I never met my great-grandmother’s sister, the American writer Rebecca Harding Davis (1831-1910), who is remembered today (if at all) as the author of Life in the Iron Mills, a novella that first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in April 1861, and as the mother of Richard Harding Davis, journalist and adventurer (listen for his name in Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent).
But without her, I might not have had the audacity to think that I could write poetry without any sort of license, educational or otherwise.
In her afterword for the republication of Life in the Iron Mills in 1972, Tillie Olsen wrote that “Without precedent or predecessor, it recorded what no one else had recorded; alone in its epoch and for decades to come, saw the significance, the presage, in scorned or unseen native materials — and wrought them into art.
“Written in secret and in isolation by a thirty-year-old unmarried woman who lived far from literary circles of any kind, it won instant fame — to sleep in ever deepening neglect to our time.”
After the publication of the novella Davis wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne to express her delight in reencountering in his Twice-Told Tales several stories that had appeared, unsigned and probably without Hawthorne’s permission, in a collection from her childhood, stories she had “read over so often that [she] almost [knew] every line of them by heart.”
According to the account in her autobiography, Bits of Gossip (Houghton Mifflin, 1904), Hawthorne wrote back “that he was then at Washington, and was coming on to Harper’s Ferry, where John Brown had died,” and would then travel farther to see her in Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia).
“I wish he had come to the old town,” she writes. “It would have seemed a different place forever after to many people. But we were in the midst of the Civil War, and the western end of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was seized just then by the Confederates, and he turned back.”
A year later, according to scholar Janice Milner Lasseter, “She accepted an invitation offered by the Fields [James T. Fields was her editor at the Atlantic] and Hawthornes . . . On that trip she met her literary ancestor Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife Sophia, Ralph Waldo Emerson, transcendentalist philosopher and educator Bronson Alcott, kindergarten founder Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, physician and writer Oliver Wendell Homes, as well as James T. and Annie Fields.”
This excerpt from Bits of Gossip, detailing her encounters with Hawthorne, is, I think, a special one:
It has happened to me to meet many of the men of my day whom the world agreed to call great. I have found that most of these royalties seem to sink into ordinary citizens at close approach.
You will find the poet who wrings the heart of the world, or the foremost captain of his time, driving a bargain or paring a potato, just as you would do. You are disappointed in every word and look from them. You expect to see the divine light shining through their talk to the office-boy or the train-man, and you never catch a glimmer of it; you are aggrieved because their coats and trousers have not something of the cut of kingly robes.
Hawthorne only, of them all, always stood aloof. Even in his own house he was like Banquo’s ghost among the thanes at the banquet.
There is an old Cornish legend that a certain tribe of mountain spirits were once destroyed by the trolls, all except one, who still wanders through the earth looking for his own people and never finding them. I never looked at Hawthorne without remembering the old story.
Personally he was a rather short, powerfully built man, gentle and low voiced, with a sly, elusive humor gleaming sometimes in his watchful gray eyes. The portrait with which we all are familiar — a curled barbershop head — gives no idea of the singular melancholy charm of his face. There was a mysterious power in it which I never have seen elsewhere in picture, statue, or human being.
Wayside, the home of the Hawthornes in Concord, was a comfortable little house on a shady, grassy road. To please his wife he had built an addition to it, a tower into which he could climb, locking out the world below, and underneath, a little parlor, in whose dainty new furnishings Mrs. Hawthorne took a womanish delight. Yet, somehow, gay Brussels rugs and gilded frames were not the background for the morbid, silent recluse.
Mrs. Hawthorne, however, made few such mistakes. She was a soft, affectionate, feminine little woman, with intuitions subtle enough to follow her husband into his darkest moods, but with, too, a cheerful, practical Yankee “capacity” which fitted her to meet baker and butcher. Nobody could have been better fitted to stand between Hawthorne and the world. She did it effectively. When I was at Wayside, they had been living there for two years — ever since their return from Europe, and I was told that in that time he had never once been seen on the village street.
This habit of seclusion was a family trait. Hawthorne’s mother had managed to live the life of a hermit in busy Salem, and her sister, meeting a disappointment in early life, had gone into her chamber, and for more than twenty years shut herself up from her kind, and dug into her own soul to find there what truth and life she could. During the years in which Nathaniel, then a young man, lived with these two women, he, too, chose to be alone, going out of the house only at night, and finding his food on a plate left at his locked door. Sometimes weeks passed during which the three inmates of the little gray wooden house never saw each other.
Hawthorne was the product of generations of solitude and silence. No wonder that he had the second sight and was naturalized into the world of ghosts and could interpret for us their speech.
America may have great poets and novelists, but she never will have more than one necromancer.
The natural feeling among healthy, commonplace people toward the solitary man was a tender sympathy such as they would give to a sick child.
“Nathaniel,” an old blacksmith in Salem once said to me, “was queer even as a boy. He certainly was queer. But you humored him. You wanted to humor him.”
One person, however, had no mind to humor him. This was Miss Elizabeth Peabody, Mrs. Hawthorne’s sister. She was the mother of the kindergarten in this country, and gave to its cause, which seemed to her first in importance, a long and patient life of noble self-sacrifice. She was a woman of wide research and a really fine intelligence, but she had the discretion of a six-year-old child. She loved to tell the details of Hawthorne’s courtship of her sister, and of how she herself had unearthed him from the tomb of the little gray house in Salem, and “brought him into Sophia’s presence.” She still regarded him as a demi-god, but a demi-god who required to be fed, tutored, and kept in order. It was her mission, she felt, to bring him out from solitudes where he walked apart, to the broad ways of common sense.
I happened to be present at her grand and last coup to this end.
One evening I was with Mrs. Hawthorne in the little parlor when the children brought in their father. The windows were open, and we sat in the warm twilight quietly talking or silent as we chose. Suddenly Miss Peabody appeared in the doorway. She was a short, stout little woman, with her white stockinged feet thrust into slippers, her hoop skirt swaying from side to side, and her gray hair flying to the winds.
She lighted the lamp, went out and brought in more lamps, and then sat down and waited with an air of stern resolution. Presently Mr. Emerson and his daughter appeared, then Louisa Alcott and her father, then two gray old clergymen who were formally presented to Mr. Hawthorne, who now looked about him with terrified dismay. We saw other figures approaching in the road outside.
“What does this mean, Elizabeth?” Mrs. Hawthorne asked aside.
“I did it. I went around and asked a few people in to meet our friend here. I ordered some cake and lemonade, too.”
Her blue eyes glittered with triumph as Mrs. Hawthorne turned away. “They’ve been here two years,” she whispered, “and nobody has met Mr. Hawthorne. People talk. It’s ridiculous! There’s no reason why Sophia should not go into society. So I just made an excuse of your visit to bring them in.”
Miss Elizabeth has been for many years among the sages and saints on the heavenly hills, but I have not yet quite forgiven her the misery of that moment.
The little room was quite full when there rustled in a woman who came straight to Mr. Hawthorne, as a vulture to its prey. I never heard her name, but I knew her at sight as the intellectual woman of the village, the Intelligent Questioner who cows you into idiocy by her fluent cleverness.
“So delighted to meet you at last!” she said, seating herself beside him. “I have always admired your books, Mr. Hawthorne. I was one of the very first to recognize your power. And now I want you to tell me about your methods of work. I want to hear all about it.”
But at that moment his wife came up and said that he was wanted outside, and he escaped. A few moments later I heard his steps on the floor overhead, and knew that he was safe in the tower for the night.
. . . . . . . .
He did not hold me guilty in the matter, for the next morning he joined his wife and me in a walk through the fields. We went to the Old Manse where they had lived when they were first married, and then wandered on to the wooded slopes of the Sleepy Hollow Valley in which the Concord people had begun to lay away their dead.
It was a cool morning, with soft mists rolling up the hills, and flashes between of sudden sunlight. The air was full of pungent woody smells, and the undergrowth blushed pink with blossoms. There was no look of a cemetery about the place. Here and there, in a shady nook, was a green hillock like a bed, as if some tired traveler had chosen a quiet place for himself and lain down to sleep.
Mr. Hawthorne sat down in the deep grass and then, clasping his hands about his knees, looked up laughing.
“Yes,” he said, “we New Englanders begin to enjoy ourselves — when we are dead.”
As we walked back the mists gathered and the day darkened overhead. Hawthorne, who had been joking like a boy, grew suddenly silent, and before we reached home the cloud had settled down again upon him, and his steps lagged heavily.
Even the faithful woman who kept always close to his side with her laughing words and anxious eyes did not know that day how fast the last shadows were closing in upon him.
In a few months he was lying under the deep grass, at rest, near the very spot where he sat and laughed, looking up at us.
I left Concord that evening and never saw him again. He said good-by, hesitated shyly, and then, holding out his hand, said: —
“I am sorry you are going away. It seems as if we had known you always.”
The words were nothing. I suppose he forgot them and me as he turned into the house. And yet . . . I never have forgotten them. They seemed to take me, too, for one moment, into his enchanted country.
Of the many pleasant things which have come into my life, this was one of the pleasantest and best.