Monday, September 21, 2009

Bicentennial of Sophia Peabody Hawthorne

2009 is celebrating more than just Edgar Poe. Another figure who celebrates a bicentennial this year is Sophia Amelia Peabody, later Mrs. Nathaniel Hawthorne. I have no evidence that Sophia (pronounced with a hard i as So-fy-uh) interacted with Poe. But, it's interesting to consider what's happening in Hawthorne's home life while he interacts with Poe.

The April 1842 issue of Graham's Magazine included a brief preliminary review of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales, followed the next month by a more substantial full review. Hawthorne was living at the Utopian community Brook Farm, an ultimately unsuccessful Transcendental experiment. Hawthorne wasn't a believer in the experiment, but joined in the hopes of making enough money to support his future wife Sophia. He moved out in October. A few months later, Hawthorne published a humorous sketch on his contemporaries called "The Hall of Fantasy" in the February 1843 issue of James Russell Lowell's The Pioneer. The "Hall" of the title is the haven of quality writing that minor writers aspire to. "Mr. Poe," he wrote, "had gained ready admittance for the sake of his imagination, but was threatened with ejectment, as belonging to the obnoxious class of critics."* Poe's poem "Lenore" was published in the same issue.

The issue impressed Poe enough that he wanted to include Hawthorne as a contributor to his dream journal, The Penn. He wrote to J. R. Lowell asking him to serve as an intermediary on March 27, 1843. By then, Hawthorne had been married to Sophia for about eight months. Two days earlier, Hawthorne had complained to his friend Horatio Bridge about his money situation. "I did not come to see you, because I was very short of cash — having been disappointed in money that I had expected from three or four sources." Those sources likely included Lowell's The Pioneer, which had already gone out of business after only three issues. His financial situation wasn't getting much better when his first child was born. Sophia Peabody Hawthorne gave birth to Una Hawthorne on born March 3, 1844, after a particularly difficult delivery. Five months later, Poe wrote to Lowell and asked, "Do you ever see Mr Hawthorne? He is a man of rare genius."

Hawthorne's great letter to Poe was written from Salem, MA on June 17, 1846. In it, he informs Poe of the upcoming publication of Mosses from an Old Manse and praises Poe's ability to write tales (with a minor pot-shot at Poe's criticism). Five days later, his son Julian Hawthorne was born. After some delay, Godey's Lady's Book published Poe's essay "Tale-Writing — Nathaniel Hawthorne" in its November 1847 issue. By this time, Hawthorne's financial stress was alleviated by a government-appointed job at the Salem Custom-House. The job provided him decent income, but also stymied his literary output; he was forced out of the job in 1848.

Poe died in 1849, a year before the publication of Hawthorne's life-changing work, The Scarlet Letter. I can only speculate what Poe would have thought of the book. My guess is that he wouldn't have cared much for it. The heavy moral tone goes against Poe's theory of the "heresy of the didactic," not to mention how difficult it is to find a novel which Poe liked in general.

Anyway, happy 200th birthday to Sophia Amelia Peabody Hawthorne.

*When republished in Mosses from an Old Manse, Hawthorne excised many of these references. Though he meant it all in good spirit, Hawthorne's use of real names may have impeded his attempts at making money off his writing.

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