March 21, 2010

Hawthorne and Longfellow's fairy tales

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote from Salem on March 21, 1838 to his former Bowdoin College classmate Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow had turned down an invitation to dinner a few days earlier at which Hawthorne intended to discuss a possible literary collaboration. "I wanted to have a talk with you about that book of Fairy Tales which you spoke of," Hawthorne wrote. "I think it a good idea, and am well inclined to do my part toward the execution of it."

By this time, Longfellow had published a handful of books, while Hawthorne had published mostly short stories here and there. As he wrote, "I am terribly harassed with magazine scribbling." He was willing to let Longfellow have the title of editor for the project; "I will figure merely as a contributor," likely assuming that Longfellow had the more famous name. "Possibly we may make a great hit, and entirely revolutionize the whole system of juvenile literature," he wrote optimistically.

Though it seems it was Longfellow's original idea, he had second thoughts. Hawthorne even attempted a magazine project with Longfellow, which also went nowhere.

Even so, Hawthorne was pushed to continue the project of a children's book, partly by his future sister-in-law Elizabeth Peabody. Peabody contacted her future brother-in-law, Horace Mann, who was then secretary of the board of education in Massachusetts, to hire Hawthorne to write a series of books for children. Mann was not initially pleased with the idea, thinking there was not enough of a message to Hawthorne's work.

Eventually, the end result of Hawthorne's project of "juvenile literature" was a collection of historical sketches for children. Published in 1840, the collection, Grandfather's Chair, was printed in Elizabeth Peabody's book shop (with an illustration by Sophia Peabody, his future wife) and had "sequels" in Old People and Liberty Tree, both printed in 1841 by Peabody. The "fairy tale" idea would later evolve into A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys, in which Hawthorne re-wrote several myths.

*The images are by the artist Eastman Johnson, who created these crayon and chalk portraits in 1846. He was commissioned by Longfellow himself and both portraits still hang in Longfellow's preserved study at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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