Hawthorne in West Newton
Nathaniel Hawthorne and his family lived in West Newton, Massachusetts, during the winter of 1851-52, November 21 to June. They borrowed the house of Horace and Mary Peabody Mann. There Hawthorne wrote The Blithedale Romance.
Hawthorne's brother-in-law Mann was a pioneering public school reformer and abstinence-abolitionist politician. Mann purchased a lot in West Newton and built a house in 1845. West Newton is one of the seven "villages" of the city of Newton, Massachusetts, just west of Boston. It was as much rural as suburban then, but is now filled with mostly large, expensive houses.
Mann moved the first state normal school to West Newton (into the Fuller Academy, a Greek Revival building that stood at Washington and Highland) from Lexington. He served as secretary to the state Board of Education and as representative and senator in the state legislature. He was elected to Congress and departed for Washington. Then Hawthorne moved to Mann's empty home from Lenox, partly because the winters in the Berkshires were so cold and snowy.
Mann left West Newton, to be president of Antioch College, Ohio, September 19, 1853, after unsuccessfully running for Massachusetts governor on the Free Soil Party ticket. The state normal school was moved to Framingham.
The Mann house was torn down before 1954, according to a card in the Newton Room of the Newton Free Public Library main branch. It stood on the west side of Chestnut Street, at the corner of what is now Highland. The street called Crocker Circle is now where the driveway to the house was placed. The site is at the top of the hill, less than a quarter-mile south of the railroad and Massachusetts Turnpike from West Newton center. You can still walk up the slope from the train, as did Mann and Hawthorne, but the houses now on the site are private.
According to one biographer (Hubbell, 1910), Mann planted grape vines by the house. Perhaps this inspired the passages about grapes in Blithdale Romance. However, Mann, a fervent abstinence man, would not have approved of Hawthorne's sympathetic portrayal of alcoholic beverages in the book (and, in fact, some of these were excised by Hawthorne, perhaps owing to his wife's influence.)
In 1831, Seth Davis, a local teacher, built the Railroad Hotel in West Newton. It served as a transfer point from the first railroad to stages going further west. The Boston & Worcester Railroad completed two tracks running through West Newton in 1834. It expanded to four tracks in 1882 and in 1894-95 depressed the tracks. In Hawthorne's time they were at street level. The Massachusetts Turnpike in the 1950s took over most of the roadway for a toll auto road, but a few commuter trains still stop in West Newton.
West Newton did not play a role in the Battle of Concord-Lexington in 1775, although many terrified residents fled their homes to woods far away. Captured British soldiers from the Battle of Saratoga were camped in the town.
Mann, besides leading local school projects, also helped start the West Newton Atheneum in 1849, which in 1894 merged with the public library. One old school building from Mann's day has been moved to 152 Webster Street. It was said to have an ingenious system of mirrors on the walls so the teachers could observe the students. The first kindergarten in the United States, mostly owing to Elizabeth Palmer Peabody's efforts, opened in West Newton in 1864. Peabody was sister to Sophia Peabody Hawthorne and Mary Peabody Mann. An elementary school in nearby Newtonville is named after Horace Mann.
When Hawthorne lived in West Newton some other authors lived nearby. Lydia Maria Child lived at the corner of Chestnut and Fuller. Harriet Beecher Stowe also lived in West Newton. After retiring from the pulpit of King's Chapel, Boston, Rev. James Freeman Clarke, who married the Hawthornes and gave the funeral service for Nathaniel, resided in West Newton. A few of the houses in West Newton remain from the days of Hawthorne. Nathaniel T. Allen's, at 35 Webster Street, is one. But most of the houses are newer. The photographer Fabian Bachrach remodeled the carriage house now at 124 Highland.
Hawthorne's son, Julian, referred to their stay in West Newton in his biography of his father. [Although his description, even allowing for his usual arrogance, is not flattering, perhaps some allowance should be made for the natural resentment of a boy forced to move from a home in the country to the suburbs, where he must have been confined by winter and bothered by his baby sister, and where his father, busy with another book, perhaps did not give him as much attention to protect him against bossy relatives.] His mother's parents already lived in West Newton, and Sophia had spent some time with them. The family left Lenox in a snow storm and arrived in West Newton the same day, November 21, 1851.
A more dismal and unlovely little suburb than West Newton was in the winter of 1851 could not exist outside of New England. It stood upon a low rise of land, shelving down to a railway, along which smoky trains screeched and rumbled from morning till night. One of these trains had its smoke-stack bound about with gayly colored bunting, for it was carrying Louis Kossuth from New York to Boston. A few days afterwards, one of the children remembers being in a large hall, full of ladies and gentlemen; and the child's mother said, "Here comes Kossuth!" The child had a card in its hand, on which it had printed with a pencil, "God bless you, Kossuth!" and as the slender, dark, bearded gentleman drew near, bowing and smiling, this document was presented to him. It was a tremendous moment in the experience of the child, if not of the Hungarian patriot, who, however, accepted the testimonial very graciously.
Lenox was one of those places where a man might be supposed to write because the beauty around him wooed him to expression. West Newton was a place where the omnipresent ugliness compels a man to write in self-defence. Lenox drew forth "The House of the Seven Gables," and in West Newton "The Blithedale Romance" was composed; from which data the curious in such matters may conclude which kind of environment is the more favorable to the artist. The book was produced somewhere between the first of December and the last of April of the next year, when the snow was lying a foot deep on the ground. West Newton is not far from West Roxbury, where Brook Farm was situated; and it is possible that Hawthorne may have revisited the place in his walks, in order to refresh his memory as to the locality of his story; though I should be inclined to think that he would carefully avoid thus running the risk of disturbing the artistic atmosphere which had softened his ten years' recollection of the spot.
But this chapter has grown to such length that any remarks upon "Blithedale" must be deferred to the next. West Newton, it may be remarked, was only used as a temporary dwelling-place while something better was being looked for; and it was upon Concord that Hawthorne finally fixed his hopes. He made inquiries of, among other persons, Ellery Channing, as to what prospect there was of getting a house there; and Ellery invited him to come and talk it over, as may be gathered from the following whimsical letters:--
CONCORD, Dec. 13, 1851.
MY DEAR HAWTHORNE,--I am glad you have shortened your longitude, and evacuated that devilish institution of Spitzbergen,--that ice-plant of Sedgwicks, etc. Good God! to live permanently in Iceland! I know nothing of West Newton, and do not wish to know any more; but it is further south than the other,--a great advantage,--and you can sell Old Boreas, lusty railer, etc. . . . .
The Newton Times of March 3, 1976, p. 17, refers to this passage and also mentions that Mann lectured Hawthorne on the occasions when the author enjoyed smoking a cigar outside after dinner.
While in West Newton, Hawthorne bought the house and property in Concord owned by Bronson Alcott and moved there by June of 1852, after expensive remodeling. He called it "The Wayside." Less than a year later, the family left for Liverpool, England.
Do you know a school named after Horace Mann? Do you know who Horace Mann was? Do you know where West Newton, Mass., is? Have you read anything by Hawthorne? and share what you know with the rest of us!