The Scarlet Kegger

What did Nathaniel Hawthorne have to feel so guilty about?

Brenda Wineapple
Hawthorne: A Life
Alfred A. Knopf

Nathaniel Hawthorne was a handsome devil. So often does Brenda Wineapple mention this fact in her delicious new biography that a reader might flip to the book's cover image to confirm we are reading about America's literary forefather and not Colin Farrell. Like the scruffy Irish heartthrob, ole Nat had a wild side (even if he was also a bit of a momma's boy). As a young man growing up he boozed and shot guns, played pranks, and arrived at manhood striking, muscular, and ready to scrap. Here's Wineapple describing the budding writer at Bowdoin College in Maine:

He constantly broke the rules. He resented regulations stipulating how far one could walk on the Sabbath and that forebade smoking a "seegar" on the street or consuming alcohol. For if nothing else, the bone-chilling cold of a long Maine winter provided sufficient incentive to drink....Nathaniel was a charter member of the secret Pot-8-O Club, dedicated to weekly poems and the eating of tubers, or so their constitution alleged...Similarly, he helped found the Androscoggin Club, another informal organization dedicated to card playing and drinking. Nathaniel and a crony dragged a keg of wine into the forest for a hilarious weekend.

As hard as it is to picture Hawthorne doing keg stands in the Maine woods, chowing down on tubers--which are potatoes, by the way--details like this make Hawthorne seem a lot more human. They dust off a man who during his lifetime hid behind the veil of his fiction (Hawthorne published his first stories anonymously). They also explain his intense, almost neurotic obsession with sin and shame and how communities adjudicate behavior.

To understand Hawthorne, Wineapple writes, we need to understand Salem, and so her biography begins in this New England shipping port village. By the time Nathaniel was born on July 4, 1804, his family had lived there for some six generations. Hawthorne's great-great-grandfather was a magistrate notably remorseless in his hanging of witches. His grandfather was a famous sea captain. Though Hawthorne's father died at sea and left little to his family, the Hawthornes and their in-laws were important community figures. People watched their every move.

The decision to become a writer, then, had serious social implications for young Nathaniel. His two uncles lived north of Portland, Maine, backcountry then, and followed manly pursuits. Nathaniel stayed home and nursed a psychosomatic foot injury and read books. With the exception of Longfellow, his classmates at Bowdoin went on to become congressmen, senators, preachers, and, in the case of Franklin Pierce--a longtime friend and Hawthorne confidant--president. They were doers. A reclusive, deliberate, perfectionist writer, Hawthorne was not destined for such immediate glory.

Writing, Wineapple suggests, became a "source of shame as much as pleasure and a necessity he could neither forgo nor entirely approve." Hawthorne began to withdraw. In order to support his calling, he moved his family frequently, waffling between government jobs and the monkish cell of the writing life. His first novel, Fanshawe, bombed. He plied his hand at children's books, many of which are classics today. It wasn't until The Scarlet Letter that he reached a wide audience.

By that time Hawthorne was nearly 50, well past middle age for 1850. So much time alone had made him obsolete; the nation had changed and Hawthorne, who resisted the Civil War, was left behind, a curio. It was a painful experience for Hawthorne, but an essential one. Self-immersion was his gift. Yet the country Hawthorne resided in was the past. With this superb biography, Brenda Wineapple goes back there and exhumes him from it.

 
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