The New England flowering of philosophers, novelists and poets in the early 19th century produced a literary crop that is still influencing our writing and thinking today. Philosophers and essayists continue to quote Emerson. Nonfiction writers revere Thoreau. And novelists and short story writers, especially John Updike, bow toward Hawthorne.
Many readers, however, know Hawthorne's reputation but not the man. Philip McFarland aims at both audiences in his vivid and dramatic book, Hawthorne in Concord, released to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Hawthorne's birth. Although his detail and extensive notes will satisfy academics, he writes without assuming that a reader has prior familiarity with the subject. He is also admirably concise in this age of bloated biographies.
McFarland's focus on Concord provides a good perspective on Hawthorne's life. The novelist lived there three times, at three crucial periods in his own life and in that of his young nation. The book begins with the 1842 marriage of handsome, promising Nathaniel Hawthorne and bright but seriously ill Sophia Peabody. Provided with enough texture and emotional drama for a period novel, we find ourselves caught up in the prospects of this fascinating man whose writing was marked by so much imagination and compassion.
In the early days in Concord, Hawthorne struggles and almost fails at his chosen career. He and Sophia finally move in with his mother because he can't make ends meet as a writer. Then, in the wake of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne triumphantly reclaims Concord only to be chosen as a consul to England.
Hawthorne's third period in Concord rounds out this parable of the stages of a man's life. Ill with what now seems to have been intestinal cancer, Hawthorne, with the devoted Sophia by his side, struggles with his writing and his mortality. It is a tribute to McFarland's skills that we are so moved by the inevitable end of a biography.