Hawthorne in Concord
By Philip McFarland
Grove, 341 pp., illustrated, $26
Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life
By Charles C. Calhoun
Beacon, 317 pp., illustrated, $27.50
At the Bowdoin College commencement on Sept. 25, 1825, the senior class speaker was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Among the other 36 members of the class, all seated by a grove of pine and fir, was Nathaniel Hawthorne.
From that coincidence of time and place -- framed by Longfellow's prescient commencement address, "Our Native Writers" -- their lives and careers would cross and circle about over the next four decades.
And that sense of a remarkable coincidence and the subsequent intertwining is heightened and illuminated by the appearance of two masterful biographies, both of them warm and vivid in the portrayal of the two men and equally solid in placing them in the context of their times.
It is difficult to consider Philip McFarland's "Hawthorne in Concord" apart from Charles C. Calhoun's "Longfellow, " and had this reader thought about it, it would have been interesting to skip back and forth between the two.
At Bowdoin, the two were not close. Their paths only came together in 1837 when Hawthorne, apologizing for not having been "so well acquainted at college," sent Longfellow, by then professor of modern languages at Harvard, a copy of his newly published "Twice-Told Tales" -- which Longfellow praised in the North American Review.
And while Longfellow never visited Hawthorne in Concord, Hawthorne was several times a guest at Longfellow's home on Brattle Street in Cambridge. And they met frequently at Ticknor & Fields, their mutual publisher on Boston's Washington Street.
Calhoun and McFarland have followed separate tracks in crafting these biographies, with Calhoun giving more attention to Longfellow's literary career and writings than McFarland does to Hawthorne's.
Of "Evangeline," Calhoun writes that "recent scholarship on gender relations in nineteenth-century American culture has revealed [it] as a much more fruitful and complex achievement than it had seemed in the heyday of purely formalist criticism."
Of "Hiawatha," Calhoun notes that it is "still capable of exciting controversy," even for its failure to fully understand Native American oral literature "and its dismissal of the full extent of that people's tragedy."
But, he notes in its defense, in depicting the blessing of the cornfields, Longfellow "seems to have instinctively grasped what later anthropologists would record -- the prevalence across cultures of female fertility rites."
For Hawthorne, Concord is a defining place, even though he only moved there, into the Old Manse, in 1842, after his marriage to Sophia Peabody; left (with the rent paid by a friend) in late 1845; returned as a property owner and parent in 1852, only to leave for Europe the following year, not to return until 1860, four years before his death.
Readers curious about life-before-Concord can turn to Brenda Wineapple's highly regarded 2003 biography, "Hawthorne: A Life" (Random House, paperback, $16.95).
McFarland provides charming glimpses of Hawthorne's life in Concord. There is Margaret Fuller's "unexpected footstep beyond the front door [interrupting] the newly-weds embracing in their hallway."
And Emerson and Thoreau are not just fellow literary figures, but skating companions on the flooded meadows -- Thoreau, Sophia Hawthorne reported, "figuring dithyrambic dances and Bacchic leaps;" Emerson "pitching headforemost, half lying on the air;" and her husband moving "like a self-impelled Greek statue, stately and grave."
Concord also provides the opportunity to explore Hawthorne's politics. Longfellow, who had published seven "Poems on Slavery" in 1842, would have been the better fit in abolitionist Concord. His "closest male friend," as Calhoun puts it, was the antislavery hero Charles Sumner, the Massachusetts senator.
Hawthorne's political friend, on the other hand, was Franklin Pierce. Within days of learning that his Bowdoin classmate, a former (and undistinguished) senator from Maine, had become the dark-horse Democratic presidential candidate in 1852, Hawthorne volunteered to write a campaign biography; "a very difficult and delicate part of [the] task," he acknowledged, would be to deal with Pierce's record on slavery.
Citing that campaign biography, McFarland writes that "Pierce with his practical sagacity would take the Union as he found it. . . while acknowledging . . . the rights pledged to the South in the Constitution."
In 1852, those rights included the Fugitive Slave Law, which was anathema to Hawthorne's Concord neighbors and to Longfellow.
But as McFarland notes, "What did Hawthorne know about slavery anyway?," having "spent his mostly solitary life in New England brooding on history two hundred years old and on matters of the human heart." He "regretted [slavery], as all good people did. And looked away," trusting that "Providence . . . would remove that scourge of bondage . . . in its own good time."
Hawthorne and his family had remained in Europe after he lost his consulship with the change of administrations in 1856. After their return, in 1860, and as the war clouds gathered, Hawthorne wrote an English friend that it might be just as well if the South seceded. "I never loved it," he wrote. And to another English friend, he wrote that "if the worst comes to the worst, New England will still have her rocks and ice, and be pretty much the same sort of place as heretofore."
Michael Kenney regularly reviews for the Globe.