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BOOK REVIEW : New Psycho-Sexual Study Bares Hawthorne's Dangerous Edges : DEAREST BELOVED: The Hawthornes and the Making of the Middle-Class Family by T. Walter Herbert ; University of California Press; $28, 331 pages

April 28, 1993|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Must Una die," cried Sophia Hawthorne at her daughter's sickbed, "because the Roman Emperors outraged the patience of God and all human decencies?"

*

The family of the famous American author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, was living in Rome during the fall of 1858, and Una was suffering from what they called "nervous fever"--a combination of malaria and some longstanding but poorly understood mental disorder. Sophia sought to blame the affliction on ancient moral transgressions, but a better explanation is that Una's illness was the focal point of the Hawthorne family's own spiritual and sexual anxieties.

"Una's illness offered Sophia a heroic Armageddon of Motherhood," writes T. Walter Herbert in "Dearest Beloved," a daring psycho-sexual study of the Hawthorne family. "Now, as before, she cannibalizes Una's emotional life in dramatizing her own struggle with the dilemmas of womanhood."

Herbert, a professor of English at Southwestern University, gives us a startling new reading of the life and work of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and it is troubled little Una who emerges as a kind of dark oracle whose sheer craziness expressed the truth that the Hawthornes were unable to see.

The Hawthornes, Herbert writes, seemed to "vividly exemplify the domestic ideal of family relations." One of their three children, for instance, saw her parents as "a picture of benevolent pleasure." But in the hidden chambers of the Hawthorne manse lurked something dark and threatening, Herbert reports, drawing family demons out of the various letters, diaries and other papers that Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne left behind.

"This union of perfect beings was simultaneously a battlefield of souls, marked at times with scenes of cruelty and agony. This ideal model of middle-class normality produced a madwoman, a criminal and a saint."

Herbert is sensitive to the sexual and psychological politics of the Hawthorne family, and he renders his own bold interpretation of the "metabolism of inner meanings" in the marriage of Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne, the lives of their children and the published work of Hawthorne.

As an artist, Hawthorne found himself in "a cauldron of competitive stress," and as a husband and father, he struggled to subjugate his own restless sexuality to "the worship of feminine purity." Sophia was forced to endure the tension between her own talents and ambitions and the conflicted role of women in the 19th Century: "Sophia's groveling protestations of absolute devotion to her husband," writes Herbert, "concealed an unvanquished will to power."

And both of them were battered by the excesses of their firstborn child, Una, whose "explosive rages" disturbed their idealized vision of family life. The Hawthornes refused to confront the reality (or the roots) of Una's troubled nature, but Herbert suggests that she is best understood as a lens that caught and refracted the suppressed emotional and sexual energies of the Hawthorne household.

"She is all nobleness and sweetness," insisted Sophia, "(and) her crack-of-doom 'No!' which always raises the roof, . . . will serve her a good turn in maturer life."

But Sophia, a shrill moralizer who bowdlerized her own husband's writings, was wrong. Una was a force that could not be contained or denied: "(Hawthorne) was haunted . . . by the awareness that she was seeing things in himself, and in his ideal relation to Sophia, that were invisible to him," Herbert explains. "Both Nathaniel and Sophia were unnerved by Una's seeming intuitive penetration."

The family secrets that are revealed in "Dearest Beloved" are disturbing and even frightening, and a kind of dread pervades the otherwise cool literary analysis that makes up much of the book. But make no mistake: This is a work of scholarship, not a Gothic novel, and the reader is asked to view the emotional maelstrom of the Hawthorne family in the context of the political, religious and intellectual currents of 19th-Century America.

Still, Herbert is no mere pedant, and "Dearest Beloved" is livelier and more provocative than what we might expect in a literary monograph. He writes about the Hawthorne family with candor and vigor, and he brings a fresh allure to books that many readers encountered only on a required reading list.

And if the reader is sent back to the bookshelf in search of "The Scarlet Letter" or "The House of Seven Gables," these mossy old books will take on new, urgent and even dangerous meanings.

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