Meet us on:
Entire Site
    Try our fun game

    Dueling book covers…may the best design win!

    Random Quote
    "Glory built on selfish principles is shame and guilt."

    Subscribe to Our Newsletter

    Follow us on Twitter

    Never miss a good book again! Follow Read Print on Twitter

    Ch. 7 - Last Years

    • Rate it:
    Launch Reading Mode
    Chapter 7
    Previous Chapter
    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

    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.
    Chapter 7
    Previous Chapter
    If you're writing a Henry James essay and need some advice, post your Henry James essay question on our Facebook page where fellow bookworms are always glad to help!

    Top 5 Authors

    Top 5 Books

    Book Status
    Want to read

    Are you sure you want to leave this group?