My rating: 4 of 5 stars
What is the good of literary biography? I am not a great reader of the genre, possibly because every example I’ve ever read has had a passage like this in it, from Brenda Wineapple’s popular and absorbing 2003 life of Nathaniel Hawthorne:
Like most of Hawthorne’s fiction, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” is a biographical palimpsest. Dr. Rappaccini is Sophia’s father and Waldo Emerson. (Concord busybodies said Lidian Emerson was poisoning herself with medicine extracted from several plants.) Rappaccini is also Fuller’s father, whose stiff-backed education of Margaret was as destructive, if as well intentioned; he’s Uncle Robert, another horticulturalist of decided purpose; and he’s Hawthorne, the father-gardener, who fusses over his wife’s diet and her health.
Can one of the strangest and most profound short stories ever written really be reduced to Hawthorne’s strained relationship with his Uncle Robert? Any gentle boy on earth can feel misunderstood by his enterprising uncle, but only one wrote “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” the source of whose mystery may be elsewhere than in mundane familial discord.
But this mismatch between the universalizing force of the work and the tedious particulars of the life is only a small part of the broader problem to which Hawthorne’s own anguish and ambivalence about his literary vocation bear witness: art is out of place in modernity—an illicit and impenetrable red letter in the gray gloom—uncompensated by its system of values and inexplicable by its methods of comprehension.
It would be a mistake, though, to dismiss biography so hastily. Wineapple reports that when Hawthorne was in England during his consular appointment in the Pierce administration, he made a literary pilgrimage:
Hawthorne stopped for a night in Lichfield to visit the birthplace of Dr. Johnson. “I set my foot upon the worn steps, and laid my hand on the wall of the house, because Johnson’s hand and foot might have been in those same places.”
Keeping in mind this desire to commune with the dead, we might also remember that Dr. Johnson himself was a biographer and a biographical subject; he recommends the genre for a particular purpose:
[N]o species of writing seems more worthy of cultivation than biography, since none can be more delightful or more useful, none can more certainly enchain the heart by irresistible interest, or more widely diffuse instruction to every diversity of condition. (The Rambler, No. 60)
Biography gives us not so much direct instruction from the vanished, but the indirect truths we glean by sympathizing with their lives as recounted by a skilled artificer. What can Hawthorne’s life teach us? Or—to respect Wineapple’s artistry as biographer—what does she mean us to learn from Hawthorne: A Life?
She begins at the end, with the decisive failures and equivocal successes of Hawthorne’s three children. She opens with dissolute Julian’s conviction for fraud in 1912 and goes on to relate the eccentric self-ordination and charitable works of Rosa and the strange early death of Una at age 33. From her first pages on, Wineapple puts the emphasis on perversely blighted hopes, a canker running down the generations, as befits the haunted fiction of the past-obsessed author who is her subject.
But Hawthorne’s is not necessarily a life of outward tragedy. Emerson the indomitable optimist probably had it worse, all except the money troubles. Most of Hawthorne’s easily explicable pain is crowded into his early years: the death of his father at sea when he was only four; his aforementioned strained relationship with his maternal uncles and his mother’s proud family, which he later showily rejected via his literary identification with the paternal line, the stern Puritanical witch-hunting Hathornes; and the at least partially psychosomatic afflictions that kept him secluded as a child, foreshadowing his future wife’s similar invalidism and the mysterious undiagnosed illness that killed him in 1864—likely cancer or a systemic infection, but thought to be mental in its origin by many of his contemporaries, and sometimes by himself.
The pioneering psychological novelist’s tragedy was inward, if also social. As Wineapple represents it, and a reading of the work supports her, Hawthorne’s problem was his unlived life, or two unlived lives. He never felt he had really succeeded in becoming a productive man as his society defined middle-class masculinity. But he likewise did not fully commit himself to literature—save for two fertile periods, one of short-story writing in his late 20s and early 30s, the other of novel-writing in his late 40s—and he judged himself a failure in that vocation too, both by his own severe internal standards and by the standards of the marketplace, with its preference for fiction of a more morally and politically intelligible, not to mention overtly entertaining, variety. (Nothing in the biography is more poignant than Hawthorne’s unremitting terror of poverty in his sometimes delirious final illness.)
Assessing Hawthorne’s gender politics, Wineapple is far more forgiving than her generation of feminist critics tended to be. She duly registers his notorious expectoration about “the damned mob of scribbling women” and the vituperative judgment against female authorship that opens his sketch of the antinomian Anne Hutchinson. But she also observes that he was caught in an ideological trap, since American, Protestant, and capitalist norms of masculine exertion, social usefulness, and material productivity tended—and still tend—to feminize authorship as such, especially when it generates ambiguous and immaterial fiction like Hawthorne’s, fiction that serves no obvious end and earns no clear reward.
Add to that social conundrum Hawthorne’s individual experiences—his paternal loss, the dominance of strong women over his life—and his sexist comments become legible as defensive plaints guarding against what Wineapple wisely calls his “unsettling, overwhelming identification with women.” And finally, she concludes, it can’t be denied that he created in Hester Prynne the most memorable, brilliant female character in 19th-century American literature.
Wineapple herself nowhere excels more as a writer than in her depictions of the female figures that defined Hawthorne’s biography. Here, for instance, is a condensation of her small, precise study of Hawthorne’s sister Elizabeth (AKA Ebe), “an American hamadryad of untapped potential” (and I must note, too, that Wineapple has the good taste, unlike other commentators, to eschew charges of incest between Ebe and Nathaniel):
She loved nature and books, particularly Shakespeare, whom she read assiduously at the age of twelve, and by adolescence her wit was dry, her humor pungent. She usually cut straight to the marrow, telling the truth and damning the devil. (Of Emerson and Thoreau, she said: “I have a better opinion of their taste than to suppose that they really do think as they profess to.”) And though she affected to do little, she excelled at everything she did. She studied languages with ease, Spanish, French, and German. […] Ebe rose late. She avoided obligatory social calls. “People can talk about nothing tolerable but their neighbor’s faults,” she grimaced at fourteen. She considered letter writing demoralizing as well as ruinous to the style, and she abhorred cant, superstition, and organized religion. […] Although in youth she enjoyed a bracing sleigh ride or an unhurried sojourn in Newburyport with her cousins, in later life she withdrew from society, devoting herself to a translation of Cervantes, never finished, and to walking alone in the forest collecting flowers and ferns. […] She never married.
Life writing—biography and autobiography—is the twin of the novel, and such a concise portrait of a beguiling side character is the envy of any novelist.
Wineapple’s most dazzling turn comes in her portrayal of Hawthorne’s wife, Sophia. It is so easy to cast her as the villain in this story: the priggish, uptight spouse whose small-minded respectability held Hawthorne back from what might otherwise have been Melvillean exuberance and revolt on the page (as if this were likely).
Sophia did set herself apart from her famously progressive family—the Peabodys—not only by invalidism, but also by a kind of willful contrarian complacency and conservatism that would also drive Hawthorne’s later politics. And Sophia was if anything more conservative than her husband. Take, for instance, her reaction to the death by shipwreck of the brilliant feminist—and possible model for Hester Prynne—Margaret Fuller, returning from Italy with an Italian Catholic husband everyone thought beneath her and their out-of-wedlock child:
“I am really glad she died,” [Sophia] concluded without feeling, “—there was no other peace or rest to be found for her—especially if her husband was a person so wanting in force & availability.”
Furthermore, if Hawthorne sometimes disapproved of female authorship—but not always: Fanny Fern and Rebecca Harding Davis won his admiration—then Sophia disapproved more, even when invited to publish her own work:
“You forget that Mr. Hawthorne is the Belleslettres portion of my being, and besides that I have a repugnance to female authoresses in general…”
Yet consider the other half of the 19th century’s gender ideology: man was to act and to earn in public, while woman was to superintend the manners and morals of the bourgeois home. Man and woman were one flesh, and together made a world. Sophia, like Hawthorne, acted her part. But Wineapple brilliantly evokes how much more there was to her than this role: her sometimes cunning shyness, her domestic eroticism, and above all her work as an artist, like those other female artists—Hester, Hilda—who inhabit Hawthorne’s fiction.
To enhance the drama of her narrative, Wineapple resorts to dialogue tags when quoting from her subjects’ letters and diaries. Over and over again, we read that Hawthorne and company chirped, bellowed, sputtered, grumbled, shuddered, snorted, stormed, snapped, griped, chortled, scolded, wailed, moaned, exploded, cringed, pined, groaned, snarled, muttered, sniffed, and more. This is a risky grab for vitality even in fiction—where you should usually just stick to said—but it does give Hawthorne: A Life its unique air of operatic urgency.
On the back of the hardcover, the late and revered Hawthorne scholar Sacvan Bercovitch responds to this emotive heat by calling Wineapple’s work, “Clearly the best biography of Hawthorne; the Hawthorne for our time.” But what is “our time”?
Bercovitch no doubt meant that Wineapple is up-to-date about gender and race and focuses on these issues, particularly the latter. Her biography culminates in a long, thrilling narrative of Hawthorne’s self-imposed political isolation during the Civil War. We might now say that he was #canceled by his New England colleagues when he retained his Democratic commitments—partly out of loyalty to his close friend, the former president Franklin Pierce—and expressed skepticism about abolitionist fervor and the wisdom of waging war to solve the political crisis:
Many of Hawthorne’s contemporaries had to struggle with Hawthorne’s quirks, and though they genuinely respected his work, they despised much of what it stood for: doubt, darkness, and the Democratic Party.
While we have retained the concern with race 16 years after this book’s publication, I am not otherwise sure that 2003 is our time anymore. Wineapple doesn’t deny or attempt to mitigate Hawthorne’s racism:
No doubt about it: to Hawthorne, blacks and Italians and Jews are inferior to Anglo-Saxons, whom he doesn’t much like either.
But she does insist that this racism is not what set him apart from his contemporaries. Predictably Sophia was worse, but even passionate white progressives from Elizabeth Peabody to Abraham Lincoln were also biological racists. It was rather Hawthorne’s misanthropy, his irony, his mistrust of grand causes, and his fear of violence that separated him from his New England fellows as he wasted away in the war years.
Wineapple does gently censure Hawthorne—often implicitly reproving him by resonant quotations from his progressive sisters-in-law, from abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison, from Harriet Beecher Stowe, and from others as they chide the author for his political aloofness and irresponsibility. But even Wineapple balks at the Transcendentalists’ bien-pensant—we’d now call it “woke”—celebration of John Brown, whom she frankly represents as a fanatical butchering terrorist: “This sort of mawkishness, ill informed and dangerous, revolted Hawthorne,” she writes with evident approval of how the author dismissed Boston and Concord intellectuals’ radical chic.
While Hawthorne’s biological racism belongs to its time, his apprehension that any attempt to bring freedom at gunpoint would only lead to a futile cycle of violence may have seemed timely and even welcome not only to the much-mocked and -reviled “Peace Democrats” of 1863, but to the equally condemned peace Democrats of 2003, “our time” no more.
Wineapple finally credits Hawthorne for his doubt and darkness, because those too are America’s story, along with the putative spread of liberty and the dream of progress:
[T]he national hypocrisy…has always been Hawthorne’s subject, whether he writes about Puritans, Tories, rebels, or transcendentalists. America is conceived in liberty and oppression, and with this insight, Hawthorne moves beyond a consideration of local politics, beyond even his own racism, to the extent that it’s possible, to a fine-tuned perception of America’s heritage.
Which returns us, finally, from politics to literature. Hawthorne had political views, as he had familial quarrels, just like anyone. But we care about him only because he did what no one else could: he wrote those stories, those novels, fictions richer and more mesmerizing than most of his contemporaries’ precisely because they called the status of fiction itself into question rather than simply trying to pass the time or hammer home some propaganda, even in a good cause:
Writing meant everything to Hawthorne and yet cost everything. It was his heart of darkness, an isolation no one could fathom or relieve; it was a source of shame as much as pleasure, and a necessity he could neither forego nor entirely approve. […] Hawthorne mistrusts the sturdy fibers of the actual world—the stuff of realism, to say nothing of the facile stuff of human progress, human order, and human knowledge.
As in the classics he echoed—Sophocles, Shakespeare, Milton—his tragic flaw was intimately coiled around his greatness: alienation, despair, division, the incapacity for normal life, the inability to believe that humankind could ever finally be made right. And as in the moderns he anticipated or inspired—Kafka, Faulkner, Borges—he saw that these doubts extend to the very language and literary form in which he expressed them.
Can the biographer explore such heights and depths, or is the form too limited by its very nature, its capture by the verifiable and explicable? Wineapple gets closest to Hawthorne whenever she departs from chronicle and gives us scene and reflection. Maybe this is only to again pay the back-handed compliment of calling her book “novelistic.”
Even so, I end with a passage rich, if not in Johnsonian moralism, then in Hawthornian suggestiveness. Hawthorne, recently married, is roused in the night by neighbors to help find the body of a local woman who has drowned herself. After he does so—after he observes the ghastly rigor mortis of the corpse—Wineapple imagines the dead body as an emblem of Hawthorne’s vision and experience, both the personal and political anxieties that marred his often lonely life and the metaphysical fear and trembling that unforgettably disturbs, still, the surface of his—like his biographer’s—most poised and elegant prose:
Hurrying back to Sophia that unlit night, Hawthorne might easily have been warning himself against the perils of isolation. In the water he had seen a distorted image which, with stiffened arms and distended legs, spurned all Concord’s [i.e., the Transcendentalists’] petty homilies of life and death: a poor lonely girl, homegrown expatriate, plunged beneath the river’s veil.
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