Domestic Disaffection

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • Dearest Beloved: The Hawthornes and the Making of the Middle-Class Family by Walter Herbert
    California, 351 pp, $28.00, April 1993, ISBN 0 520 07587 0

‘He had lived primarily in his domestic affections, which were of the tenderest kind; and then – without eagerness, without pretension, but with a great deal of quiet devotion in his charming art.’ So Henry James summed up the career of his great predecessor in his Hawthorne of 1879. James was usually a shrewd critic, but ‘charming’ is hardly the adjective that first leaps to mind when the modern reader confronts ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’, say, or The Marble Faun. Especially since the Second World War, most 20th-century commentators have preferred to echo Melville’s celebrated remarks on his contemporary’s ‘great power of blackness’. If we are to credit Dearest Beloved, T. Walter Herbert’s dramatic reinterpretation of life among the Hawthornes, James’s tribute to the ‘domestic affections’ falls equally wide of the mark. Herbert does not refuse to believe in the Hawthornes’ tender feelings for one another, but he insists on the rage and terror that must have accompanied such tenderness, on the deep anxieties that, in his view, inevitably haunted the peaceful arrangements of the middle-class home. From a career that James thought ‘probably as tranquil and uneventful a one as ever fell to the lot of a man of letters’, a life ‘almost strikingly deficient ... in what may be called the dramatic quality’, Herbert constructs an often lurid tale of psychosocial conflict and ‘torment’, a narrative of the domestic affections translated into the idiom of New Historicist gothic.

Born Nathaniel Hathorne, the only son of a ship’s captain also called Nathaniel, and of Elizabeth Manning Hathorne, who had been two months pregnant with their first child when the couple married, the future novelist eventually distanced himself from his origins, Herbert suggests, when he changed the spelling of the family name to ‘Hawthorne’ as a young adult. When Nathaniel was four years old, word came that his father had died in Surinam, and the widow moved herself and her children back into her parents’ house. According to family legend, Mrs Hathorne settled into a reclusive mourning – Elizabeth Peabody, the novelist’s future sister-in-law and the original of Miss Birdseye in James’s Bostonians, tartly remarked ‘her all but Hindoo self-devotion to the manes of her husband’ – while her physically delicate and sensitive son grew up both sheltered and indulged by his Manning relatives. An early injury to his foot, which sidelined him for more than a year, intensified a certain ‘feminine’ and aristocratic disdain for the rough-and-tumble commerce of the world. As the time came to leave home and choose a vocation, the young man found himself increasingly reluctant to enter the fray. ‘The happiest days of my life are gone,’ he lamented after a particularly idyllic period with his mother and sisters at the Maine seashore during his early adolescence: ‘Why was I not a girl that I might have been pinned all my life to my Mother’s apron.’ Herbert suggests that Mrs Hathorne’s seclusion has been exaggerated, and that her comparative retreat from the world had as much to do with straitened circumstances and genteel pride as with excessive grief for her husband; but whatever its origins, it seems clear that her son felt compelled to imitate her example, when he in turn famously retreated to the Manning house for more than a dozen years after his graduation from college. These were his years of apprenticeship as a writer: the publication of anonymous tales and essays culminated in the appearance of Twice-Told Tales (1837) when he was 33. Only after he met and fell in love with Sophia Peabody, herself a woman of ‘delicate’ health who suffered all her life from frequent and debilitating headaches, did Hawthorne undertake his first paid employment as a measurer of salt and coal at the Boston Custom House; and only after a protracted four-year courtship of Sophia did he finally inform his mother and sisters of his decision to marry.

Though the conflicts Herbert explores are intimate, he emphasises they are not private: Dearest Beloved is concerned not so much with the unique conditions of Hawthorne’s case as with its representativeness. Despite the seeming eccentricity of this prolonged adolescence, Herbert reads the novelist’s ambivalence about making his way in the world as a sign of vocational conflicts endemic to the 19th-century middle-class male. Hawthorne’s sense of genteel entitlement and his predilection for idleness sorted uneasily with the dominant myth of masculine success in his culture, a myth of strenuous self-making that afforded little credit to the family of origin.

Hawthorne’s dependency on others may have been more protracted than most, but he resembled others of his time and place, Herbert suggests, in retrospectively subscribing to an account of himself that tended to efface all assistance: a ‘portrait of the artist as self-made man’ markedly at odds with the facts of his history. And such a ‘self-made’ man is perforce a guilty one; indeed, insofar as a democratic and industrial culture specifically measures a man’s success by the degree to which he has surpassed his father, he becomes emotionally a kind of parricide. Like the young protagonist of Hawthorne’s early tale, ‘My Kinsman, Major Molineux’ (1832), who begins by expecting patronage from his prominent kinsman and ends by ritually attacking and degrading him, his initiation into manhood is ‘a study in obligatory guilt’. Herbert emphasises the particular intensity such conflicts assumed amid the democratic ethos of Jacksonian America, but Alexander Welsh has advanced a related argument about Dickens, another 19th-century male writer deeply implicated in a narrative of the artist’s self-making. What might once have looked like both novelists’ participation in universally Oedipal themes has begun to be seen as part of the history of 19th-century middle-class culture – a culture of which Freud himself, as Welsh and others have argued, was very much a product.

The man who seriously imagines his own self-making necessarily risks a deep ontological insecurity. Declaring himself one who ‘sprang out of mystery, akin to none ... without visible agency’, the protagonist of a late Hawthorne narrative goes on to describe ‘this natural horror of being a creature floating in the air, attached to nothing ... this feeling that there is no reality in the life and fortunes, good or bad, of a being so unconnected’. But if 19th-century culture aroused such terrors in middle-class men, Herbert argues, it also prescribed a remedy: the standard cure for this condition was marriage to an angel. In his adored Sophia, Hawthorne found both a ‘Dove’ to worship and the ground of his own being. ‘Thou only hast revealed me to myself,’ he wrote in one of his deservedly celebrated love letters,

for without thy aid, my best knowledge of myself would have been merely to know my own shadow – to watch it flickering on the wall, and to mistake its fantasies for my own real actions. Indeed we are but shadows – we are not endowed with real life, and all that seems most real about us is but the thinnest substance of a dream – till the heart is touched. That touch creates us – then we begin to be – thereby we are beings of reality, and inheritors of eternity. Now, dearest, dost thou comprehend what thou hast done for me?

This is the same touch with which the domestic angels of Hawthorne’s fiction go about their ontological housekeeping. One of Hawthorne’s nicknames for Sophia was ‘Phoebe’, and in The House of the Seven Gables we are told how the heroine of that name ‘made a home about her ... a home!’

She was real! Holding her hand, you felt something; a tender something; a substance, and a warm one; and so long as you should feel its grasp, soft as it was, you might be certain that your place was good in the whole sympathetic chain of human nature. The world was no longer a delusion.

Here, as in his love letters, Hawthorne’s angel has a bodily presence which may seem at odds with her metaphysical role. But ‘it is the inward thought alone,’ Sophia noted in the diary they kept jointly after their marriage, ‘that renders the body either material or angelical’; and, judging by the extensive written record, both lovers proved themselves quite ready to think erotic pleasure heavenly. ‘Dove, come to my bosom – it yearns for you as it never did before,’ Nathaniel characteristically wrote to Sophia some three years before their wedding. ‘I shall fold my arms together, after I am in bed, and try to imagine that you are close to my heart. Naughty wife, what right have you to be anywhere else? How many sweet words I should breathe into your ear, in the quiet night – how many holy kisses would I press upon your lips.’ After the marriage, the family notebook records Sophia’s own tributes to the ‘capacities’ of the body:

the truly married alone can know what a wondrous instrument it is for the purposes of the heart. ... The unholiness of union on any other ground than entire oneness of spirit, immediately & eternally causes the sword of the flaming Cherubim to wave before this tree of life. The prophane never can taste the joy of Elysium, because it is a spiritual joy & they cannot perceive it.

When Peter Gay wrote about the sensual life of the Victorians, he cited the Hawthornes as an exemplary pair, remarking how their talk of ‘holy’ kisses sanctified their evident delight in the satisfactions of the flesh. But Herbert is more inclined to emphasise the precariousness of such sublime raptures, and to look for ‘a torment of sexual politics lying beneath the joyful domestic surface’. Both partners may have gloried in Sophia’s divinity, but the power of the angel in the house, Herbert reminds us, was strictly limited: even as Hawthorne worshipped his Dove, he expected her to conform to his wishes. ‘And then it is singular, too,’ the novelist observed, ‘that this awe (or whatever it be) does not prevent me from feeling that it is I who have the charge of you, and that my Dove is to follow my guidance and do my bidding.’ Dearest Beloved makes clear that Sophia was not merely a passive victim of this domestic arrangement: unlike her openly ambitious and indefatigable sister Elizabeth, she had long channelled her own aggressive impulses toward an ideal of energetic submission. But despite the Dove’s eager adoption of her role, Herbert presumes that she inwardly chafed at its restrictions, and that her recurrent headaches testified to an ‘anti-patriarchal’ rage.

Herbert contends that the erotic success of the marriage was perpetually menaced by the strain of the Hawthornes’ ecstatic sublimations. ‘The cultural arrangement that made sex a fountain of bliss,’ he observes with characteristic solemnity, ‘simultaneously rendered it a morass of loathing and dread.’ In Hawthorne’s recorded comments about his wife and later about his daughter, Una – even his complaints of the ‘sluggish’ and ‘muddy’ Concord River, with its ‘half torpid’ earthworms – Herbert invites us to sense the novelist’s anxiety about the polluting nature of his own sexual feelings and a concomitant revulsion toward the female. During the early years of the marriage, he argues, the fiction of Sophia’s angelic ‘purity’ helped to keep these anxieties at bay, even as it served to cleanse Nathaniel of his guilty participation in the tainted business of the world. But once the novelist had achieved the extraordinary success that marked his brief period of intense activity in the early 1850s, the Hawthornes’ domestic arrangement had served its purpose, and the ‘seismic tensions’ it had hitherto contained erupted disastrously. Dearest Beloved reaches a melodramatic climax with the family’s unhappy sojourn in Rome in 1858-9, when Una fell dangerously ill with malaria, the novelist sank into a deep depression, and husband and wife, by this account, were permanently alienated.

For Sophia, Herbert suggests, the city of de Staël’s Corinne held out an energising promise of female liberation and fulfilment, while for her husband it became the culturally over-determined setting for a profound mid-life crisis. Even before his daughter collapsed with ‘the Roman fever’, as malaria was called, Hawthorne found the climate ‘detestable’ and ‘full of poison’, the city’s dwellings surrounded by ‘stink and nastiness’. Dearest Beloved links the anxiety and guilt which the novelist felt about his own success, his despair at what he called Rome’s ‘un-home-likeness’, and his repeated impulse to repudiate women whom he associated with the city’s contaminating sensuousness. Recording some gossip about Margaret Fuller and her Italian lover in his notebook, Hawthorne turned on his former friend with contempt and loathing: her feeling for Ossoli was ‘purely sensual’, and she herself had a ‘defective and evil nature’. The pattern recurred in his brief, if intense friendship with the young American sculptor, Louisa Lander, which began, Herbert thinks, as a sort of mid-life idyll, and ended when rumours of her irregular behaviour prompted the novelist to turn her unceremoniously from his door.

Una’s collapse, however, most obviously serves Herbert’s narrative purposes. Like his book as whole, the treatment of Una’s illness asks to be read less as biography than as a speculative exercise in ‘cultural poetics’. By deliberately naming his daughter after Spenser’s heroine, Hawthorne encouraged an allegorical reading of her that Herbert takes up with a vengeance. As the living sign of the Hawthornes’ holy union, her name associated by the 19th century with an icon of female purity, Una serves in this latest allegory as the principal figure for the vicissitudes of the couple’s relationship. Certainly, the notebooks that the Hawthornes kept in the early years of their marriage – notebooks whose minute recording of the daily dramas of family life Herbert aptly likens to modern home videos – convey an intense absorption in the development of their first child that is familiar to many middle-class parents in the late 20th century. A relative of the noted educational reformers Horace and Mary Mann, Sophia had imbibed an ethos of child-rearing that substituted the loving identification of mother and child for more overt forms of discipline, and thus further heightened the emotional stakes. If only an ‘entire oneness of spirit,’ in Sophia’s words, guaranteed the holiness of marital union, then any flaw in that oneness – or in the child who symbolised it – threatened to betray the couple as brutes and sensualists. That the living embodiment of the Hawthornes’ domestic affections should have collapsed with ‘Roman fever’ on the threshold of adolescence, just as she was apparently beginning to articulate her own longings for self-assertion and independence, strikes Herbert as an irresistible conclusion to his fable.

The trouble, of course, is that Una was presumably bitten by an Anopheles mosquito: we have no reason to believe that her sickness was brought on by a felt threat to her ‘presumptive childlike purity’ or that ‘the core problem’ in the case ‘was the question how a woman could survive a socialisation requiring her both to assert and to efface an autonomous selfhood’. Herbert suggests that Una identified with Louisa Lander and might have suffered from the tense atmosphere attending the scandal; noting that contemporaries spoke of ‘nervous fever’, he also cites a modern doctor’s opinion that psychological stress could have reduced the patient’s resistance to the malarial spirochete. But like the anti-patriarchal explanation of Sophia’s headaches, this account of Una’s collapse remains much closer to allegory than to diagnosis. And as so often in the book, the biographical speculation depends on a wilful way with the evidence. Here, the conventional imagery of ‘the tempestuous sea of life’ in which Una records her response to Roman art suggests ‘the burgeoning of sexual desire’ that allegedly contributed to the onset of her crisis; earlier, her father’s anxiety to cover up his naked child because of the cold bespoke his fear of his own erotic impulses. From Sophia’s asseveration, after the birth of their second child Julian, that ‘in the very centre of simultaneous screams from both darling little throats, I am quite as sensible of my happiness as when the most dulcet sounds are issuing thence,’ Herbert manages to conclude that she sometimes ‘wanted to slit’ those throats and her husband’s as well. A letter of ordinary maternal ambivalence thus becomes ‘a monument to repressed motherly and matrimonial fury’.

If some of Herbert’s domestic allegories nonetheless appear to provide a suggestive context for Hawthorne’s fiction, that may be because they are derived from the fiction in the first place. In quoting the late unfinished work, Herbert suppresses the fictional Etherege altogether and allows his readers to believe that Hawthorne was writing strictly about himself. Dearest Beloved speaks more directly to Rappaccini’s daughter than to Hawthorne’s, and makes a more persuasive case for the casting out of Zenobia from The Blithedale Romance than for the feminist rage buried at the Old Manse or the erotic ordeal conjured up by Hawthorne’s encounter with some sluggish earthworms in the Concord River. One may share Herbert’s general view of the gender and vocational anxieties troubling middle-class Americans in the 19th century and still find his confident psychologising of the Hawthornes exaggerated and unconvincing. That both Una and her younger sister Rose eventually suffered periods of insanity serves as the clinching argument for this indictment of the middle-class family. Though the Peabodys alluded to ‘hereditary madness’ among the Hawthornes, Herbert prefers to believe the denials of Nathaniel’s sister, and to find the in-laws’ theory ‘self-serving’. The genetic evidence is no doubt irrecoverable, but in characteristically opting for the psychological explanation rather than the biological one, in presuming that migraines and madness alike should be understood primarily as signs of marital conflict and bad parenting, Herbert ironically proves himself a true heir of the history he analyses.