Nathaniel Hawthorne, Forgotten Antiwar Champion

The New York Times’ Disunion series has an excellent essay on Nathaniel Hawthorne by Cynthia Wachtell, author of “War No More: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature, 1861-1914.” In 1863, Hawthorne wrote to an English friend: “The war-party here do not look upon me as a reliably loyal man, and, in fact, I have been publicly accused of treasonable sympathies.”

The article notes: “In Concord, where Hawthorne moved in 1860 after spending seven years abroad, he found himself out of step with his old friends Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau (who died in May 1862), as well as others of his neighbors.” There was perhaps more enthusiasm for going to war in Massachusetts than in any other northern state. While Ralph Waldo Emerson initially supported the war, he made sure that his son was not conscripted into the Union meat-grinder. Hawthorne, in an essay he wrote after spending time in Washington, DC, and Virginia, scoffed at the glorification of the conflict. Wachtell notes: “Hawthorne tramples on the era’s well-respected literary conventions and proprieties: he does not adopt a strident tone of Union partisanship. He does not offer mournful lines about the deaths of brave and beautiful soldiers. He does not deliver the sort of rousing or circumspect reporting that routinely filled Northern newspapers and magazines.”

“Hawthorne refused to adhere to the restrained and respectful norms of wartime writing, and he expressed none of the standard wartime pieties. Instead, he used black humor to devastating effect. Describing battlefield deaths, he wrote, ‘A bullet offers such a brief and easy way, such a pretty little orifice, through which the weary spirit might seize the opportunity to be exhaled!’

“Where others saw a noble war to end slavery and preserve the Union, Hawthorne saw a questionable conflict that claimed the lives of young men, empowered inept generals, and seemed unlikely to end with a subdued South…”

Hawthorne suffered “the opprobrium of his neighbors. Acquaintances shunned him, while old friends could only shake their heads… No topic is beyond the reach of his wit: not generals, not the war dead, not even the Northern martyr and darling of the transcendentalists of Concord, John Brown.”

I have been a huge fan of Thoreau and Emerson since I was 18.  But seeing how they embraced war as a means of moral/national uplift — sad to see those philosophers go wrong. Emerson was skeptical of government – except when folks proposed that it launch a bloody crusade.

UPDATE:  A more accurate title for this post would have been “Nathaniel Hawthorne, Civil War Scoffer.”  But it is too late to change it now without throwing off any & all links.

10 thoughts on “Nathaniel Hawthorne, Forgotten Antiwar Champion”

  1. “Nathaniel Hawthorne, Civil War Scoffer" would definitely have been a better title. And an even better title might be, "Nathaniel Hawthorne, Democratic Party Hack."

    Read Chapter 4 ( of Hawthorne's 1852 campaign biography of his college friend, Franklin Pierce — who would reward Hawthorne with the U.S. consulship in Liverpool, one of the most succulent plums in the entire federal patronage system — and see his glorification of Pierce's military service during the Mexican War. Hawthorne was not anti-war or anti-imperialism, quite the contrary, and he first became drawn to Democratic politics through Andrew Jackson, who was most definitely not a pacifist, to say the least. Very simply, Hawthorne was a pro-slavery Democrat.

    And incidentally, I happen to consider Hawthorne the fourth greatest American writer (after Henry James, Mark Twain, and Emily Dickinson, in that order — to pirate and rewrite a line from Bill Kauffman, I'm a love child of Charlotte Brontë and Henry James). Among American novels, I consider The Scarlet Letter second only to Huckleberry Finn; and among American short stories, I consider Hawthorne's tales second only to the (usually not very short) stories of Henry James. But get the facts right on Hawthorne's biography. He is no "Forgotten Antiwar Champion."

    1. My apologies on that link. Antiwar's html coding is including the parentheses in the link. Cross-my-fingers, this may work better:

      If there's still a problem with it, try a copy-and-paste or else google Hawthorne's biography of Pierce, which should be available through multiple on-line sources.

    2. Henry James? Seriously? It is more likely that Hawthorne changed his mind about politics just like Lincoln did after denouncing Polk during the Mexican-American "war"; people are afforded the luxury of changing their mind about things. I couldn't cite a source but I know in school I was given the impression from several professors that Hawthorne thought of his support of Pierce a mistake later in his life.

      1. "Hawthorne thought of his support of Pierce a mistake later in his life"? I'm afraid these professors were trying to whitewash Hawthorne. In the last days of Hawthorne's life, he and Pierce were on a tour of New Hampshire in an effort to revive Hawthorne's health (stomach cancer? perforated ulcer? I'm not sure the precise diagnosis) when Pierce found Hawthorne's body after Hawthorne had died in bed in his sleep.

        I remember some speaker at the 2004 Hawthorne bicentennial (Minute Man National Historical Park) who sua sponte admitted that Hawthorne might have been a bit pro-slavery but that that was something to be expected in that era. Whitewash?

        Oh, and as to Henry James, my recollection is that he is one of Harold Bloom's favorite novelists (though Harold Bloom is one of my less favorite critics). I must admit to a Brontëan partiality, though, being one of those lunatics who rejects the Copernican theory and places Haworth Parsonage at the center of the universe.

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