“Everyone is scared, everyone’s alone
Unless hand reach for hand when the trouble comes
All around the world when the dark night falls
We should be sitting around the fire…telling stories.”
– Greg Brown
“I like Nathaniel Hawthorne,” I said quite innocently one summer evening as I sipped my glass of Chardonnay under a lovely, starlit sky with friends. My writer friend looked over at the PhD in Literature friend and they both turned their gaze on me as one and peered incredulously over their glasses. “Na-than-iel Haw-thorne?” they said together – in a TONE that said, “Seriously? You would actually say that out loud? You would defend this publicly?” Then, with a customary snarkiness I have grown to love (and expect) they proceeded to point out quite willingly all of poor Hawthorne’s foibles. Too preachy, obvious metaphors, lugubrious writing, dark, stilted, stale, a thing of the past that should stay in the past. I knew they were right. But I don’t mind admitting that I was bristling inside as I took a larger sip of wine than usual. Poor, set-upon Hawthorne. I wish he were here to defend himself! And why was it that I liked him? I returned home that night, dusted off my trusty 1957 Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume 11, and immersed myself in his life story.
Hawthorne’s world was not a happy one. He was born in Massachusetts, but not just any Massachusetts. His home was Puritanical Salem. His own grandfather had been a judge in the Salem Witch Trials. One of the only judges who did not repent of his verdict. That is why the “w” was added to the family name. To help them hide from this unfortunate truth. Salem, “in the 18th century was a town that enjoyed a temporary prosperity from overseas commerce, and thrifty sea-captains built dignified houses out of the profits of the China trade. Then came a swift decline, the passing of commerce to other ports, and a musty quiet about the wharves.” Hawthorne was a child of this “Salem eclipse.” It was the grim decay of a former prosperity. This was the Salem that fed Nathaniel’s imagination. His father married a young woman from one of the established families of Salem, and when Hawthorne was quite young when he died. Nathaniel was left with his mother and two sisters, in a “strange household reared in a sort of Puritan nunnery with the mother and daughters slipping wraith-like from room to room, fearful of every contact, given to solitude.” Their life was financially meager, but they covered this over with a deep family pride that remembered greater, more prosperous days. However, along with this pride came a repressed, mirthless, and passionless life, and an all-consuming obsession with sin. Nathaniel Hawthorne was steeped in this atmosphere, permanently stained by it down to his soul. He grew into a solitary, aloof person, suspicious of the outer world he didn’t know. And over the years, “a barrier slowly rose about his soul over which he was never willing or able to climb, and within this barrier he dwelt alone.” Later, he was sent off to school, and experienced the wider world. But he never quite recovered from his years in Salem. He managed to confront the Calvanistic dogma of his upbringing and threw it off completely, eventually. “But he could not quite free his mind from the specter of sin that haunted the waking hours of his ancestors.”
Yet Hawthorne was an artist. And the artist who lived a prisoner within that barrier could not entirely be repressed. He began to weave stories in his mind, creating fantastical images in his imagination, finding symbolism in every Puritanical fact that surrounded him, wrestling with questions and longings within. And from that moldering, dank, obsessive world of darkness, he, the artist, discovered… beauty.
How else can you explain Phoebe? Hawthorne’s character Phoebe emerges suddenly like a happy little miracle from one of his darker stories in her beautiful and tender light. In his semi-autobiographical novel, The House of the Seven Gables, we enter a moldering, sagging old house, once prosperous, where lives an elderly spinster named Hepzibah Pyncheon. (Can there BE a better name?) She is near-sighted, which makes her look severe and irascible. In reality, she is timid, anxiety ridden with shouldering the appearances of her aristocratic heritage, dressed in somber black and simple lace with bonnet, wandering from room to room in lonely solitude, clinging solely to family dignity. Outside her door, if she had ventured forth, she would have found a happier world. A town with tradesmen and bustling with people smiling, working, walking in the sun, and blissfully unaware of her old-fashioned and fading way of life. But she does not emerge from her house. She is too afraid to leave its dark security and so she is a prisoner in its world and is unaware that any other world exists.
Enter, by happy fate, little cousin Phoebe, sent to Hepzibah to live for a time. She is a cheerful, light-stepping young woman prone to singing and filled with bright and optimistic thoughts. Phoebe enters Hepzibah’s dark, Puritanical monster of a house and is… undaunted. She is not at all afraid or even repulsed by Hepzibah’s sour face and dowdy clothing. She hugs the poor, surprised woman and stirs a tender space in her old heart. Phoebe moves the furniture around, she dusts, she brings flowers from the overgrown garden into the house and opens the windows. She takes down the solemn, frightening portraits of ancestors and puts up lovely curtains. She bakes cakes and serves Hepzibah tea on her fine but unused china. She breaks all tradition. All this while Hepzibah is simultaneously wringing her worried hands at change, and yet following Phoebe around like an ancient heliotropic plant drinking in a newfound sun. In a series of events sparked by a dark and sinister Pyncheon history, Hepzibah finds herself edging closer and closer to the front door of her dark life. In the end, with Phoebe’s help, she steps over the threshold, closes the door to her sad and moldering past and finds a happier life where love exists and is willing to take her in. Hepzibah at last smiles and walks forward.
In the end, Hawthorne astounded me. He can perhaps be accused of many things, by those who know better than I about literature. But Nathaniel told a story that needed to be told. He wanted us to know he was there behind his wall, with night falling about him. He wanted us to know he tried and failed to fly. He did not want us to forget his valiant effort. He sent his message through a story. I cried real tears at this tale. I cried even more after reading Hawthorne’s life. He climbed nearly to the top of the wall that his past had built up around him. He saw a light over that Puritanical space. And he called it Phoebe, the Greek word for bright dawn. He knew it was there. He longed for it to be there. For “he resented the inhibitions of Puritanism” with its stifling obsession with sin and guilt and lonely despair. But he was unable to trust a more kind and forgiving God. His wounds ran too deep. He could not make the leap. So, Hepzibah leapt for him right over the wall, following Phoebe to a better world. And you can almost hear him crying out in this beautiful story, “Run, Hepzibah! Run! Be free at last, as I could not be.”
For all of us who may be haunted by the past mistakes or hurtful events in our lives, thinking we will never be set free, feeling our wounds and wondering if we too dare pass their dark but familiar threshold, Phoebe beckons with her cheerful face and gives us a hope that we too can cross into the light that holds out its hand to us. And we might hear her whisper, “Nathaniel sent me.”
Denise Trull lives in St. Louis, MO with her husband Tony. She is the artistic director of a small but mighty theater company and loves the written word in all its forms.