I’ve done a lot of reading in my lifetime, but up until a few weeks ago there was one “great American author” of whose many works I had read none. Why? Well, I had tried. Honestly, I really had, but without any luck.
One day in 1948, after yet another high school teacher told us that Nathaniel Hawthorne was a great writer, I went to the library and found what was said to be his best book, “The Scarlet Letter.” I knew that it was about a woman in 1640s New England who had given birth to a child out of wedlock and was forced to wear a large scarlet letter A, which stood for adulteress.
To a high school kid, it sounded a lot like a soap opera, but I checked the book out and took it home, determined to read it with an open mind.
Opening the book, I turned to chapter one, which Hawthorne had titled “The Custom House.” An hour later, after wading through 40 pages of stuff as dull as ditchwater, I discovered that I had wasted my time. It was not the beginning of the novel; it was 40 pages of Hawthorne autobiography, which the author had dared to tack onto the start of his book.
Bingo! One angry teenager took one %$#@! book back to the library.
Naturally, Hawthorne became a closed subject; but recently, purely by accident, I ran across something he wrote called “Our Old Home,” which sounded like more ditchwater, but was said to be “keenly observant.” Curious how anything of Hawthorne’s could be “keen,” which means enthusiastic, I took a look.
The book originated when Franklin Pierce was elected president in 1853 and appointed Hawthorne to be the U.S. Consul in Liverpool. It was a very lucrative position, but Hawthorne served only three years of what he called “consular servitude.” Then he resigned, visited Rome, went home, and wrote “Our Old Home,” which describes his days spent observing the English people, England in general, and Americans who came to the Consulate needing help. Apparently without even trying, he penned some things that made people very angry on both sides of the ocean.
Describing his office in the Consulate as dark and suffocating, he speaks of his fellow Americans this way:
“I recollect one odd, stupid, fat-faced individual, a country shopkeeper from Connecticut, who had come over to England solely to have an interview with the queen. He had a fantastic notion that he was rightful heir to a rich English estate.”
“A respectable-looking woman, exceedingly homely, but decidedly New Englandish, came to my office with a great bundle of documents, containing evidences of her claim to the site on which all the principal business part of Liverpool has long been situated.”
Describing strolls through the English countryside, Hawthorne was unable to avoid interlacing his descriptions with acidic remarks about “watery sunshine” and an “ungenial climate.”
Speaking of quiet rural by-paths winding across green fields he says:
“Their antiquity probably exceeds that of the Roman days, and the natural flow from village to village has kept the track bare ever since. An American farmer would plow across any such path.”
Describing a fair in London, he says:
“The unfragrant crowd was exceedingly dense ...”
And he adds comments about:
“... spiteful little showers of rain” and “the possibility of getting your pocket picked.”
Neither America nor England responded happily to his book.
Well, I’ve really tried to be open minded about Hawthorne, but I give up. There’s a limit to everything. Right?