Kirkus Reviews QR Code
HAWTHORNE IN CONCORD by Philip McFarland Kirkus Star


by Philip McFarland

Pub Date: July 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-8021-1776-7
Publisher: Grove

Historian McFarland (The Brave Bostonians, 1998, etc.) paints a selective, complex, and ultimately enriching portrait of America's earliest psychological novelist in his middle years.

The narrative follows Hawthorne during nonconsecutive years over the last three decades of his life in Concord, Massachusetts. There he joined a community of such progressive kindred spirits as Emerson, Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott. Hawthorne, born in Salem and educated at Bowdoin College (Longfellow and future president Franklin Pierce were classmates), found an affordable manse there at the urging of Emerson in the summer of 1842, when the 38-year-old author of a short-story collection (Twice-Told Tales) was newly, ecstatically married to Sophia Peabody. Now Hawthorne could finally settle down to some serious writing, thus putting an end to the paralyzing, gloomy solitude of his earlier years. But it would take seven years more and penurious exile from Concord before he would return in triumph, having published The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, to inhabit Concord more or less for good. Politics intervened in 1852, in the form of the incendiary Uncle Tom's Cabin (published a few weeks before Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance), the Fugitive Slave Act, and the election of Pierce to the presidency. The impecunious Hawthorne agreed to write a biography of Pierce, then served four years as US consul to Liverpool. As the Civil War erupted and Pierce was vilified for his Southern sympathies, Hawthorne was excoriated for his loyalty. He remains an enigmatic writer, drawn to the dark, fatal forces of the human psyche (appreciated even in those pre-Freudian days), as McFarland amply illustrates in his own sometimes turgid prose. The biography’s defining premise requires jumping around and backtracking, though McFarland provides excellent historical context to solidify the gaps. Relish the rich portraits of Margaret Fuller, Horace Mann (married to one of Sophia’s sisters), and publisher/travel companion William Ticknor.

A somber, important complement to Charles C. Calhoun’s vibrant Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life (see above).