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Ch. 7 - Last Years

Of the four last years of Hawthorne's life there is not much to tell
that I have not already told. He returned to America in the summer of
1860, and took up his abode in the house he had bought at Concord
before going to Europe, and of which his occupancy had as yet been
brief. He was to occupy it only four years. I have insisted upon the
fact of his being an intense American, and of his looking at all
things, during his residence in Europe, from the standpoint of that
little clod of western earth which he carried about with him as the
good Mohammedan carries the strip of carpet on which he kneels down to
face towards Mecca. But it does not appear, nevertheless, that he
found himself treading with any great exhilaration the larger section
of his native soil upon which, on his return, he disembarked. Indeed,
the closing part of his life was a period of dejection, the more acute
that it followed directly upon seven years of the happiest
opportunities he was to have known. And his European residence had
been brightest at the last; he had broken almost completely with those
habits of extreme seclusion into which he was to relapse on his return
to Concord. "You would be stricken dumb," he wrote from London,
shortly before leaving it for the last time, "to see how quietly I
accept a whole string of invitations, and, what is more, perform my
engagements without a murmur.... The stir of this London life, somehow
or other," he adds in the same letter, "has done me a wonderful deal
of good, and I feel better than for months past. This is strange, for
if I had my choice I should leave undone almost all the things I do."
"When he found himself once more on the old ground," writes Mr.
Lathrop, "with the old struggle for subsistence staring him in the
face again, it is not difficult to conceive how a certain degree of
depression would follow." There is indeed not a little sadness in the
thought of Hawthorne's literary gift, light, delicate, exquisite,
capricious, never too abundant, being charged with the heavy burden of
the maintenance of a family. We feel that it was not intended for such
grossness, and that in a world ideally constituted he would have
enjoyed a liberal pension, an assured subsistence, and have been able
to produce his charming prose only when the fancy took him.

The brightness of the outlook at home was not made greater by the
explosion of the Civil War in the spring of 1861. These months, and
the three years that followed them, were not a cheerful time for any
persons but army-contractors; but over Hawthorne the war-cloud appears
to have dropped a permanent shadow. The whole affair was a bitter
disappointment to him, and a fatal blow to that happy faith in the
uninterruptedness of American prosperity which I have spoken of as the
religion of the old-fashioned American in general, and the
old-fashioned Democrat in particular. It was not a propitious time for
cultivating the Muse; when history herself is so hard at work,
fiction has little left to say. To fiction, directly, Hawthorne did
not address himself; he composed first, chiefly during the year 1862,
the chapters of which our _Our Old Home_ was afterwards made up. I
have said that, though this work has less value than his purely
imaginative things, the writing is singularly good, and it is well to
remember, to its greater honour, that it was produced at a time when
it was painfully hard for a man of Hawthorne's cast of mind to fix his
attention. The air was full of battle-smoke, and the poet's vision was
not easily clear. Hawthorne was irritated, too, by the sense of being
to a certain extent, politically considered, in a false position. A
large section of the Democratic party was not in good odour at the
North; its loyalty was not perceived to be of that clear strain which
public opinion required. To this wing of the party Franklin Pierce
had, with reason or without, the credit of belonging; and our author
was conscious of some sharpness of responsibility in defending the
illustrious friend of whom he had already made himself the advocate.
He defended him manfully, without a grain of concession, and described
the ex-President to the public (and to himself), if not as he was,
then as he ought to be. _Our Old Home_ is dedicated to him, and about
this dedication there was some little difficulty. It was represented
to Hawthorne that as General Pierce was rather out of fashion, it
might injure the success, and, in plain terms, the sale of his book.
His answer (to his publisher), was much to the point.

"I find that it would be a piece of poltroonery in me to
withdraw either the dedication or the dedicatory letter. My
long and intimate personal relations with Pierce render the
dedication altogether proper, especially as regards this
book, which would have had no existence without his
kindness; and if he is so exceedingly unpopular that his
name ought to sink the volume, there is so much the more
need that an old friend should stand by him. I cannot,
merely on account of pecuniary profit or literary
reputation, go back from what I have deliberately felt and
thought it right to do; and if I were to tear out the
dedication I should never look at the volume again without
remorse and shame. As for the literary public, it must
accept my book precisely as I think fit to give it, or let
it alone. Nevertheless I have no fancy for making myself a
martyr when it is honourably and conscientiously possible to
avoid it; and I always measure out heroism very accurately
according to the exigencies of the occasion, and should be
the last man in the world to throw away a bit of it
needlessly. So I have looked over the concluding paragraph
and have amended it in such a way that, while doing what I
know to be justice to my friend, it contains not a word that
ought to be objectionable to any set of readers. If the
public of the North see fit to ostracise me for this, I can
only say that I would gladly sacrifice a thousand or two
dollars, rather than retain the goodwill of such a herd of
dolts and mean-spirited scoundrels."

The dedication was published, the book was eminently successful, and
Hawthorne was not ostracised. The paragraph under discussion stands as
follows:--"Only this let me say, that, with the record of your life in
my memory, and with a sense of your character in my deeper
consciousness, as among the few things that time has left as it found
them, I need no assurance that you continue faithful for ever to that
grand idea of an irrevocable Union which, as you once told me, was the
earliest that your brave father taught you. For other men there may be
a choice of paths--for you but one; and it rests among my certainties
that no man's loyalty is more steadfast, no man's hopes or
apprehensions on behalf of our national existence more deeply
heartfelt, or more closely intertwined with his possibilities of
personal happiness, than those of Franklin Pierce." I know not how
well the ex-President liked these lines, but the public thought them
admirable, for they served as a kind of formal profession of faith, on
the question of the hour, by a loved and honoured writer. That some of
his friends thought such a profession needed is apparent from the
numerous editorial ejaculations and protests appended to an article
describing a visit he had just paid to Washington, which Hawthorne
contributed to the _Atlantic Monthly_ for July, 1862, and which,
singularly enough, has not been reprinted. The article has all the
usual merit of such sketches on Hawthorne's part--the merit of
delicate, sportive feeling, expressed with consummate grace--but the
editor of the periodical appears to have thought that he must give the
antidote with the poison, and the paper is accompanied with several
little notes disclaiming all sympathy with the writer's political
heresies. The heresies strike the reader of to-day as extremely mild,
and what excites his emotion, rather, is the questionable taste of the
editorial commentary, with which it is strange that Hawthorne should
have allowed his article to be encumbered. He had not been an
Abolitionist before the War, and that he should not pretend to be one
at the eleventh hour, was, for instance, surely a piece of consistency
that might have been allowed to pass. "I shall not pretend to be an
admirer of old John Brown," he says, in a page worth quoting, "any
further than sympathy with Whittier's excellent ballad about him may
go; nor did I expect ever to shrink so unutterably from any
apophthegm of a sage whose happy lips have uttered a hundred golden
sentences"--the allusion here, I suppose, is to Mr. Emerson--"as from
that saying (perhaps falsely attributed to so honoured a name), that
the death of this blood-stained fanatic has 'made the Gallows as
venerable as the Cross!' Nobody was ever more justly hanged. He won
his martyrdom fairly, and took it fairly. He himself, I am persuaded
(such was his natural integrity), would have acknowledged that
Virginia had a right to take the life which he had staked and lost;
although it would have been better for her, in the hour that is fast
coming, if she could generously have forgotten the criminality of his
attempt in its enormous folly. On the other hand, any common-sensible
man, looking at the matter unsentimentally, must have felt a certain
intellectual satisfaction in seeing him hanged, if it were only in
requital of his preposterous miscalculation of possibilities." Now
that the heat of that great conflict has passed away, this is a
capital expression of the saner estimate, in the United States, of the
dauntless and deluded old man who proposed to solve a complex
political problem by stirring up a servile insurrection. There is much
of the same sound sense, interfused with light, just appreciable
irony, in such a passage as the following:--

"I tried to imagine how very disagreeable the presence of a
Southern army would be in a sober town of Massachusetts; and
the thought considerably lessened my wonder at the cold and
shy regards that are cast upon our troops, the gloom, the
sullen demeanour, the declared, or scarcely hidden, sympathy
with rebellion, which are so frequent here. It is a strange
thing in human life that the greatest errors both of men
and women often spring from their sweetest and most generous
qualities; and so, undoubtedly, thousands of warmhearted,
generous, and impulsive persons have joined the Rebels, not
from any real zeal for the cause, but because, between two
conflicting loyalties, they chose that which necessarily lay
nearest the heart. There never existed any other Government
against which treason was so easy, and could defend itself
by such plausible arguments, as against that of the United
States. The anomaly of two allegiances, (of which that of
the State comes nearest home to a man's feelings, and
includes the altar and the hearth, while the General
Government claims his devotion only to an airy mode of law,
and has no symbol but a flag,) is exceedingly mischievous in
this point of view; for it has converted crowds of honest
people into traitors, who seem to themselves not merely
innocent but patriotic, and who die for a bad cause with a
quiet conscience as if it were the best. In the vast extent
of our country--too vast by far to be taken into one small
human heart--we inevitably limit to our own State, or at
farthest, to our own little section, that sentiment of
physical love for the soil which renders an Englishman, for
example, so intensely sensitive to the dignity and
well-being of his little island, that one hostile foot,
treading anywhere upon it, would make a bruise on each
individual breast. If a man loves his own State, therefore,
and is content to be ruined with her, let us shoot him, if
we can, but allow him an honourable burial in the soil he
fights for."

To this paragraph a line of deprecation from the editor is attached;
and indeed from the point of view of a vigorous prosecution of the war
it was doubtless not particularly pertinent. But it is interesting as
an example of the way an imaginative man judges current events--trying
to see the other side as well as his own, to feel what his adversary
feels, and present his view of the case.

But he had other occupations for his imagination than putting himself
into the shoes of unappreciative Southerners. He began at this time
two novels, neither of which he lived to finish, but both of which
were published, as fragments, after his death. The shorter of these
fragments, to which he had given the name of _The Dolliver Romance_,
is so very brief that little can be said of it. The author strikes,
with all his usual sweetness, the opening notes of a story of New
England life, and the few pages which have been given to the world
contain a charming picture of an old man and a child.

The other rough sketch--it is hardly more--is in a manner complete; it
was unfortunately deemed complete enough to be brought out in a
magazine as a serial novel. This was to do it a great wrong, and I do
not go too far in saying that poor Hawthorne would probably not have
enjoyed the very bright light that has been projected upon this
essentially crude piece of work. I am at a loss to know how to speak
of _Septimius Felton, or the Elixir of Life_; I have purposely
reserved but a small space for doing so, for the part of discretion
seems to be to pass it by lightly. I differ therefore widely from the
author's biographer and son-in-law in thinking it a work of the
greatest weight and value, offering striking analogies with Goethe's
_Faust_; and still more widely from a critic whom Mr. Lathrop quotes,
who regards a certain portion of it as "one of the very greatest
triumphs in all literature." It seems to me almost cruel to pitch in
this exalted key one's estimate of the rough first draught of a tale
in regard to which the author's premature death operates, virtually,
as a complete renunciation of pretensions. It is plain to any reader
that _Septimius Felton_, as it stands, with its roughness, its gaps,
its mere allusiveness and slightness of treatment, gives us but a
very partial measure of Hawthorne's full intention; and it is equally
easy to believe that this intention was much finer than anything we
find in the book. Even if we possessed the novel in its complete form,
however, I incline to think that we should regard it as very much the
weakest of Hawthorne's productions. The idea itself seems a failure,
and the best that might have come of it would have been very much
below _The Scarlet Letter_ or _The House of the Seven Gables_. The
appeal to our interest is not felicitously made, and the fancy of a
potion, to assure eternity of existence, being made from the flowers
which spring from the grave of a man whom the distiller of the potion
has deprived of life, though it might figure with advantage in a short
story of the pattern of the _Twice-Told Tales_, appears too slender to
carry the weight of a novel. Indeed, this whole matter of elixirs and
potions belongs to the fairy-tale period of taste, and the idea of a
young man enabling himself to live forever by concocting and imbibing
a magic draught, has the misfortune of not appealing to our sense of
reality or even to our sympathy. The weakness of _Septimius Felton_ is
that the reader cannot take the hero seriously--a fact of which there
can be no better proof than the element of the ridiculous which
inevitably mingles itself in the scene in which he entertains his
lady-love with a prophetic sketch of his occupations during the
successive centuries of his earthly immortality. I suppose the answer
to my criticism is that this is allegorical, symbolic, ideal; but we
feel that it symbolises nothing substantial, and that the
truth--whatever it may be--that it illustrates, is as moonshiny, to
use Hawthorne's own expression, as the allegory itself. Another fault
of the story is that a great historical event--the war of the
Revolution--is introduced in the first few pages, in order to supply
the hero with a pretext for killing the young man from whose grave the
flower of immortality is to sprout, and then drops out of the
narrative altogether, not even forming a background to the sequel. It
seems to me that Hawthorne should either have invented some other
occasion for the death of his young officer, or else, having struck
the note of the great public agitation which overhung his little group
of characters, have been careful to sound it through the rest of his
tale. I do wrong, however, to insist upon these things, for I fall
thereby into the error of treating the work as if it had been cast
into its ultimate form and acknowledged by the author. To avoid this
error I shall make no other criticism of details, but content myself
with saying that the idea and intention of the book appear, relatively
speaking, feeble, and that even had it been finished it would have
occupied a very different place in the public esteem from the writer's
masterpieces.

The year 1864 brought with it for Hawthorne a sense of weakness and
depression from which he had little relief during the four or five
months that were left him of life. He had his engagement to produce
_The Dolliver Romance_, which had been promised to the subscribers of
the _Atlantic Monthly_ (it was the first time he had undertaken to
publish a work of fiction in monthly parts), but he was unable to
write, and his consciousness of an unperformed task weighed upon him,
and did little to dissipate his physical inertness. "I have not yet
had courage to read the Dolliver proof-sheet," he wrote to his
publisher in December, 1863; "but will set about it soon, though with
terrible reluctance, such as I never felt before. I am most grateful
to you," he went on, "for protecting me from that visitation of the
elephant and his cub. If you happen to see Mr.----, of L----, a young
man who was here last summer, pray tell him anything that your
conscience will let you, to induce him to spare me another visit,
which I know he intended. I really am not well, and cannot be
disturbed by strangers, without more suffering than it is worth while
to endure." A month later he was obliged to ask for a further
postponement. "I am not quite up to writing yet, but shall make an
effort as soon as I see any hope of success. You ought to be thankful
that (like most other broken-down authors) I do not pester you with
decrepit pages, and insist upon your accepting them as full of the old
spirit and vigour. That trouble perhaps still awaits you, after I
shall have reached a further stage of decay. Seriously, my mind has,
for the time, lost its temper and its fine edge, and I have an
instinct that I had better keep quiet. Perhaps I shall have a new
spirit of vigour if I wait quietly for it; perhaps not." The winter
passed away, but the "new spirit of vigour" remained absent, and at
the end of February he wrote to Mr. Fields that his novel had simply
broken down, and that he should never finish it. "I hardly know what
to say to the public about this abortive romance, though I know pretty
well what the case will be. I shall never finish it. Yet it is not
quite pleasant for an author to announce himself, or to be announced,
as finally broken down as to his literary faculty.... I cannot finish
it unless a great change comes over me; and if I make too great an
effort to do so, it will be my death; not that I should care much for
that, if I could fight the battle through and win it, thus ending a
life of much smoulder and a scanty fire, in a blaze of glory. But I
should smother myself in mud of my own making.... I am not
low-spirited, nor fanciful, nor freakish, but look what seem to me
realities in the face, and am ready to take whatever may come. If I
could but go to England now, I think that the sea-voyage and the 'old
Home' might set me all right."

But he was not to go to England; he started three months later upon a
briefer journey, from which he never returned. His health was
seriously disordered, and in April, according to a letter from Mrs.
Hawthorne, printed by Mr. Fields, he had been "miserably ill." His
feebleness was complete; he appears to have had no definite malady,
but he was, according to the common phrase, failing. General Pierce
proposed to him that they should make a little tour together among the
mountains of New Hampshire, and Hawthorne consented, in the hope of
getting some profit from the change of air. The northern New England
spring is not the most genial season in the world, and this was an
indifferent substitute for the resource for which his wife had, on his
behalf, expressed a wish--a visit to "some island in the Gulf Stream."
He was not to go far; he only reached a little place called Plymouth,
one of the stations of approach to the beautiful mountain scenery of
New Hampshire, when, on the 18th of May, 1864, death overtook him. His
companion, General Pierce, going into his room in the early morning,
found that he had breathed his last during the night--had passed away,
tranquilly, comfortably, without a sign or a sound, in his sleep. This
happened at the hotel of the place--a vast white edifice, adjacent to
the railway station, and entitled the Pemigiwasset House. He was
buried at Concord, and many of the most distinguished men in the
country stood by his grave.

He was a beautiful, natural, original genius, and his life had been
singularly exempt from worldly preoccupations and vulgar efforts. It
had been as pure, as simple, as unsophisticated, as his work. He had
lived primarily in his domestic affections, which were of the
tenderest kind; and then--without eagerness, without pretension, but
with a great deal of quiet devotion--in his charming art. His work
will remain; it is too original and exquisite to pass away; among the
men of imagination he will always have his niche. No one has had just
that vision of life, and no one has had a literary form that more
successfully expressed his vision. He was not a moralist, and he was
not simply a poet. The moralists are weightier, denser, richer, in a
sense; the poets are more purely inconclusive and irresponsible. He
combined in a singular degree the spontaneity of the imagination with
a haunting care for moral problems. Man's conscience was his theme,
but he saw it in the light of a creative fancy which added, out of its
own substance, an interest, and, I may almost say, an importance.

THE END.

Henry James

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