On Hawthorne’s Mind

What did Hawthorne believe? The author of our classic novel of religious conscience and religious suffering, and of works imbued throughout with religious concerns and religious language, boasted of not being a churchgoer. His baptism, if it occurred, left no trace on the records. His mother, who became a widowed recluse when Nathaniel was only four, did take the boy and his sisters to services at the East Meeting House in Salem, where the Hathornes (the “w” was added by our subject, after college) had had a pew for 170 years—“the old wooden meetinghouse,” Hawthorne was to write, “which used, on wintry Sabbaths, to be the frozen purgatory of my childhood.” At Bowdoin College, he jested of “Sunday sickness” and was frequently fined for missing chapel. From there he wrote his mother, “The being a Minister is of course out of the question. I shall not think that even you could desire me to choose so dull a way of life.”

During his adoring courtship of Sophia Peabody, he rather resolutely declined to accompany her to hear her favorite preacher, the Methodist Edward Thompson Taylor, called Father Taylor and immortalized as Father Mapple in Moby-Dick. Not long after the idyll of their married life together had begun, Hawthorne confided to his notebooks: “My wife went to church in the forenoon, but not so her husband.” As the United States consul in Liverpool, he did conduct family prayer services, in deference perhaps to his official position in Victorian England. But his son Jullan, in his memoir of his father, admitted, “He never discussed religion in set terms either in his writings or in his talk…. Our mother upon occasions expressed her faith and reverence in speech; our father in caverns submarine and unsounded, yet somehow apparent.”

Melville, one of the few men ever to break through Hawthorne’s reserve, held with him, in Lenox in 1850, latenight conversations that Hawthorne in his journal described as “about time and eternity, things of this world and the next, and books, and publishers, and all possible and impossible things”; but he did not record his own position on these deep matters. Five years later, when Melville showed up in Liverpool and they went walking on the nearby links, Hawthorne’ noted: “Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken…. It is strange how he persists—and has persisted in wandering to-and-fro over the deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief.”

In Concord, Hawthorne was skeptical about the Transcendental enthusiasms of Emerson and Channing; in Rome, he was attentive to, but in the end skeptical of, the manifold consolations of the Roman Catholic Church. Puritanically, he disdained dilutions. His short story “The Celestial Railroad” satirizes Unitarianism, and Church of England services he called “mummery, which seemed to me worse than papistry because it was a corruption of it.”…

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