NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE IN HIS TIMES by James R. Mellow

NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE IN HIS TIMES

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KIRKUS REVIEW

An elephantine biography--solid, massive, and, depending on your point of view, either majestically unhurried or maddeningly slow. Mellow is a competent, if not especially vivid writer (see his Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company, from 1974), with such an immense store of information that no reader (possessed of sufficient Sitzfleisch) could fail to learn from him. Despite a few notable ventures into public life, as surveyor of the port of Salem (1846-49) and American consul in Liverpool (1853-57), Hawthorne was an intensely private person, and so the ""times"" of Mellow's title are mostly domestic: Hawthorne's decorous courtship of Sophia Peabody and their blissful years of marriage; his rewarding but never very intimate friendships with men like Herman Melville, Ellery Channing, and his Bowdoin classmates H. W. Longfellow and Franklin Pierce; and his long periods of self-communion as he brooded over and finally produced his books. It was, in fact, an extremely closeted existence, which in Mellow's meticulous retelling threatens to induce a kind of claustrophobia--all the more so in view of Hawthorne's preference for psychic over social realities: sin, guilt, regeneration, etc. But Mellow, wherever possible, widens the horizon by giving extensive treatment to important contemporary figures such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller, even though Hawthorne himself found them uncongenial and had relatively little to do with them. In his literary judgments Mellow is consistently plausible, partly because he sticks close to the critical consensus, e.g., in finding ""Young Goodman Brown"" a minor masterpiece and The Marble Faun an interesting failure. The only major gap in his research is the mysterious ""wasting disease"" Hawthorne died of--Mellow tells us nothing about it. Otherwise, a thorough, readable biography which supplements rather than replaces the earlier standard work by Randall Stewart.

Pub Date: Sept. 30th, 1980
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin