Life, Death, and What Fills the Interlude with Meaning: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Touching Diary Reflections on His Dying Mother and His Five-Year-Old Daughter

Art by Charlotte Pardi from Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved — Danish illustrated meditation on love and loss.

“I saw my little Una… so full of spirit and life that she was life itself. And then I looked at my poor dying mother, and seemed to see the whole of human existence at once, standing in the dusty midst of it.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

It is said that Orlando, inspired by the passionate real-life love Virginia Woolf shared with Vita Sackville-West, is “the longest and most charming love letter in literature” — said by Vita’s own son. But the most charming love letter in literature might be quite shorter and older and inspired by a very different kind of love — the purest, tenderest love of a parent for their young child.

Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood, 1841

Fatherless since the age of four, achingly introverted, a man of “great, genial, comprehending silences” considered “handsomer than Lord Byron,” known to duck behind trees and rocks to avoid speaking with townspeople, Nathaniel Hawthorne (July 4, 1804–May 19, 1864) was an old bachelor of thirty-eight when he married Sophia Peabody — an intellectually voracious and artistically gifted old maid of thirty-three, a linchpin figure in Figuring, and sister to the titanic visionary Elizabeth Peabody, who had coined the term Transcendentalism.

When their first child — a daughter — was born in 1844, Hawthorne was a struggling writer about to turn forty. Seven years earlier, his first book — Twice-Told Tales, a retelling of classic anonymous stories — had hardly gotten into the hands of readers when the Panic of 1837 smote the young country as its first Great Depression. And so the young author had hardly made his name even among the most literary of his contemporaries — what Longfellow lauded as a “sweet, sweet book” had left the highly informed and discerning Margaret Fuller impressed, but with the impression that it was written by “somebody in Salem” assumed to be a woman.

Una and the Lion by Walter Bell Scott, 1860. (National Galleries Scotland.)

Baby Una, named for the beautiful and fierce young daughter of the dragon-imprisoned king and queen in the 1590 English epic poem The Faerie Queene, instantly filled Hawthorne with “a very sober and serious kind of happiness that springs from the birth of a child.” Una would later become the model for the heroine’s daughter in The Scarlet Letter — the 1850 novel that lifted Hawthorne out of poverty, abruptly ending his “many good years” as “the obscurest man of letters in America,” per his own recollection, to render him one of his country’s most celebrated artists.

Four years before that overnight success a lifetime in the making, when Una turned two and a second child was about to join the family, Hawthorne took a day-job as surveyor for the Customs House in Salem. There he toiled for three years, at the near-total expense of his writing. During that creatively deadening period, his love for his children sustained him, fed his famished artistic soul, reawakened him to life. He recorded these tender, vitalizing observations of the children’s daily doings and unfurling beings in a family notebook he shared with Sophia, posthumously included in the affectionate biography Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife (public library) by their second child, Una’s brother Julian.

Una Hawthorne

In the bleak midwinter of 1849, five weeks before Una’s fifth birthday, Hawthorne writes in the notebook:

Her beauty is the most flitting, transitory, most uncertain and unaccountable affair, that ever had a real existence; it beams out when nobody expects it; it has mysteriously passed away when you think yourself sure of it. If you glance sideways at her, you perhaps think it is illuminating her face, but, turning full round to enjoy it, it is gone again. When really visible, it is rare and precious as the vision of an angel. It is a transfiguration, — a grace, delicacy, or ethereal fineness, — which at once, in my secret soul, makes me give up all severe opinions that I may have begun to form about her. It is but fair to conclude that on these occasions we see her real soul. When she seems less lovely, we merely see something external. But, in truth, one manifestation belongs to her as much as another; for, before the establishment of principles, what is character but the series and succession of moods?

This latter insight, far predating the dawn of psychology as we know it, touches the eternal depths of human nature — as adults, we are always at our most childish when we allow the ceaselessly shifting weather systems of our moods to override our moral precepts, thrusting us back in time to those primal impulses of reflexive reaction, cutting us off from the capacity for reflective response that is the mark of maturity…

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