Saturday, May 23, 2009

This Day in Literary History (Literati Pay Last Respects to Hawthorne)

May 23, 1864—On a beautiful Monday—“that one bright day/In the long week of rain,” as put by mourner Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—the most significant members of New England’s literary renaissance gathered on a hillside to pay their final respects to the friend they loved but couldn’t fully understand, novelist/short-story writer Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Last fall, on vacation in the Boston area, I had visited nearly every major site I had wanted in the metro—Beantown, Cambridge, Lexington, Concord—but before departing for home, I had to make one last stop: Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, in Concord, where Hawthorne, his family and many of his friends are buried.

At mid-morning on that bright Saturday, as I visited “Authors’ Ridge”—the hilltop that serves as the final resting place for many of the area’s best-known citizens—I immediately noticed the graves of Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau, who predeceased him by two years. Their graves lay directly across from each other, as if the two forces they represented—the saturnine and sunny faces of American culture—could not leave off their longtime, basic disagreement.
Elsewhere on the hill were Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Ellery Channing, Bronson Alcott and daughter Louisa May Alcott, and their various loved ones. The site, with all its pine-filled beauty, would have made a great field trip for a high school field trip—and sure enough, one was there that day. But, from the expressionless teenage faces in the group, I guessed that they would have wanted to be anywhere else on this weekend morning than up there.

The New England writers who they were studying would have understood their frustration, I think. They were a pretty nature-loving, unconventional bunch.

“Sleepy Hollow,” the youngsters were told, was not the same site as the one that inspired the Washington Irving tale, but rather a place where Hawthorne and his friends, a generation ago, had gathered to picnic. In 1855, the land had been given over for its present purpose, with Emerson there to speak at the dedication ceremony. Now, he was in the same spot for an occasion that hit home far more.

While taking solace that Hawthorne would finally gain badly needed peace in this spot he had once loved so well, his family and friends (including fellow Concordian Emerson, along with Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., and James Russell Lowell) felt a sense of unease.

Their misgivings arose not only because a shadow had been cast the final days of the author of The Scarlet Letter’s, but because his death reminded most of those assembled that it came while he was deeply into middle age, amid a war that was making their own optimism and moral energies look sadly irrelevant.

Hawthorne died in the company of his old Bowdoin College friend, former President Franklin Pierce, who had taken him on a vacation to Portsmouth, N.H., to relieve his mounting anxiety and physical infirmity.

Pierce’s presence at the bedside and graveside of his friend deeply discomfited the vast majority of Hawthorne’s Concord circle, who blamed the Mexican War hero and Southern-sympathizing Democrat for not curbing the slaveowning South’s expansionary desires and secessionist impulses. The sectional demons unleashed during his Presidency, they felt, led directly to the battlefield deaths of millions of Northern men—including many of their own sons.
The blog “Citizen of Somewhere Else,” written by academic Bruce Neal Simon, featured a thought-provoking take on the controversy that broke out over the value of Hawthorne’s life and work at the time of his death. The discussion anticipated something we still deal with today: how to judge creative artists when they become suddenly, shockingly, politically incorrect.
In fact, on the day after his funeral, two New England papers, the Providence Journal and the Springfield Republican, attacked Hawthorne’s politics. Increasingly after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, to be anti-abolitionist in New England in a region that, then as now, was probably the nation’s most liberal, was to invite consternation among friends. To be opposed to just about all the reform movements of the day, as Hawthorne also was, required a strong and concerted spin, as Hawthorne’s friends continued to day for the next 19 years, until the Riverside Edition of his collected works appeared.

The leader of the New England writers, Emerson (whose minister grandfather’s house, the Old Manse, became home to Hawthorne and his wife Sophia for a time after they married), wrote mumblingly but regretfully the day after the funeral on the distance between the deceased author and himself: “I have felt sure of him, in his neighbourhood, and in his necessities of sympathy and intelligence,—that I could well wait his time,—his unwillingness and caprice,—and might one day conquer a friendship…. Now it appears that I waited too long.”

Sophia Hawthorne moved to England, dying there six years later. For more than a century, Kensal Green Cemetery in London held the graves of her and daughter Una.

And now, a surprise twist on the Hawthorne saga: another daughter named Rose, a descendant of Judge Hathorne, one of the unrepentant hanging judges of the Salem Witchcraft trials, surprised nearly everyone by converting to Roman Catholicism, eventually becoming a nun (and now, for her work in starting a religious order dedicated to caring for cancer patients, a candidate for sainthood).

The Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne (in Rockland County, NY) had been paying to maintain the Hawthorne graves, but the necessity of costly repairs led to the transfer of the remains back to Concord for reburial nearly three years ago. You can see the family plot in the picture I took accompanying this post.

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