An Excerpt From “Yesterdays with Authors” by James T. Fields, 1870

An Excerpt From “Yesterdays with Authors” by James T. Fields, 1870

The same day [December of 1857 – the year of the death of Franklin Pierce], as the sunset deepened and we sat together, Hawthorne began to talk in an autobiographical vein, and gave us the story of his early life, of which I have already written somewhat. He said at an early age he accompanied his mother and sister to the township in Maine, which his grandfather had purchased.

That, he continued, was the happiest period of his life, and it lasted through several years, when he was sent to school in Salem. “I lived in Maine,” he said, “like a bird of the air, so perfect was the freedom I enjoyed. But it was there I first got my cursed habits of solitude.” During the moonlight nights of winter he would skate until midnight all alone upon Sebago Lake, with the deep shadows of the icy hills on either hand. When he found himself far away from his home and weary with the exertion of skating, he would sometimes take refuge in a log-cabin, where half a tree would be burning on the broad hearth. He would sit in the ample chimney and look at the stars through the great aperture through which the flames went roaring up. “Ah,” he said, “how well I recall the summer days also, when, with my gun, I roamed at will through the woods of Maine. How sad middle life looks to people of erratic temperaments. Everything is beautiful in youth, for all things are allowed to it then.”

The early home of the Hawthornes in Maine must have been a lonely dwelling-place indeed. A year ago (May 12, 1870) the old place was visited by one who had a true feeling for Hawthorne’s genius, and who thus graphically described the spot.

“A little way off the main-travelled road in the town of Raymond there stood an old house which has much in common with houses of its day, but which is distinguished from them by the more evident marks of neglect and decay. Its unpainted walls are deeply stained by time. Cornice and window-ledge and threshold are fast falling with the weight of years. The fences were long since removed from all the enclosures, the garden-wall is broken down, and the garden itself is now grown up to pines whose shadows fall dark and heavy upon the old and mossy roof; fitting roof-trees for such a mansion, planted there by the hands of Nature herself, as if she could not realize that her darling child was ever to go out from his early home. The highway once passed its door, but the location of the road has been changed; and now the old house stands solitarily apart from the busy world. Longer than I can remember, and I have never learned how long, this house has stood untenanted and wholly unused, except, for a few years, as a place of public worship; but, for myself, and for all who know its earlier history, it will ever have the deepest interest, for it was the early home of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

“Often have I, when passing through that town, turned aside to study the features of that landscape, and to reflect upon the influence which his surroundings had upon the development of this author’s genius. A few rods to the north runs a little mill-stream, its sloping bank once covered with grass, now so worn and washed by the rains as to show but little except yellow sand. Less than half a mile to the west, this stream empties into an arm of Sebago Lake. Doubtless, at the time the house was built, the forest was so much cut away in that direction as to bring into view the waters of the lake, for a mill was built upon the brook about halfway down the valley, and it is reasonable to suppose that a clearing was made from the mill to the landing upon the shore of the pond; but the pines have so far regained their old dominion as completely to shut out the whole prospect in that direction. Indeed, the site affords but a limited survey, except to the northwest. Across a narrow valley in that direction lie open fields and dark pine-covered slopes. Beyond these rise long ranges of forest-crowned hills, while in the far distance every hue of rock and tree, of field and grove, melts into the soft blue of Mount Washington. The spot must ever have had the utter loneliness of the pine forests upon the borders of our northern lakes. The deep silence and dark shadows of the old woods must have filled the imagination of a youth possessing Hawthorne s sensibility with images which later years could not dispel.

“To this place came the widowed mother of Hawthorne in company with her brother, an original proprietor and one of the early settlers of the town of Raymond. This house was built for her, and here she lived with her son for several years in the most complete seclusion. Perhaps she strove to conceal here a grief which she could not forget. In what way, and to what extent, the surroundings of his boyhood operated in moulding the character and developing the genius of that gifted author, I leave to the reader to determine. I have tried simply to draw a faithful picture of his early home.