July 4 marked the 200th birthday of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and two new biographies celebrate the bicentennial of the tortured New England novelist.
Brenda Wineapple's Hawthorne: A Life, now in paperback, treats America's first psychological novelist, appropriately enough, psychologically. Wineapple interweaves the melancholy of Hawthorne's writings with the emotional vicissitudes he experienced at the time they were written.
Hawthorne in Concord by Philip McFarland takes a distinctly different approach, spotlighting the years Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne spent at the Old Manse and later at the Wayside in Concord, Mass. For so thin a volume (about 300 pages when you subtract the notes and index), McFarland devotes surprisingly little space to Hawthorne himself, instead recounting the history of Concord (site of the Revolutionary War's outbreak), or digressing to profile Hawthorne's Concord neighbors: Emerson, Thoreau, Longfellow, Margaret Fuller, the Alcotts.
McFarland's choice of focus is also questionable: Hawthorne's years at Concord were not his best. The Old Manse period may have been a prolific one for Hawthorne's short stories, but it was also a time of debilitating poverty for the author. Editors published but would not pay. Returning to Concord years later to live in the Alcotts' former home, which he renamed the Wayside, Hawthorne produced only one novel, the relatively minor Blithedale Romance.
Wineapple better captures the full scope of Hawthorne's literary career, from short stories to novels to wartime essays for Atlantic Monthly, although one wishes she had devoted more attention to the circumstances that produced The Scarlet Letter.
Neither of these books measures up to James R. Mellow's definitive 1980 biography, Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times, but both provide highly readable introductions--in Wineapple's case, to Hawthorne's brooding psychology and, in McFarland's, to the colorful figures who inhabited Hawthorne's world.
By Brenda Wineapple(Random House, 528 pages, $16.95)
Hawthorne in ConcordBy Philip McFarland(Atlantic Monthly Press, 400 pages, $26)