Julian Hawthorne: The Life of a Prodigal Son

If you’re going to read about the life of a writer, it seems like common sense to choose a great writer. The bigger the achievement, the more it stands in need of explanation; we hope that by reading about Shakespeare or Jane Austen as people, we will come to understand their work better, to see how they transformed the materials of their lives into the stuff of imagination. But as any reader of literary biography knows, it is precisely the greatest writers who are most resistant to this kind of interpretation. The gap between a writer’s life and her work can only be explained by genius — which is to say, it can’t really be explained. As a result, what we mostly learn about when we read a writer’s biography is all the things about her that are not unique: her world, her times, her way of living and thinking, all of which were shared by millions of anonymous contemporaries.

Perhaps, then, what we need is a new school of literary biography that avoids major writers entirely and focuses only on bad or minor ones. Unimportant writers leave just as much documentation as major ones — sometimes more, since they write too much — making them ripe subjects for a researcher. Yet they spare us the need to turn biography into criticism, since we don’t care too much about their books. And there’s another advantage: the great writer’s life is usually rather dull, since he spends the best part of it at a desk writing. A minor writer is more likely to have time to fit in all kinds of adventure and scandal.

Julian Hawthorne: The Life of a Prodigal Son, the new biography by Gary Scharnhorst, is a case in point. There have been endless books written about the life and work of Nathaniel Hawthorne; this is the first biography ever devoted to his only son, who lived from 1846 to 1934. Yet during his lifetime, Julian Hawthorne was a much more prolific author than his father ever was. As a professional hack, he turned out millions of words of prose in every genre, from trashy novels to sensationalistic reporting to sportswriting to memoir. And while all of this work is now thoroughly dead — the only book by Julian that people might still read today is, ironically, his biography of his parents — the man himself comes through in Scharnhorst’s pages as bursting with life. In place of his father’s introversion and melancholy, Julian exhibited a frank rascality that made him trying to live with but lots of fun to read about.

The Concord Transcendentalists were great theorists about child rearing but seldom great parents — Bronson Alcott, whose family starved as he pursued experiments in education, is the classic example. If Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne had a flaw as parents, it was that their children, especially the handsome Julian, could do no wrong in their eyes. Sophia, Scharnhorst writes, “regarded Julian as ‘the son of a King…anointed by Heaven,’ ” and Nathaniel “joked that ‘if Julian sent for mamma’s head, I suppose she would do it up in a bundle’ and send it.’ ” He was educated at home in a ramshackle fashion, as the family followed Nathaniel’s diplomatic career from America to England to Europe and back, and grew up lacking in both knowledge and, fatefully for his adult life, self-discipline.

In late recollections, Julian portrayed himself as a simple and direct child, full of appetites: visiting the Vatican gallery with his parents, he saw a huge vase and declared that he wished “he had it full of soup.” Soon these appetites turned towards sex, and he gained an early appreciation of the female form by looking at Greek statuary. On one unforgettable occasion in Florence, where the Hawthornes befriended the expatriate American sculptor Hiram Powers, the young Julian caught a glimpse of Powers’s daughter posing nude: “I had a glimpse of a white pair of shoulders and a bosom such as Venus or Hebe might have been glad to own. Boys of eleven seldom enjoy such a privilege.” Such leering reminiscences, drawn from Julian’s own memoirs, paint a convincing portrait of the author as a young rake, as Scharnhorst writes: “He took pride in ‘making a woman forget her reserve and womanly modesty, merely for the pleasure of being able to turn her sacrifice and self-forgetfulness into ridicule afterwards…. I exulted in whatever power I possessed over weaker hearts and spirits, and…I exercised it without scruple or conscience.’ “

Julian was equally unconscientious, and far less energetic, when it came to his studies. He managed to get into Harvard after cramming for the entrance exams, but once there he was far more interested in bodybuilding, boxing, and long-distance running than in studying math and Latin. (Everyone who knew the young Julian commented on his good looks and splendid physique.) He achieved the difficult feat of failing out of the college, despite being given many second chances, and a few desultory attempts to study to become an engineer also came to nothing.

In 1870, Julian married a German-American girl, Minne Amelung, urged on by the frank sexual passion that pulsates in his letters to her: “I will kiss you until your mouth is dry; that you will have to spend a whole day in kissing me, so as to get some moisture again.” (They would keep the spark alive long enough to produce nine children.) Now responsible for supporting a family and with no real skills or job qualifications, Julian turned to the family trade and whipped up a 7,000-word story in a single weekend, for which he was paid $50 by Harper’s Weekly. “If I could make $50 every three or four days by writing such stuff, it was plain that literature was a more remunerative business than was engineering,” he reflected, and a career was launched.

In a sense, Julian picked just the right time to become a professional writer. As Scharnhorst writes, “Publishing was a growth industry.” In the 1870s there were 7,000 newspapers in America; by 1900, there were 19,000. And that doesn’t include the magazines and book publishers, all voracious for stories to sell. Yet as Scharnhorst goes on to describe Julian’s career, in remarkable detail, it becomes clear that the life of a writer was a hard one. To make a decent living you had to write a lot, all the time, for anyone who could pay. Artistry on the Henry James model was out of the question for someone with Julian’s financial burdens, even had he been capable of it.

Instead, he turned out absurd novels full of supernatural devices and steamy love scenes; and while the critics were at first willing to give him the benefit of his last name, in time they accused him of prostituting it. Julian himself happily agreed: “You pass your imagination through the ink bottle, and it comes out in the shape of bread and meat, coats and shoes.” Even so, it was a constant struggle. Living in England, he was on the run from creditors and finally had to declare bankruptcy. Back in America, he used his father’s papers to concoct “newly discovered” Nathaniel Hawthorne stories to sell to magazines. The whiff of scandal was never far away: he got in trouble for publishing an embarrassing off-the-record interview with James Russell Lowell and for nastily abusing Margaret Fuller in a book about his father.

Later he sold his talents to the Hearst papers, helping to whip up the frenzy for the Spanish-American War. (Julian strongly implied he had witnessed the sinking of the USS Maine. In fact, he was in North Carolina at the time.) The nadir of his career was reached in 1913, when he was indicted for his role in a fraudulent silver mining scheme. Once again he had put his pen out for hire, writing thousands of letters to friends and strangers, encouraging them to buy stock in a nonexistent Canadian motherlode. While he always claimed that he believed the mine to be a genuine investment, the court disagreed, and despite his name and high connections he was sentenced to a year and a day in prison.

After all this, Scharnhorst’s revelation that Julian had a secret second family — with a woman named Minna, almost exactly his wife’s name — is hardly even surprising. From the beginning, Julian Hawthorne was a creature of impulse and appetite, with little conscience, artistic or otherwise, to put a brake on his desires. You wouldn’t want to loan him money, or hire him to work for you, or marry him; but to read about him is generally a delightful experience. A bottom-feeder of the Gilded Age, he seems invented as a parable of American moral decline, from the austere Concord of his boyhood to the yellow journalism and stock frauds of the early twentieth century. By rescuing him from oblivion, Gary Scharnhorst makes a good case that it is through such minor lives that a historical era comes most vividly to life.