By: Rae Padilla Francoeur
To a curious but casual reader of Nathaniel Hawthorne like I am, he seemed to have every reason to be, as author Paul Aster once wrote, “a notoriously melancholic man.” His father died at sea when the boy was just 4 years old, forcing the family to move in with his mother’s kin. And his great-great-grandfather, John Hathorne, gained lasting notoriety for his role as one of the judges who presided over the witch trials — a “hanging judge.” The judge committed other heartless acts pf cruelty, as well. Hawthorne could not exorcise such dreadful acts from his awareness. Consider proximity alone. His great-great-grandfather’s grave was a three-minute walk from the house where he grew up. The grave was also next door to his wife Sophia’s birth home.
Hawthorne was smart, connected with nature in all its seasons and moods, educated, inquiring and interested in people. The way he methodically examined the psychology of his characters in “The House of the Seven Gables” is a masterly dissection of human nature. Such attributes point to a “notoriously melancholic man” but just as easily suggest someone keyed into absurdity, vulnerability and amusement. So perhaps it’s no surprise that Salem’s most celebrated native son had a sly sense of humor.
During the COVID-19 lockdown I spent time not just with Hawthorne’s writing, but with the author. Or that’s how it felt. His writing was so full of observations, psychological assessments and laugh-out-loud moments that I found myself talking back to him. Born on the Fourth of July, 1804, he seems realistically out of reach. I have collected, over the years, several Hawthorne biographies and their portrayals of the writer vary. So I came to believe that the voice of the narrator in “The House of the Seven Gables” was inhabited by the author himself. After all, he addressed me, the reader, directly.
During lockdown, I read a few pages of Hawthorne every morning before I did anything else. It was the sweetest, happiest part of my day. It took time to settle into Hawthorne’s fiction-speak, which is much different than his journals where the writing is clear and straightforward. In either case, once stripped of time and stylized syntax, he became a very modern (complex) man discussing modern issues.
What I loved most were his depictions of children, nature and animals. This July, I’ll share four Facebook posts on The Gables’ FB page that cite Hawthorne’s humanity and humor in “The House of the Seven Gables” and “Twenty Days with Julian & Little Bunny by Papa.” This latter short nonfiction book, an utter delight, was extracted from Hawthorne’s journals and describes, in heartfelt detail, three weeks when he was sole caretaker of his 5-year-old, Julian. He chronicled, in real-time, events that took place in the summer of 1851, while living in a small, rented house near Lenox, Massachusetts.
Hawthorne took good care of Julian, but three weeks alone with a rambunctious boy felt to him like a long time. Julian’s mother and sisters had been visiting family in West Newton, and their return was highly anticipated. “…I hope his mother will be here before night,” wrote Hawthorne, “to receive him from my hands in perfect order, and to be delighted with the babble which, for nearly three weeks past, has run like a brook through all my thoughts.”
Like any resourceful author, he put his experience to good use.