James T. Fields.

Yesterdays with Authors online

. (page 5 of 37)
Online LibraryJames T. FieldsYesterdays with Authors → online text (page 5 of 37)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

in sorrow than in anger, though there is quite enough of the latter
quality to give piquancy to his epistle. The joke of the matter is,
that I never heard of his grandfather, nor knew that any Pyncheons
had ever lived in Salem, but took the name because it suited the
tone of my book, and was as much my property, for fictitious
purposes, as that of Smith. I have pacified him by a very polite and
gentlemanly letter, and if ever you publish any more of the Seven
Gables, I should like to write a brief preface, expressive of my
anguish for this unintentional wrong, and making the best reparation
possible else these wretched old Pyncheons will have no peace in the
other world, nor in this. Furthermore, there is a Rev. Mr. - - ,
resident within four miles of me, and a cousin of Mr. - - , who
states that he likewise is highly indignant. Who would have dreamed
of claimants starting up for such an inheritance as the House of the
Seven Gables!

"I mean, to write, within six weeks or two months next ensuing, a
book of stories made up of classical myths. The subjects are: The
Story of Midas, with his Golden Touch, Pandora's Box, The Adventure
of Hercules in quest of the Golden Apples, Bellerophon and the
Chimera, Baucis and Philemon, Perseus and Medusa; these, I think,
will be enough to make up a volume. As a framework, I shall have a
young college student telling these stories to his cousins and
brothers and sisters, during his vacations, sometimes at the
fireside, sometimes in the woods and dells. Unless I greatly
mistake, these old fictions will work up admirably for the purpose;
and I shall aim at substituting a tone in some degree Gothic or
romantic, or any such tone as may best please myself, instead of the
classic coldness, which is as repellant as the touch of marble.

"I give you these hints of my plan, because you will perhaps think
it advisable to employ Billings to prepare some illustrations. There
is a good scope in the above subjects for fanciful designs.
Bellerophon and the Chimera, for instance: the Chimera a fantastic
monster with three heads, and Bellerophon fighting him, mounted on
Pegasus; Pandora opening the box; Hercules talking with Atlas, an
enormous giant who holds the sky on his shoulders, or sailing across
the sea in an immense bowl; Perseus transforming a king and all his
subjects to stone, by exhibiting the Gorgon's head. No particular
accuracy in costume need be aimed at. My stories will bear out the
artist in any liberties he may be inclined to take. Billings would
do these things well enough, though his characteristics are grace
and delicacy rather than wildness of fancy. The book, if it comes
out of my mind as I see it now, ought to have pretty wide success
amongst young people; and, of course, I shall purge out all the old
heathen wickedness, and put in a moral wherever practicable. For a
title how would this do: 'A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys'; or,
'The Wonder-Book of Old Stories'? I prefer the former. Or 'Myths
Modernized for my Children'; that won't do.

"I need a little change of scene, and meant to have come to Boston
and elsewhere before writing this book; but I cannot leave home at

Throughout the summer Hawthorne was constantly worried by people who
insisted that they, or their families in the present or past
generations, had been deeply wronged in "The House of the Seven Gables."
In a note, received from him on the 5th of June, he says: -

"I have just received a letter from still another claimant of the
Pyncheon estate. I wonder if ever, and how soon, I shall get a just
estimate of how many jackasses there are in this ridiculous world.
My correspondent, by the way, estimates the number of these Pyncheon
jackasses at about twenty; I am doubtless to by remonstrated with by
each individual. After exchanging shots with all of them, I shall
get you to publish the whole correspondence, in a style to match
that of my other works, and I anticipate a great run for the volume.

"P.S. My last correspondent demands that another name be
substituted, instead of that of the family; to which I assent, in
case the publishers can be prevailed on to cancel the stereotype
plates. Of course you will consent! Pray do!"

Praise now poured in upon him from all quarters. Hosts of critics, both
in England and America, gallantly came forward to do him service, and
his fame was assured. On the 15th of July he sends me a jubilant letter
from Lenox, from which I will copy several passages: -

"Mrs. Kemble writes very good accounts from London of the reception
my two romances have met with there. She says they have made a
greater sensation than any book since 'Jane Eyre'; but probably she
is a little or a good deal too emphatic in her representation of the
matter. At any rate, she advises that the sheets of any future book
be sent to Moxon, and such an arrangement made that a copyright may
be secured in England as well as here. Could this be done with the
Wonder-Book? And do you think it would be worth while? I must see
the proof-sheets of this book. It is a cursed bore; for I want to be
done with it from this moment. Can't you arrange it so that two or
three or more sheets may be sent at once, on stated days, and so my
journeys to the village be fewer?

"That review which you sent me is a remarkable production. There is
praise enough to satisfy a greedier author than myself. I set it
aside, as not being able to estimate how far it is deserved. I can
better judge of the censure, much of which is undoubtedly just; and
I shall profit by it if I can. But, after all, there would be no
great use in attempting it. There are weeds enough in my mind, to be
sure, and I might pluck them up by the handful; but in so doing I
should root up the few flowers along with them. It is also to be
considered, that what one man calls weeds another classifies among
the choicest flowers in the garden. But this reviewer is certainly
a man of sense, and sometimes tickles me under the fifth rib. I beg
you to observe, however, that I do not acknowledge his justice in
cutting and slashing among the characters of the two books at the
rate he does; sparing nobody, I think, except Pearl and Phoebe. Yet
I think he is right as to my tendency as respects individual

"I am going to begin to enjoy the summer now, and to read foolish
novels, if I can get any, and smoke cigars, and think of nothing at
all; which is equivalent to thinking of all manner of things."

The composition of the "Tanglewood Tales" gave him pleasant employment,
and all his letters, during the period he was writing them, overflow
with evidences of his felicitous mood. He requests that Billings should
pay especial attention to the drawings, and is anxious that the porch of
Tanglewood should be "well supplied with shrubbery." He seemed greatly
pleased that Mary Russell Mitford had fallen in with his books and had
written to me about them. "Her sketches," he said, "long ago as I read
them, are as sweet in my memory as the scent of new hay." On the 18th of
August he writes: -

"You are going to publish another thousand of the Seven Gables. I
promised those Pyncheons a preface. What if you insert the

"(The author is pained to learn that, in selecting a name for the
fictitious inhabitants of a castle in the air, he has wounded the
feelings of more than one respectable descendant of an old Pyncheon
family. He begs leave to say that he intended no reference to any
individual of the name, now or heretofore extant; and further, that,
at the time of writing his book, he was wholly unaware of the
existence of such a family in New England for two hundred years
back, and that whatever he may have since learned of them is
altogether to their credit.)

"Insert it or not, as you like. I have done with the matter."

I advised him to let the Pyncheons rest as they were, and omit any
addition, either as note or preface, to the romance.

Near the close of 1851 his health seemed unsettled, and he asked me to
look over certain proofs "carefully," for he did not feel well enough
to manage them himself. In one of his notes, written from Lenox at that
time, he says: -

"Please God, I mean to look you in the face towards the end of next
week; at all events, within ten days. I have stayed here too long
and too constantly. To tell you a secret, I am sick to death of
Berkshire, and hate to think of spending another winter here. But I
must. The air and climate do not agree with my health at all; and,
for the first time since I was a boy, I have felt languid and
dispirited during almost my whole residence here. O that Providence
would build me the merest little shanty, and mark me out a rood or
two of garden-ground, near the sea-coast. I thank you for the two
volumes of De Quincey. If it were not for your kindness in supplying
me with books now and then, I should quite forget how to read."

Hawthorne was a hearty devourer of books, and in certain moods of mind
it made very little difference what the volume before him happened to
be. An old play or an old newspaper sometimes gave him wondrous great
content, and he would ponder the sleepy, uninteresting sentences as if
they contained immortal mental aliment. He once told me he found such
delight in old advertisements in the newspapers at the Boston Athenaeum,
that he had passed delicious hours among them. At other times he was
very fastidious, and threw aside book after book until he found the
right one. De Quincey was a special favorite with him, and the Sermons
of Laurence Sterne he once commended to me as the best sermons ever
written. In his library was an early copy of Sir Philip Sidney's
"Arcadia," which had floated down to him from a remote ancestry, and
which he had read so industriously for forty years that it was nearly
worn out of its thick leathern cover. Hearing him say once that the old
English State Trials were enchanting reading, and knowing that he did
not possess a copy of those heavy folios, I picked up a set one day in a
bookshop and sent them to him. He often told me that he spent more
hours over them and got more delectation out of them than tongue could
tell, and he said, if five lives were vouchsafed to him, he could employ
them all in writing stories out of those books. He had sketched, in his
mind, several romances founded on the remarkable trials reported in the
ancient volumes; and one day, I remember, he made my blood tingle by
relating some of the situations he intended, if his life was spared, to
weave into future romances. Sir Walter Scott's novels he continued
almost to worship, and was accustomed to read them aloud in his family.
The novels of G.P.R. James, both the early and the later ones, he
insisted were admirable stories, admirably told, and he had high praise
to bestow on the works of Anthony Trollope. "Have you ever read these
novels?" he wrote to me in a letter from England, some time before
Trollope began to be much known in America. "They precisely suit my
taste; solid and substantial, written on the strength of beef and
through the inspiration of ale, and just as real as if some giant had
hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with
all its inhabitants going about their daily business and not suspecting
that they were made a show of. And these books are as English as a
beefsteak. Have they ever been tried in America? It needs an English
residence to make them thoroughly comprehensible; but still I should
think that the human nature in them would give them success anywhere."

I have often been asked if all his moods were sombre, and if he was
never jolly sometimes like other people. Indeed he was; and although the
humorous side of Hawthorne was not easily or often discoverable, yet
have I seen him marvellously moved to fun, and no man laughed more
heartily in his way over a good story. Wise and witty H - - , in whom
wisdom and wit are so ingrained that age only increases his subtile
spirit, and greatly enhances the power of his cheerful temperament,
always had the talismanic faculty of breaking up that thoughtfully sad
face into mirthful waves; and I remember how Hawthorne writhed with
hilarious delight over Professor L - - 's account of a butcher who
remarked that "Idees had got afloat in the public mind with respect to
sassingers." I once told him of a young woman who brought in a
manuscript, and said, as she placed it in my hands, "I don't know what
to do with myself sometimes, I'm so filled with _mammoth thoughts_." A
series of convulsive efforts to suppress explosive laughter followed,
which I remember to this day.

He had an inexhaustible store of amusing anecdotes to relate of people
and things he had observed on the road. One day he described to me, in
his inimitable and quietly ludicrous manner, being _watched_, while on a
visit to a distant city, by a friend who called, and thought he needed a
protector, his health being at that time not so good as usual. "He stuck
by me," said Hawthorne, "as if he were afraid to leave me alone; he
stayed past the dinner hour, and when I began to wonder if he never took
meals himself, he departed and set another man to _watch_ me till he
should return. That man _watched_ me so, in his unwearying kindness,
that when I left the house I forgot half my luggage, and left behind,
among other things, a beautiful pair of slippers. They _watched_ me so,
among them, I swear to you I forgot nearly everything I owned."

* * * * *

Hawthorne is still looking at me in his far-seeing way, as if he were
pondering what was next to be said about him. It would not displease
him, I know, if I were to begin my discursive talk to-day by telling a
little incident connected with a famous American poem.

Hawthorne dined one day with Longfellow, and brought with him a friend
from Salem. After dinner the friend said: "I have been trying to
persuade Hawthorne to write a story, based upon a legend of Acadie, and
still current there; a legend of a girl who, in the dispersion of the
Acadians, was separated from her lover, and passed her life in waiting
and seeking for him, and only found him dying in a hospital, when both
were old." Longfellow wondered that this legend did not strike the fancy
of Hawthorne, and said to him: "If you have really made up your mind not
to use it for a story, will you give it to me for a poem?" To this
Hawthorne assented, and moreover promised not to treat the subject in
prose till Longfellow had seen what he could do with it in verse. And so
we have "Evangeline" in beautiful hexameters, - a poem that will hold
its place in literature while true affection lasts. Hawthorne rejoiced
in this great success of Longfellow, and loved to count up the editions,
both foreign and American, of this now world-renowned poem.

I have lately met an early friend of Hawthorne's, older than himself,
who knew him intimately all his life long, and I have learned some
additional facts about his youthful days. Soon after he left college he
wrote some stories which he called "Seven Tales of my Native Land." The
motto which he chose for the title-page was "We are Seven," from
Wordsworth. My informant read the tales in manuscript, and says some of
them were very striking, particularly one or two Witch Stories. As soon
as the little book was well prepared for the press he deliberately threw
it into the fire, and sat by to see its destruction.

When about fourteen he wrote out for a member of his family a list of
the books he had at that time been reading. The catalogue was a long
one, but my informant remembers that The Waverley Novels, Rousseau's
Works, and The Newgate Calender were among them. Serious remonstrances
were made by the family touching the perusal of this last work, but he
persisted in going through it to the end. He had an objection in his
boyhood to reading much that was called "true and useful." Of history in
general he was not very fond, but he read Froissart with interest, and
Clarendon's History of the Rebellion. He is remembered to have said at
that time "he cared very little for the history of the world before the
fourteenth century." After he left college he read a great deal of
French literature, especially the works of Voltaire and his
contemporaries. He rarely went into the streets during the daytime,
unless there was to be a gathering of the people for some public
purpose, such as a political meeting, a military muster, or a fire. A
great conflagration attracted him in a peculiar manner, and he is
remembered, while a young man in Salem, to have been often seen looking
on, from some dark corner, while the fire was raging. When General
Jackson, of whom he professed himself a partisan, visited Salem in 1833,
he walked out to the boundary of the town to meet him, - not to speak to
him, but only to look at him. When he came home at night he said he
found only a few men and boys collected, not enough people, without the
assistance he rendered, to welcome the General with a good cheer. It is
said that Susan, in the "Village Uncle," one of the "Twice-Told Tales,"
is not altogether a creation of his fancy. Her father was a fisherman
living in Salem, and Hawthorne was constantly telling the members of his
family how charming she was, and he always spoke of her as his
"mermaid." He said she had a great deal of what the French call
_espièglerie_. There was another young beauty, living at that time in
his native town, quite captivating to him, though in a different style
from the mermaid. But if his head and heart were turned in his youth by
these two nymphs in his native town, there was soon a transfer of his
affections to quite another direction. His new passion was a much more
permanent one, for now there dawned upon him so perfect a creature that
he fell in love irrevocably; all his thoughts and all his delights
centred in her, who suddenly became indeed the mistress of his soul. She
filled the measure of his being, and became a part and parcel of his
life. Who was this mysterious young person that had crossed his
boyhood's path and made him hers forever? Whose daughter was she that
could thus enthrall the ardent young man in Salem, who knew as yet so
little of the world and its sirens? She is described by one who met her
long before Hawthorne made her acquaintance as "the prettiest low-born
lass that ever ran on the greensward," and she must have been a radiant
child of beauty, indeed, that girl! She danced like a fairy, she sang
exquisitely, so that every one who knew her seemed amazed at her perfect
way of doing everything she attempted. Who was it that thus summoned all
this witchery, making such a tumult in young Hawthorne's bosom? She was
"daughter to Leontes and Hermione," king and queen of Sicilia, and her
name was Perdita! It was Shakespeare who introduced Hawthorne to his
first real love, and the lover never forgot his mistress. He was
constant ever, and worshipped her through life. Beauty always captivated
him. Where there was beauty he fancied other good gifts must naturally
be in possession. During his childhood homeliness was always repulsive
to him. When a little boy he is remembered to have said to a woman who
wished to be kind to him, "Take her away! She is ugly and fat, and has a
loud voice."

When quite a young man he applied for a situation under Commodore Wilkes
on the Exploring Expedition, but did not succeed in obtaining an
appointment. He thought this a great misfortune, as he was fond of
travel, and he promised to do all sorts of wonderful things, should he
be allowed to join the voyagers.

One very odd but characteristic notion of his, when a youth, was, that
he should like a competent income which should neither increase nor
diminish, for then, he said, it would not engross too much of his
attention. Surrey's little poem, "The Means to obtain a Happy Life,"
expressed exactly what his idea of happiness was when a lad. When a
school-boy he wrote verses for the newspapers, but he ignored their
existence in after years with a smile of droll disgust. One of his
quatrains lives in the memory of a friend, who repeated it to me
recently: -

"The ocean hath its silent caves,
Deep, quiet, and alone;
Above them there are troubled waves,
Beneath them there are none."

When the Atlantic Cable was first laid, somebody, not knowing the author
of the lines, quoted them to Hawthorne as applicable to the calmness
said to exist in the depths of the ocean. He listened to the verse, and
then laughingly observed, "I know something of the deep sea myself."

In 1836 he went to Boston, I am told, to edit the "American Magazine of
Useful Knowledge," for which he was to be paid a salary of six hundred
dollars a year. The proprietors soon became insolvent, so that he
received nothing, but he kept on just the same as if he had been paid
regularly. The plan of the work proposed by the publishers of the
magazine admitted no fiction into its pages. The magazine was printed on
coarse paper and was illustrated by engravings painful to look at. There
were no contributors except the editor, and he wrote the whole of every
number. Short biographical sketches of eminent men and historical
narratives filled up its pages. I have examined the columns of this
deceased magazine, and read Hawthorne's narrative of Mrs. Dustan's
captivity. Mrs. Dustan was carried off by the Indians from Haverhill,
and Hawthorne does not much commiserate the hardships she endured, but
reserves his sympathy for her husband, who was _not_ carried into
captivity, and suffered nothing from the Indians, but who, he says, was
a tenderhearted man, and took care of the children during Mrs. D.'s
absence from home, and probably knew that his wife would be more than a
match for a whole tribe of savages.

When the Rev. Mr. Cheever was knocked down and flogged in the streets of
Salem and then imprisoned, Hawthorne came out of his retreat and visited
him regularly in jail, showing strong sympathy for the man and great
indignation for those who had maltreated him.

Those early days in Salem, - how interesting the memory of them must be
to the friends who knew and followed the gentle dreamer in his budding
career! When the whisper first came to the timid boy, in that "dismal
chamber in Union Street," that he too possessed the soul of an artist,
there were not many about him to share the divine rapture that must have
filled his proud young heart. Outside of his own little family circle,
doubting and desponding eyes looked upon him, and many a stupid head
wagged in derision as he passed by. But there was always waiting for him
a sweet and honest welcome by the pleasant hearth where his mother and
sisters sat and listened to the beautiful creations of his fresh and
glowing fancy. We can imagine the happy group gathered around the
evening lamp! "Well, my son," says the fond mother, looking up from her
knitting-work, "what have you got for us to-night? It is some time since
you read us a story, and your sisters are as impatient as I am to have a
new one." And then we can hear, or think we hear, the young man begin in
a low and modest tone the story of "Edward Fane's Rosebud," or "The
Seven Vagabonds," or perchance (O tearful, happy evening!) that tender
idyl of "The Gentle Boy!" What a privilege to hear for the first time a
"Twice-Told Tale," before it was even _once_ told to the public! And I
know with what rapture the delighted little audience must have hailed
the advent of every fresh indication that genius, so seldom a visitant
at any fireside, had come down so noiselessly to bless their quiet
hearthstone in the sombre old town. In striking contrast to Hawthorne's
audience nightly convened to listen while he read his charming tales and
essays, I think of poor Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, facing those
hard-eyed critics at the house of Madame Neckar, when as a young man and
entirely unknown he essayed to read his then unpublished story of "Paul
and Virginia." The story was simple and the voice of the poor and
nameless reader trembled. Everybody was unsympathetic and gaped, and at
the end of a quarter of an hour Monsieur de Buffon, who always had a

Online LibraryJames T. FieldsYesterdays with Authors → online text (page 5 of 37)