- Historic Sites
The Hawthornes In Paradise
Nathaniel was poor and sunk in his solitude; Sophia seemed a hopeless invalid, but a late-flower love gave them at last“a perfect Eden”
December 1958 | Volume 10, Issue 1
What followed their first meeting was a comedy of misunderstandings with undertones of tragedy. Hawthorne was supposed to be courting Elizabeth—Miss Peabody, as she was called outside the household; the Miss Peabody, as if she had no sisters. There was a correspondence between them. In one of her missives—and that is the proper word for them—she warned Hawthorne that her invalid sister would never marry. His answer has been lost, but Miss Peabody quoted him as saying, “Sophia is a rose to be worn in no man’s bosom.” Satisfied on this point, she advised him to study German, write books for children, and have no truck with Democratic politicians. She liked to think ol him as an other-worldly genius who might save the soul of America, if only he would read the German philosophers in the original. Hawthorne obediently studied German, but he did not take kindly to advice about his personal affairs, and Miss Peabody went off to West Newton to live with her married brother. While she was there, Sophia wrote her a series of letters. Most ol them mentioned Mr. Hawthorne, more and more warmly, but Sophia maintained the pretense that her interest in him was intellectual, or at most sisterly, and that he was still Elizabeth’s suitor. Meanwhile Hawthorne himself was secretly involved with a Salem heiress.
The story of his involvement, and of the duel to which it nearly led, was told in some detail by Julian Hawthorne in his biography of his parents. Unfortunately Julian did not give names (except “Mary” and “Louis”) or offer supporting evidence. Poor Julian, who was sometimes irresponsible, has never been trusted by scholars, and the result is that later biographers of Hawthorne either questioned the story or flatly rejected it. Quite recently Norman Holmes Pearson of Yale, who is preparing the definitive edition of Hawthorne’s letters, discovered an interesting document in the Morgan Library. He wrote an article about it for the Essex Institute ’s quarterly, one for which other scholars stand in his debt. The article was a memorandum by Julian on a conversation with Miss Peabody, one in which she described the whole affair, giving names and circumstances and supporting Julian’s story at almost every point.She even explained by implication why the principal figures in the story had to be anonymous. Two of them were still living in 1884, when Julian’s book was published, and one of them was the widow of a president of Harvard.
Her name when Hawthorne knew her was Mary Crowninshield Silsbee, and she was the daughter of former United States Senator Nathaniel Silsbee, a great man in New England banking and shipping. Julian says that she was completely unscrupulous, but admits that she had “a certain kind of glancing beauty, slender, piquant, ophidian, Armida-like.” Armida—in Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered —was a heathen sorceress, daughter of the king of Damascus, who lured the boldest of the Crusaders into her enchanted garden. Mary Silsbee exercised her lures on the brilliant young men she met in her travels between Salem and Washington. One of them was John Louis O’Sullivan of Washington, who was laying ambitious plans for a new magazine to be called the Democratic Review .
The young editor was a friend of Hawthorne’s classmate Jonathan Cilley, the rising congressman from Maine. Cilley had given him a copy of Twice-Told Tales as soon as the book appeared. O’Sullivan was impressed by it and wrote to the author soliciting contributions at the generous rate, for the time, of five dollars a page. He also told Miss Silsbee about Hawthorne. Fascinated by O’Sullivan’s picture of a mysterious Salem genius, Armida at once determined, Julian says, “to add him to her museum of victims.”
Her method of operation was to cast herself on Hawthorne’s mercy by revealing what she told him were the secrets of her inmost soul. She read him long and extremely private passages from her diary—”all of which,” Julian says, “were either entirely fictitious, or such bounteous embroideries on the bare basis of reality, as to give what was mean and sordid an appearance of beauty and a winning charm.” Hawthorne, who had never considered the possibility that a Salem young lady might be a gratuitous liar, began to regard himself as Miss Silsbee’s protector and champion. But he disappointed her by offering none of his own confidences in return.
She tried a new stratagem. Early in February, 1838, she summoned Hawthorne to a private and mysterious interview. With a great deal of calculated reluctance she told him that his friend O’Sullivan, “presuming upon her innocence and guilelessness”—as Julian tells the story—“had been guilty of an attempt to practise the basest treachery upon her; and she passionately adjured Hawthorne, as her only confidential and trusted friend and protector, to champion her cause.” Hawthorne promptly wrote a letter to O’Sullivan, then in Washington, and challenged him to a duel. The letter has disappeared, but there is another to Horatio Bridge written on February 8—possibly the same day—in which he speaks darkly of a rash step he has just taken.
O’Sullivan must have discussed the challenge with their friend Jonathan Cilley; then he wrote a candid and friendly letter to Hawthorne refusing the challenge. But he did more than that; he made a hurried trip to Salem and completely established his innocence of the charge against him. Although Hawthorne could scarcely bring himself to believe that Miss Silsbee had made an utter fool of him, he had to accept the evidence. In Miss Peabody’s words, he called on Armida and “crushed her.”