little rat without teeth (3:83). In "An Old Acquaintance," after a tribute to the joys of wine, Moodie is seen metamorphosing from "a gray kennel-rat" to a "decayed gentleman" whose talk leads Coverdale to the legend of Fauntleroy, a man of wealth who has committed some sort of crime(3:181).
It was just the sort of crime, growing out of its artificial state, which society (unless it should change its entire constitution for this man's unworthy sake) neither could nor ought to pardon.(3:183)
He is shown in his natural habitat in Parker's Saloon in Boston as "the wretchedest old ghost in the world, with his crazy hat, the dingy handkerchief about his throat, his suit of threadbare gray, and especially that patch over his right eye" (3:179). Hawthorne can't seem to make up his mind whether his right or his left eye is the one with the patch. Moodie is constantly compared to a ghost:
His existence looked so colorless and torpid --so very faintly shadowed on the canvas of reality--that I was half afraid lest he should altogether disappear, even while my eyes were fixed full upon his figure. (3:179)

In the chapter called "Fauntleroy," which is the story told by Moodie (with some facts added by Coverdale's research), we learn of Fauntleroy, "a man of wealth and magnificent tastes and prodigal expenditure"(3:182) who had a lovely wife, now deceased, and a "beautiful daughter" (3:182). He has committed a crime which horrifies his wealthy connections who save him from further public ignominy, but this obscure crime costs Fauntleroy his wealth, his reputation, and ultimately his name of Fauntleroy.(3:183). He loses his wife, and his first daughter who uses the pseudonym of Zenobia. He moves to a squalid tenement, full of the Irish. He marries again and has a second daughter, Priscilla, with the gift of second-sight. Zenobia inherits the Fauntleroy wealth, but with "life's summer all before her," she commits suicide (3:240). Old Moodie shows up again at Zenobia's funeral. "Nearest the dead walked an old man in deep mourning, his face mostly concealed in a white handkerchief, and with Priscilla leaning on his arm"(3:239).

The inspiration for Old Moodie's portrayal, most scholars believe, came from Hawthorne's sighting in 1850 of an "elderly ragamuffin" near Parker's Grog Shop in Boston who had a "more than shabby general aspect" and a "patch over one eye." He is drawn in Hawthorne's notebook with meticulous care:

He is a man who has been in decent circumstances at some former period of life, but falling into decay (perhaps by dint of too frequent visits at Parker's bar) he now haunts about the place, (as a ghost haunts the spot where he was murdered) to "collect his rents," as Parker says--that is, to catch an occasional ninepence from some charitable acquaintance, or a glass of liquor at the bar. The word "ragamuffin" ... does not accurately express the man; because there is a sort of shadow or delusion of respectability about him; and a sobriety, too, and a kind of decency, in his groggy and red-nosed destitution. (8:496)

Critics have not spent a whole lot of time on Moodie. Pearce Howard said he was a "powerful and necessary character in the novel's tragic phase." Orestes Brownson wrote that, along with Hollingsworth, Moodie struck the reader "as a real living and breathing m[a]n." A.N.Kaul believes that Westervelt and Moodie "are made to suggest concretely certain sinister forces working in the depths of the social world." An anonymous reviewer in the New Monthly Magazine (1853) called Moodie "a skulking outcast." Gorden Hutner calls him Coverdale's "dim acquaintnance." 3

Even though the person seen by Hawthorne on Tremont Street would have been enough to trigger Hawthone's imagination and minute description, I was struck when I read a 1900 lecture by Franklin B. Sanborn in which he said authoritatively and matter-of-factly that "Old Moodie was drawn from one of the Salem Derbys, father of Lieut. Derby, the humorist, who for some social offence withdrew from the notice of his friends, and offered pencils and such small wares furtively to passers in the Boston streets." 4 I have not found this stated elsewhere, but it is a provocative statement by one who always claimed to have the inside scoop.

"One of the Salem Derbys" turns out to be John Barton Derby (1792-1867), the grandson of "America's first millionaire," Elias Hasket Derby, whose wealth was fabulous and whose progeny powerful. "King Derby" he was called in Salem. One of his sons, John Derby, married a Barton and sired John Barton Derby. The latter was graduated from Bowdoin and studied law in Salem. He left the law and his family and disappeared into Boston and "took up a new connection," as one of his brothers said. 5 A strong Democrat, unlike the family, he was a follower of Andrew Jackson and worked for awhile as Deputy Surveyor in the Boston Custom House. Embittered by a broken political promise, he resigned and wrote a book, Political Reminiscences (1835), about the "decapitation" of certain public officials. I have suggested elsewhere that Hawthorne may have been influenced by this book in his composing "The Custom-House".6 According to George R. Stewart, Derby

alienated friends on every side, and by the end of 1824 had broken irretrievably with his wife. The remaining decades of his life are a melancholy tale of frustration, poverty, eccentricity, and the writing of disconsolate verses with the final picture of a queer little old gentleman --a "character"--hawking razors on the streets of Boston.7

He penned and self-published nine books of poetry and reminiscences.8 He was confined in McLean Hospital in Boston in the early part of 1838 with some paralysis of his legs and possibly Delirium Tremens. From that experience came his most fascinating and haunting book, Scenes in a Mad-House(1838) in which he describes some of the inmates in the same institution in which Jones Very, Hawthorne's friend, was housed later that year. His son, whom he had abandoned along with his wife, was Captain George Horatio Derby, also known by the pseudonyms of "Squibob" or "John Phoenix," a famous humorist on the West Coast, whom Mark Twain called "the first of the great modern humorists." 9

Squibob's wife was concerned enough about her husband's mental state to write to John Barton Derby's brother, Elias Haskett Derby, Jr.for information about her husband's father. Derby replied that there was "no hereditary insanity in the family" and that

As respects the statement that his father was deranged it is true that while in Office he became very intemperate & from his excesses became very ill & bedridden. I think he must have had a touch of paralysis. I joined with some friends and sent him to a "Water Cure" & his health was in a great degree restored, but he has been particularly while prostrated by his intemperance subject to certain slight hallucinations such as are common in light cases of Delirium Tremens & which I cannot consider insanity.10
Perhaps instead of the alcoholism and insanity reputed to John Barton Derby or concomitant with those ailments, was the strain of our favorite modern malady, loss of self-esteem. He published a poem in a booklet, The Sea (1840), called "My Grandsire":
Thou hadst a name; by honest labor won;
And wealth a million, when thy race was won;
But now, thy grandson (eldest of the name)
Creeps thro this life, in want and wo, and shame
Cashless, and senseless; sick and friendless too
Forced for his bread, his enemies to woo[.]

One can see simularities in Old Moodie to John Barton Derby. They both skulked furtively in the streets of Boston and sold small items to passers by. They both came from a background of wealth. Each had a scandal in his past. We are never quite sure what Old Moodie's was, except that society "neither could or ought to pardon." Perhaps it was forgery as Richard Millington and others assert. With John Barton Derby, it may have been desertion of wife and child also, but whatever it was it seems to have been shameful to the family. In a genealogy of the Derbys, written by a member of the family John Barton was listed by name, birthdate, and as "living in Boston." None of the information usually given was there.9 Hawthorne was always interested in the decline of the mighty. If, however, Hawthorne knew the furtive bystander at Parker's Saloon to be Derby, as seems likely, why wouldn't he say so in his notebook?

Old Moodie/Fauntleroy is a minor character in Blithedale Romance, but treated in a major way. He is the link between Zenobia and Priscilla. He introduces the air of mystery just at the beginning of the novel, and, to a great extent, he accounts for the mystery which surrounds his two daughters. He seems to be a stranger to most of the Brook Farmers, but we gradually learn that Hollingsworth, for example, knows a great deal about him and about his relationship with Priscilla. His comings and goings are veiled with mystery. We only see him with eyes averted. Coverdale says: "This was always old Moodie's way. You hardly ever saw him advancing towards you, but became aware of his proximity without being able to guess how he had come thither." Despite his half ... hidden appearances in the descriptions by Hawthorne, Old Moodie remains a vivid picture of an important person. And, despite all, he remains a mystery. That was, after all, "Old Moodie's way."


  1. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance and Fanshaw, vol. 3, and The American, Notebooks, vol. 8, of The Centenary Edition of Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed. William Charvat, et al. (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1962-1997). References to the volumes are inserted in the text with volume and page number.

  2. Nina Baym, "The Blithedale Romance: A Radical Reading,'' reprinted, Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance,ed. Seymour Gross and Rosalie Murphy, a Norton critical edition (New York: W.W. Norton &Co.,1978),351.

  3. Howard D.Pearce, "Hawthorne's Old Moodie:'The Blithedale Romance,'" and 'Measure for Measure,'South Atlantic Bulletin, 38 (1973):15; [Orestes Brownson], Review, in Nathaniel Hawthorne:Critical Assessments, ed Brian Harding (The Banks, East Sussex: Helm Information, Ltd., 1995),385; A.N. Kaul," 'The Blithedale Romance'" in Hawthorne: A Collection of Critical Essays,ed A.N.Kaul (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1966), 158; Anonymous review in Critical Assessments, 521; Gordon Hutner, Secrets and Sympathy: Forms of Disclosure in Hawthorne's Novels (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988),119.

  4. Franklin B. Sanborn, "Reminiscences of Brook Farm and its Founders,"in Transcendental and Literary New Enqland, ed. Kenneth Walter Cameron (Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1975),233.

  5. Elias H. Derby, Jr. to Mary Cooms Derby, October 21, 1859 in Squibob: An Early California Humorist, foreword by Richard Derby Reynolds (San Francisco: Squibob Press, 1990),239. For more information on John Barton Derby, see George R. Stewart, John Phoenix, Esq.: The Veritable Squibob (New York: Henry Holt & Co.,1937); History of the Town of Medford, Massachusetts,1650-1886,ed. William W. Tilden (Boston: George E. Ellis, 1887), 372. Information may also be found in the Derby Mss. and the Cummins Family Mss. in the Peabody Essex Museum.

  6. Margaret B. Moore. The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne (Columbia, 0: University of Missouri Press, 1998),182.

  7. Stewart, John Phoenix, 6.

  8. The books or pamphlets by Derby in the catalogue of the Philips Library are: Political Reminiscences (1835) Musings of a Recluse (1837);Scenes in a Mad-House(1838); Woman Poems (1839?);Animals and Intellectual Life(1840); The Sea Poems(1840); The Village Poems (1841); A Few Reminiscences of Salem (1847); Vision. Written June 7, 1848. My thanks are due to Will LaMoy of Phillips Library for copying and sending the poem "My Grandsire" in The Sea Poems (1840).

  9. Squibob, an Early California Humorist,4.

  10. Richard H. Millington. Practicing Romance: Narrative Form and Cultural Engagement in Hawthorne's.Fiction, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992),171; Perley Derby, "Genealogy of the Derby Family," Essex Institute Historical Collections 3(1861):286.

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