A thoughtful, absorbing life of the gloomy prince of American literature.
Born Nathaniel Hathorne in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1802, the reluctant hero of Wineapple’s (Sister Brother, 1996, etc.) tale wanted nothing more than to take up the family tradition of seafaring: “his earliest compositions,” she writes, “were said to have been sea stories about bronzed pirates and hardy privateers.” His desire may have been less for seaborne adventure than for simple escape, for, Wineapple ably shows, Hawthorne was always a man apart, one who believed that the writer was “a citizen of another country,” one with no specific point on the map. With a taste for drama and plenty of self-doubt, Hawthorne burned much of his early work (“I am as tractable an author as you ever knew,” he wrote to an editor, “so far as putting my articles into the fire goes; though I cannot abide alterations or omissions”), then took a job as a customs inspector “not because he needed the money or because the country ignored its artists—though both were true—but because he liked it,” and went on to write an exquisite body of short stories and novels that, though now standards of American literature, went little noticed for much of his life. (The first edition of Twice-Told Tales sold only a few hundred copies and was unceremoniously remaindered, and other of his books met much the same fate.) Hawthorne, writes Wineapple, nursed a dark, critical view of life, observing that his Scarlet Letter was “a h–ll fired story, into which I found it almost impossible to throw any cheering light.” His refusal to endorse the abolitionist cause (on which point Wineapple provides a brilliant reading of The Blithedale Romance) and his opposition to the Civil War led detractors to say that he stood for “doubt, darkness, and the Democratic Party.” More difficult, Wineapple writes with much sympathy, were his relations with his children, who bore the burden of his fame and genius over the course of their troubled lives.
Richly detailed and nuanced: a model of literary biography, and an illumination for students of Hawthorne’s work. (For an excerpt of Hawthorne, go to www.kirkusreviews.com.)