March 6, 2010

Nathaniel Hawthorne goes to war

When fellow Bowdoin College classmate Horatio Bridge, then paymaster general of the United States Navy, invited his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne to Washington, D.C., his loyal publisher William D. Ticknor went along (invited by Sophia Hawthorne). They left via railroad on March 6, 1862 — a cold, wintry Thursday morning. Hawthorne hoped to see the Civil War for himself. Ticknor handled all the logistical arrangements, purchasing train tickets and even gloves on behalf of Hawthorne. "It is no trouble to me," Ticknor wrote to his wife.

Hawthorne saw the soldiers, fortifications, cannons, and encampments. An author of some status by then, Hawthorne was able to glimpse various important figures: Major General George McClellan, Secretary of War Edwin McMasters Stanton, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase and, a couple days after his arrival, President Abraham Lincoln (more on that here).

The author of The Scarlet Letter was no stranger to Washington or of national politics, having visited there with Ticknor in 1853 before taking his role as an overseas diplomat. But Hawthorne's concern over the Civil War was not much more than curiosity. While his friends and neighbors — people like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and Ralph Waldo Emerson — were crying out for their pro-Union, anti-slavery causes, Hawthorne was merely an observer. He admitted to Bridge that he was not entirely sure what the war was about, or what it could accomplish. He did, cynically, conclude: "The old Union is smashed. We never were one people, and never really had a country since the Constitution was formed."

Hawthorne's only major response to the crisis in print was his essay "Chiefly About War Matters," written "by A Peaceable Man." Published in the Atlantic Monthly for July 1862, the essay is relatively empty. Even when he borders on passing judgment (dismissing John Brown as "deserving" his execution as a traitor), he undermines it (with a footnote decrying that no true son of Massachusetts would express such an "abominable sentiment" about the heroic efforts of the abolitionist; Hawthorne wrote the footnotes himself).

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.