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Salem Is My Dwelling Place:
A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne

by edward haviland miller
university of iowa press, 596 pages, $35

Jefferson’s public career focused on securing for Americans,” the historian Edmund S. Morgan has written, “a right of expatriation from the past.” This was a large part of what Morgan calls “the meaning of independence” for Jefferson, and probably always has been for many Americans. The more populist and charismatic democrat Andrew Jackson, coming a generation later, has been characterized by Richard Hofstadter by the phrase “self-assertive subjectivism.” Jefferson and Jackson both defeated and replaced Adamses of a more conservative and traditional character and cast of mind. They did so partly by offering more radical definitions of the independence of self and national identity, a development whose literary-philosophical correlative and sequel could be found in the life and work of Emerson, his “Transcendental” brethren, and their Romantic and existentialist disciples, from Walt Whitman to Henry Miller and Norman Mailer. “Emersonian self-reliance identifies dissent as the quintessentially American gesture,” writes Sacvan Bercovitch, “and then universalizes it as the radical imperative to subjectivity.” This is a “declaration of independence” that the urbane, cosmopolitan, aristocratic eighteenth-century liberal Thomas Jefferson probably never conceived of, much less intended, but it is a working out of the “right of expatriation from the past.” 

No spirit or sensibility could be more antithetical to this program than that of Nathaniel Hawthorne, the subject of Edwin H. Miller’s substantial new biography, Salem Is My Dwelling Place. Hawthorne was obsessed with the human past, collective and familial, haunted by its virtues and its vices, its glories and degradations. His was an intensely meditative, introspective, introverted, even retrospective character and imagination, but it was also social and moral in a way radically distinct from the temper both of his liberal age and of his liberated contemporaries Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Alcott, Ripley, Margaret Fuller, and Theodore Parker. For Hawthorne the imagination, the spirit, and the self were not “transcendental” romantic and cosmic possibilities, but were inevitably, even fatally, engaged and conditioned in a “local habitation and a name.” The local habitation for much of his life was Salem, Massachusetts, with important chapters elsewhere: as a boy along the idyllic shores of Lake Sebago, Maine; as a student at Maine’s Bowdoin College; as a young idealist at the Brook Farm Utopian community west of Boston (1841); as a married man in Emerson’s Concord (1842–45); as a summer neighbor of Herman Melville in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts (1850); as a mature writer and consular official in Liverpool, England (1853–58); and as a traveler and resident in Italy (1858–59)—before a final period of ill health and death in Concord (1859–1864).

Yet Hawthorne’s centripetal imagination always came back to Salem. It was his legacy, his setting, his theme, his “concrete universal”—the particular place and history through which whatever universals or generalizations or truths he could earn or discern would be made known. It was a legacy of both honor and shame. The first settlers of Salem, Hawthorne wrote in “Main-Street,” were “stalwart” men, who strode “sturdily onward,” brave and pious men of “thoughtful strength,” men “who do not merely find, but make their place in the system of human affairs.” But they were also, often, authoritarian and self-righteous sinners, displacing Indians, trying and executing “witches,” persecuting and whipping dissenters from their own dissent, such as Baptists and Quakers.

Hawthorne could never forget that his own ancestors had been pious, sincere, hard-working, determined—and sometimes evil and cruel. In 1692, Major John Hawthorne had been “the infamous judge at the Salem witch trials,” in Miller’s words. But although Nathaniel Hawthorne lived in a later, liberal age that was declaring its independence from, superiority to, the past and progressive confidence in its glowing future, he was apparently unable to persuade himself that human nature collectively improves over historical time. In an expansive, optimistic, self-congratulatory age, he was an ironic dissenter who saw sin, evil, and tragedy as perennial human phenomena, to be reduced, mitigated, or overcome—if at all—by individual moral and religious effort, and by what Burke called the moral imagination. As Randall Stewart pointed out nearly half a century ago, Hawthorne’s lifelong literary models and companions were the great Puritan moralist-seers Spenser, Milton, and Bunyan, and of the eighteenth-century writers, the great Augustan Christian humanists, especially Dr. Johnson, whose boyhood home in Lichfield Hawthorne visited on what must be called a pilgrimage of veneration. “On July 4, 1855, his fifty-first birthday,” Miller writes, “Hawthorne journeyed alone to Lichfield and Uttoxeter to pay homage to Dr. Samuel Johnson.”

Unlike his great friend Burke, Johnson was a notorious critic of the idealistic claims to virtue and progress of the American Revolution and Declaration of Independence, a critical stance that of course earned him hostility in the new republic. This hostility—from which Burke was evidently not immune either—is evident in John Adams’ letters to Jefferson of December 25, 1813 and June 20, 1815, in which he accuses Johnson and Burke of being “more . . . Catholicks than Protestants at Heart,” a very perceptive observation indeed. Yet it was the more optimistic and secular Jefferson—and most of his generation of Virginia gentlemen—who had more to fear from Johnson’s mind and pen than did the patriotic, pious New England Federalist Adams. No one has ever written a more brilliant, succinct criticism of the essential hypocrisy in the lives and minds of the Virginia Founders than Johnson did in 1775: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”

If the Puritans lashed Quakers and hung “witches,” the Southern gentlemen exploited, lashed, and hung recalcitrant negroes—as in a more subtle way the burgeoning commercial-industrial upper classes of the North exploited and abused the newly emergent industrial working classes of immigrants and poor whites, especially in the growing cities of the Northeast. The ugliness and hypocrisy of the new northeastern capitalism was brilliantly pointed out in Hawthorne’s own time by the Southern writer George Fitzhugh, as C. Vann Woodward has shown in his essay “A Southern War Against Capitalism” (1960).

Thus when Emerson, whom Randall Stewart calls “the age’s chief optimist,” asserted on his fifty-eighth birthday that he “could never give much reality to evil and pain,” Hawthorne would have been as incredulous and outraged at the sentiment as Emerson’s friend Carlyle was. May 1861 was not a propitious time to assert the unreality or unimportance of “evil and pain”: one month before. Gen. Beauregard had ordered the bombardment of Fort Sumter which began the nineteenth century’s bloodiest war. Only in the ivory tower of a comfortable Concord study could the sins and pains of the race be so airily and confidently dismissed.

For a time Hawthorne, too, had a “comfortable Concord study,” but he was a man who throughout his life knew and lived with the anxieties of financial insecurity. The newly confident commercial-industrial capitalist class solved some problems and created others; someone is always drowning, Hawthorne somewhere wrote, in our fluctuating commercial American sea—an insight as powerful today as it was 150 years ago. As scholars such as Randall Stewart and Mark Van Doren pointed out nearly a half-century ago, Hawthorne disbelieved in the secular, progressive optimism of the nineteenth century because, in his own words, the progressive spirit “preposterously miscalculated the possibilities” of human life. As the historian James Truslow Adams later wrote, Emerson (and his followers) articulated “that vast American optimism with its refusal to recognize and wrestle with the problem of evil.” Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, and Frederick Douglass had no such luxury.

Writing in the aftermath of World War II, Mark Van Doren characterized Hawthorne’s reaction to the programmatic liberal optimism of his age: Hawthorne “merely knew that it was wrong when it said with Emerson that self-reliance is a sufficient virtue comprehending all other virtues. ‘The world has done its best’ [Hawthorne wrote] ‘to secure repose without relinquishing evil.’ The man who could write this could see how little repose was in store for the complacent.” The myth of collective progress as uniquely and, in an idolatrous way, “providentially” pioneered by America, through “manifest destiny” and laissez-faire capitalism (“Self-Reliance” writ large) and populist democratism, would arouse moral hopes that it would then always defeat or disappoint, as in the later case of the terminal bitterness and misanthropy of that quintessential American optimist-turned-pessimist, Mark Twain.

By contrast, Hawthorne found in marriage, family, work, and meditation on history and religion a surer guide to relative wisdom and happiness. He knew about the “heart of darkness,” and refused either to ignore or to be overwhelmed by it. In what is still probably the finest individual insight into his writing, Herman Melville asserted in his great review “Hawthorne and His Mosses” (1850) that “This great power of blackness in him derives its force from its appeals to that Calvinistic sense of innate depravity and original sin, from whose visitations . . . no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free.” In her fine book Hawthorne: Calvin’s Ironic Stepchild, the distinguished Hawthorne scholar Agnes M. Donohue has persuasively argued for the presence in his writing of a “Calvinist-ordained irony,” and has also tried to solve the “mystery” of the illness and artistic decline of Hawthorne’s last decade. She argues that the years of residence in England (1853-58) and especially in Italy (1858-59) had a profoundly destabilizing effect on his previous, at least partly Calvinist, vision of reality. Hawthorne’s confrontation with continental, especially Italian, Catholicism undermined his highly personal and Protestant sense of himself, the individual, and society. Hawthorne’s Protestant sensibility is often ambivalent. There is something Catholic, and premodern, in Hester’s public penance in The Scarlet Letter: “Had there been a Papist among the crowd of Puritans,” Hawthorne writes of Hester on the scaffold, “he might have seen in this beautiful woman . . . an object to remind him of the image of Divine maternity, which so many illustrious painters have vied with one another to represent; something which should remind him, indeed, but only by contrast, of that sacred image of sinless motherhood, whose infant was to redeem the world.” “Divine maternity,” after all, is not a Protestant idea.

Nineteenth-century Protestantism tended to bifurcate into liberal, social-Gospel progressivism, such as Unitarianism, and the emotional, “backwater,” Calvinistic Evangelicalism of the South and the rural countryside, with its implacably distant and masculine God as Judge. Hawthorne mocked the old Calvinism that still held the field at Bowdoin in his student days but which was being driven steadily from the major academic centers of New England, and which was moving west and south, especially south; but this Calvinism left a mark on him. In addition, the older Puritanism exercised a powerful effect on his imagination by its clarity, its drama, its understanding of evil, and its contrast to the bland optimism and secularizing, genteel Protestantism and liberalism of eastern New England in his time. As Van Doren put it, “To him the Puritan world was warmer than his own.” This older Puritan world was premodern and frankly supernatural, like its parent Catholicism. In Hawthorne we find in effect a comprehensive interpretation of early New England history in which the founding generation is criticized but also admired—it was “stern, severe, intolerant, but not superstitious, not even fanatical,” and possessed “a farseeing worldly sagacity.” It had “a gloomy energy of character” (“Main-Street”). John Bunyan’s Pilgrim obsessed Hawthorne throughout his life.

Agnes M. Donohue contends that Hawthorne’s exposure to earthy Italian Catholicism subtly undermined his previous conservative Protestant loyalties and led to a profound crisis in the spirit of this intensely shy, meditative, and austere man. The sickness, premature aging, and depression of his last, American years have found many interpretations. The physician Oliver Wendell Holmes, who saw but never closely examined Hawthorne, suggested that he suffered from “some internal organic—perhaps malignant—disease.” Emerson, his acquaintance but no close friend, noted, rather ungenerously, “the painful solitude of the man—which, I suppose, could no longer be endured, and he died of it.” Agnes Donohue’s argument, though not mentioned in Miller’s biography, is forceful and provocative. Like many another American, Hawthorne found himself attracted, fascinated, and unsettled by Europe and Catholicism.

Again, unlike Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman—and even Melville—Hawthorne evinces a profoundly heterosexual and monogamous nature, one to which the elemental fact of womanliness is ever present and open to his powers of depiction. Like Anna Karenina, Hester is one of the great heroines in world literature, and if Hawthorne was unsympathetic in his estimate of Margaret Fuller (whom he knew) and her brand of feminism, he sympathetically portrayed Anne Hutchinson as a courageous martyr, and he adored and praised his own wife. One of the finest features of E. H. Miller’s biography is its conclusion, in which he discusses the life of Hawthorne’s daughter Rose, who entered a Catholic order in 1895 and, in Hawthorne, New York, as Mother Alphonsa, tended cancer patients for the last thirty years of her life until her death in 1926. She claimed that her father had been her guide. “Perhaps she fulfilled Hester Prynne’s dream,” Miller writes, and then quotes it from The Scarlet Letter: “The angel and apostle of the coming revelation must be a woman, indeed, but lofty, pure, and beautiful; and wise, moreover, not through dusky grief, but the ethereal medium of joy; and showing how sacred love should make us happy, by the truest test of a life successful to such an end!”

Another woman, Flannery O’Connor, one of Hawthorne’s chief imaginative disciples as a moral fabulist, blamed Emerson for the “vaporization of religion in America.” Of Emerson, Whitman, and the other oracular, “orphic,” transcendental gnostics, Hawthorne was always suspicious. “He tested their truths in the truth of narrative,” Mark Van Doren wrote, and he “found them wanting.” From Emerson to Harold Bloom and “New Age” spirituality, the Gnostic afflatus has had a long and profitable run in American culture. E. H. Miller’s biography joins a group of distinguished works—by Randall Stewart, Mark Van Doren, Marion Montgomery, and Quentin Anderson—in bringing to full literary life the American master who serves as an effective and definitive antidote to the fantasies of the imperial self.

M. D. Aeschliman teaches in the English Department at the University of Virginia.