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Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1804-1864

Yesterdays with Authors

By James T. Fields


(Part 4)



Hawthorne was, indeed, a consummate artist, and I do not remember a single slovenly passage in all his acknowledged writings. It was a privilege, and one that I can never sufficiently estimate, to have known him personally through so many years. He was unlike any other author I have met, and there were qualities in his nature so sweet and commendable, that, through all his shy reserve, they sometimes asserted themselves in a marked and conspicuous manner. I have known rude people, who were jostling him in a crowd, give way at the sound of his low and almost irresolute voice, so potent was the gentle spell of command that seemed born of his genius.

Although he was apt to keep aloof from his kind, and did not hesitate frequently to announce by his manner that

"Solitude to him
Was blithe society, who filled the air
With gladness and involuntary songs,"

I ever found him, like Milton's Raphael, an "affable" angel, and inclined to converse on whatever was human and good in life.

Here are some more extracts from the letters he wrote to me while he was engaged on "The Marble Faun." On the 11th of February, 1860, he writes from Leamington in England (I was then in Italy):--

"I received your letter from Florence, and conclude that you are now in Rome, and probably enjoying the Carnival,--a tame deseription of which, by the by, I have introduced into my Romance.

"I thank you most heartily for your kind wishes in favor of the forthcoming work, and sincerely join my own prayers to yours in its behalf, but without much confidence of a good result. My own opinion is, that I am not really a popular writer, and that what popularity I have gained is chiefly accidental, and owing to other causes than my own kind or degree of merit. Possibly I may (or may not) deserve something better than popularity; but looking at all my productions, and especially this latter one, with a cold or critical eye, I can see that they do not make their appeal to the popular mind. It Is odd enough, moreover, that my own individual taste is for quite another class of works than those which I myself am able to write. If I were to meet with such books as mine, by another writer, I don't believe I should be able to get through them.

. . . . .

"To return to my own moonshiny Romance; its fate will soon be settled, for Smith and Elder mean to publish on the 28th of this month. Poor Ticknor will have a tight scratch to get his edition out contemporaneously; they having sent him the third volume only a week ago. I think, however, there will be no danger of piracy in America. Perhaps nobody will think it worth stealing. Give my best regards to William Story, and look well at his Cleopatra, for you will meet her again in one of the chapters which I wrote with most pleasure. If he does not find himself famous henceforth, the fault win be none of mine. I, at least, have done my duty by him, whatever delinquency there may be on the part of other critics.

"Smith and Elder persist in calling the book 'Transformation,' which gives one the idea of Harlequin in a pantomime; but I have strictly enjoined upon Ticknor to call it 'The Marble Faun; a Romance of Monte Beni.'"

In one of his letters written at this period, referring to his design of going home, he says:--

"I shall not have been absent seven years till the 5th of July next, and I scorn to touch Yankee soil sooner than that. As regards going home I alternate between a longing and a dread."

Returning to London from the Continent, in April, I found this letter, written from Bath, awaiting my arrival:--

"You are welcome back. I really began to fear that you had been assassinated among the Apennines or killed in that outbreak at Rome. I have taken passages for all of us in the steamer which sails the 16th of June. Your berths are Nos. l9 and 20. I engaged them with the understanding that you might go earlier or later, if you chose; but I would advise you to go on the 16th; in the first place, because the state-rooms for our party are the most eligible in the ship; secondly, because we shall otherwise mutually lose the pleasure of each other's company. Besides, I consider it my duty, towards Ticknor and towards Boston, and America at large, to take you into custody and bring you home; for I know you will never come except upon compulsion. Let me know at once whether I am to use force.

"The book (The Marble Faun) has done better than I thought it would; for you will have discovered, by this time, that it is an audacious attempt to impose a tissue of absurdities upon the public by the mere art of style of narrative. I hardly hoped that it would go down with John Bull; but then it is always my best point of writing, to undertake such a task, and I really put what strength I have into many parts of this book.

"The English critics generally (with two or three unimportant exceptions) have been sufficiently favorable, and the review in the Times awarded the highest praise of all. At home, too, the notices have been very kind, so far as they have come under my eye. Lowell had a good one in the Atlantic Monthly, and Hillard an excellent one in the Courier; and yesterday I received a sheet of the May number of the Atlantic containing a really keen and profound article by Whipple, in which he goes over all my works, and recognizes that element of unpopularity which (as nobody knows better than myself) pervades them all. I agree with almost all he says, except that I am conscious of not deserving nearly so much praise. When I get home, I will try to write a more genial book; but the Devil himself always seems to get into my inkstand, and I can only exorcise him by pensful at a time.

"I am coming to London very soon, and mean to spend a fortnight of next month there. I have been quite homesick through this past dreary winter. Did you ever spend a winter in England? If not, reserve your ultimate conclusion about the country until you have done so."

We met in London early in May, and, as our lodgings were not far apart, we were frequently together. I recall many pleasant dinners with him and mutual friends in various charming seaside and country-side places. We used to take a run down to Greenwich or Blackwall once or twice a week, and a trip to Richmond was always grateful to him. Bennoch was constantly planning a day's happiness for his friend, and the hours at that pleasant season of the year were not long enough for our delights. In London we strolled along the Strand, day after day, now diving into Bolt Court, in pursuit of Johnson's whereabouts, and now stumbling around the Temple, where Goldsmith at one time had his quarters. Hawthorne was never weary of standing on London Bridge, and watching the steamers plying up and down the Thames. I was much amused by his manner towards importunate and sometimes impudent beggars, scores of whom would attack us even in the shortest walk. He had a mild way of making a severe and cutting remark, which used to remind me of a little incident which Charlotte Cushman once related to me. She said a man in the gallery of a theatre (I think she was on the stage at the time) made such a disturbance that the play could not proceed. Cries of "Throw him over" arose from all parts of the house, and the noise became furious. All was tumultuous chaos until a sweet and gentle female voice was heard in the pit, exclaiming, "No! I pray you don't throw him over! I beg of you, dear friends, don't throw him over, but--kill him where he is."

One of our most royal times was at a parting dinner at the house of Barry Cornwall. Among the notables present were Kinglake and Leigh Hunt. Our kindhearted host and his admirable wife greatly delighted in Hawthorne, and they made this occasion a most grateful one to him. I remember when we went up to the drawing-room to join the ladies after dinner, the two dear old poets, Leigh Hunt and Barry Cornwall, mounted the stairs with their arms round each other in a very tender and loving way. Hawthorne often referred to this scene as one he would not have missed for a great deal.

His renewed intercourse with Motley in England gave him peculiar pleasure, and his genius found an ardent admirer in the eminent historian. He did not go much into society at that time, but there were a few houses in London where he always seemed happy.

I met him one night at a great evening-party, looking on from a nook a little removed from the full glare of the soiree. Soon, however, it was whispered about that the famous American romance-writer has in the room, and an enthusiastic English lady, a genuine admirer and intelligent reader of his books, ran for her album and attacked him for "a few words and his name at the end." He looked dismally perplexed, and turning to me said imploringly in a whisper, "For pity's sake, what shall I write? I can't think of a word to add to my name. Help me to something." Thinking him partly in fun, I said, "Write an original couplet,--this one, for instance,--

'When this you see,
Remember me,'"

and to my amazement he stepped forward at once to the table, wrote the foolish lines I had suggested, and, shutting the book, handed it very contentedly to the happy lady.

We sailed from England together in the month of June, as we had previously arranged, and our voyage home was, to say the least, an unusual one. We had calm summer, moonlight weather, with no storms. Mrs. Stowe was on board, and in her own cheery and delightful way she enlivened the passage with some capital stories of her early life.

When we arrived at Queenstown, the captain announced to us that, as the ship would wait there six hours, we might go ashore and see something of our Irish friends. So we chartered several jaunting-cars, after much tribulation and delay in arranging terms with the drivers thereof, and started off on a merry exploring expedition. I remember there was a good deal of racing up and down the hills of Queenstown, much shouting and laughing, and crowds of beggars howling after us for pence and beer. The Irish jaunting-car is a peculiar institution, and we all sat with our legs dangling over the road in a "dim and perilous way." Occasionally a horse would give out, for the animals were sad specimens, poorly fed and wofully driven. We were almost devoured by the ragamuffins that ran beside our wheels, and I remember the "sad civility" with which Hawthorne regarded their clamors. We had provided ourselves before starting with much small coin, which, however, gave out during our first mile. Hawthorne attempted to explain our inability further to supply their demands, having, as he said to them, nothing less than a sovereign in his pocket, when a voice from the crowd shouted, "Bedad, your honor, I can change that for ye" and the knave actually did it on the spot.

Hawthorne's love for the sea amounted to a passionate worship; and while I (the worst sailor probably on this planet) was longing, spite of the good company on board, to reach land as soon as possible, Hawthorne was constantly saying in his quiet, earnest way, "I should like to sail on and on forever, and never touch the shore again." He liked to stand alone in the bows of the ship and see the sun go down, and he was never tired of walking the deck at midnight. I used to watch his dark, solitary figure under the stars, pacing up and down some unfrequented part of the vessel, musing and half melancholy. Sometimes he would lie down beside me and commiserate my unquiet condition. Seasickness, he declared, he could not understand, and was constantly recommending most extraordinary dishes and drinks, "all made out of the artist's brain," which he said were sovereign remedies for nautical illness. I remember to this day some of the preparations which, in his revelry of fancy, he would advise me to take, a farrago of good things almost rivalling "Oberon's Feast," spread out so daintily in Herrick's "Hesperides." He thought, at first, if I could bear a few roe's eggs beaten up by a mermaid on a dolphin's back, I might be benefited. He decided that a gruel made from a sheaf of Robin Hood's arrows would be strengthening. When suffering pain, "a right gude willie-waught," or a stiff cup of hemlock of the Socrates brand, before retiring, he considered very good. He said he had heard recommended a dose of salts distilled from the tears of Niobe, but he did n't approve of that remedy. He observed that he had a high opinion of hearty food, such as potted owl with Minerva sauce, airy tongues of sirens, stewed ibis, livers of Roman Capitol geese, the wings of a Phoenix not too much done, love-lore nightingales cooked briskly over Aladdin's lamp, chicken-pies made of fowls raised by Mrs. Carey, Nautilus chowder, and the like. Fruit, by all means, should always be taken by an uneasy victim at sea, especially Atalanta pippins and purple grapes raised by Bacchus & Co. Examining my garments one day as I lay on deck, he thought I was not warmly enough clad, and he recommended, before I took another voyage, that I should fit myself out in Liverpool with a good warm shirt from the shop of Census & Co. in Bold Street, where I could also find stout seven-league boots to keep out the damp. He knew another shop, he said, where I could buy raven-down stockings, and sable clouds with a silver lining, most warm and comfortable for a sea voyage.

His own appetite was excellent, and day after day he used to come on deck after dinner and describe to me what he had eaten. Of course his accounts were always exaggerations, for my amusement. I remember one night he gave me a running catalogue of what food he had partaken during the day, and the sum total was convulsing from its absurdity. Among the viands he had consumed, I remember he stated there were "several yards of steak," and a "whole warrenful of Welsh rabbits." The "divine spirit of Humor" was upon him during many of those days at sea, and he revelled in it like a careless child. That was a voyage, indeed, long to be remembered, and I shall ever look back upon it as the most satisfactory "sea turn" I ever happened to experience. I have sailed many a weary, watery mile since then, but Hawthorne was not on board!

The summer after his arrival home he spent quietly in Concord, at the Wayside, and illness in his family made him at times unusually sad. In one of his notes to me he says:--

"I am continually reminded nowadays of a response which I once heard a drunken sailor make to a pious gentleman, who asked him how he felt, 'Pretty d-d miserable, thank God!' It very well expresses my thorough discomfort and forced acquiescence."

Occasionally he wrote requesting me to make a change, here and there, in the new edition of his works then passing through the press. On the 23d of September, 1860, he writes:--

"Please to append the following note to the foot of the page, at the commencement of the story called 'Dr. Heidegger's Experiment,' in the 'Twice-Told Tales': 'In an English Review, not long since, I have been accused of plagiarizing the idea of this story from a chapter in one of the novels of Alexandre Dumas. There has undoubtedly been a plagiarism, on one side or the other; but as my story was written a good deal more than twenty years ago, and as the novel is of considerably more recent date, I take pleasure in thinking that M. Dumas has done me the honor to appropriate one of the fanciful conceptions of my earlier days. He is heartily welcome to it; nor is it the only instance, by many, in which the great French romancer has exercised the privilege of commanding genius by confiscating the intellectual property of less famous people to his own use and behoof.'"

Hawthorne was a diligent reader of the Bible, and when sometimes, in my ignorant way, I would question, in a proof-sheet, his use of a word, he would almost always refer me to the Bible as his authority. It was a great pleasure to hear him talk about the Book of Job, and his voice would be tremulous with feeling, as he sometimes quoted a touching passage from the New Testament. In one of his letters he says to me:--

"Did not I suggest to you, last summer, the publication of the Bible in ten or twelve 12mo volumes? I think it would have great success, and, at least (but, as a publisher, I suppose this is the very smallest of your cares), it would result in the salvation of a great many souls, who will never find their way to heaven, if left to learn it from the inconvenient editions of the Scriptures now in use. It is very singular that this form of publishing the Bible in a single bulky or closely printed volume should be so long continued. It was first adopted, I suppose, as being the universal mode of publication at the time when the Bible was translated. Shakespeare, and the other old dramatists and poets, were first published in the same form; but all of them have long since been broken into dozens and scores of portable and readable volumes; and why not the Bible?"

During this period, after his return from Europe, I saw him frequently at the Wayside, in Concord. He now seemed happy in the dwelling he had put in order for the calm and comfort of his middle and later life. He had added a tower to his house, in which he could be safe from intrusion, and where he could muse and write. Never was poet or romancer more fitly shrined. Drummond at Hawthornden, Scott at Abbotsford, Dickens at Gad's Hill, Irving at Sunnyside, were not more appropriately sheltered. Shut up in his tower, he could escape from the tumult of life, and be alone with only the birds and the bees in concert outside his casement. The view from this apartment, on every side, was lovely, and Hawthorne enjoyed the charming prospect as I have known few men to enjoy nature.

His favorite walk lay near his house,--indeed it was part of his own grounds,--a little hillside, where he had worn a foot-path, and where he might be found in good weather, when not employed in the tower. While walking to and fro on this bit of rising ground he meditated and composed innumerable romances that were never written, as well as some that were. Here he first announced to me his plan of "The Dolliver Romance," and, from what he told me of his design of the story as it existed in his mind, I thought it would have been the greatest of his books. An enchanting memory is left of that morning when he laid out the whole story before me as he intended to write it. The plot was a grand one, and I tried to tell him how much I was impressed by it. Very soon after our interview, he wrote to me:--

"In compliance with your exhortations, I have begun to think seriously of that story, not, as yet, with a pen in my hand, but trudging to and fro on my hilltop..... I don't mean to let you see the first chapters till I have written the final sentence of the story. Indeed, the first chapters of a story ought always to be the last written .... If you want me to write a good book, send me a good pen; not a gold one, for they seldom suit me; but a pen flexible and capacious of ink, and that will not grow stiff and rheumatic the moment I get attached to it. I never met with a good pen in my life."

Time went on, the war broke out, and he had not the heart to go on with his new Romance. During the month of April, 1862, he made a visit to Washington with his friend Ticknor, to whom he was greatly attached. While on this visit to the capital he sat to Leutze for a portrait. He took a special fancy to the artist, and, while he was sitting to him, wrote a long letter to me. Here is an extract from it:--

"I stay here only while Leutze finishes a portrait, which I think will be the best ever painted of the same unworthy subject. One charm it must needs have,--an aspect of immortal jollity and well-to-doness; for Leutze, when the sitting begins, gives me a first-rate cigar, and when he sees me getting tired, he brings out a bottle of splendid champagne; and we quaffed and smoked yesterday, in a blessed state of mutual good-will, for three hours and a half, during which the picture made a really miraculous progress. Leutze is the best of fellows."

In the same letter he thus describes the sinking of the Cumberland, and I know of nothing finer in its way:--

"I see in a newspaper that Holmes is going to write a song on the sinking of the Cumberland; and feeling it to be a subject of national importance, it occurs to me that he might like to know her present condition. She lies with her three masts sticking up out of the water, and careened over, the water being nearly on a level with her maintop,--I mean that first landing-place from the deck of the vessel, after climbing the shrouds. The rigging does not appear at all damaged. There is a tattered bit of a pennant, about a foot and a half long, fluttering from the tip-top of one of the masts; but the flag, the ensign of the ship (which never was struck, thank God), is under water, quite invisible, being attached to the gaff, I think they call it, of the mizzen-mast; and though this bald description makes nothing of it, I never saw anything so gloriously forlorn as those three masts. I did not think it was in me to be moved by any spectacle of of the kind. Bodies still occasionally float up from it. The Secretary of the Navy says she shall lie there till she goes to pieces, but I suppose by and by they will sell her to some Yankee for the value of her old iron.

"P. S. My hair really is not so white as this photograph, which I enclose, makes me. The sun seems to take an infernal pleasure in making me venerable,--as if I were as old as himself."

Hawthorne has rested so long in the twilight of impersonality, that I hesitate sometimes to reveal the man even to his warmest admirers. This very day Sainte-Beuve has made me feel a fresh reluctance in unveiling my friend, and there seems almost a reproof in these words, from the eloquent French author:--

"We know nothing or nearly nothing of the life of La Bruyère, and this obscurity adds, it has been remarked, to the effect of his work, and, it may be said, to the piquant happiness of his destiny. If there was not a single line of his unique book, which from the first instant of its publication did not appear and remain in the clear light, so, on the other hand, there was not one individual detail regarding the author which was well known. Every ray of the century fell upon each page of the book and the face of the man who held it open in his hand was veiled from our sight."

Beautifully said, as usual with Sainte-Beuve, but I venture, notwithstanding such eloquent warning, to proceed.

After his return home from Washington Hawthorne sent to me, during the month of May, an article for the Atlantic Monthly, which he entitled "Chiefly about War-Matters." The paper, excellently well done throughout, of course, contained a personal description of President Lincoln, which I thought, considered as a portrait of a living man, and drawn by Hawthorne, it would not be wise or tasteful to print. The office of an editor is a disagreeable one sometimes, and the case of Hawthorne on Lincoln disturbed me not a little. After reading the manuscript, I wrote to the author, and asked his permission to omit his description of the President's personal appearance. As usual,--for he was the kindest and sweetest of contributors, the most good-natured and the most amenable man to advise I ever knew,--he consented to my proposal, and allowed me to print the article with the alterations. If any one will turn to the paper in the Atlantic Monthly (it is in the number for July, 1862), it will be observed there are several notes; all of these were written by Hawthorne himself. He complied with my request without a murmur, but he always thought I was wrong in my decision. He said the whole description of the interview and the President's personal appearance were, to his mind, the only parts of the article worth publishing. "What a terrible thing," he complained, "it is to try to let off a little bit of truth into this miserable humbug of a world!" President Lincoln is dead, and as Hawthorne once wrote to me, "Upon my honor, it seems to me the passage omitted has an historical value," I will copy here verbatim what I advised my friend, both on his own account and the President's, not to print nine years ago. Hawthorne and his party had gone into the President's room, annexed, as he says, as supernumeraries to a deputation from a Massachusetts whip-factory, with a present of a splendid whip to the Chief Magistrate:--

"By and by there was a little stir on the staircase and in the passageway, and in lounged a tall, loose-jointed figure, of an exaggerated Yankee port and demeanor, whom (as being about the homeliest man I ever saw, yet by no means repulsive or disagreeable) it was impossible not to recognize as Uncle Abe.

"Unquestionably, Western man though he be, and Kentuckian by birth, President Lincoln is the essential representative of all Yankees, and the veritable specimen, physically, of what the world seems determined to regard as our characteristic qualities. It is the strangest and yet the fittest thing in the jumble of human vicissitudes, that he, out of so many millions, unlooked for, unselected by any intelligible process that could be based upon his genuine qualities, unknown to those who chose him, and unsuspected of what endowments may adapt him for his tremendous responsibility, should have found the way open for him to fling his lank personality into the chair of state,--where, I presume, it was his first impulse to throw his legs on the council-table, and tell the Cabinet Ministers a story. There is no describing his lengthy awkwardness, nor the uncouthness of his movement; and yet it seemed as if I had been in the habit of seeing him daily, and had shaken hands with him a thousand times in some village street; so true was he to the aspect of the pattern American, though with a certain extravagance which, possibly, I exaggerated still further by the delighted eagerness with which I took it in. If put to guess his calling and livelihood, I should have taken him for a country schoolmaster as soon as anything else. He was dressed in a rusty black frock-coat and pantaloons, unbrushed, and worn so faithfully that the suit had adapted itself to the curves and angularities of his figure, and had grown to be an outer skin of the man. He had shabby slippers on his feet. His hair was black, still unmixed with gray, stiff, somewhat bushy, and had apparently been acquainted with neither brush nor comb that morning, after the disarrangement of the pillow; and as to a nightcap, Unele Abe probably knows nothing of such effeminacies. His complexion is dark and saHow, betokening, I fear, an insalubrious atmosphere around the White House; he has thick black eyebrows and an impending brow; his nose is large, and the lines about his mouth are very strongly defined.

"The whole physiognomy is as coarse a one as you would meet anywhere in the length and breadth of the States; but, withal, it is redeemed, illuminated, softened, and brightened by a kindly though serious look out of his eyes, and an expression of homely sagacity, that seems weighted with rich results of village experience. A great deal of native sense; no bookish cultivation, no refinement; honest at heart, and thoroughly so, and yet, in some sort, sly,--at least, endowed with a sort of tact and wisdom that are akin to craft, and would impel him, I think, to take an antagonist in flank, rather than to make a bull-run at him right in front. But, on the whole, I liked this sallow, queer, sagacious visage, with the homely human sympathies that warmed it; and, for my small share in the matter, would as lief have Uncle Abe for a ruler as any man whom it would have been practicable to put in his place.

"Immediately on his entrance the President accosted our member of Congress, who had us in charge, and, with a comical twist of his face, made some jocular remark about the length of his breakfast. He then greeted us all round, not waiting for an introduction, but shaking and squeezing everybody's hand with the utmost cordiality, whether the individual's name was announced to him or not. His manner towards us was wholly without presence, but yet had a kind of natural dignity, quite sufficient to keep the forwardest of us from clapping him on the shoulder and asking for a story. A mutual acquaintance being established, our leader took the whip out of its case, and began to read the address of presentation. The whip was an exceedingly long one, its handle wrought in ivory (by some artist in the Massachusetts State Prison, I believe), and ornamented with a medallion of the President, and other equally beautiful devices; and along its whole length there was a succession of golden bands and ferrules. The address was shorter than the whip, but equally well made, consisting chiefly of en explanatory description of these artistic designs, and closing with a hint that the gift was a suggestive and emblematic one, and that the President would recognize the use to which such an instrument should be put.

"This suggestion gave Uncle Abe rather a delicate task in his reply, because, slight as the matter seemed, it apparently called for some declaration, or intimation, or faint foreshadowing of policy in reference to the conduct of the war, and the final treatment of the Rebels. Put the President's Yankee aptness and not-to-be-caughtness stood him in good stead, and he jerked or wiggled himself out of the dilemma with an uncouth dexterity that was entirely in character; although, without his gesticulation of eye and mouth,--and especially the flourish of the whip, with which he imagined himself touching up a pair of fat horses,--I doubt whether his words would be worth recording, even if I could remember them. The gist of the reply was, that he accepted the whip as an emblem of peace, not punishment; and, this great affair over, we retired out of the presence in high good-humor, only regretting that we could not have seen the President sit down and fold up his legs (which is said to be a most extraordinary spectacle), or have heard him tell one of those delectable stories for which he is so celebrated. A good many of them are afloat upon the common talk of Washington, and are certainly the aptest, pithiest, and funniest little things imaginable; though, to be sure, they smack of the frontier freedom, and would not always bear repetition in a drawing-room, or on the immaculate page of the Atlantic."

So runs the passage which caused some good-natured discussion nine years ago, between the contributor and the editor. Perhaps I was squeamish not to have been willing to print this matter at that time. Some persons, no doubt, will adopt that opinion, but as both President and author have long ago met on the other side of criticism and magazines, we will leave the subject to their decision, they being most interested in the transaction. I did what seemed best in 1862. In 1871 "circumstances have changed" with both parties, and I venture to-day what I hardly dared then.

[Editor's note: ] We conclude with the fifth and last part of the chapter, following this rule in the text.

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