Despite the fact that Nathaniel
Hawthorne was one of America's
most famous writers, by the time of his death in 1864 he sensed that history
had passed him by. With massive armies mobilized in a civil war that he
strongly opposed, his many stories and novels set in the distant past seemed
beside the point. His close friendship with a widely discredited former U.S.
president, Franklin Pierce, only seemed to confirm his irrelevancy.
But today is a different matter, says Brenda Wineapple,
Doris Zemurray Stone Professor in Modern Literary and Historical Studies, whose
biography of Hawthorne is being
published this month by Alfred A. Knopf.
Hawthorne, a descendant of a 17th-century
Salem magistrate who hanged accused
witches by the score, has much to tell us about the terror-spawning religious
fanaticism of our own time, according to Wineapple.
“No one conveys better than Hawthorne
how religion and ideology can induce hysteria, violence, and cruelty,” she
Seven years in the writing, Hawthorne: A Life will be published in
October 2 by Alfred A. Knopf. Wineapple previously published acclaimed biographies of Janet Flanner, a Paris correspondent for The New Yorker, and Gertrude and Leo Stein.
The first female biographer of Hawthorne, Wineapple was attracted to him initially because he was the first major American writer to make women central figures in his novels. His
contempt for women writers notwithstanding, “I knew the creator of Hester
Prynne had to be a feminist…and wanted to be the first to plumb his relationships
with the many women who were important to him.”
Recently she responded to
questions about the book and Hawthorne's
Next year is the 200th anniversary of Hawthorne's birth, and a lot of his work is set in
an even earlier time. What does he have to tell us in the 21st century?
is a cross between Stephen King and Kafka. We live today in a world rife with
terrorism driven by religious fanaticism, and no one conveys better than Hawthorne
how religion or ideology can induce hysteria, violence, and cruelty. He
wrote scathingly of the witchcraft delusion that possessed the men and women of
and turned them into the persecutors and rank murderers of their
neighbors. Fanaticism, whether of his Puritan ancestors or of the
abolitionists — the zeal that overtakes any group besotted with its own
self-righteousness — was repugnant to Hawthorne.
And no one has more than Hawthorne
to tell us, too, about the flip side of fanaticism — self-doubt, guilt,
self-hatred. In the wake of 9/11 the response of some very prominent people in
this country was to ask why the United States
should inspire such extreme hatred among the terrorists and to call upon our
society to look inward. I doubt that would be Hawthorne's
response, but he was a master at delineating self-doubt and guilt and all their
Hawthorne is one of America's best-known writers. What was your
biggest surprise in writing about him?
I was most surprised at his
politics – in particular his nefarious views about slavery, since they have
largely been papered over or ignored. Here was a man of great moral
sensibility who came of age in the era that produced a bumper crop of political
idealists – Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry
David Thoreau, Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Sojourner Truth, William
Lloyd Garrison, Horace Greeley, Walt Whitman. Yet, Hawthorne's
strongest political enthusiasm was for Franklin Pierce, arguably one of this
country's worst presidents. Pierce, who occupied the White House from 1853 to
1857, was America's
Pétain, seemingly blind to the evils of slavery both before and during the
Civil War; yet, Hawthorne gladly
wrote Pierce's campaign biography.
What accounts for the close friendship between one of America's greatest writers and one of its worst
It began during their years as
schoolmates at Bowdoin College,
flourished during Pierce's run for the White House, and continued with the
president's appointment of Hawthorne
to a lucrative position as U.S.
consul to Liverpool, England.
Later, when the Hawthornes were
living in Rome and their oldest
daughter became seriously ill, a vacationing Pierce steadfastly visited the
family every day, sometimes as often as three times a day. When Pierce was
reviled as a traitor during the Civil War, Hawthorne
dedicated a book of essays to him. (Emerson cut the dedication out of his
copy of the book, but Hawthorne
didn't care.) And at the end of Hawthorne's
life, he chose Pierce as his companion during a farewell trip through Massachusetts
and New Hampshire. The two men
were in adjoining rooms at an inn the night Hawthorne
died. At about three in the morning, Pierce woke to check on his friend, and,
when he placed his hand on Hawthorne's
forehead, it was cold.
What accounts for the closeness of
their friendship? For one thing, Pierce was not a writer and so did not
compete directly with Hawthorne. Both
men were ardent Jacksonians from school days, and both were out of step with
the ardent abolitionism of New England. Hawthorne
was vehemently opposed to abolitionism, even contemptuous of it.
Perhaps naively, we assume that
because our great writers have a capacious view of humankind, they vote the
same way we do. But some of our most admired literary figures had abominable
politics — Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, to name just two. And so it was with
Hawthorne on the matter of slavery:
we're shocked not only by his views but that he stood almost by himself in opposition
to his literary peers.
If there is one thing to be said in favor of Hawthorne's overt racism, as
distinguished from the more covert racism of his anti-slavery friends, it is
that he was genuinely worried what would happen to the slave after emancipation
in a country as racist as ours.
Given the history of race
relations in the century following the Civil War, that concern was prescient.
In The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne created perhaps the most celebrated heroine
in American literature, Hester Prynne. Whom was she modeled after, and what
accounts for the powerful impact she has had?
Of all the canonical American
authors of the mid-nineteenth century, only Hawthorne
created memorable women characters, and certainly his supreme achievement was
Hester Prynne. A number of his friends and relatives contributed to Hester,
prominent among them the feminist Margaret Fuller, Hawthorne's
mother and younger sister, and his rabble-rousing sister-in-law Elizabeth
Peabody. But most of all Hester is Hawthorne himself. He says as much in the
essay that introduces The Scarlet Letter, when he tells of trying on the
scarlet letter, which burns his chest. He drops it quickly to the
floor. In other words, Hawthorne
identifies with Hester as an outcast brought low by a society she both respects
and reviles. Hawthorne felt the
same way, especially after he was fired ignominiously from his post at the Salem
custom house just before he wrote the novel. For a man who lived much of his
life in poverty, that was a cruel blow, and the pain and alienation he felt
accounts to some degree for the power of the book.
Your first biography was of the New Yorker correspondent Janet Flanner
and your second of Gertrude and Leo Stein. What led you to a writer as
different from them as Hawthorne?
After writing about two unusual
women, it seemed time to write about a canonical dead white male. Few women
have, and as a result, most biographies of the white males of the 19th century
are largely devoid of women. As the first female biographer of Hawthorne,
I confront the only major nineteenth-century American author before Henry James
to make women the central figures of his novel and to write about illicit love,
marriage, motherhood, women's rights, and spiritualism. He was also
increasingly surrounded by women writers whose work, much to his distress,
outsold his own — “a damned mob of scribblers,” he called them. Such
anti-feminism notwithstanding, I knew the creator of Hester Prynne had to be a
feminist as well and wanted to be the first to plumb his relationships with the
many women who were important to him – including his two sisters and widowed
mother; the three Peabody sisters, one of whom he married; and Margaret Fuller,
the likely model for the character of Zenobia in The Blithedale Romance.
In a sense, too, this book was a
homecoming for me. I was born in Boston
and have spent most of my life in New England. Essex
County, Massachusetts, where I
grew up, has changed from Hawthorne's
time, but not all that much: I knew the streets Hawthorne
rambled, the salt air he breathed, the hills he climbed and the green, quiet
woods. Like him, I knew the Commons, the churches, the color of the flinty sky
during long New England winters. Those bright New
England falls, harsh east winds, gracious homes, widow walks, and
decayed wharves were part of our common birthright.
Although his family went back six
generations in Massachusetts —
and included a hanging judge in the Salem
witchcraft trials — Hawthorne was
poor for much of his life, at a time when Boston Brahmins amassed the great
wealth that sustained them sumptuously for generations on Beacon
Hill. Snobbery is endemic in New England life; so is
anti-Semitism, as the novel Gentlemen's
Agreement made clear over fifty years ago. Fortunately, things have
improved since then, but as a granddaughter of Jewish immigrants I came to
identify, rationally or not, with the outsider status that was the lot of this
scion of one of Massachusetts'