Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of the most talented American authors of the 19th century perished on May 19th, 1864. At the time, he was traveling through Plymouth, New Hampshire, in the company of his dear friend and schoolmate, former-president Franklin Pierce. Four years earlier, he had returned from a prolonged sojourn in Europe, having served several years as a diplomat in England, and then settled on the Continent. By the time of his death, however, Hawthorne was succumbing to increasingly-frequent bouts of dementia, and his health was failing. These circumstances inspired me to attempt this little fictionalization of the event. I repeat, this is a work of fiction. Although the characters and locations are historical, be warned that it may not have happened like this.
The Death of Nathaniel Hawthorne
A Tale in Nine Episodes
As told by Franklin Pierce
I. Introduction: The Death of Nathaniel Hawthorne
What occupies the thoughts of Great Men as they feel their bodies die, caught up suddenly with pain and shock, or withering gradually and fading away? Archimedes, intent on his figures, would not seek safety when the enemy invaded Syracuse; a soldier slaughtered him, unaware of his genius. As Archimedes lay dying in that sand, so well suited for drawing geometrical figures, what ran through the greatest mind of his generation? I suppose we can never know for sure. I would like to think, however, that as realization of what was happening dawned on him, Archimedes simply smiled and closed his eyes.
As President, it was my good fortune to know many great men. Only one, however, did I befriend, and only one did I see die. I met Nathaniel during my presidential campaign, as he was commissioned to write a biography of me. I should like to say that Hawthorne was one of those rare men, incredibly gifted and at peace with himself and the world. Sadly, this was not the case. From my perspective, Hawthorne’s life was both happier and more tortured than my own. I have always felt that as a politician I was somewhat mediocre at best, and thus I shall be remembered by posterity. Nathaniel, on the other hand, was already quite successful as a writer when I knew him. And yet, he was a man divided: both fiercely intelligent and deeply spiritual. His life was one long war between these competing aspects, and it was the external manifestation of this conflict, I think, that imbued his fiction with so much poignancy and power.
Looking back on it, I feel partly responsible for his death. It was I who got Nathaniel involved in Politics, and who tore him away from America. Walking with him through New Hampshire, I do not fully understand why he agreed to go. America, land and people, was the lifeblood that ran through his veins. By the time of his return in 1860, Hawthorne was already fading, suffering from bouts of dementia at increasing frequency.
At this point, I was perhaps Nathaniel’s only close friend. He kept getting frailer and frailer, and knowing how much he cherished the great outdoors, I proposed a three-week trek across New Hampshire, while he was still physically capable of it. (Nor was I myself getting any younger, and this was a way I had wanted to see my home state for many years.) Alas, Hawthorne’s mental and physical invalidity was greater than I’d thought. He did not make it home to Concord from that trip.
I’ve not told this tale before, for fear that others would think me mad. I pray you, do not think me so! For I have seen true madness, and lived it too. Know that although in my old age many memories begin to fade, recollection of that night in ’64 has never left my mind. Perhaps I - like one of Hawthorne’s characters - shall find a measure of peace in recounting this tale, as I can only pray Nathaniel himself found, in the end.
II. Our Expedition
While I have always enjoyed the outdoors to a certain extent, Nathaniel was ever the more enthusiastic member of our duo. This should come as no surprise; for more than 20 years he had been acquainted with Ralph Emerson and Henry Thoreau, and if not a member per se of the Transcendentalist clique, Hawthorne was at least closely tied to it. He had been known to spend long periods of time in the wilderness, he had lived for a while on a commune of sorts at Brooks Farm, and of course his writing was saturated with Nature in all its forms. As such, Nathaniel was immediately excited by my New Hampshire proposal, and we planned the trip for early April, hoping (among other things) to look down on the verdant valleys of our fair State from mountains decked with blooming wildflowers.
But the early months of 1864 had been exceedingly cold. Not only had this brought all military operations in Pennsylvania and elsewhere to a halt, but also it had delayed the coming of spring to the highlands of New Hampshire. Because of this, Nathaniel and I reluctantly delayed our trip for a little more than a month, setting out on May 5th. Even this late in the season, many of the trees were only just beginning to bloom, and the air was often chill indeed. Often our hikes were interrupted by flurries of snow up in the mountain peaks, notoriously for their treacherously unpredictable weather. Despite this, the first weeks of our trip passed without incident. By coach, riverboat, and foot we journeyed around the northwest reaches of New Hampshire. By May 18th, we were ready to proceed down towards Newfound Lake, whence we could canoe down the Merrimack to Nathaniel’s home in Concord, where a long, relaxing rest awaited us.
III. Mount Tenney
That day we were in Plymouth, a few miles north of the lake, and we decided to climb a little mountain there, called Mount Tenney, spend the night in an inn, and proceed on our way in the morning. It was mighty cold for May, and dreary, with an icy rain spattering on our shoulders all day long. After waiting in vain until lunchtime for it to stop, we decided to start up regardless.
One might wonder what a washed up politician and an aged writer would have to talk about, hiking up a mountain. The answer is that we discussed what everyone was discussing: the War. Rumor had it that Grant was planning a new offensive campaign, and both Nathaniel and I were somewhat worried about the potential for casualties. Indeed, we both had very mixed feelings about the war in general. While Hawthorne was a fervent abolitionist, he was also a pacifist, and was disturbed by the conflict; I, on the other hand, was more focused on preserving the Union, and was more worried that we would prove incapable of defeating General Lee.
With the conversation grim and the weather even grimmer, it was remarkable that our spirits were so high. We laughed and joked just like in the old days, and Nathaniel was characteristically full of keen observations and insight. Indeed, despite the wetness, it was quite pleasant to be outside. I have found that there are two types of outdoorsmen in the world – I am of one kind; Nathaniel was of the other. Whereas I enjoy hiking through the woods mostly in order to get to the top of the mountain, Hawthorne always seemed to be at peace, wherever he was on the trail. For him, the journey was not merely as valuable as getting to the destination; it was an important part of what defined the destination. No, I don’t really understand either. Perhaps he picked up a bit of Eastern theology from Mr. Thoreau, who’s always struck me as a bit odd, to say the least.
All things considered, I think, it was a very pleasant hike up. I remember being struck, however, by a slight sense of bedraggledness in Nathaniel. Perhaps by this point in our expedition he was becoming physically exhausted; perhaps it was the onset of another bout of mental illness; I knew not at that time. Nonetheless, I felt confident in Hawthorne’s ability to complete our little hike, and was sure that a nice pint of beer that evening would put him right as rain. I certainly didn’t anticipate any dramatic problems.
IV. The Descent
We summited little Mount Tenney without incident. Perhaps you might say this was a reckless decision on our part, but at this point the rain was only just turning to sleet, and the sun was still up when we left the top, at around half past five o’clock. Of course, “up” is a relative term; it would become much darker later that night, but already the woods were gloomy and intimidating. I was glad to have Nathaniel with me, even if he was gradually becoming an old lunatic.
Halfway down the slope, at around half past seven – a pitch-black darkness having already descended upon the sky – things began to go awry. The icy rain shifted oh so subtly into a thick, heavy snow, so that we were practically knee deep by the time we realized it! Bear in mind, this was May, and such a late snow is unusual, even for the mountains of New Hampshire…. An omen, perhaps? But neither I nor Nathaniel, even in his deteriorated state, was inclined to pay much heed to signs from “the gods.” However, our friendly conversation slowed down, and finally stopped. We were too caught up in the discomfort of our cold and wetness, and I feared that hypothermia could beset either one or both of us.
At this point, I began to get worried. Hawthorne was certainly in no state to endure in such conditions – I could see him shivering even then, though he did not slow down for a moment. Indeed, Nathaniel looked almost driven, and I was frightened by the glint of fire in his eyes. Was this the same man I had sent off to Europe some years back?
Our situation was then precarious, but not altogether insurmountable. Indeed, what little moonlight permeated the clouds and the forest canopy glinted off the snowflakes in the air, like so many diamonds, and lent an otherworldly appearance to the woods. Though this light somewhat sinister, relief from the absolute darkness bolstered my own spirits at least. It was just possible, I thought to myself, that Nathaniel and I would look back on this incident and smile at our foolishness, many years hence.
Soon, however, the snow became blindingly thick; it dawned on me – and Nathaniel too, I think – that we could not proceed. Hawthorne shouted to me, barely audible in the blowing wind, that we should try to seek shelter. Still several miles from Plymouth village, I knew that it was hopeless to press on, and began searching for a cave or other enclosure. Nearby, I spotted a little glade, a clearing left behind by the collapse of an enormous old oak, through which ran a small brook, as yet unfrozen by the unseasonable chill. Beneath the upturned root structure of the giant tree was a spacious haven, in which I huddled with Nathaniel.
Remembering that I had my pipe with me, I produced a box of sulphur matches from my pocket, slightly moistened, but perhaps serviceable. I gathered what little relatively dry tinder lay in the shelter of that massive dead tree and attempted to light a small fire. As I worked I cast nervous glances at Hawthorne, who lay totally still, staring in the little smoking inferno I nourished with twig and leaf. I think it was then, more than ever, that I realized just how wracked was Nathaniel’s mind with personal demons and dementias. A sense of sadness, more than fear, came over me, exhausted as I was. At last I got the fire lit reasonably well.
Curled up close by the blaze, Nathaniel and I lay shivering, wondering in all earnestness if we would survive the night. In retrospect, it is odd that I found nothing particularly unusual about our situation; regrettable to be sure, but that a freak snowstorm would catch us up in the mountains in May did not strike me as strange! No, I simply closed my eyes, and drifted off into the stupor that can so often mean death for the hypodermic man.
VI. The Cry
I was awoken with a start by a piercing cry that cut through the sounds of the raging storm. Uncertain of what I heard, I glanced around. My little fire, almost dead by now, cast a feeble light into the forest around us, once more black as pitch – the elfish sparkle of the snow, but not the snow itself, had disappeared. It was then that I noticed Nathaniel was missing.
The cry sounded once more. Stumbling onto my feet, I called out for Nathaniel. Snow blinded me; I groped through the night, shouting repeatedly. But to no avail – whatever had been bolstering Hawthorne’s mental fortifications had collapsed in the wake of extreme physical and emotional stress. It was then that I began to get truly terrified.
What must have he been experiencing that night? The fiendish shrieking continued all through the night, thereafter a sleepless one for me. Of course, it is possible that I was imagining much of this. Perhaps the cries were simply the baying of a fox or wolf, or the calls of birds, refracted by the noise of the storm and warped by my exhausted mind into auditory manifestations of Nathaniel’s demons. Perhaps he had simply stumbled off to urinate, and had been blinded by the snow, and was now shivering somewhere else, unable to find the fire again. Perhaps I should have gone out looking for him.
But I think that there was nothing for me to do. Though it horrified and frightened me to think it, something told me that I would be unable to find Nathaniel in the storm, and that there was no other explanation for the mysterious cries. Does it seem mad? Then I am mad – yet let those ignorant of Hawthorne’s fragile state of mind refrain from scoffing at my account. For know that the passionate psyche which conceived of such brilliant characters and stories could only have been capable of similarly dramatic fits of dementia and unhealthy imaginations.
I passed that night shivering alone by the fire, ‘neath the fallen tree. If sleep came at all, it brought no relief from exhaustion or comfort to my mind.
I suppose I must have slept some after all, for I remember being awoken by the cheerful twittering of birds. The fire had long since died and gone cold. Early morning sunlight shone through the foliage above, warming my back. And strangest of all, but a dusting of snow lay upon the forest floor, fast melting in the heat of a new day. Doubt not that I began to question my own sanity at the sight! Just what of the events of the last night was real, and what imagined? Indeed, I realized, that could scarce have been an earthly storm we had encountered.
And yet, if I was questioning its reality at first, what I next discovered confirmed beyond all doubt what we had experienced. There, not ten yards from the burnt-out fire, lay Nathaniel himself, and in such a state! Lips blue, he lay on his back shivering, teeth chattering, but with bloodshot eyes wide, wide open, as if in terror. Quick, I rushed towards him, and helping him up, I found him cold as ice. I shouted his name, slapped his face – indeed, there was no doubt that he was alive, but he said not a word.
Where I found the strength I do not know, for I was by no means still a young man. However, I picked Hawthorne up and bore him down the rest of the mountain. Along the way he lapsed into a deep, fitful “sleep,” although it would perhaps be more accurate to describe simply as a state of unconsciousness. Regardless, with my friend upon my back, I descended the slope, like sea foam rushing back whence it came.
VIII. Reprise: The Death of Nathaniel Hawthorne
Nathaniel died that day in the local tavern, of what the only doctor in Plymouth pronounced “exposure compounded by long, debilitating illness.” And if the villagers were somewhat curious as to how a man could die of exposure on what everyone seemed to agree had been a relatively mild spring night, well, they kept their questions to themselves, mostly out of respect for the deceased. For myself, I knew not what to think, although the events of that day, the 19th, reaffirmed my unvoiced suspicions of something unusual afoot.
Upon reaching the edge of the village, at around seven in the morning, I dragged Nathaniel and myself into the tavern, where the shocked proprietor was just beginning to go about his morning routine. And then, all was blackness, and my body – tired beyond what I could bear – simply let collapsed. I was awoken some time later, only to learn that the doctor believed Hawthorne’s case to be hopeless, and that I should go to be with him in his final hours. Of course, I went immediately.
I was shocked yet again to find Nathaniel fully conscious, and seeming relatively normal, albeit horribly weak and frail. He smiled faintly as I entered, and greeted me feebly. Rushing to his side, I asked him immediately if he recollected any of the events of the night before. With a hint of sadness, he shook his head, then nodded, and then opened his mouth as if about to speak. Suddenly he was twisted by a convulsive shudder, and moaned. After that, I made no more inquiry. But the look in his eyes, mournful and fraught with what seemed almost like fear, was enough.
Of course, Nathaniel was no fool; he realized that he was dying. He asked me to help him sit up, that he might see the New Hampshire sun shining down on the landscape one last time, through the window. As I did so, he smiled again, and said something like: “Yes, this is just about right.” And with that he closed his eyes.
IX. Epilogue: A Concord Funeral
As per his wishes and those of his family, I accompanied Nathaniel’s body down the Merrimack River to Concord, where I insisted on helping a coroner to prepare the corpse for interment. And if I was somewhat less surprised than the coroner to learn that the Plymouth doctor seemed to have “missed” the fact that both of Hawthorne’s legs, and one of his arms, were broken in several places, I did not show it. Likewise, when we removed his mud stained, but otherwise sound, clothing to wash the body, I was only a little curious as to where the deep, foot-long gashes upon his back had come from. Certainly, no wolf or bear has ever had claws that long, or paws that large. But none of this really seemed all that important, at the time.
Nathaniel was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, near to his friends Henry Thoreau and Ralph Emerson. I believe they call that patch of the cemetery “Author’s Ridge” now; and a rather suitable name it is.
Of course, Sophia Hawthorne was very desirous to know the circumstances of her husband’s tragic death. But she was an intelligent woman, and was aware that in the mountains, these things have a way of happening. For to be sure, Nathaniel had been very sick indeed, and really, he should never have gone on the trip in the first place. And yet she took comfort in the fact that he died doing something he had always loved so much – walking in the beauty of nature – with a good friend like myself.
At the funeral, discussing such matters with Sophia, I merely nodded, and said: “Yes, I suppose it was a suitable end to a life such as his.” And I walked slowly away from the bright new marble stone that marked his grave, unable to wrest the image of Nathaniel’s craven eyes, or the sound of those hellish cries, from my mind.
This work (by me is in the public domain