THE boyhood of Nathaniel Hawthorne has been chronicled by his son Julian, in the biography of "Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife"; by his son-in-law Lathrop, in the "Study of Hawthorne"; and recently, in an article in the Wide-Awake, by his relative Elizabeth Manning.
I shall therefore refer to that period only because Hawthorne's isolation and environment in boyhood seem to me to have had an important influence upon his character and conduct, even after he had come to manhood. He is described by his eldest sister (see "Biography," Vol. I., p. 99) as a "beautiful and bright boy; indulged not only by his mother, but by all his uncles and aunt."
Perhaps he might have been spoiled by this indulgence, had not an accident brought on a tedious lameness which--though temporarily disabling--doubtless proved a "blessing in disguise" by keeping him aloof from the active sports of boyhood, and compelling him to seek occupation and pleasure mainly in books.
This enforced physical inaction, together with the seclusion of his mother's house and his long absences from Salem, combined to make him almost a stranger in his native town until he had left college; and these conditions must necessarily have had great influence in forming his peculiar character and shaping his later course.
With these preliminary remarks I turn to the subject of his college life, the delineation of which was the original and principal motive for the present writing.
A boy on going to college seventy years ago went under conditions so different from those of to-day that, to appreciate the situation, one must revert to the old stage-coach as, in the early morning, it passed from house to house, the driver blowing his horn to summon the passengers, and the family coming out to give their farewells and such cautions as would overwhelm with mortification a young fellow of the present day. In such a case, if a pretty sister made one of the family group, it would add materially to the interest felt in the new-comer. There may be as much susceptibility in the collegian of the present time, but we had a rather more naïve way of showing it.
The stage-coach gave better opportunities for travellers to become acquainted with each other than are afforded by the modern railway-car. Some old men will recollect the mail-stage formerly plying between Boston and Brunswick (Maine), drawn by four strong, spirited horses, and bowling along at the average speed of ten miles an hour. The exhilarating pace, the smooth roads, and the juxtaposition of the insiders tended, in a high degree, to the promotion of enjoyment and good-fellowship, which might ripen into lasting friendship.
Among the passengers in one of these coaches in the summer of 1821 were Franklin Pierce, Jonathan Cilley, Alfred Mason, and Nathaniel Hawthorne--the last-named from Salem, the others from New Hampshire. Pierce had already spent his freshman year at Bowdoin College, which institution his companions were on their way to enter.
This chance association was the beginning of a life-long friendship between Pierce, Cilley, and Hawthorne; and it led to Mason and Hawthorne becoming chums. There was no great congeniality between the two room-mates, owing partly to their joining rival societies, but more to the dissimilarity in their tastes and habits. Both, however, were well-bred and amiable, and they lived together harmoniously for two years.
A slight acquaintance with Mason led me to call at their rooms, and there I first met Hawthorne. He interested me greatly at once, and a friendship then began which, for the forty-three years of his subsequent life, was never for a moment chilled by indifference nor clouded by doubt. Though our paths in life, like our characters, were widely different, our friendship never wavered till the sad end came.
Hawthorne was a slender lad, having a massive head, with dark, brilliant, and most expressive eyes, heavy eyebrows, and a profusion of dark hair. For his appearance at that time the inquirer must rely wholly upon the testimony of friends; for, I think, no portrait of him as a lad is extant. On one occasion, in our senior year, the class wished to have their profiles cut in silhouette by a wandering artist of the scissors, and interchanged by all the thirty-eight. Hawthorne disapproved the proposed plan, and steadily refused to go into the Class Golgotha, as he styled the dismal collection. I joined him in this freak, and so our places were left vacant. I now regret the whim, since even a moderately correct outline of his features as a youth would, at this day, be interesting.
Hawthorne's figure was somewhat singular, owing to his carrying his head a little on one side; but his walk was square and firm, and his manner self-respecting and reserved. A fashionable boy of the present day might have seen something to amuse him in the new student's appearance; but had he indicated this he would have rued it, for Hawthorne's clear appreciation of the social proprieties and his great physical courage would have made it as unsafe to treat him with discourtesy then as at any later time.
Though quiet and most amiable, he had great pluck and determination. I remember that in one of our convivial meetings we had the laugh upon him for some cause, an occurrence so rare that the bantering was carried too far. After bearing it awhile, Hawthorne singled out the one among us who had the reputation of being the best pugilist, and in a few words quietly told him that he would not permit the rallying to go farther. His bearing was so resolute, and there was so much of danger in his eye, that no one afterwards alluded to the offensive subject in his presence. This characteristic was notably displayed several years later, when a lady incited him to quarrel with one of his best friends on account of a groundless pique of hers. He went to Washington for the purpose of challenging the gentleman, and it was only after ample explanations had been made, showing that his friend had behaved with entire honor, that Pierce and Cilley, who were his advisers, could persuade him to be satisfied without a fight. The lady had appealed to him to redress her fancied wrongs, and he was too chivalrous to decline the service.
Hawthorne, with rare strength of character, had yet a gentleness and an unselfishness which endeared him greatly to his friends. He was a gentleman in the best sense of the word, and he was always manly, cool, self-poised, and brave. He was neither morose nor sentimental; and, though taciturn, was invariably cheerful with his chosen friends; and there was much more of fun and frolic in his disposition than his published writings indicate.