July 7, 2021

Enroute to Washington with Lincoln and Hawthorne

By Stuart Mitchner

Unquestionably, Western man though he be, and Kentuckian by birth, President Lincoln is the essential representative of all Yankees, and the veritable specimen, physically, of what the world seems determined to regard as our characteristic qualities.

—Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)

I finished Ted Widmer’s Lincoln On the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington (Simon & Schuster paperback 2020) on the verge of America’s 245th Independence Day and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 217th birthday.

I was enroute to an unqualified appreciation of Widmer’s book when he brought Nathaniel Hawthorne on board his roundabout journey to Lincoln’s inauguration (1,904 miles, 18 different railway lines, at least 100 speeches, and thousands of handshakes). Hawthorne enters the narrative by way of three quotations in the first 105 pages. Discussing the South’s refusal to accept the reality of Lincoln’s election — for “many Southerners ‘Lincoln was not only unlikable, he was unthinkable.’ ” — Widmer introduces the author of The Scarlet Letter (1850) as “a specialist in fantasy” whose “creative powers simply shut down when he tried to imagine a Lincoln presidency.” Reading that comment with the train-in-motion metaphor in mind was like hitting a rough stretch of poorly maintained track — a giant of American literature was being cast as a genre writer, a mere “specialist.” The rough stretch continued with the thirdhand patchwork paraphrase from Carl Sandburg in James R. Mellon’s The Face of Lincoln (1980): “It was the‘strangest’ thing, Hawthorne wrote, and a true measure of the ‘jumble’ of the times, that Lincoln, ‘out of so many millions,’ had prevailed. He was ‘unlooked for,’ ‘unselected by any intelligible process,’ and ‘unknown’ even to ‘those who chose him.’ How could such a nonentity [Widmer’s term] have found a way to ‘fling his lank personality into the chair of state?’ ” While I didn’t doubt that Hawthorne would have been astonished by Lincoln’s election, I found it hard to believe that his “creative powers” could be shut down by a “nonentity.”

Hawthorne’s next appearance came with a turn of the page to a section headed “Secessia,” after a term he would eventually apply to the Confederate States — in Widmer’s words, “as good a name as any for a place that often seemed to be a state of mind as much as a working government.” At this point it’s worth mentioning that Widmer’s stated source was Hawthorne’s long, controversial article in the July 1862 Atlantic, “Chiefly About War Matters,” which includes an in-person view of Lincoln so irreverent (“the homeliest man I ever saw, yet by no means repulsive or disagreeable”) that the article was published anonymously, “By a Peaceable Man,” and even then partially censored by the editors.

Hawthorne’s Train

The third Hawthorne-related passage in Lincoln On the Verge begins with Widmer’s description of the way “the constantly moving panorama” outside the train’s windows “would offer Lincoln a form of escape; a private cinema all his own.” Citing various writers who had “tried to capture that effect,” Widmer mentions Victor Hugo’s “flowers that become streaks of color” and similar images seen in the flow of motion “that anticipated Impressionist paintings”; Ralph Waldo Emerson’s scenes flying past “like the leaves of a dictionary, shuffling quickly”; and finally, Hawthorne’s “kaleidoscopes outside the window, in a nonsensical sequence [Widmer’s phrasing] … an empty solitude … followed by a village … then everything gone again ‘as if swallowed by an earthquake.’ Meetinghouse spires were ‘set adrift from their foundations.’ Everything was ‘unfixed’ and ‘moving at whirlwind speed.’ ”

Widmer’s edited version sacrifices the poetry in motion of the original, which is from The House of Seven Gables (1851) and should be quoted in full, this being, after all, Hawthorne’s birthday week: “Meanwhile, looking from the window, they could see the world racing past them. At one moment, they were rattling through a solitude; the next, a village had grown up around them; a few breaths more, and it had vanished, as if swallowed by an earthquake. The spires of meeting-houses seemed set adrift from their foundations; the broad-based hills glided away. Everything was unfixed from its age-long rest, and moving at whirlwind speed in a direction opposite to their own.”

The passengers on Hawthorne’s train are siblings Clifford and Hepzibah Pyncheon, and since this was their first actual railway journey, it was as though their whole world had been “unfixed from its age-long rest” and was “racing past them.”

Hawthorne’s Cinema

Widmer’s reference to “private cinemas” brings to mind Hawthorne’s account of the moment Clifford Pyncheon “was seized with an irresistible desire to blow soap-bubbles … Behold him, scattering airy spheres abroad from the window into the street! Little impalpable worlds were those soap-bubbles, with the big world depicted, in hues bright as imagination, on the nothing of their surface. It was curious to see how the passers-by regarded these brilliant fantasies, as they came floating down, and made the dull atmosphere imaginative about them.”

Meeting Uncle Abe

Widmer’s numerous diverting, revealing, and often warmly human glimpses of Lincoln are among the special pleasures of Lincoln On the Verge. While most of these views suggest his impact on the public, for better or worse, whether adored or mercilessly mocked in the press, both North and South, no single instance captures Lincoln in the act of simultaneously repelling and attracting a dubious observer as vividly as Hawthorne’s account of his May 1862 audience, a year into the president’s first term. Hawthorne and his publisher James T. Fields were at the White House with a delegation of Bostonians bringing Lincoln the somewhat unusual ceremonial gift of an ivory-handled whip ornamented with a medallion of the president.

Hawthorne’s first impression is of “a tall, loose-jointed figure, of an exaggerated Yankee port and demeanor, whom (as being about the homeliest man I ever saw, yet by no means repulsive or disagreeable) it was impossible not to recognize as Uncle Abe.”

It isn’t long before the more benign nuances of the “home” in “homeliest” come to the surface: “There is no describing his lengthy awkwardness, nor the uncouthness of his movement, and yet it seemed as if I had been in the habit of seeing him daily, and had shaken hands with him a thousand times in some village street; so true was he to the aspect of the pattern American, though with a certain extravagance which, possibly, I exaggerated still further by the delighted eagerness with which I took it in.”

As for his face, it is “as coarse a one as you would meet anywhere in the length and breadth of the States; but, withal, it is
redeemed, illuminated, softened, and brightened by a kindly though serious look out of his eyes, and an expression of homely sagacity, that seems weighted with rich results of village experience.”

By now, “homely” is linked not only to “sagacity” but to a quality evoking home-sweet-home, comfort food, home thoughts, home feelings: “But, on the whole,” Hawthorne writes, “I like this sallow, queer, sagacious visage, with the homely human sympathies that warmed it; and, for my small share in the matter, would as lief have Uncle Abe for a ruler as any man whom it would have been practicable to put in his place.”

These are among the observations the Atlantic editors felt compelled to remove, after admitting that they appear to “have been written in a benign spirit” and perhaps convey “a not inaccurate impression” of the “august subject.” In the end, alas, they lack “reverence.” The editors no doubt were thinking of Hawthorne’s reference to not being able to hear Lincoln “tell one of those delectable stories for which he is so celebrated. A good many of them are afloat upon the common talk of Washington, and are certainly the aptest, pithiest, and funniest little things imaginable; though, to be sure, they smack of the frontier freedom, and would not always bear repetition in a drawing-room, or on the immaculate page of the Atlantic.”

With that last touch, Hawthorne seems to have left the guardians of the “immaculate page” no choice. Finally, what follows reads as if it had been written after the editors took their stand:

“Good Heavens! What liberties I have been taking with one of the potentates of the earth, and the man on whose conduct more important consequences depend than on that of any other historical personage of the century! But with whom is an American citizen entitled to take a liberty, if not with his own chief magistrate?”

While Hawthorne goes diligently, discreetly on, the author who envisioned the private cinema of Clifford Pyncheon has stepped aside: “However, lest the above allusions to President Lincoln’s little peculiarities (already well known to the country and to the world) should be misinterpreted, I deem it proper to say a word or two, in regard to him, of unfeigned respect and measurable confidence. He is evidently a man of keen faculties, and, what is still more to the purpose, of powerful character.”

And so on, and so forth….

In May 26, of the same year, Hawthorne wrote to his friend Horatio Bridge: “Strange to say, this war has had a benevolent effect upon my spirits … it was delightful to share in the heroic sentiment of the time, and to feel that I had a country — a consciousness which seemed to make me young again.” He was 58 and had only two years to live.


In case my sidetrip into Hawthornia suggested otherwise, I enjoyed every page, every mile, of Lincoln On the Verge. It’s a wonderful book, and I hope to devote all my attention to it in next week’s column.