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Chapter 1

Value of dates--My aunt Lizzie's efforts--My father's decapitation--My
mother's strong-box--The spirit of The Scarlet Letter--The strain of
imaginative composition--My grandmother Hawthorne's death--Infantile
indifference to calamity--The children's plays and books--The house on
Mall Street--Scarlet fever--The study on the third floor--The haunted
mahogany writing-desk--The secret drawers--The upright Egyptian--Mr.
Pickwick--My father in l850--The flowered writing-gown, and the ink
butterfly--Driving the quill pen--The occupants of the second
floor--Aunt Louisa and Aunt Ebe--The dowager Mrs. Hawthorne--I kick my
aunt Lizzie--The kittens and the great mystery--The greatest book of
the age.

--

My maternal aunt, Miss Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, was a very learned
woman, and a great student of history, and teacher of it; and by the
aid of huge, colored charts, done by my uncle Nat Peabody and hung on
the walls of our sitting-room, she labored during some years to teach
me all the leading dates of human history--the charts being designed
according to a novel and ingenious plan to fix those facts in childish
memory. But as a pupil I was always most inapt and grievous, in dates
and in matters mathematical especially; so that I gave her
inexhaustible patience many a sad hour. To this day I cannot tell in
what year was fought the battle of Marathon, or when John signed Magna
Charta; though the battle itself, and the scene of the barons with
menacing brows gathered about John, stood clearly pictured in my
imagination. Dates were arbitrary, and to my memory nothing arbitrary
would stick. Nevertheless, when I am myself constructing a narrative,
whether it be true or fictitious, I am wedded to dates, and cannot be
divorced from them. It must be set down precisely when the events took
place, in what years the dramatis personae were born, and how old they
were when each juncture of their fortunes came to pass. I can no more
dispense with dates than I can talk without consonants; they carry
form, order, and credibility. Or they are like the skeleton which
gives recognizable shape to men and animals. Nothing mortal can get on
without them..

Whether this addiction be in the nature of a reaction from my childish
perversity, giving my erudite and beloved aunt Lizzie (as I called
her) her revenge so long after our lessons are over; or how else to
explain it, I know not; but it leads me to affirm here that the nadir
of my father's material fortunes was reached about the year 1849. At
that time his age was five-and-forty, and I was three.

The causes of this financial depression were several. One morning he
awoke to find himself deprived, by political chicanery, of the income
of a custom-house surveyorship which for some while past had served to
support his small family. Now, some men could have gone on writing
stories in the intervals between surveying customs, and have thus
placed an anchor to windward against the time when the political storm
should set in; but Nathaniel Hawthorne was devoid of that useful
ability. Nor had he been able to spend less than he earned; so,
suddenly, there he was on his beam-ends. Leisure to write, certainly,
was now abundant enough; but he never was a rapid composer, and even
had he been so, the market for the kind of things he wrote was, in the
middle of the past century, in New England, neither large nor eager.
The emoluments were meagre to match; twenty dollars for four pages of
the Democratic Review was about the figure; and to produce a short
tale or sketch of that length would take him a month at least. How
were a husband and wife and their two children to live for a month on
the mere expectation of twenty dollars from the Democratic
Review--which was, into the bargain, terribly slow pay? Such was the
problem which confronted the dark-haired and grave-visaged gentleman
as he closed his desk in the Salem custom-house for the last time, and
put on his hat to walk home.

Thanks, however, to some divine foresight on my mother's part, aided
by a wonderful talent for practical economy, she had secretly
contrived to save, out of her weekly stipends, small sums which in the
aggregate bulked large enough to make an important difference in the
situation. So when her husband disclosed his bad news, she opened her
private drawer and disclosed her banknotes, with such a smile in her
eyes as I can easily picture to myself. Stimulated by the miracle, he
remembered that the inchoate elements of a story, in which was to
figure prominently a letter A, cut out of red cloth, or embroidered in
scarlet thread, and affixed to a woman's bosom, had been for months
past rumbling round in his mind; now was the time of times to shape it
forth. Yonder upon the table by the window stood the old mahogany
writing-desk so long unused; here were his flowered dressing-gown and
slippers down-at-heel. He ought to be able to finish the story before
the miraculous savings gave out; and then all he would have to do
would be to write others. And, after all, to be rid of the
surveyorship was a relief.

But matters were not to be run off quite so easily as this. The
Scarlet Letter, upon coming to close quarters with it, turned out to
be not a story of such moderate caliber as Hawthorne had hitherto been
used to write, but an affair likely to extend over two or three
hundred pages, which, instead of a month or so, might not be completed
in a year; yet it was too late to substitute something more manageable
for it--in the first place, because nothing else happened to be at his
disposal, and secondly, because The Scarlet Letter took such intimate
hold upon the vitals of his heart and mind that he was by no means
able to free himself from it until all had been fulfilled. Only men of
creative genius know in what glorious and harrowing thraldom their
creations hold them. Having once been fairly begun, The Scarlet Letter
must inevitably finish itself for good or ill, come what might to the
writer of it.

This is a story of people and events, not a study in literary
criticism; but the writing of The Scarlet Letter was an event of no
trifling importance in the story of its author's life. To read the
book is an experience which its readers cannot forget; what its
writing must have been to a man organized as my father was is hardly
to be conveyed in words. Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth--he
must live through each one of them, feel their passion, remorse,
hatred, terror, love; and he must enter into the soul of the
mysterious nature of Pearl. Such things cannot with impunity be done
by any one; the mere physical strain, all conditions being favorable,
would be almost past bearing. But my father, though uniformly his
bodily health was all his life sound, was never what I would call a
robust man; he was exquisitely balanced. At the time he began his book
he was jaded from years of office drudgery, and he was in some anxiety
as to the issue of his predicament. The house in which he dwelt, small
and ill-placed in a narrow side-street, with no possibility of
shutting out the noise of traffic and of domestic alarms, could not
but make the work tell more heavily upon him. But in addition to this
there were fortuitous occasions of emotional stress, all of which I
shall not mention; but among them were the distasteful turmoil aroused
by his political mishap; and, far more poignant, the critical illness
of his mother. Circumstances led to her being housed under his roof;
there she lingered long at death's door, and there at last she died.
He profoundly loved her; but deep-rooted, too, in both of them was
that strange, New England shyness, masking in visible ice the
underlying emotion. Not since his boyhood had their mutual affection
found free, natural expression; and now, in this final hour, that
bondage of habit caused the words of tenderness to stumble on their
lips. The awful majesty of approaching death, prompting them to "catch
up the whole of love and utter it" ere it be too late, wrought this
involuntary self-repression into silent agony.

She died; his own health was shaken to its foundations; his children
fell ill, his wife underwent acute suffering; and through all this,
and more, The Scarlet Letter must be written. No wonder that, when he
came to read the story in manuscript to his wife, his voice faltered
and broke; and she slipped to her knees and hid her face on her arms
in the chair. "I had been suffering," he commentated, long afterwards,
"from a great diversity and severity of emotion." Great works of
art--things with the veritable spirit of enduring life in them--are
destined to be born in sore travail and pain. Those who give them
birth yield up their own life to them.

It was at this period--say, about l850--that my own personal
recollections, in a shadowy and incoherent way, begin. The shadows are
exclusively of time's making; they were not of the heart. All through
the trials of my parents I retained a jocund equanimity (save for some
trifling childish ailments) and esteemed this world a friendly and
agreeable place. The Scarlet Letter dashed my spirits not a whit; I
knew not of its existence, by personal evidence, till full a dozen
years later; and even the death of my grandmother left me light of
heart, for the passing of the spirit from the body can but awaken the
transient curiosity of a child of four. For the rest, my physical
environment, in itself amusing and interesting enough to me, had its
chief importance from the material it afforded on which to construct
the imaginary scenes and characters of my play. My sister Una and
myself were forever enacting something or somebody not ourselves:
childish egoism oddly decking itself in the non-ego. We believed in
fairies, in magic, in angels, in transformations; Hans Christian
Andersen, Grimm, The Black Aunt (oh, delectable, lost volume) were our
sober history-books, and Robinson Crusoe was our autobiography. But I
did occasionally take note of concrete appearances, too; and some of
them I remember.

The house--the third which we had inhabited since my father became
surveyor--was on Mall Street, and was three stories in height, with a
yard behind and at one end; this yard, which was of importance to my
sister and myself, had access to the street by a swinging gate. There
were three or four trees in it, and space for play. The house was but
one room deep, and lying as it did about north and south, the rooms
were open to both the morning and the afternoon sunshine. They opened
one into the other in a series; and when my father was safe up-stairs
in his study, my mother would open all the doors of the suite on the
lower floor, and allow the children to career triumphantly to and fro.
No noise that we could make ever troubled her nerves, unless it was
the noise of conflict; the shriek of joy, however shrill, passed by
her harmless; but the lowest mutter of wrath or discontent distressed
her; for of such are the mothers of the kingdom of heaven! And so
zealous was our regard for her just and gentle law that I really think
we gave way as little as most children to the latter.

Of course, whenever the weather permitted, we were out in the yard, or
even promenaded for short distances up and down the street. And
once--"How are you?" inquired a friend of the family, as he drove by
in his wagon. "Oh, we've got the scarlet fever!" we proudly replied,
stepping out gallantly along the sidewalk. For we were treated by a
homoeopathic doctor of the old school, who was a high-dilutionist, and
mortal ills could never get a firm grip on us. In winter we rejoiced
in the snow; and my father's story of the Snow Image got most of its
local color from our gambols in this fascinating substance, which he
could observe from the window of his study.

The study was on the third floor of the house, secluded from the
turmoil of earth, so far as anything could be in a city street. No one
was supposed to intrude upon him there; but such suppositions are
ineffectual against children. From time to time the adamantine gates
fell ajar, and in we slipped. It seemed a heavenly place, tenanted by
a being possessed of every attribute that our imaginations could
ascribe to an angel. The room and its tenant glimmer before me as I
write, luminous with the sunshine of more than fifty years ago. Both
were equipped for business rather than for beauty; furniture and
garments were simple in those Salem days. A homely old paper covered
the walls, a brownish old carpet the floor. There was an old
rocking-chair, its black paint much worn and defaced; another chair
was drawn up to the table, which stood to the left of the eastern
window; and on the table was a mahogany desk, concerning which I must
enter into some particulars. It was then, and for years afterwards,
an object of my most earnest scrutiny. Such desks are not made
nowadays.

When closed, it was an oblong mahogany box, two feet long by half that
width, and perhaps nine inches high. It had brass corners, and a brass
plate on the top, inscribed with the name, "N. Hawthorne." At one end
was a drawer, with a brass handle playing on a hinge and fitting into
a groove or socket when down; there was a corresponding handle at the
other end, but that was for symmetry only; the one drawer went clear
through the desk. I often mused over the ethics of this deception.

Being opened, the desk presented a sloping surface two feet square,
covered with black velvet, which had been cut here and there and
pasted down again, and was stiffened with many ink-spatterings. This
writing surface consisted of two lids, hinged at their junction in the
centre; lifting them, you discovered two receptacles to hold
writing-paper and other desk furniture. They were of about equal
capacity; for although the upper half of the desk was the more
capacious, you must not forget that two inches of it, at the bottom,
was taken up by the long drawer already mentioned.

But there was, also, a more interesting curtailment of this interior
space. Along the very top of the desk, as it lay open, was a narrow
channel, perhaps a couple of inches wide and deep, divided into three
sections; two square ones, at the opposite ends, held the ink-bottle
and the sand-bottle; the long central one was for quill pens. These,
in the aggregate, appeared to the superficial eye to account for all
that remained of the cubic contents of the structure; but the supreme
mystery and charm of the affair was that they did not!

No; there was an esoteric secret still in reserve; and for years it
remained a secret to me. The bottle-sockets and pen-tray did not reach
down to the level of the long drawer by nearly an inch. Measurement
would prove that; but you would have said that the interval must be
solid wood; for nothing but a smooth panel met the eye when you pulled
aside the sheets of writing-paper in their receptacle to investigate.
But the lesson of this world, and of the desk as a part of it, is that
appearances are not to be trusted. The guile of those old desk-makers
passes belief.

I will expose it. In the pen-tray lay a sort of brass nail, as long as
your little finger, and blunt at the end. Now take the sand-bottle
from its hole. In one corner of the bottom thereof you will see a
minute aperture, just big enough to admit the seemingly useless brass
nail. Stick it in and press hard. With an abrupt noise that makes you
jump, if you are four or five years old, that smooth, unsuspected
strip of panel starts violently forward (propelled by a released
spring) and reveals--what? Nothing less than the fronts of two minute
drawers. They fit in underneath the pen-tray, and might remain
undiscovered for a hundred years unless you had the superhuman wit to
divine the purpose of the brass nail. The drawers contain diamonds,
probably, or some closely folded document making you the heir to a
vast estate. As a matter of fact, I don't know what they contained;
the surprise of the drawers themselves was enough for me. I need not
add that I did not guess the riddle myself; but nothing that I can
call to mind impressed me more than when, one day, my father solved it
for me with his little brass wand. At intervals, afterwards, I was
allowed to work the miracle myself, always with the same thrill of
mysterious delight. The desk was human to me; it was alive.

There were little square covers for the ink and sand-bottles; and on
the under sides of these were painted a pair of faces; very ruddy in
the cheeks they were, with staring eyes and smiling mouths; and one of
them wore a pair of black side-whiskers. They were done by my father,
with oil--colors filched from my mother's paint-box. They seemed to me
portraits of the people who lived in the desk; evidently they enjoyed
their existence hugely. And when I considered that the desk was also
somehow instrumental in the production of stories--such as the Snow
Image--of a delectable and magical character, the importance to my
mind of the whole contrivance may be conceived. When I grew beyond
child's estate, I learned that it had also assisted at the composition
of The Scarlet Letter. If ever there were a haunted writing-desk, this
should have been it; but the ghosts have long since carried it away,
whither I know not.

On the table were two ornaments; one, the finely moulded figure of an
Egyptian in bronze, the wide Egyptian head-dress falling on the
shoulders, the arms lying rigidly at the sides, with fists clinched.
Generations of handling had made it almost black, but the amiable
expression of the little countenance--the figure was about seven
inches tall--greatly endeared it to me. Its feet were pressed close
together on a small round stand; but one day somebody set it down on a
hot stove, where it remained without flinching till the feet were
melted off. After some years my mother had an ebony stump affixed to
it, preserving the proportions of the figure and setting it once more
erect. He was of greater endurance and of finer physical if not of
moral development than the Tin Soldier of Hans Christian Andersen. The
other ornament, less than half the Egyptian's size, and also made of
bronze, was a warrior in mediaeval armor, whose head lifted off,
showing a sharp-pointed rod the sheath of which was the body. Its use
was to pick the wicks of the oil-lamps of that epoch, and its name was
Mr. Pickwick. When afterwards I became acquainted with the world's
Mr. Pickwick, I supposed his creator had adopted the name from our
bronze warrior; but the world's Pickwick was made of stuff more
enduring than bronze; he remains, but our little warrior has vanished.

I come now to the human occupant of this chamber of marvels. I see a
tall, strong man, whose wide-domed head was covered with wavy black
hair, bushing out at the sides. It thinned somewhat over the lofty
crown and brow; the forehead was hollowed at the temple and rounded
out above, after the Moorish style of architecture. Under heavy, dark
eyebrows were eyes deep-set and full of light, marvellous in range of
expression, with black eyelashes. All seemed well with me when I met
their look. The straight, rather salient nose had a perceptible cleft
at the tip, which, I was told, was a sign of good lineage;
muddy-mettled rascals lacked it; so that I was much distressed by the
smooth, plebeian bluntness, at that time, of my own little snub. The
mouth, then unshaded by a mustache, had a slight upward turn at the
corners, indicative of vitality and good-humor; the chin rounded out
sharply convex from the lip. The round, strong column of the neck well
supported the head; my mother compared it with that of the Apollo
Belvedere, a bust of which stood in the corner of our sitting-room.
The head was deep--a great distance between the base of the ear and
the wing of the nostril--and was well filled out behind. Above the
blue of the shaven beard the complexion showed clear white and red,
announcing a strong heart and good digestion. My father shaved himself
daily; I was not permitted to see the operation, but I knew he
lathered, and wondered why. He was naturally athletic;
broad-shouldered and deep in the chest, lean about the loins, weighing
never over one hundred and eighty pounds; his height was five feet ten
and three-quarter inches; his legs and feet were slender and graceful,
his gait long and springy, and he could stand and leap as high as his
shoulder. In the house he wore slippers, which seemed always old and
down-at-heel.

In the house, also, he wore a writing-gown, made for him some years
before by my mother; it reached nearly to his heels, and had been a
gorgeous affair, though now much defaced. The groundwork was purple,
covered all over with conventional palm-leaf in old-gold color; the
lining was red. This lining, under the left-hand skirt of the gown,
was blackened with ink over a space as large as your hand; for the
author was in the habit of wiping his pen thereon; but my mother
finally parried this attack by sewing in the centre of the place a
penwiper in the shape of a butterfly.

While story-writing, the door of the study was locked against all the
world; but after noon he became approachable, except during The
Scarlet Letter period, when he wrote till evening. He did not mind my
seeing him write letters; he would sit with his right shoulder and
head inclined towards the desk; the quill squeaked softly over the
smooth paper, with frequent quick dips into the ink-bottle; a few
words would be written swiftly; then a pause, with suspended pen,
while the next sentence was forming in the writer's mind. When he
miswrote, instead of crossing out the word, he would smear it out with
his finger, and rewrite over the smear; so that his page had a mottled
appearance. The writing was accompanied by intermittent nods of the
head, as one would say, "Sic cogito!" So far as he is concerned, the
shadows close in on me here.

But I have said that the house was of three stories, and I have
accounted for two of them only. The second was occupied by my
grandmother Hawthorne and her two daughters, Aunt Louisa and Aunt Ebe
(the latter appellation being an infantile version of her name
invented by my father, who was her junior, and used by us to
distinguish between her and that other Elizabeth who was Aunt Lizzie
Peabody). Of my grandmother Hawthorne I have no personal recollection
at all; she was a Manning, a beautiful old lady, whom her son
resembled. She had been a recluse from society for forty years; it
was held to be good form, in that age and place, to observe such
Hindoo rites after the death of a husband; hers had died in his
thirty-fourth year in Surinam. But she had also insensibly fallen into
the habit of isolating herself in some degree from her own family;
they were all of them addicted to solitude of the body, though kindly
enough disposed in the abstract. When we went to live in the Mall
Street house, the old lady and her daughters uprooted themselves from
their home of many years in Herbert Street and dwelt with us; and that
quaint crystallization of their habits was in a measure broken up. But
the dowager Mrs. Hawthorne, it soon appeared, had come there to die;
she was more than seventy years old. My aunt Louisa I seem dimly to
recall as a tall, fragile, pale, amiable figure, not very effective.
My aunt Ebe I afterwards came to know well, and shall defer mention of
her. So I was encompassed by kindly petticoats, and was very happy,
but might have been better for a stout playmate of my own sex. I had a
hobby-horse, which I rode constantly to fairy-land in quest of
treasure to bestow upon my friends. I swung with Una on the gate, and
looked out upon the wonder of the passing world. The tragedy of my
grandmother's death, which, as I have said, interrupted the birth of
The Scarlet Letter, passed me by unknowing, or rather without leaving
a trace upon my memory. On the other hand, I can reconstitute vividly
two absurd incidents, destitute of historical value. After my
grandmother Hawthorne's death I fell ill; but the night before the
disease declared itself, I was standing in a chair at the nursery
window, looking out at the street-lamp on the corner, and my aunt
Lizzie Peabody, who had just come on from Boston, was standing behind
me, lest I should fall off. Now, I was normally the most
sweet-tempered little urchin imaginable; yet suddenly, without the
faintest warning or provocation, I turned round and dealt my loving
aunt a fierce kick in the stomach. It deprived her of breath for a
space; but her saintly nature is illustrated by the fact that the very
first use she made of her recovered faculties was to gasp out,
"Sophie, the child must be ill!" Fortunately for my reputation, the
illness was not long in arriving. The other episode must have
happened at about the same period, and is likewise concerned with Aunt
Lizzie. We had a cat, and the cat had had kittens a day or two before.
Aunt Lizzie came into the nursery, where Una and I were building
houses of blocks, and sat down in the big easy-chair. The cat was in
the room, and she immediately came up to my aunt and began to mew and
to pluck at her dress with her claws. Such attentions were rare on
pussy's part, and my aunt noticed them with pleasure, and caressed the
animal, which still continued to devote its entire attention to her.
But there was something odd in the sound of her mewing and in the
intent regard of her yellow eyes. "Can anything be the matter with
pussy?" speculated my aunt. At that moment my father entered the room,
and my aunt rose to greet him. Then the massacre was revealed, for she
had been sitting upon the kittens. Their poor mother pounced upon them
with a yowl, but it was too late. My dear aunt was rather a heavy
woman, and she had been sitting there fifteen minutes. We all stood
appalled in the presence of the great mystery.


One day a big man, with a brown beard and shining brown eyes, who
bubbled over with enthusiasm and fun, made his appearance and talked
volubly about something, and went away again, and my father and mother
smiled at each other. The Scarlet Letter had been written, and James
T. Fields had read it, and declared it the greatest book of the age.
So that was the last of Salem.

Julian Hawthorne

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