March 13, 2010

Nathaniel Hawthorne goes to war, part 2

Nathaniel Hawthorne was already an established literary figure when he traveled to Washington, D.C. with his publisher William Ticknor in 1862. Perhaps that is why he was able to get an audience with the President himself, Abraham Lincoln.

Hawthorne visited Lincoln at the White House on March 13, 1862, partly by squeezing into a private presentation from Massachusetts factory of a commemorative whip, "handsomely encased." The party arrived, as scheduled, at 9:00 a.m. on that Thursday morning. Lincoln was late and sent word he was still having breakfast. "His appetite, we were glad to think, must have been a pretty fair one," wrote Hawthorne, "for we waited about half an hour in one of his ante-chambers." When the moment of meeting arrived, they were rushed into another room, where sat the Secretaries of War and of the Treasury (Stanton and Chase). Apparently, many appointments were delayed by the President's ample breakfast.

"By and by there was a little stir on the staircase and in the passage-way, and in lounged a tall, loose-jointed figure," Hawthorne described. His first impression on seeing Lincoln? "(Being about the homeliest man I ever saw, yet by no means repulsive or disagreeable) it was impossible not to recognize as Uncle Abe." Hawthorne, whose old friend Franklin Pierce was an earlier president, was not star-struck. In fact, scrutinizing the man with "his lengthy awkwardness... [and] uncouthness of movement," Hawthorne concluded that it was easier to assume he was a back-country schoolmaster, rather than the President of the United States.

Yet, Hawthorne admired Lincoln instantly. "I like this sallow, queer, sagacious visage," he concluded.

On returning home, Hawthorne immediately set to writing about his experience, particularly emphasizing his encounter with the President. When he submitted the essay "Chiefly About War Matters" to James T. Fields for the Atlantic Monthly, Fields accepted it from the respected author sight unseen. Hawthorne was, oddly, disappointed, hoping the editor would offer feedback. It turned out to be a mistake for Fields, too; he immediately took issue with the descriptions of Lincoln. "Leave out the description of his awkwardness & general uncouth aspect," Fields insisted.

Hawthorne acquiesced but was not happy about it. "What a terrible thing it is to try to let off a little bit of truth into this miserable humbug of a world!" he lamented. He decided to cut "Uncle Abe" out entirely, but noted it was "the only part of the article really worth publishing."

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