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Hawthorne: A Life Hardcover – September 23, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

One of the great American writers of the 19th century never fully believed in his profession. For Nathaniel Hawthorne, writing was "a source of shame as much as pleasure and a necessity he could neither forgo nor entirely approve," says Wineapple (Genet: A Biography of Janet Flanner). He uprooted his family again and again, shuttling between government jobs and the solitary writing life, never fully satisfied with either. His romances were brilliant and powerful, but his own life seemed muted and melancholy. Although he had an impressive set of friends and associates during his early years in New England, he nevertheless led a strikingly reclusive existence; he was neighbors with Emerson and Thoreau in Concord, Mass., classmates with Longfellow and Franklin Pierce at Bowdoin, and a good friend to Margaret Fuller and Herman Melville, but very little is made of these relationships. His friends and associates repeatedly described Hawthorne as enigmatic, a man who loved humanity in the abstract but not in its particulars. Wineapple, too, seems mystified by Hawthorne and his life, insecure about his motives. The biography assumes a reportorial style, presenting conflicting views (of his ambiguous friendship with Melville, of his mysterious death) without putting forth any pet theories or compelling evidence to sway the reader one way or the other. The final years of his life coincided with an incredibly tumultuous period in American history, the Civil War, and Wineapple describes how Hawthorne alienated many Northerners with his proslavery views. One critic described his politics as "pure intellect, without emotion, without sympathy, without principle" and that best captures the essence of Nathaniel Hawthorne as depicted in this biography. 56 photos.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From The New Yorker

Nathaniel Hawthorne's ambition was such that he always considered himself a failure. A prude and a mama's boy, haunted by the fear that writing was not a manly profession, he was ashamed of his fame. Far from being the anti-Puritan that his work suggests, he was an irascible conservative, who believed that women shouldn't be writers, and who, during the Civil War, horrified his more enlightened peers by displaying equal contempt for North and South. After his death, critics grappled with "the paradox of Hawthorne," resorting to hydraulic metaphors for his genius: it was overwhelming; it was forced into channels. Wineapple's take is notable for its plain acceptance of Hawthorne's contradictions: a student of hypocrisy, he was a resolute Yankee who hated his patrimony.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1 edition (September 30, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375400443
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375400445
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.8 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #78,387 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

In addition to 'Ecstatic Nation' (a 'New York Times' "Notable Book") Brenda Wineapple is the author of 'White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson,' a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award, a 'New York Times' "Notable Book," and named best nonfiction of 2008 in 'The Washington Post,' 'The Christian Science Monitor,' 'The Economist,' among many other publications. Her earlier books include 'Hawthorne : A Life,' winner of the Ambassador Book Award for the Best Biography of 2003; 'Sister Brother Gertrude and Leo Stein'; 'Genêt: A Biography of Janet Flanner.' In 2014 she received a Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; other honors include a Pushcart Prize, a Guggenheim, an American Council of Learned Societies and two National Endowment Humanities Fellowships. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2012 and is a fellow of the Society of American Historians and the New York Institute of the Humanities.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 33 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 2, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Full of strange families, strange clothes and stranger manners, HAWTHORNE offers all the pleasures of a good 19th century novel but with sharper, livelier prose. Wineapple writes like a witty angel. Every page offers some detail that helps us see or feel or smell another century. She brings us into Hawthorne's world even as she brings Hawthorne into ours.
And the book is full of great characters, not just Hawthorne, but that amiable dullard, Franklin Pierce, the Peabody sisters, Margaret Fuller, weird Delia Bacon -- the first person to argue that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare. Hawthorne is famous for badmouthing women writers, but he surrounded himself with smart women and liked them -- unlike Thoreau or Melville, who were pretty indifferent. Wineapple makes a very convincing case, I regret to say, that the friendship between Hawthorne and Melville was brief and purely literary, with little sexual edge. (Her most interesting detail is that Hawthorne's wife liked Melville better than Hawthorne did.) Wineapple brings Hawthorne very close to us, offering a flesh and blood man whose sunny normalcy was full of chill shadows.
This is one of the best biographies I've read in the past fifteen years, as solid and engaging as COLERIDGE by Richard Holmes or MORNINGS ON HORSEBACK by David McCullough. I cannot praise it too highly.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Powell on June 28, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I'm not a big biography reader, so I can't throw out other tomes to compare to this one. All I can say is that it was, amazingly, a page-turner. Wineapple really made me want to know more, and helped me to understand a very, very complicated man, at least as much as it is possible to do so. Obviously meticulously researched, brimming with witty remarks (both Wineapple's and first-person quotes), one of few criticisms I can think of is that the author tried a little too hard to emulate Hawthorne's style, not always transparently. But then, when I read Hawthorne, my sentences tend to grow, too, so maybe that isn't a criticism.
Wineapple's only failing, in my opinion, is her tendency to skip over things she seems to assume we already know, like Sophia's fall on the ice precipitating her miscarriage. She neither disproves it nor states it, just ignores it. It made me wonder what else she left out that I didn't know enough to notice.
My only other comment is a warning - for those (like me) who have been fascinated by Nathaniel Hawthorne since their first exposure to him, beware - to know the man this well, with this much detail, is to demystify him before adoring eyes. He was a man, it turns out, just a man, with failings and foibles. Some, like his racism and sexism, might be excused by the times he lived in, but others, like self-pity and hubris, are timeless. After this book, I pity him more, and worship him less. But his work, as Wineapple points out in the Notes, remains as popular as ever.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful By D. Cloyce Smith on September 17, 2005
Format: Paperback
Brenda Wineapple's palatable life of Hawthorne breaks little new ground, but its focus is a bit of a departure from the many previous biographies. Throughout, Wineapple concentrates on the author's family, neighbors, associates, career, finances, and politics. Such contemporary celebrities as Emerson, Longfellow, Melville, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Peabody, Horatio Bridge, James T. Field (Hawthorne's publisher), Horace Mann, and, above all, Franklin Pierce receive as much attention as Hawthorne's fiction.

The portrait that emerges is of a career man struggling to keep his family financially solvent, resisting the emasculating temptation to be a full-time author, and clinging defiantly to the anti-abolitionist Democratic principles shared by Franklin Pierce, the hapless 14th President and Hawthorne's closest friend. While Hawthorne's acquaintances were convinced of his talents, they were dismayed by his (and his wife's) bull-headed political views. His ill-fated alliances and loyalties often cost him salaried jobs, even while they appeared to have little affect on his literary celebrity. (His publisher, for instance, was convinced that a preface honoring Pierce would sink Hawthorne's final book, but "to Field's amazement, the dedication didn't hurt advance sales of 'Our Old Home.'") Nevertheless, among members of Hawthorne's class, a career as an author--especially one who suffered extended bouts of writer's block---was not enough to pay the bills, and his inability to keep a job haunted his family with the threat of poverty until the day he died.

Wineapple is superb at fleshing out Hawthorne's circle of family, neighbors, and friends, but--oddly enough--his literature is pushed to the background.
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27 of 35 people found the following review helpful By The Wingchair Critic on December 3, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Brenda Wineapple's erudite 'Hawthorne: A Life' (2003) may be the finest literary biography since Victoria Glendinning's 'Vita: A Life of Victoria Sackville-West' (1983).

Applying a fierce intelligence and a distinctly modern sensibility, Wineapple both succeeds in illuminating Nathaniel Hawthorne's character without distorting it and maintaining a masterly evocation of the period in which he lived: Hawthorne's 19th Century America and Europe seem both mysteriously distant and entirely familiar and matter-of-fact.

After his father's early death, the young Nathaniel was raised predominantly by women, and strong women--from mother Rose, sister Elizabeth, wife Sophia, and friends Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and Margaret Fuller--dominated his life.

Wineapple gives thoughtful consideration to Hawthorne's love for and strong attachment to other men, and provides a lengthy portrait of his intimate friendship with college mate and eventual United States President Franklin Pierce.

Devotees of 19th century American literature will be entranced by the image of uneasy comrades Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Hawthorne enjoying a rare peaceful moment ice skating together on a frozen Concord pond. Wineapple's examination of Hawthorne's early adulthood reveals that his infamous "long years of seclusion" were considerably less secluded than previously believed; her thorough assessment of Hawthorne's complex racist and misogynist attitudes will probably never be bettered.

From early youth, Hawthorne suffered from a fatalistic perception that he was an authentic outsider, destined to remain more keenly aware than others but also permanently separated on some basic level from the rest of mankind.
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