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Authors at War

ACWRT (UK) Website exclusive by John Laskey

 

2 July 1863: near Gettysburg, Major Joshua L Chamberlain, obscure Professor of Bowdoin College, Maine was desperately organising the defence of Little Round Top. Meanwhile, in a quaint, rambling house in leafy Concord, Massachusetts a former - and not particularly successful - pupil of Bowdoin was dedicating his latest collection of essays entitled ‘Our Old Home’ to a famous former classmate:

 

 


To Franklin Pierce, as a slight memorial of a college friendship, prolonged through manhood, and retaining all its vitality in our autumnal years, this volume is inscribed by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

 

Now 59 years old, Hawthorne was one of a number of distinguished authors and intellectuals who had established themselves around the home of the sage, Ralph Waldo Emerson. He had enjoyed some literary success, most notably through his novels '‘The Scarlet Letter'’ (1850) and '‘The House of the Seven Gables'’ (1851). Few of his other works are read nowadays: his strained style and fascination with prideful sin cannot sustain most modern tastes, though these points mirror his character so well. The subject of this latest collection was his varied experiences in Great Britain just after the Crimean War, as a traveller, and as reluctant Consular representative for the United States in Liverpool.

 

Franklin Pierce, Hawthorne’s classmate and close friend, had been US President during the brokering with the slave states of the ‘Missouri Compromise’ a political fudge which had merely held back the onset of war. Pierce was now widely regarded in the North as an appeaser, in particular by intellectuals like Emerson who had so eloquently attacked slavery. When Emerson received a personal copy of ‘Our Old Home’ from his former protegee, he had sliced out the dedication.

 

Hawthorne had become increasingly depressed, possibly clinically, as a direct result of the Civil War. An English observer(1) wrote how “nature..designed him for a man of action and then, ere the work was done, she changed her mind and sought to transform him into a poet.” Yet the man of thought seemed quite conscious of what he saw as the handicap of seeing all too clearly: “If General McClellan could but have shut his left eye”, he wrote “the right one would long ago have guided us into Richmond”.

 

In the previous year, Hawthorne had caused a stir by an anonymous article entitled ‘Chiefly About War Matters - by a Peaceable Man’. In this long essay, he sketched personal impressions of his tour around the eastern theatre of the war, including Harper’s Ferry and other battle sites in Virginia. John Brown, a martyr to his emancipator friends, he provocatively termed a “ blood-stained fanatic...Nobody was ever more justly hanged”.

 

Hawthorne’s personal despair of any happy compromise between the allegiance of the citizen to his state and to the Federal government is a theme throughout these pieces. Even though he favoured a state as coming nearest to a man’s feelings, and deplored the “airy mode of law” that sought to convert “honest people into traitors” , he felt that secessionists died for a “bad cause”. He was rather disdainful of some Confederate prisoners he encountered, held (by an irony not lost on him) inside the same engine house where Brown had made his last stand: “simple, bumpkin-like fellows, dressed in homespun clothes” he observed, “peasants.. of a very low order: a class of people with whom our Northern rural population has not a single trait in common”. Although “exceedingly respectful”, he was sure that ”not a single bumpkin of them..had the remotest comprehension of what they had been fighting for”

 

Indeed, Hawthorne had few compliments to pay anyone in this essay. He had met Lincoln in Washington and, while his account was mostly complimentary, his pen painted such a vivid impression of the President’s awkward physical presence that his editors excised it for lacking in “reverence”. Later, Hawthorne marveled at the ironclad ‘Monitor’, likening it to a gigantic rat-trap. To him the machine, recently battered in its duel with the ‘Virginia’, seemed an “ugly devilish the new war-fiend, destined, to annihilate whole navies”, and was pleasantly surprised by the ships generous internal layout on going aboard.

 

The Office of the Consul to the United States in Liverpool was situated at Washington Buildings, “a shabby and smoke-stained edifice of four stories…at the lower corner of Brunswick Street, contiguous to the Goree Arcade”. Hawthorne disliked Liverpool, noting that his weather gauge so seldom pointed to ‘Fair’, that he “began to consider that portion of its circle as made superfluously”. He had got the Consulship through Pierce, but it was not what he had expected. “I disliked my office from the first”; he wrote. Along with the disappointment, he brooded on feelings of powerlessness that marked his philosophy. “I could not”, he confessed “comprehend any particular conjunction of circumstances with human character, to justify me in thrusting in my awkward agency among the.. unintelligible machinery of Providence”. This fatalism had now extended to his views on the war, and by 1863 he had convinced himself that America’s division was unstoppable. A map of the United States had hung on the Consul’s wall “as they were, twenty years ago, but seem little likely to be, twenty years hence”.

 

To strain this sensitive soul still further, the characters beating a path to his door with sometimes dubious claims for passage back to the USA were not always agreeable. Even so, he often showed his charitable side. The English commentator had noted the authors “sweet smile full of sad pathos and kind humour”, and it is not surprising that Hawthorne sometimes took “private responsibility” for these itinerants with his own money.

 

While Hawthorne bemoaned the “imprisonment of..consular servitude”, he admitted that Liverpool was “a most convenient and admirable point to get away from”. And get away he did, touring many areas of Britain, meeting people of influence and making detailed observations of his impressions. He was generally fond of the British, although sometimes frustrated by what he saw as a narrowness in outlook. For the most part, he confessed to being “touched with the antique charm to which our countrymen are more susceptible than are the people among whom it is of native growth”. However, he did not overlook the plight of the poor, and was appalled at some of the squalor of London at this time.

 

Hawthorne had come adrift from the prevailing American individualistic optimism propounded through such friends and neighbours as Emerson, and by Amos Bronson Alcott, who had once lived in The Wayside with his large family before Hawthorne had made it his home. Alcott' s daughter Louisa had earlier delighted in being given her own room at The Wayside - the tower study where Hawthorne sat on the second day of Gettysburg, dedicating his book. There she had lead her siblings in dramatisations of her romantic stories, as fictionally recounted in her most famous novel, ‘Little Women’ (1869). Louisa’s relationship with her father was a strained one, though dutiful on her part to the end. His scholasticism extended even to observations of his own family, and he saw her as a ‘fallen’ daughter of Eve, in need of his grace, patience and endless philosophising. Hawthorne knew the Alcott family well, and had briefly dabbled in Alcott’s communal living experiments, but rejected them: Louisa too had strong doubts about the ‘new enlightenment’.

 

The Wayside, Concord, MA.

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In 1862, she sought to escape the restrictions of her large family by enlisting as a nurse to wounded soldiers and a posting to the Union Hotels Hospital in Georgetown, Washington, DC. In vivid letters sent to her family, she described herself as being surrounded by three hundred men, “homesick, heartsick & worn out”. Yet her optimism shines through their gloom and hers, and she wrote freely of the unlikely enjoyment she had found in this humanitarian work. Confessing frankly to her maidenly “ignorance, awkwardness and bashfulness”, she found most of her patients “loveable and manly”. Her collected letters home became the basis of ‘Hospital Sketches’, also published in 1863. This short work is pitched in a somewhat light vein, but there is no disguising the effect of her experiences in dealing intimately with the injuries of her patients, sometimes in horrific detail, following large-scale battles such as Fredericksburg. One particular soldier she movingly described was ‘John’, a Virginia blacksmith. She fondly recalled his “plain speech unpolished manner, heart as warm and tender as a woman”. His injuries were terminal, and she consoled herself with the belief that real goodness is never wasted. Modern readers may very well form the conclusion that Louisa had fallen in love with her patient.

 

There is little hint of any psychological strain in the accounts of this time, yet she became ill as a result of some form of hospital fever. The prescribed cure was to dose her -twice with mercury, which undoubtedly made her sicker.

 

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It was in this state that she attended Hawthorne’s funeral at the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord in 1864. He had died while convalescing in New Hampshire, his faithful friend Pierce in attendance at the last. Shortly after the war, Louisa took her own convalescence in Europe. She landed at Liverpool, from where she journeyed through England and on to the continent. Like Hawthorne, she found our English weather abominable She most enjoyed staying at a picturesque cottage - on Wimbledon Common: a “lovely old farmhouse with a thatched roof - larks, nightingales singing” She heard Dickens at one of his public readings, and decided that she liked the one class of English society that she met. She finally returned with some relief to her family, but did not fully recover her health, and died in 1888 aged 56. Her grave is close to those of her family, while Hawthorne and Emerson lie near.

 

© American Civil War Round Table (UK): January 2000

 

Sources & Acknowledgements

 

(1) Edward Dicey in 'Three Great Authors'

 

Photograph of L M Alcott: Courtesy of Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association.

Source for 'Hospital Sketches': AlcottWeb.Com

My special thanks to: Cynthia Dias (Connecticut)