The Chronicle Review

Nathaniel Hawthorne's Untold Tale

Jordin Isip for The Chronicle Review

August 15, 2010

In 1933, when Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas had lunch with the first lady in the White House, the conversation turned to the conditions of the working class, and Eleanor Roosevelt said to Gertrude Stein, "Don't you think there is something approaching nobility in the hard-working farmer or factory worker, struggling to support his home and family?"

"Perhaps," said Gertrude Stein. "But I prefer to observe him from a decent distance."

"Lovey works very hard," said Alice B. Toklas ingenuously, nodding toward Gertrude Stein.

Gertrude Stein laughed. "Thank you, Pussy," she said. Then she spoke more seriously to Mrs. Roosevelt: "It takes a lot of time to be a genius," she said. "You have to sit around so much doing nothing."

And then, four years later, when Alice Roosevelt Longworth (Theodore Roosevelt's daughter) visited Eleanor, Mrs. Roosevelt made a similar comment about the basic goodness of the human species, whereupon the famously acerbic Alice Longworth said, "That's the difference between us, Eleanor. You see the good as normal and perceive the bad as a minor aberration. I perceive the bad as normal and the good as aberrational."

Those two anecdotes have two things in common: They're both about Eleanor Roosevelt, of course, and they're both fictional—at least they occur in ostensibly fictional contexts, in two of the "Eleanor Roosevelt mysteries" written by Elliott Roosevelt, a son of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor. But given that all fiction is information, and knowing what we know of all four women, I find it tempting to wonder whether the anecdotes are based on fact.

I find these quoted conversations from Elliott Roosevelt's mysteries interesting in themselves, but also for another reason: They serve as evidence that having a famous parent (or, in Elliott Roosevelt's case, two famous parents) is not a stamped ticket to a demoralized existence, devoid of hope and paralyzed by frustration—which, unfortunately, seems to be the fate of so many children growing up in the shadow of greatness.

Indeed, much has been written about the hardship and agony of having a famous parent. The success of Christina Crawford's 1978 memoir Mommie Dearest, about her life as the daughter of the movie star Joan Crawford, testifies to the enduring fascination of the genre. (The book, in fact, helped create the genre as we know it.) Crawford's scandalous account hit The New York Times's best-seller list and stayed there for weeks; then it was made into a movie; and some 20 years later, and with suitable fanfare, it was reissued in a special anniversary edition.

Part of the lure of the genre is simply that of reflected celebrity: If Christina Crawford's mother had been Florence, not Joan, it's not likely that the book would have been published. The psychological factors seem obvious. We like to penalize celebrities simply for being celebrated; what right do they have to be famous when we're not? That is not the only dynamic at work, of course, but it seems to be part of the human nastiness that stokes our prurient and well-nigh unquenchable obsession with knowing all the dirt in the lives of the renowned.

How much more intense that sort of revenge must be for a movie star's child, who wonders, "But what about me?" And how much that resentment must be exacerbated by the child's seeing things in the famous parent that contradict and even mock the shining public image. What better recipe for bitterness could ever be devised?

One child of a famous parent who was not sentenced to a life of desperation was Julian Hawthorne. He managed to survive his famous father, Nathaniel, with his own version of success as an author. Like his father, he was a writer of fiction, but he also wrote historical and biographical works.

Julian Hawthorne's posthumously published Memoirs (1938)  is an interesting book, revealing things about his famous father that seem incompatible with our image of the fey loner of Salem who wrote the haunted stories that have become classics. "My father, in his boyhood," Julian wrote, "was a sociable and cheerful fellow, rather prone to dominate his companions, thanks to his superior wit and muscle." And consider Nathaniel's advice to his school-age son: "If the boys attack you, always go for the biggest one." That paints a radically different portrait from the shy recluse one imagines. A certain brawniness was evidently characteristic of the Hawthorne males, as Julian reports that his chest measurement was the largest of his class at Harvard. (Why were such measurements taken and recorded? One can only speculate.)

Julian's testimony is not limited to anecdotes about his famous father—it also extends to most of the renowned literati of the period, who happened to be neighbors when he was growing up.

We are told, for example, that Ralph Waldo Emerson, while he disapproved of laughter, did occasionally allow himself to smile, but he did so only with his eyes closed. "He disliked being conspicuous," Julian wrote, "and uniformly preferred conformity to anything conspicuous."

Julian also reports that at a Concord town meeting during the Civil War, the people in the crowd began to feed upon their own excitement, as is the way with mobs, and they eventually worked themselves up into such a frenzy that they were on the verge of lynching a Rebel sympathizer. Suddenly, amid the turmoil and shouting, Emerson stood up and waited until a veil of quiet fell upon the room. Then he uttered three words: "Is this Concord?" Calm and good sense resulted, partly, I suspect, from the double entendre of the third word.

It is no surprise to literary scholars that Henry David Thoreau was soaked in Emerson's thinking, but Julian tells us that even the younger man's handwriting was like Emerson's. And yet, Julian pointed out, unlike Emerson, Thoreau's "surest happiness was in discontent," and furthermore, "his brain was poisoned by philosophy." Thoreau feared and despised the growing passion for land development, considering it "treason to the Great Mother"; and he found that birds, squirrels, and hedgehogs had not lost "their primeval courtesy." While those sentiments were oddities in his time, they verge upon being clichés today.

This small sampling demonstrates how rewarding a book Julian's Memoirs is, with its wealth of warm chatter and curious anecdotes about the giants of the New England Renaissance. But the reason for my focus on the book here is an anecdote in it so astonishing that if I were vulnerable to mystic vapors, reading it would have left me adrift in unworldly speculation. And I am even more astonished that I have never encountered a reference to it elsewhere.

The scene opens on May 18, 1864, with Julian a freshman at Harvard. Here is what he wrote about that evening: "I was initiated into a college secret society—a couple of hours of grotesque and good-humored rodomontade and horseplay, in which I cooperated as in a kind of pleasant nightmare, confident, even when branded with a red-hot iron or doused head-over heels in boiling oil, that it would come out all right. The neophyte is effectively blindfolded during the proceedings, and at last, still sightless, I was led down flights of steps into a silent crypt, and helped into a coffin, where I was to stay until the Resurrection."

After lying there for a while, he was visited by an older classmate as a "friendly demon," and they had a conversation, whether about eschatological matters or next year's Harvard-Yale game is not stated. Then, Julian wrote, "After a while he went away and I lay in peace: until a bevy of roistering friends arrived, hoisted me out, hurried me up the steps, snatched off bandages, and lo! I was in a brightly lighted room filled with jolly fellows who were shaking hands with me, giving me the 'grip,' and leading me to a large bowl brimming with claret punch."

This was, of course, all very collegiate for that long-ago time, and—with the exception of the "red-hot iron" and "boiling oil" references, if taken too literally—quite typical. But then Julian wrote that the next afternoon, a classmate approached him on the college walk, saying, "I have bad news for you, Hawthorne—very bad."

Julian naturally sensed from the fellow's manner that there had been a death in his family, and his immediate thought was that his mother had died; but, no, it was his father: Nathaniel Hawthorne was dead. Reeling, Julian leaned against a picket fence, and when a friend started to say something, he signaled for him to be quiet.

Then, years later, Julian wrote in his Memoirs: "Thus it was that just as my father passed from this earth, I was lying in a coffin during my initiation into Delta Kappa Epsilon." It is, indeed, remarkable that two such men would participate, unknowingly but at the same time, in the ceremony of dying, the father actually doing it at a distance from his son, while the son lay in a coffin playing at the oblivion of eternity for an hour or so.

To fully savor this astonishing coincidence, one must consider not only how close a relationship Julian had with his father, but also how Nathaniel Hawthorne's mind worked, his deep instinct for the uncanny, the ghostly, the profoundly mysterious. Obsessed with the utter mystery of human existence, he made connections where others saw nothing to pause over. As has often been pointed out, he had a "haunted" mind, and the notion that a son might be lying in a coffin as part of the jolly initiation into a college fraternity when Nathaniel himself was dying and about to enter his own coffin—such a story idea might well have appeared in the notebooks Nathaniel kept. It is a profoundly "Hawthornian" idea, a zeugma bracketing both the actual and the mystical, the outer and the inner.

Furthermore, Nathaniel's mind was not simply haunted, but powerfully and instinctively symbolic, which is to say, he was obsessed with the duality of our mental lives, the latent truth that waits to be uncovered in all of our obvious sensations. For him, as with all mystics, much that is experienced in the visible world is but a cipher waiting to be decoded; and much of what is revealed will remain, yes, cryptic. For Hawthorne, the human soul was a fathomless well and a source of fearful wonderment. "What other dungeon," he wrote in The House of the Seven Gables, "is so dark as one's own heart! What jailor so inexorable as one's self!"

His casual, private writings, along with his fiction, teem with references to his preoccupation with the profound interiority of our mental and spiritual life, in contrast to the exteriors by means of which we manage to negotiate through the underbrush of our daily existence. Consider this sampling of two story ideas and one philosophical observation (sporting a modest pun), all taken from his published Notebooks.

A man living a wicked life in one place and simultaneously a virtuous and religious one in another.

To make one's own reflection in a mirror the subject of a story.

Mankind are earthen jugs with spirits in them.

It seems that Julian was instinctively sympathetic to his father's sense of the occult binaries of our realities, for Nathaniel's American Notebook entry for September 2, 1850, is about Julian as a very small boy of about 4 years: "'When I grow up,' quothe J.—in illustration of the might to which he might attain—'when I grow up, I shall be two men.'" Very much a literal version of that profound duality that preoccupied his father in so much of his writing. 

On the night when a college boy is made to lie in a coffin as part of a fraternity initiation, his father dies. That might have been an entry in one of Nathaniel's Notebooks. What sort of story might he have created of this idea? Or would it have remained slumbering in his notebook, like most of his entries? Or what sort of story might his son have made of it? After all, he was the one who experienced this uncanny coincidence. Then why didn't he explore its narrative possibilities? Or did he? I don't know.

One possible reason for Julian's leaving it alone, supposing that he did, is that its intimate, personal character rendered it somehow taboo. Or he might have been reluctant to dwell upon so strange and inexplicable an occurrence. Developing it into the sort of mysterious tale that his father was so compelled to create might have been too unsettling a prospect.

Or, of course, he may just not have seen the story possibilities in it. Writers by instinct interpret their lives in narrative terms; that is how they make sense of the things they see around them. Thus, the world teems with story ideas—more than a writer can ever hope to explore in any systematic way—and there's no explaining how one writer can be moved by an event that leaves another writer yawning.

That is part of the fascination with creating stories, and it's one of the reasons that I have felt a need to tell my own version of this extraordinary occurrence as recalled by Julian Hawthorne, something that really happened, in contrast to the dark and glowing fantasies that haunted his father's imagination. And it is precisely its being factual that makes what Julian experienced so uncanny, and for that reason, so compelling in its need to be told. 

Jack Matthews is a distinguished professor emeritus of English at Ohio University at Athens. He collects antiquarian books, and his next novel, "The Gambler's Nephew" (Etruscan Press), is scheduled for publication in the spring of 2011.