Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Art, anhedonia, and family psychodynamics in the creativity of Nathaniel Hawthorne

Stephen Martin

Fig 1. Sophia Amelia Peabody. Villa Menaggio, Lago di Como, 1839–40. © 2007 Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA. Photograph by Dennis Helmar.

There are interesting questions about how the mental phenomenology of the great writer Nathaniel Hawthorne1 drove his work. His supreme narrative gift and engaging observation were shadowed by anhedonia, which is a complete or partial lack of the ability to experience pleasure and a hallmark of clinical depression. In modern criteria,2 major depressive disorder can have partial anhedonia. Anhedonia is heavily weighted in clinical diagnosis.

Manic energy in some writers can drive wit, creativity, and speed. There are plenty of accounts of their own depression by accomplished authors, but Hawthorne is different. His experiences of dark mood with a strong sense of lacking enjoyment seem to be a driving force behind his observations, perhaps an expiation of deep darkness.3

When Hawthorne was four, he lost his father to yellow fever contracted in Suriname, South America while captaining a merchant vessel. Hawthorne also had a sick daughter, Una. She apparently caught malaria in Italy and was given treatment for it at school in Southport, Lancashire. She was also diagnosed with an episode of typhus. Later, she became psychotic and was admitted to an asylum, dying in her early thirties. Una’s psychosis begs the question of genetic versus acquired causation, but is difficult to untangle historically. Even at age ten, Una could write beautifully, with both her calligraphy and verbal ability.4

At school, Hawthorne chose his “own fancies” over the curriculum. He was pathologically shy and silent in gatherings. His sensitivity was raw when he was hurt by a girl’s suicide. Unable to feel full joy, he said the birth of his child was a “sober and serious kind of happiness,”5 implying partial anhedonia. Herman Melville described Hawthorne’s writing as part “sunlight” and “like the dark half of the physical sphere—is shrouded in a blackness ten times black.”6

Was Hawthorne ill with clinical depression, at least at times? Anhedonia is a hallmark of entrenched depression. A distinct area of reduced frontal brain function is seen with anhedonia on functional neuroimaging.7

Fig 2. Sophia Amelia Peabody. Isola San Giovanni, Lago di Maggiore, 1839–40. ©2008 Peabody Essex Museum. Photograph by Walter Silver.

However, the paintings by his wife Sophia8 shone with pleasure for Hawthorne (Figs 1, 2), who called them “an infinite enjoyment.” An accomplished professional artist, her sale of inlaid fire screens and painted lampshades kept them afloat while he wrote The Scarlet Letter.9 Sophia had worked hard at art studies, having had such severe, chronic headaches that she believed she would never marry. Hilda, a gentle copyist in The Marble Faun10 resembles Sophia, but so too does Miriam, a mysterious, sensuous, original artist.11 Miriam’s pursuit by a “mysterious, evil genius” also begs the question of Hawthorne’s own projection, if you equate evil with darkness. Early in the book, Miriam is “rescued from a labyrinth of gloomy mystery.”12

After Hawthorne’s death, Sophia edited his English Notebooks.13 Modestly, the first edition does not bear her name anywhere, merely “The Editor,” referring to herself with masculine pronouns. Her preface noted “an often expressed opinion that Mr Hawthorne was gloomy and morbid,” yet emphasized that his “outward mood” was “always cheerful and equal.” His “airy splendour of wit and humour was the light of his home.” Sophia felt “his vivid sympathies and imagination often made him sad in [sic] behalf of others” and “he also perceived morbidness where it existed instantly” while remaining cheerful.

Was he just sensitive and not anhedonic? When you read Hawthorne, decades of anhedonia analysis and gut feeling say his pervasive dark ideas were more than that. You do not want to wield the sword of biological reductionism. There is no desperation to pin on a diagnosis, but there is no escaping that Hawthorne was fighting darkness.

When the murderer Donatello meets Miriam in The Marble Faun, he is afraid of her beckoning him “into the darkness … I am apt to be fearful in old gloomy houses, and in the dark. I love no dark or dusky corners.” Hawthorne described the statue of the Marble Faun as “an amiable and sensual creature, easy, mirthful, apt for jollity, yet not incapable of being touched by pathos.” That sounds like Hawthorne projecting what Sophia wrote of him. He considered that the Faun “might be educated through the medium of his emotions.”14

G.S. Hillard described Hawthorne “delineating the night-side of human nature … his genius found congenial employment in painting the struggles of a heart burdened with the weight of a secret and unconfessed sin, and in portraying lives … fair and goodly outside, but spotted with guilt and shame within. He is the searcher and analyzer of dark bosoms.”15 Guilt and shame also echo modern diagnostic depressive cognitions. Hawthorne’s was not a personal guilt to be confessed, but one of inevitability from the biblical Fall of Man. He was much troubled by his ancestor Judge John Hathorne’s role in the Salem witch trials.16 Depressive neurochemistry exaggerates historic shame in the present.

Hawthorne did warm to outstanding views, describing Durham with its cathedral as “grand, venerable, and sweet, all at once; and I never saw so lovely and magnificent a scene, nor, being content with this, do I care to see a better.” He struggled to capture Furness Abbey: “I have made a miserable botch of this description … merely an attempt to preserve something of the impression it made on me, and in this I do not appear to have succeeded at all.” Interestingly, in his very good description, he mixed sunlight with “haunts of dead monks” and “dark nooks.”13 One suspects without his gift of supreme verbal ability and intellect, the blackness may have been more engulfing.

Fig 3. Redcar sea front, Yorkshire, late nineteenth century. Postcard, © author’s collection. Free reuse for academic and non-commercial purposes. Nathaniel Hawthorne finished The Marble Faun in the first white cottage from the left.

There was always some kind of dark pressure. He wrote to his friend Francis Bennochabout being “stymied by financial uncertainty.”17 Planning The Marble Faun in Rome, he said to Bennoch that he hated the place. His family enjoyed visiting temples and churches while he was ill and could not write, but felt he had to in order to meet expenses. In the Faun he emphasized Rome as “a heap of broken rubbish thrown into the great chasm…we find it built over its grave … like the dead corpse of a giant decaying for centuries.”18 He further reflected “everywhere moreover a Cross—and nastiness at the foot of it. As the sum of all, there are recollections that kindle the soul, and a gloom and languor that depress it beyond any depth of melancholic sentiment that can be elsewhere known.” His intellectual satisfaction with recollections, not aesthetic pleasure, is an interesting mental mechanism. Rome has many beautiful fragments.

In 1859, the Hawthornes stayed in an old Yorkshire fisherman’s cottage on the seafront at Redcar for three months (Fig 3) while Hawthorne finished The Marble Faun. He told Bennoch:

We have at last found a resting place as above. It is as bleak and dreary a strip of sand as we could have stumbled upon, had we sought the whole world over; and the gray German ocean tumbles in upon us, within twenty yards of our door. But the children like it and the roses already blow in all their cheeks. It suits my purposes, likewise; and I mean to write all the mornings, and moisten myself with the sea-spray (not to mention other liquids) in the afternoons and evenings.19

How much he drank is not documented.

In contrast, his son Julian described pleasant walks inland, red sunsets, and that Hawthorne’s health improved in Redcar.20 They chose it for seclusion after Rome. Elizabeth Gaskell set Sylvia’s Lovers in nearby Whitby where she stayed at the same time. Henry Bright, Hawthorne’s friend, suggested they might meet, the Yorkshire Coast being a draw for the ideas of authorship.21

The Hawthornes moved to Leamington, staying in England under pressure to publish there so as not to risk unprotected, sole American copyright.

Sophia was ill with bronchial symptoms22 for months in 1860, which concerned Hawthorne, who was wondering about moving to Richmond. Another letter tells of Hawthorne’s complete aversion to lecturing in public.23 In the same year, Sophia described another common mid-nineteenth-century stress, expressing grief and sympathy to her friends who lost their only daughter. She said her feelings deepened having nursed Una through serious illness, apparently the malaria, with “reassurance through faith in God’s wisdom and consolation.”24 Hawthorne was gloomy about outbreak of the American Civil War back home.25

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow described The Marble Faun as a “wonderful book” but with “the old, dull pain in it that runs through all of Hawthorne’s writings.”26 John Lothrop Motley wrote to Hawthorne: “I like those shadowy, weird, fantastic, Hawthornesque shapes flitting through the golden gloom which is the atmosphere of the book.”27,28

Anthony Trollope loved Hawthorne describing Rome “with a wonderful power of expression,”29 despite his professed misery there. Intended as an allegory of the Salem Quaker sin ethos, the book also succeeded as tourist reading material in Rome, Hawthorne’s descriptive intelligence triumphing over his restricted sense of pleasure.

It apparently took superlative, beautiful architecture in landscape or the gently romantic paintings of his very dear Sophia to activate Hawthorne’s sense of pleasure, where in others more pleasure would have been felt for lesser beauty. As anhedonia wanes, some people tie it to a sense of reconnecting to others.

Usually, anhedonia is a black, draining, and negative experience, emptiness sheathed in a gamut of depressed mood, ideas, and behavior change. At worst, it is just an emptiness. It is a creative paradox that Hawthorne was so close to anhedonia, with extraordinary reflections from the interface of light and dark. The sea at Redcar is not always gray, but often changes color. Sunny skies turn the sea bright blue.

Full image credits

Fig 1. Sophia Amelia Peabody. 1809 Salem, Massachusetts – 1871 London, England. Villa Menaggio, Lago di Como, 1839-40, oil on canvas. Frame (Outer) 13 3/8 x 16 1/2 x 2 1/4 in. (33.97 x 41.91 x 5.72 cm) H x W x D Gift of Joan D. Ensor, in memory of her mother, Imogen Hawthorne, granddaughter of Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne, 2004. 138520 © 2007 Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA. Photography by Dennis Helmar.

Fig 2. Sophia Amelia Peabody. 1809 Salem, Massachusetts – 1871 London, England. Isola San Giovanni, Lago di Maggiore, 1839-40, oil on canvas. Frame (Outer) 13 1/4 x 16 3/8 x 2 1/4 in. (33.66 x 41.59 x 5.72 cm) H x W x D Gift of Joan D. Ensor, in memory of her mother, Imogen Hawthorne, granddaughter of Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne, 2004. 138521 ©2008 Peabody Essex Museum. Photograph by Walter Silver.

End notes

  1. Sylvia Karasu, “Hawthorne’s The Birthmark: A failure to find a perfect future in an imperfect present,” Hektoen International, Winter 2017. https://hekint.org/2017/03/04/hawthornes-the-birthmark-a-failure-to-find-a-perfect-future-in-an-imperfect-present/. This most intelligent article looks at a different aspect of Hawthorne and is compatible with the arguments here. Please read it, too, for images of Hawthorne. His dates: b. Salem MA 1804-1864 d. Plymouth NH.
  2. American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, Text Revision. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association, 2022. Strictly, anhedonia means total lack of ability to experience pleasure, but the term is used flexibly.
  3. To expiate was a mental mechanism used by Hawthorne’s critic D.H. Lawrence. Maybe he understood Hawthorne through shared mental processes.
  4. Una Hawthorne to Sophia Hawthorne, July 10, 1857, in Sophia Peabody Hawthorne collection of papers, New York Public Library Archives & Manuscripts. http://archives.nypl.org/brg/19171#c764620. She still outlived both of her parents, living 1844-1877.
  5. Nathaniel Hawthorne. Letter to George S Hillard, Spring 1844, re Una’s birth. Extracted as secondary source from: Frank Preston Stearns. The Life and Genius of Nathaniel Hawthorne. J B Lippincott Co, Philadelphia, 1906. Available online: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/7170/7170-h/7170-h.htm
  6. Herman Melville, Hawthorne and his Mosses. Literary World, 1850.
  7. Shown in repeated studies to be in the brain’s subgenual cingulate gyrus, in Brodmann area 25 (Cg25).
  8. Sophia Amelia Peabody Hawthorne, b. Salem MA 1809-1871 d. London Eng. Her oil portrait is in the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA.
  9. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter. OUP, Oxford, 1990. First published in 1850.
  10. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Marble Faun. OUP, Oxford, 2002. First published in 1860.
  11. Patricia Dunlavy Valenti, “Sophia Peabody Hawthorne: A Study of Artistic Influence,” Studies in the American Renaissance, 1990, pp. 1-21.
  12. Hawthorne, Marble Faun, Chapter IV.
  13. Passages from the English Notebooks of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Ed. Sophia Peabody Hawthorne. Strahan and Co, London, 1870. Sophia had been asked to write for The Atlantic Monthly as early as 1859.
  14. Hawthorne, Marble Faun, Chapter I.
  15. “The English Note-Books of Nathaniel Hawthorne,” The Atlantic, September 1870. https://theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1870/09/the-english-note-books-of-nathaniel-hawthorne/376156/.
  16. The judge presided in the 1692 witch trials and featured in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, allegorizing McCarthy’s anti-communism hearings.
  17. Archival resources of the Virginias, Virginias Academic Library Consortium (VIVA), box folder 2:53 N[athanie]l Hawthorne to [Francis] Bennoch, 1857 October 28. #6429-a. https://ead.lib.virginia.edu/vivaxtf/view?docId=uva-sc/viu03997.xml. Catalogues The Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature, Special Collections, The University of Virginia Library, Accession no 6249: The Papers of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Series II: Letters by and Related to Nathaniel Hawthorne. All letters summarized and referenced as per box file number and letter source. Bennoch was a silk merchant and poet.
  18. Hawthorne, Marble Faun, Chapter 12.
  19. VIVA, box folder 2:55 N[athanie]l Hawthorne to [Francis] Bennoch, 1859 July 23 #6429-a. The letter gives the address, allowing us to identify the cottage the Hawthornes rented at the back of the plot of Mrs. King’s Guest House. It is still called King Street but, sadly, the building is gone. With Hawthornesque decay, it is now a car park, with no commemorative plaque. The adjacent brick tower is the lifeboat house lookout, a battleground against the North Sea swallowing shipwrecked souls, not a bad place for Hawthorne’s reflection. The name “German ocean” was dropped around the First World War.
  20. Julian Hawthorne, Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife: A Biography, vol. 2. The University Press, Cambridge, 1884. Google Books. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=TVoPAQAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false. JH dates: 1846-1934.
  21. Hawthorne J, op cit. Bright was a Liverpool merchant, poet, and historian, whom Hawthorne had met in Massachusetts. Bram Stoker’s Whitby gothic inspiration for Dracula was later, in 1890.
  22. VIVA, Hawthorne to Bennoch, box folder 2.59, 27 Jan 1860; Box folder 2.61 4 Mar 1860; Box folder 2.64 26 April 1860. #6249-a, -c.
  23. VIVA, Hawthorne to L A Surette, box folder 2.69, 10 Oct 1860. #6249-a. His childhood character had endured.
  24. VIVA, Sophia to Mr and Mrs Waterston, box folder 2.7, 2 Dec 1860. #6249-a.
  25. VIVA, Hawthorne to Bennoch, box folder 2.72, 17 Dec 1860. #6249-a.
  26. Brenda Wineapple, Hawthorne: A Life. NY: Random House, 2003.
  27. Edward Mather, Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Modest Man. Thomas Y. Crowell, 1940.
  28. Discussed in: Thomas Woodson, “‘Hawthornesque shapes’: The picturesque and the romance,” Studies in the Novel 23, no. 1, Hawthorne in the nineties, Spring 1991, pp. 167-82. Also quoted in Susan Manning’s preface to the Oxford World Classics Edition of The Marble Faun, op cit.
  29. Anthony Trollope, “The Genius of Nathaniel Hawthorne,” The North American Review 129, no. 274, Sep. 1879, 203-22.

STEPHEN MARTIN is an honorary professor of psychiatry who runs a museum and education project in Thailand. 

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 15, Issue 4 – Fall 2023

Summer 2023




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