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A loving father's fleeting joy

Twenty Days With Julian and Little Bunny by Papa, Nathaniel Hawthorne, New York Review Books: 74 pp., $16.95 paper

July 27, 2003|Brenda Wineapple | Brenda Wineapple is the author of a forthcoming biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Though still a staple of the school curriculum in spite of a changing canon, Nathaniel Hawthorne has come to us a weird combination of Kafka and Stephen King, more at home in the 17th century than in the bustling 19th. No longer. In the unpretentious little volume, "Twenty Days With Julian and Little Bunny by Papa" -- with an excellent introduction by novelist Paul Auster -- the remote author of "The Scarlet Letter" suddenly springs alive as a doting, often exasperated father trying to cope with his frisky 5-year-old son.

It's the summer of 1851, and Hawthorne's wife has taken their daughter and 2-month-old infant daughter to visit her parents. "Father, isn't it nice to have baby gone?" Julian immediately asks. So begins Hawthorne's charming chronicle of three weeks of answering his son's endless questions, combing his hair, tending the pet rabbit, putting the boy to bed and collapsing. "It is impossible to write, read, think, or even to sleep (in the daytime) so constant are his appeals to me in one way or another," Hawthorne cheerfully complains. Sound familiar?

The Hawthornes were living in a small red cottage -- a shack, really -- in Lenox, Mass., where Hawthorne took shelter after being fired from his post at the Custom House in Salem, the city of his birth. Forced to pick up his pen full time, he produced the astonishing "The Scarlet Letter" and then headed to the Berkshire Hills, where he rented the red house -- red as the scarlet letter, Hawthorne joked -- with the aid of rich friends.

Though he grumbled in his diary -- "I hate Berkshire with my whole soul, and would joyfully see its mountains laid flat" -- Hawthorne managed to compose "The House of the Seven Gables" as well as a delightful children's collection, "A Wonder-Book," in his cramped quarters amid children, chickens and curious autograph-seekers trailing the now-famous author. The only new friend consistently welcome was a former sailor turned bestselling author with a gift for metaphysical gab who lived in nearby Pittsfield. His name was Herman Melville.

Melville makes an appearance in Hawthorne's slim diary as the "cavalier on horseback" who salutes Hawthorne and his son in Spanish and then places Julian in the saddle while the two men walk. Melville stays for supper, and, after Julian goes to bed, the men talk about "time and eternity, things of this world and of the next, and books, and publishers, and all possible and impossible matters" deep into the night, smoking cigars in the "sacred precincts of the sitting-room."

The easy friendship lasts through the summer, with Melville dropping by again, this time with friends, and taking Julian and Hawthorne for a trip to Hancock to visit the Shakers ("the most singular and bedeviled set of people that ever existed in a civilized land," says Hawthorne). Afterward, the company enters the red shanty, and Hawthorne, rising to the domestic occasion, runs next door to his wealthy neighbor to borrow a loaf of sugar, a pot of raspberry jam and some little bread-cakes -- "an inestimable gift," he sheepishly admits, "inasmuch as our own bread was sour."

The prose is limpid, the situations tender. Hawthorne palms the pet rabbit off on a neighbor but, learning he was mistreated, brings him back home. Julian wakes in the night with a nightmare about a dog, which his father attributes to his eating too many currants. Father and son walk daily to the lake, where Julian fastens a straw to the end of an old tree branch and heroically tries to fish "with a faith," says his father, "that it was really piteous to behold."

Yet no Hawthorne diary, however enchanting, can exist without the rueful tone of one who, even in summer, finds fall. "The yellow flowers, the yellow hue of grain fields, the no longer juicy but crispy herbage -- everything tells the story of a past climax." And watching his sweet-natured little son, Hawthorne comments, "He wants to enrich all his enjoyments by steeping them in the heart of some friend. I do not think him in danger of living so solitary a life as much of mine has been."

The heart Julian wished to win was Hawthorne's own, so when the child remarks that his father doesn't think him very smart, we might wince, knowing not only that Julian tried his hand at writing but also that his prolific career as passable novelist ended after he served time in an Atlanta penitentiary for selling shares in a phony mining stock called, of all things, Hawthorne. Julian later moved to California, where he died in 1934.

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