April 10, 2010

Death of William Ticknor

William Davis Ticknor helped situate Boston and New England as a center of American literature. His work with partner James T. Fields led to the first true American publishing house. Ticknor & Fields (which later evolved to Houghton, Mifflin, and Company) aimed for a broad national audience, paid its authors well, introduced the concept of royalty payments, and staunchly defended their books from piracy. Though he was not a writer himself, Ticknor hoped that his name on a book's title page reassured readers that the book was a good one.

Ticknor was well-acquainted with all of his authors, who came to respect him as a literary adviser, businessman, marketer, and friend. He deserves extra credit for his unusually close relationship with the reclusive author Nathaniel Hawthorne.

When Hawthorne traveled to Washington, D.C. in 1862, his wife Sophia insisted that Ticknor accompany him. Ticknor handled all the travel arrangements, including purchasing train tickets and personal items for his favorite author. Ticknor had previously accompanied Hawthorne to the nation's capital in 1853 while the latter prepared to take a job as consul to Liverpool.

Their last trip together was in 1864. Hawthorne was getting sick and thought travel would do him good. Ticknor, the younger of the two, was in perfect health. However, sometime before leaving Boston he caught a cold. Amidst heavy rains in New York, it developed into pneumonia. In Philadelphia, Ticknor wrote to Mrs. Hawthorne that her husband "continues to improve." While visiting Fairmount Park, Ticknor offered Hawthorne his coat because of the cool air. Back at the Continental Hotel that night, however, Ticknor had trouble breathing. "I am sorry to say," Hawthorne wrote, "that our friend Ticknor is suffering under a severe billious attack... He had previously seemed uncomfortable, but not to an alarming degree." A physician was called and the author never left his publisher's side.

The next morning, April 10, 1864, editor George William Childs went to visit at their rooms. Hawthorne, in a daze while mumbling and pacing, said Ticknor had died. "My best friend, on whom I depended, coming here for my benefit," Childs recorded; Hawthorne had expected his own death on that trip, not that of his friend William Ticknor, aged 53.

*The photo to the right shows Fields, Hawthorne, and Ticknor.


  1. The whole story is so touching and it really shows Ticknor's character as a class act. His wife Caroline's account of it is nearly tear-inducing. But, the impact on Hawthorne was just amazing. Mrs. Ticknor printed Sophia Hawthorne's account of her husband's return from that fateful trip in her book.

  2. Hey Rob,

    Hope your walking tour of Mount Auburn Cemetery was a pleasure; wish I could have attended. I very much enjoyed your account of Ticknor's death (geez, is that an oxymoron?), which I recall first reading in Philip McFarland's "Hawthorne in Concord." Hadn't Ticknor and Hawthorne missed a dinner engagement in Philadelphia the previous night, which sent Childs to the hotel next day? (I live outside Philly--just curious.) Interesting about Caroline T. publishing the Sophia H's account of T's death. A question: as I recall from McFarland's account (which I do not have, to check), wasn't there a later falling-out between Ticknor and Sophia Hawthorne? Thanks for the entry--and the great photo of Fields, Hawthorne, and Ticknor in top hats!

  3. Philip's book is great, and your memory is correct about missing a get-together in Philadelphia (hosted by a Joseph Harrison). Ticknor and Sophia Hawthorne were usually on good terms; during this trip to New York and Philadelphia, the two usually corresponded more often than Mr. and Mrs. Hawthorne did to one another. If my own memory serves me as well as yours does for you, Sophia had a harder time with J. T. Fields, who was pressuring her to posthumously publish Hawthorne's personal letters, etc. She vehemently refused for a time but a version was later published by "Mrs. Hawthorne." I may have gotten some of those details wrong but I think that's the gist of it.