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Contempt bred of familiarity

Hawthorne A Life Brenda Wineapple Alfred A. Knopf: 512 pp., $30

September 28, 2003|Denis Donoghue | Denis Donoghue is university professor and Henry James professor of English and American letters at New York University and the author of many books, including "Speaking of Beauty."

Halfway through her biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Brenda Wineapple offers a formula to which she is prepared, apparently, to commit herself: "Man of compassion, man of ice, man of forgiveness, man of spite." But she gives more evidence of Hawthorne's ice and spite than of his compassion and forgiveness.

Hawthorne was, according to the image she conveys, a miserable, whining man, aloof, self-obsessed, determined to be unhappy. Wherever he lived, he wanted to be somewhere else. On one page Wineapple calls him a prude and a boor, on other pages a racist. Has she lived too long with him? I wonder. Biographers often grow to dislike their subjects. Lawrance Thompson, Robert Frost's official biographer, came to detest him long before completing the second volume of the biography. Wineapple seems to have wearied of her subject and become exasperated with his debility.

It's hard to say what she especially dislikes in Hawthorne. With a wife and three children, he needed money and kept on grasping for it, but he can't be blamed for that. He resented the fact that his genius went unrecognized, except by a few friends. He did not write popular fiction, and he was appalled by the success of the "damned mob of scribbling women" -- as he called them -- who did.

The jobs he got were political appointments: measurer of coal and salt at the Boston Custom House from 1839 to 1841, surveyor of the Salem Custom House from 1846 to 1849, American consul in Liverpool from 1853 to 1855. These jobs were lucrative and required little work of him; they put money in his purse, which he and his family spent in London, Rome and Florence. In June 1852, when his friend Franklin Pierce was nominated as the Democratic candidate for president of the United States, Hawthorne offered to write a campaign biography of him, an offer Pierce accepted. Hawthorne kept his eye on the main chance.

But I don't think Wineapple is distressed by such acts of prudence. She is incensed by his passivity and the moral claim he made for it. "The good of others, like our own happiness," Hawthorne told Elizabeth Peabody on Oct. 8, 1857, "is not to be attained by direct effort, but incidentally: I am really too humble to think of doing good, if I have been impertinent enough to aim at it, I am ashamed." In "Chiefly About War Matters," he wrote (in 1862): "No human effort, on a grand scale, has ever yet resulted according to the purpose of its projectors. The advantages are always incidental. Man's accidents are God's purposes. We miss the good we sought, and do the good we little cared for."

Quoting such sentences, Wineapple wants to cuff Hawthorne about the ears, but what drives her to the extremity of dismay is his attitude toward slavery and abolition. "I have not, as you suggest, the slightest sympathy for the slaves, or, at least, not half so much as for the laboring whites, who, I believe, as a general thing, are ten times worse off than the Southern negros," Hawthorne told Zachariah Burchmore in July 1851. In 1835, Hawthorne has the narrator of "Old News" refer to slavery as "a patriarchal, and almost a beautiful, peculiarity" of Colonial times, and say that many emancipated slaves "would have been better advised had they staid at home, foddering the cattle, cleaning dishes -- in fine, performing their moderate share of the labors of life without being harassed by its cares." "No doubt about it," Wine- apple writes, "to Hawthorne, blacks and Italians and Jews are inferior to Anglo-Saxons, whom he doesn't much like either."

But Hawthorne's attitude on the question of slaves was not as simple as "no doubt about it." He did not condone slavery, as Wineapple acknowledges. But he thought abolition would make the condition of blacks worse: It would result, he wrote in "The Life of Franklin Pierce," in "the ruin of two races which now dwell together in greater peace and affection, it is not too much to say, than had ever elsewhere existed between the taskmaster and the serf." Hawthorne's idyll was indeed supremacist but it was not merely silly.

Wineapple doesn't bring forward the more agreeable side of Hawthorne's character: his playfulness with his wife and children, his gregariousness when he was at leisure with friends. He had more friends than a man as dismal as Wineapple describes could be expected to have, notably John O'Sullivan, Herman Melville, Margaret Fuller (though he was nasty to her memory after her tragic death), Pierce and James T. Fields, the publisher who got Hawthorne whatever public success he achieved. The mourners who attended Hawthorne's funeral make an impressive list. He can't have been merely a sourpuss with "the embittered loneliness of an outsider turned exile, the fugitive alone, a shadow."

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