The Magazine

The Secret Society

Hawthorne as chronicler of the American unconscious.

Mar 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 27 • By MICAH MATTIX
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Milder dismisses suggestions of incest, “because a man of Hawthorne’s character would never have gotten over it”—which, if not the most convincing of reasons, is still probably right. Yet some sort of sexual sin, whether in thought or action, seems to have taken place in Salem, given Hawthorne’s preoccupation with sexuality and his attitude towards the city, particularly after college. Salem would prove to be the beginning of another idea that is central in Hawthorne’s work, an idea that Milder associates with Hawthorne’s first three years of marriage in Concord. It is that of love, particularly the love of a chaste woman, as the spiritual antidote to self-gratification.

Like the virtuous and innocent women of Hawthorne’s tales, Sophia Peabody was not a sensual woman. She was often sick—suffering frequently from debilitating headaches—and somewhat homely, but she was also his “heavenly Dove,” as Hawthorne puts it in an early letter, whom he sheltered. She, in turn, offered an innocence that allowed him to grasp “a far deeper sense of beauty.” Hawthorne wrote to Sophia in 1839: “I have really thought sometimes that God gave you to me to be the salvation of my soul.”

Milder claims that, for Hawthorne, love is the “cure” for man’s selfishness, and that “love has its source, center, and limit in conventional marriage.” This is particularly evident in Hawthorne’s often-ignored Blithedale Romance. Based on Hawthorne’s own experience at Brook Farm, Blithedale follows a community of progressives who, eschewing traditional family roles, attempt to create a perfect society. The problem? The members of the utopian experiment are unable to divorce themselves “from Pride”; and with no familial love to correct the errors of selfishness, the experiment ends in failure and tragedy. It is only at the conclusion of the story that the narrator, seeing the love of a family in town, comes to understand that true self-sacrificial love can only be nourished in families, in which the pleasures of sex cannot (or, at least, ought not) be divorced from the pain of childbirth and the responsibilities of parenthood.

Milder concludes this biography with a brief look at Hawthorne’s time in England and Italy. While Hawthorne had come to think of earthiness as sinful, England challenged this idea. Hawthorne could (and often did) express disdain for the English lower class, but he also found something attractive in “the beef-and-ale solidity of the English character,” as Milder puts it. And if England challenged Hawthorne’s identification of purity and goodness with ethereality, Italy challenged his secular asceticism. 

Catholicism in Italy awakened Hawthorne to precisely those elements in Christianity that Anglo-American Puritanism had suppressed. Against the physical barrenness of New England’s churches and what he considered the spiritual barrenness of Old England, Hawthorne found the Italian churches warm and replete—brilliant to the eye but filled, too, with Stowe’s “softening poetries and tender draperies.” 

While the beauty of Catholicism didn’t bring Hawthorne to a crisis of faith—he was, at that point in his life, too set in his ways to consider any real change—he nevertheless wrote that “perhaps it would be a good time to suggest and institute” some changes to American Protestantism, such as the rise of “a new Apostle to convert it into something positive.” 

Milder’s life of Hawthorne really is “a literary life”: The focus throughout is on the sources of Hawthorne’s literary preoccupations, not on the why and wherefore of the man himself. “There were not more than two or three persons in the world,” Julian Hawthorne would write of his father, “to whom he could disclose himself freely.” It is because of this that Hawthorne will remain a mystery. Yet, thanks to Milder’s careful handling of Hawthorne’s notebooks and fiction, the outline of his face is almost visible through the otherwise dark and impenetrable veil of time and personal reserve.

Micah Mattix is assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University.