Yesterdays with Authors
By James T. Fields
Hawthorne is still looking at me in his far-seeing way, as if he were pondering what was next to be said about him. It would not displease him, I know, if I were to begin my discursive talk to-day by telling a little incident connected with a famous American poem.
Hawthorne dined one day with Longfellow, and brought with him a friend from Salem. After dinner the friend said: "I have been trying to persuade Hawthorne to write a story, based upon a legend of Acadie, and still current there; a legend of a girl who, in the dispersion of the Acadians, was separated from her lover, and passed her life in waiting and seeking for him, and only found him dying in a hospital, when both were old." Longfellow wondered that this legend did not strike the fancy of Hawthorne, and said to him: "If you have really made up your mind not to use it for a story, will you give it to me for a poem?" To this Hawthorne assented, and moreover promised not to treat the subject in prose till Longfellow had seen what he could do with it in verse. And so we have "Evangeline" in beautiful hexameters,--a poem that will hold its place in literature while true affection lasts. Hawthorne rejoiced in this great success of Longfellow, and loved to count up the editions, both foreign and American, of this now world-renowned poem.
I have lately met an early friend of Hawthorne's, older than himself, who knew him intimately all his life long, and I have learned some additional facts about his youthful days. Soon after he left college he wrote some stories which he called "Seven Tales of my Native Land." The motto which he chose for the title-page was "We are Seven," from Wordsworth. My informant read the tales in manuscript, and says some of them were very striking, particularly one or two Witch Stories. As soon as the little book was well prepared for the press he deliberately threw it into the fire, and sat by to see its destruction.
When about fourteen he wrote out for a member of his family a list of the books he had at that time been reading. The catalogue was a long one, but my informant remembers that The Waverley Novels, Rousseau's Works, and The Newgate Calender were among them. Serious remonstrances were made by the family touching the perusal of this last work, but he persisted in going through it to the end. He had an objection in his boyhood to reading much that was called "true and useful." Of history in general he was not very fond, but he read Froissart with interest, and Clarendon's History of the Rebellion. He is remembered to have said at that time "he cared very little for the history of the world before the fourteenth century." After he left college he read a great deal of French literature, especially the works of Voltaire and his contemporaries. He rarely went into the streets during the daytime, unless there was to be a gathering of the people for some public purpose, such as a political meeting, a military muster, or a fire. A great conflagration attracted him in a peculiar manner, and he is remembered, while a young man in Salem, to have been often seen looking on, from some dark corner, while the fire was raging. When General Jackson, of whom he professed himself a partisan, visited Salem in 1833, he walked out to the boundary of the town to meet him,--not to speak to him, but only to look at him. When he came home at night he said he found only a few men and boys collected, not enough people, without the assistance he rendered, to welcome the General with a good cheer. It is said that Susan, in the "Village Uncle," one of the "Twice-Told Tales," is not altogether a creation of his fancy. Her father was a fisherman living in Salem, and Hawthorne was constantly telling the members of his family how charming she was, and he always spoke of her as his "mermaid." He said she had a great deal of what the French call espièglerie. There was another young beauty, living at that time in his native town, quite captivating to him, though in a different style from the mermaid. But if his head and heart were turned in his youth by these two nymphs in his native town, there was soon a transfer of his affections to quite another direction. His new passion was a much more permanent one, for now there dawned upon him so perfect a creature that he fell in love irrevocably; all his thoughts and all his delights centred in her, who suddenly became indeed the mistress of his soul. She filled the measure of his being, and became a part and parcel of his life. Who was this mysterious young person that had crossed his boyhood's path and made him hers forever? Whose daughter was she that could thus enthrall the ardent young man in Salem, who knew as yet so little of the world and its sirens? She is described by one who met her long before Hawthorne made her acquaintance as "the prettiest low-born lass that ever ran on the greensward," and she must have been a radiant child of beauty, indeed, that girl! She danced like a fairy, she sang exquisitely, so that every one who knew her seemed amazed at her perfect way of doing everything she attempted. Who was it that thus summoned all this witchery, making such a tumult in young Hawthorne's bosom? She was "daughter to Leontes and Hermione," king and queen of Sicilia, and her name was Perdita! It was Shakespeare who introduced Hawthorne to his first real love, and the lover never forgot his mistress. He was constant ever, and worshipped her through life. Beauty always captivated him. Where there was beauty he fancied other good gifts must naturally be in possession. During his childhood homeliness was always repulsive to him. When a little boy he is remembered to have said to a woman who wished to be kind to him, "Take her away! She is ugly and fat, and has a loud voice."
When quite a young man he applied for a situation under Commodore Wilkes on the Exploring Expedition, but did not succeed in obtaining an appointment. He thought this a great misfortune, as he was fond of travel, and he promised to do all sorts of wonderful things, should he be allowed to join the voyagers.
One very odd but characteristic notion of his, when a youth, was, that he should like a competent income which should neither increase nor diminish, for then, he said, it would not engross too much of his attention. Surrey's little poem, "The Means to obtain a Happy Life," expressed exactly what his idea of happiness was when a lad. When a school-boy he wrote verses for the newspapers, but he ignored their existence in after years with a smile of droll disgust. One of his quatrains lives in the memory of a friend, who repeated it to me recently:--
" The ocean hath its silent caves,
Deep, quiet, and alone;
Above them there are troubled waves,
Beneath them there are none."
When the Atlantic Cable was first laid, somebody, not knowing the author of the lines, quoted them to Hawthorne as applicable to the calmness said to exist in the depths of the ocean. He listened to the verse, and then laughingly observed, "I know something of the deep sea myself."
In 1836 he went to Boston, I am told, to edit the "American Magazine of Useful Knowledge," for which he was to be paid a salary of six hundred dollars a year. The proprietors soon became insolvent, so that he received nothing, but he kept on just the same as if he had been paid regularly. The plan of the work proposed by the publishers of the magazine admitted no fiction into its pages. The magazine was printed on coarse paper and was illustrated by engravings painful to look at. There were no contributors except the editor, and he wrote the whole of every number. Short biographical sketches of eminent men and historical narratives filled up its pages. I have examined the columns of this deceased magazine, and read Hawthorne's narrative of Mrs. Dustan's captivity. Mrs. Dustan was carried off by the Indians from Haverhill, and Hawthorne does not much commiserate the hardships she endured, but reserves his sympathy for her husband, who was not carried into captivity, and suffered nothing from the Indians, but who, he says, was a tenderhearted man, and took care of the children during Mrs. D.'s absence from home, and probably knew that his wife would be more than a match for a whole tribe of savages.
When the Rev. Mr. Cheever was knocked down and flogged in the streets of Salem and then imprisoned, Hawthorne came out of his retreat and visited him regularly in jail, showing strong sympathy for the man and great indignation for those who had maltreated him.
Those early days in Salem,--how interesting the memory of them must be to the friends who knew and followed the gentle dreamer in his budding career! When the whisper first came to the timid boy, in that "dismal chamber in Union Street," that he too possessed the soul of an artist, there were not many about him to share the divine rapture that must have filled his proud young heart. Outside of his own little family circle, doubting and desponding eyes looked upon him, and many a stupid head wagged in derision as he passed by. But there was always waiting for him a sweet and honest welcome by the pleasant hearth where his mother and sisters sat and listened to the beautiful creations of his fresh and glowing fancy. We can imagine the happy group gathered around the evening lamp! "Well, my son," says the fond mother, looking up from her knitting-work, "what have you got for us to-night? It is some time since you read us a story, and your sisters are as impatient as I am to have a new one." And then we can hear, or think we hear, the young man begin in a low and modest tone the story of "Edward Fane's Rosebud," or "The Seven Vagabonds," or perchance (O tearful, happy evening!) that tender idyl of "The Gentle Boy!" What a privilege to hear for the first time a "Twice-Told Tale" before it was even once told to the public! And I know with what rapture the delighted little audience must have hailed the advent of every fresh indication that genius, so seldom a visitant at any fireside, had come down so noiselessly to bless their quiet hearthstone in the sombre old town. In striking contrast to Hawthorne's audience nightly convened to listen while he read his charming tales and essays, I think of poor Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, facing those hard-eyed critics at the house of Madame Neckar, when as a young man and entirely unknown he essayed to read his then unpublished story of "Paul and Virginia." The story was simple and the voice of the poor and nameless reader trembled. Everybody was unsympathetic and gaped, and at the end of a quarter of an hour Monsieur de Buffon, who always had a loud way with him, cried out to Madame Neckar's servant, "Let the horses be put to my carriage!"
Hawthorne seems never to have known that raw period in authorship which is common to most growing writers, when the style is "overlanguaged," and when it plunges wildly through the "sandy deserts of rhetoric," or struggles as if it were having a personal difficulty with Ignorance and his brother Platitude. It was capitally said of Chateaubriand that "he lived on the summits of syllables," and of another young author that he was so dully good, that he made even virtue disreputable." Hawthorne had no such literary vices to contend with. His looks seemed from the start to be
"Commercing with the skies,"
and he marching upward to the goal without impediment. I was struck a few days ago with the untruth, so far as Hawthorne is concerned, of a passage in the Preface to Endymion. Keats says: "The imagination of a boy is healthy, and the mature imagination of a man is healthy; but there is a space of life between, in which the soul is in a ferment, the character undecided, the way of life uncertain, the ambition thick-sighted." Hawthorne's imagination had no middle period of decadence or doubt, but continued, as it began, in full vigor to the end.
[Editor's note:] Coming to another horizontal rule in this long chapter, we will break it here, and go to the third part