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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
To this point the story had been a comedy, or even a farce, but it soon had a tragic sequel on the national scene. In 1838 the House of Representatives was equally divided between conservatives and radicals, not to mention the other division between southerners and northern antislavery men. Jonathan Cilley was a rising leader among the radical free-soil Democrats, and there are some indications that his political enemies had decided to get rid of him. On a flimsy pretext, he was challenged to a duel by a fire-eating southern congressman, William J. Graves of Kentucky. He was still hesitating whether to accept the challenge when somebody said to him—according to Julian’s story—”If Hawthorne was so ready to light a duel without stopping to ask questions, you certainly need not hesitate.” Horatio Bridge denied this part of the story, but there is no doubt that Hawthorne considered himself partly responsible for what followed. The duel, fought with rifles at ninety yards, took place on the afternoon of February 24. After the first exchange of shots, and again after the second, Cilley’s second tried to effect a reconciliation, but Graves and his second both declined. Cilley said, “They thirst for my blood.” On the third exchange, he was hit in the body and fell dying.
Hawthorne brooded over the duel for a long time. His memorial of Cilley, which was among the first of his many contributions to the Democratic Review , reads as if he were making atonement to the shade of his friend. In a somewhat later story, “The Christmas Banquet,” from which I have quoted already, he describes a collection of the world’s most miserable persons. One of them is a man of nice conscience, who bore a blood stain in his heart—the death of a fellow-creature—which, for his more exquisite torture, had chanced with such a peculiarity of circumstances, that he could not absolutely determine whether his will had entered into the deed or not. Therefore, his whole life was spent in the agony of an inward trial for murder.
Julian’s story would lead us to believe that Hawthorne, once again, was thinking of himself.
There were other causes for worry in those early months of 1838, when Hawthorne was still supposed to be courting Sophia’s intellectual sister. One of the chief causes was Mary Silsbee, who refused to let him go. Miss Peabody’s memorandum says that Mary somehow “managed to renew relations with him,” and that she then offered to marry him as soon as he was earning $3,000 a year, a large income for the time. Hawthorne answered that he never expected to have so much. When his sister Ebe heard the story, she remarked—according to Miss Peabody—“that he would never marry at all, and that he would never do anything; that he was an ideal person.” But Hawthorne did something to end the affair; he disappeared from Salem.
Before leaving town on July 23, he paid what was known as a take-leave call on Sophia. “He said he was not going to tell any one where he should be for the next three months,” she told Elizabeth in a letter; “that he thought he should change his name, so that if he died no one would be able to find his gravestone. … I feel as if he were a born brother. I never, hardly, knew a person for whom I had such a full and at the same time perfectly quiet admiration.” Then, suspecting that she had gone too far, she added, “I do not care about seeing him often; but I delight to remember that he is .” It was as near as she could come to telling Elizabeth that she was already in love.
At the end of September when Hawthorne came back to Salem—from North Adams, his mysterious hiding place—Miss Silsbee had disappeared from his life. She had renewed her acquaintance with another suitor, now a widower of 49 with an income well beyond her minimum requirement; he was Jared Sparks, the editor of George Washington’s papers, who would become president of Harvard. Hawthorne now had more time to spend at the house on Charter Street. He was entertained by whichever sister happened to be present, or by all three together, but it began to be noticed that his visits were longer if he found Sophia alone. One day she showed him an illustration she had drawn, in the Flaxman manner, lor his story “The Gentle Boy.” It showed the boy asleep under the tree on which his Quaker father had been hanged.
“I want to know if this looks like your Ilbrahim,” she said.
Hawthorne said, meaning every word, “He will never look otherwise to me.”
Under the Peabody influence, he was becoming almost a social creature. There was a sort of literary club that met every week in one of the finest houses on Chestnut Street, where the Salem merchants lived. The house belonged to Miss Susan Burley, a wealthy spinster who liked to patronize the arts. Hawthorne was persuaded to attend some of Miss Burley’s Saturday evenings—usually as an escort for Mary or Elizabeth, since the invalid sister was seldom allowed to venture into the night air. There was one particularly cold evening when Sophia insisted that she was going to Miss Burley’s whether or not she was wanted. Hawthorne laughed and said she was not wanted; the cold would make her ill. “Meanwhile,” Sophia reported in a letter, “f put on an incalculable quantity of clothes. Father kept remonstrating, but not violently, and I gently imploring. When I was ready, Mr. Hawthorne said he was glad I was going. … We walked quite last, for I seemed stepping on air.”