Books: A Real Man's Life

  • Share
  • Read Later

NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE: THE AMERICAN YEARS (499 pp.)—Robert Cantwell —Rinehart ($6).

For the first time since Henry James put his hand to it, in 1879, the task of writing Hawthorne's biography has been undertaken by a born novelist of distinction. James wrote in England, in all the panoply of his handsome prose, and with a good deal of Old World "side"; but he did not have much to add to the story of Hawthorne's life. He knew it, and called his book a "critical essay."

Robert Cant well's portrayal of Hawthorne is superior to James's in warmth and scope; it is free of James's overtones of worldly condescension; and whatever it may lack of James's awesome artistic judgment it makes up for in freshness, and in the imaginative grasp of a real man's life and character. After Cantwell's work, the image that Americans have had of Hawthorne will never be quite the same again.*

Robert Cantwell's two novels, Laugh and Lie Down and Land of Plenty, were recognized as remarkably gifted in the early '30s and remain among the few novels of the depression still worth reading. He joined the staff of TIME in 1935, and began his researches in Hawthorne in 1939 when, at the beginning of the war in Europe, he picked up Hawthorne's Our Old Home and reread it "with a sense of wonder . . . at the close application of his insights" into England. The present book (the first volume of two) ends with the fame and. security that came to Hawthorne in 1850, when he was 45, on the publication of The Scarlet Letter.

"The American Years" were those in which, in the accepted version, Hawthorne's life was most shadowy—when he "lived in seclusion ... in his town of Salem, a seclusion certainly grave, if not morbid, obsessed with the Puritan sense of guilt and haunted by a family curse, writing his wonderful stories that no one knew he had written, working at the dull routine of the Custom House to provide for his family, and emerging in his early middle age ... to take part in a contemporary world he had scarcely known existed." Says Robert Cantwell: "Such a portrait, with its angular shadows, its El Greco distortions . . . is in itself an interesting product of the American imagination ... but I found it less and less like Hawthorne the more I learned of him."

The Gift & the Burden. Out of a thorough steeping in Hawthorne's Notebooks and in his journalistic work, which James and many others have loftily disregarded or deplored, and in family records and diaries never touched before, Cantwell has retouched that portrait. These sources have enabled Cantwell to take his subject out of the shadows, to estimate sensitively the influences that formed him, and to recreate the New England life about him.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3