From Publishers Weekly
In this pleasing biography, seasoned American history writer McFarland (The Brave Bostonians
) focuses on two elements that defined New England as the center of America's 19th-century literary world: the village of Concord, Mass. (a center for luminaries like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott), and the blue-eyed "recluse" able to see "evil in every human heart," Nathaniel Hawthorne. McFarland focuses on the people and ideas that shaped the era as it moved from early industrialization to the turmoil of the Civil War. His short chapters lend themselves to portraits, of politicians Henry Clay and James Knox Polk, and thinkers Horace Mann and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, among others. Aspects of Hawthorne's everyday life are stressed, such as his constant money concerns, which in the 1840s sent him, with his wife and daughter, back to live with his mother and sister, and 20 years later still left him thinking, "I wonder how people manage to live economically." The physical precariousness of 19th-century life is also revealed, in the many examples of diseases and drownings within Hawthorne's family and community. The writer's meaningful friendships are well drawn, particularly with his college chum and future president, Franklin Pierce, to whom he displayed his loyalty by writing a campaign biography. In the end, by depicting his subject's three sojourns in Concord, McFarland illuminates Hawthorne's art and the intellectual ferment originating in that small, bucolic town.
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*Starred Review* Unlike the usual biography focused rigorously on its subject, McFarland's partial life of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64) depicts its subject in relation to Concord, Massachusetts, his hometown from his marriage in 1842 onward. He wasn't always resident in the town where the Revolutionary War began--he was away when he died. But Concord, with its literary citizens including Emerson, Thoreau, and the Alcotts, was the home he returned to after the seven-years (1845-52) during which The Scarlet Letter
and The House of the Seven Gables
finally brought him financial success, and again after seven further years (1853-60) as U.S. consul in Liverpool and, thereafter, an American abroad, principally in Italy. He was highly reclusive and taciturn but not saturnine or misanthropic. His children remembered him as a playful father; his wife, friends, and even brief acquaintances treasured having known him. By contrast with his literary peers--contrasts McFarland points up in incisive recountings of several of their foibles--Hawthorne was uncranky; lovable; and, though his dearest friend was Franklin Pierce, the fourteenth president, essentially apolitical. It would be easy to characterize him as a cool conservative among flaming liberals. McFarland does nothing so crude. Instead, he enters Hawthorne's milieu (his prose even echoes Hawthorne's textures, cadences, and grammar) and illumines it with intelligence and affection. Ray OlsonCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved