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By Will Demick, Guest Author
As much as Nathaniel Hawthorne is now a venerable old elm, standing tall over American literature and imposing his shade upon high schoolers and post-graduates alike, his relationships with women cannot be easily summed up. They are…complicated, at best. For the sake of the season, however, we can venture a little description of his chief romantic relationship: Mrs. Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, the old elm’s wife, muse, and – considering his dark prose – one of the few rays of sunshine in his world. This February, a selection of love letters written by Nathaniel and Sophia will be read here at The House of the Seven Gables as part of the annual Salem’s So Sweet celebration. The event, “Dearest Dove: The Love Letters of Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne”, will prove to be a great way to experience the enthusiastic romance of these two lovers – greater still because wine and chocolate will be present. But where do these letters come from, and what can they tell us about Hawthorne? What can we learn from them?
The love letters of Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne were first released to the public in 1907. Previously, the letters had only been cited by Julian Hawthorne, the couple’s only son, in his biography of his father. Eventually, they found their way out of private hands and into the ownership of a group of booklovers, the Society of the Dofobs, under whose ownership they were published in Chicago. They have been since republished numerous times, and to this day remain an important source for understanding the mentality of the writer early in his career.
The letters enable us to see a different side of Hawthorne than can be inferred from his Gothic fiction and journals. In them, we see Hawthorne thawing; an author finally stepping out of his self-imposed solitude and entering the public sphere. The first letter, dated to 1839, paints us a picture of his initially shy behavior: “I had a parting glimpse of you, Monday fore noon, at your window…” he writes, “I have reproached myself many times since, because I did not show my face…”. From this humble beginning, the letters grow into beautiful prose about everything from love and life to daily occurrences. They are filled with a diverse cast of characters – including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller (whose “transcendental heifer” is mentioned a few times), and throughout their course we see Sophia transformed from the simple “Sophie” into “My Dove”, “Belovedest”, and “My Ownest Wife” – as the two began calling each other husband and wife long before they were married.
These are love letters in their purest form, of that there can be little doubt. As such, they are filled with some of Hawthorne’s most beautiful prose. But they are also important scholarly tools, in that they allow us to analyze his work from a more intimate angle. What we have is certainly not the whole story; we know from his journal that Hawthorne burned many of his letters before departing for Liverpool in 1853. Yet that only makes these surviving letters more valuable. They show what he wanted us to remember, what he valued, and as such provide a psychoanalytical tool with which we can interpret his work. Thankfully, the letters were not kept hidden away in some private collection. Had they been, Hawthorne would likely still be just another wizened elm among the forests of American literary canon, rather than the complex human that we now know him to be.
To hear some of the more beautiful, romantic, and humorous of these letters, be sure to check out “Dearest Dove: The Love Letters of Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne” on February 10th. Visit The House of the Seven Gables website at 7gables.org for more information.
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