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Passages from the American Notebooks

Nathaniel Hawthorne


(The exercise of a young author’s pen creates images of the New England landscape and its people.) 

The Berkshires in Autumn, from Mount Greylock, Massachusetts. Courtesy of Berkshires.org.

Mrs. Sophia Hawthorne, after the death of her husband in 1864, respected his wish that no biography be written of him.  However, in lieu of this, she released to an eager public three successive volleys of Passages from his journals.  Those written in America were published first, and are perhaps the most interesting in that they focus on his home state of Massachusetts and the early years of his literary career (his thirties).

What did Hawthorne have to say of the abolitionist movement that was gaining ground in the middle years of his century?  And what of President Andrew Jackson, or James Polk?  What of the Indian Wars?  The western Land Rushes?  What was going on closer to home in Boston?  What are the sweet events that culminated in his marriage to Sophia Peabody during these years?  And what did he think of the views she and many of their mutual friends espoused, the Concord-based Transcendentalism?  What are the details of some of the invigorating philosophical, religious, and literary conversations he had with his friends Emerson, Melville, Thoreau, and Longfellow?  How about some insights into some of his unforgettable stories?  How did he arrive at their plots and characters?  And what did he really think of Puritanism and early New England culture?  What are Hawthorne’s straight views on his nation, his culture, humanity, and God?

Ah, sorry folks, none of that here.  Not a single paragraph in this book will satiate curiosity on any of those matters.  This is not a substitute for a biography, nor a series of philosophical reflections, nor a set of backgrounds for his works.  Rather, it is the pen’s exercise by one of our greatest writers– the literary equivalent of a painter’s collection of study sketches.  Expect a conglomerate of tiny nonfiction works on modest topics in New England life.  Expect perceptive outlines of the characters of ordinary people engaged in work and light conversation.  Expect glimpses of the Berkshire countryside or the wharves along Boston Harbor.  Expect crisp pictures of water receding from a foot placed onto wet sand, color in maple leaves building and bleeding through the weeks of October, the curled necks of summer squash piled in a heap, and the languid glide of the Concord River in midsummer.

The beauty in these thumbnail sketches– in the quiet eloquence of their expression and often in the subjects themselves– make this volume worth reading in any time and place.  However, Hawthorne obviously did not intend for them to be published.  The fact that many of the descriptions are artfully rendered is a testament to Hawthorne’s natural gift for writing, and is also an indication of the function of the Notebooks as a whole.  They were sourcebooks, reference material from which the author could draw in the future to inspire or enrich stories.  Even the events of his life, the few that make it into the Notebooks, are not preserved in relation to their importance to his livelihood or loves, but in proportion to their value as resources for literary exploitation.  Some of the entries are well developed, and preserve multiple elements of a single moment’s observation or the summary conclusions from an entire season of experiences.  Other entries are merely rough hints of what he wished to remember.  They vary in literary quality, from a poetic rendering of his emotional response to a scene, to long utilitarian lists of a landscape’s features that could be cobbled together in the future if need be.  These latter entries are not as pleasant to read unless the rural quality of New England is of particular interest to the reader– that is, they have the same sort of value as the writings of a regional naturalist.  Likewise the accounts of people range from the polished and poignant, to the informative but prosaic.  The crafter of words needs not only inspiration and imagination but, like any artisan, a store of mundane objects as well.

Interspersed among the descriptions are passages of a complementary but very different kind, short and visionary.  Each is a preserved theme or plot line for a future story– “a hint of a story”, as the author himself prefaced the first one.  Dozens of these are sprinkled through the years.  These were the entries I found myself most anticipating.  When the next page is marked by several paragraphs of no more than four lines a piece, we can be sure we are to be provided windows into, for the most part, great tales that would never be.  Perhaps a bold writer in our own day may dare take some of these ideas and develop them.

Finally, no man may write a journal, even for his own future reference alone, without betraying his own nature.  Perhaps the reason why more family and personal matters are not represented in these pages is because he didn’t write on such things, or perhaps it is because his widow kept them from the public view.  Nevertheless, we do see the character of Nathaniel Hawthorne in these Notebooks, very clearly in some places, and by inference in many more.  We see a man who wished to appreciate other members of his species whatever their condition or station, and who would indeed like them if they proved to be people of character.  We see a man who generally disliked bureaucracy and politics, tolerated manual labor if it was stimulating to his spirit, enjoyed straying into the countryside and meeting peculiar people, and was moved in the presence of a pretty woman.  We see a man whose favorite season was autumn and who was incessantly in wonder at nature’s structures and changes.  We see a pious, serious, modest, observant, moral man, given sometimes to solemnity, who endeavored to take nothing around him for granted that was worth valuing.  



  • On October 25th, 1835, he dreams up an interesting story worthy of Poe: as an author writes a novel, the plot has a life of its own and develops against his wishes, with catastrophic consequences.
  • In September, 1836, he mentions a work by Kirby, who suggests that there is an abyss under the earth where the supposedly extinct dinosaurs might still be living.  [Jules Verne was only 8 years old at the time, but he would later converge on this idea and run with it in his youthful Journey to the Center of the Earth.]
  • On July 11th, 1837, he says that “the Mainiacs” called for a mobilization of the militia because the British imprisoned an American census-taker.  [I never would have thought this humorous epithet for inhabitants of Maine, so much appreciated today, was so old.  The OED suggests that “Mainite” surfaced in the mid-19th century, and then today’s standard “Mainer” late in the 19th century.  It would be too funny if “Mainiac” predated them both!]
  • On Monday, August 27th, 1837, he repeats a strange story, told to him by a Captain Scott in Boston, of a man whose head was blown off by a cannonball.  Supposedly the man kept walking at the same pace, “two jets of blood gushing from his headless trunk”, for about twenty feet, before collapsing.  [He then mentions that Francis Bacon recorded a similar story.].
  • On August 18th, 1838, he observes that there is a greater tendency to obesity in northwestern Massachusetts than he has noticed elsewhere.
  • On August 19th, 1838, he mentions [but unfortunately does not describe] some “wild argument” at a bar in North Adams between “a sort of mock Methodist” and “a group of Universalists and no-religionists”.
  • On January 4th, 1839, he expresses a leaning towards the fantasy genre—”To make a story of all strange and impossible things,—as the Salamander, the Phoenix.” [Too bad he didn’t do something epic in this area.. but as many children know (or at least as they once knew), his retelling of the Greek myths for children in The Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales does show some flexing of fantasy muscles, within certain strictures.]
  • From the family mansion at Salem on October 4th, 1840, he provides us the best insight in the book into his history and spirit.  It is a wonderful page written from his childhood room, about his desires, the growth of his character, the development of his literary career, and his view of life.
  • From Brook Farm, on September 22nd, 1841, he mentions that “perfect seclusion” is always necessary in order for him to write.
  • On Friday, October 1st, 1841, he offers some interesting observations on the life and personality of pigs.
  • On Saturday, October 9th, 1841, he gives a cute and detailed description of a bubbly coquette.
  • From Concord on August 5th, 1842, he likens life at the Old Manse to paradise.  [This building stands today with much of its original atmosphere and material; it is a property owned and curated for the public’s use by the Trustees of Reservations of Massachusetts– it was once my job to tend the garden and mow the lawn.]
  • From his nonchalant descriptions of apparitions, such as on Monday, August 8th, 1842, it is clear that Hawthorne not only believed in ghosts, but thought them rather commonplace.  This is also shown in September 13th, 1852, along with his teaching someone how to suspend a gold ring over letters to “discover the hidden sentiments”.
  • On August 10th, 1842, from the Old Manse in Concord, he muses on the pleasures of gardening.
  • In his descriptions of pigs and lilies, and especially in his remark about crows on Monday August 22nd, 1842, Hawthorne reveals an anthropomorphic attitude towards animals—he treats them as moral beings like humans, capable of goodness and badness.  Another example is Friday, June 23rd, 1843, when he suspects evil in weeds.
  • On Monday, August 22nd, 1842, and earlier as well, he praises the riverine cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) as his favorite wildflower.
  • On Thursday, September 1st, 1842, he gives a glowing and interesting description of Henry David Thoreau.
  • From Salem, at some unmentioned date in 1843, he pens a humorous, sarcastic vision of his apartment as a museum in the future, with every slight trinket or furniture a cherished artifact of the great writer.  He is sarcastic because his writings, to this point, had provided him with very little money or recognition.
  • On Friday, June 23rd, 1843, he asks in wonderment why pests ravage crops while weeds have free rein.  [Darwin’s work in the subsequent decade laid the groundwork for answering this question.  For instance, we breed our crops for production, and end up with genetically uniform populations of plants that we cultivate in areas where their ancestors did not exist, and our own criteria for selective breeding has not allowed them to evolve resistance to local pests.  Weeds, on the other hand, have either escaped native predators and parasites when introduced to a new place, or are native to the areas they persist in;  they are genetically diverse and able to adapt quickly to pests to avoid their ravages.  But some of this is surely perceptual bias on Hawthorne’s part—if he were as careful about raising a crop of goldenrod as he was about his cucumbers, he probably would have been frustrated at the insect life that attacks it.]
  • Ah, the sneaky Mrs. Hawthorne, to leave us wondering at the very last entry, June 9th, 1853.  Who is this person (woman?) whose hundreds of letters Nathaniel burned, to his great relief?  Did his widow even know who this person was?  Is the omission of her name his doing or hers?

Tidbits of Significance 

(All locations mentioned are in Massachusetts.)


It is strange how few good faces there are in the world, comparatively to the ugly ones.

-August 31st [1835].


The world is so sad and solemn, that things meant in jest are liable, by an overpowering infuence, to become dreadful earnest,– gayly dressed fantasies turning to ghostly and black-clad images of themselves.

-September 7th [1835].


To represent the process by which sober truth gradually strips off all the beautiful draperies with which imagination has enveloped a beloved object, till from an angel she turns out to be a merely ordinary woman.

-September 7th [1835].


It is a singular thing, that, at the distance, say, of five feet, the work of the greatest dunce looks just as well as that of the greatest genius,– that little space being all the distance between genius and stupidity.”

-October 25th [1835].


Those who are very difficult in choosing wives seem as if they would take none of Nature’s ready-made works, but want a woman manufactured particularly to their order.

-October 25th [1836].


A singular fact, that, when man is a brute, he is the most sensual and loathsome of all brutes.

-October 25th [1836].


…it being a custom with the Irish husbands and wives to settle their disputes with blows; and it is said the woman often proves the better man.

-Saturday, July 8th [1837].


The journal of a human heart for a single day in ordinary circumstances.  The lights and shadows that flit across it; its internal vicissitudes.

-Salem, August 22d [1837].


Man’s finest workmanship, the closer you observe it, the more imperfections it shows; as in a piece of polished steel a microsope will discover a rough surface.  Whereas, what may look coarse and rough in Nature’s workmanship will show an infinitely minute perfection, the closer you look into it.  The reason of the minute superiority of Nature’s work over man’s is, that the former works from the innermost germ, while the latter works merely superficially.

-October 7th [1837].


The general character of these autumnal colors is not gaudy, scarcely gay; there is something too deep and rich in it: it is gorgeous and magnificent, but with a sobriety diffused.

-Salem, October 14th [1837].


A person to be in the possession of something as perfect as mortal man has a right to demand; he tries to make it better, and ruins it entirely.

-idea for a composition, October 16th [1837].


To look at a beautiful girl, and picture all the lovers, in different situations, whose hearts are centred upon her.

-December 6th [1837].


There was a great deal of sense and acuteness in his talk, and something of elevation in his expressions, — perhaps a studied elevation,– and a sort of courtesy in his manner; but his sense had something out of the way in it; there was something wild and ruined and desperate in his talk, though I can hardly say what it was.

-of a local in North Adams, who was once a lawyer but had been reduced to a “disagreeable figure” by drinking, July 29th [1838].


There was one fellow,– named Randall, I think,– a round-shouldered, bulky, ill-hung devil, with a pale, sallow skin, black beard, and a sort of grin upon his face,– a species of laugh, yet not so much mirthful as indicating a strange mental and moral twist.

-one of those who were “the better or the worse for liquor” at Williams College Commencement, Wednesday, August 15th [1838].


It was like a day-dream to look at it; and the students ought to be day-dreamers, all of them,– when cloud-land is one and the same thing with the substantial earth.

-of Mount Graylock, and referring to the students of Williams College, August 22d [1838].


Many of the academy students are men grown, and some, they say, well towards forty years old.  Methinks this is characteristic of American life,– these rough, weather-beaten, hard-handed, farmer-bred students.  In nine cases out of ten they are incapable of any effectual cultivation; for men of ripe years, if they have any pith in them, will have long ago got beyond academy of even college instruction.  I suspect nothing better than a very wretched smattering is to be obtained in these country academies.

-of an academy at Shelburne Falls, Friday, August 31st [1838].


These mountaineers ought certainly to be temperance people; for their mountain springs supply them with a liquor of which the cities and the low countries can have no conception.  Pure, fresh, almost sparkling, exhilarating,– such water as Adam and Eve drank.

-of the springs of Mount Graylock, September 9th [1838].


Moonlight is sculpture; sunlight is painting.

-October 24th [1838].


Letters in the shape of figures of men, etc.  At a distance, the words compsed by the letters are alone distinguishable.  Close at hand, the figures alone are seen, and not distinguished as letters.  Thus things may have a positive, relative, and a composite meaning, according to the point of view.

-idea for a composition, January 4th, 1839.


The love of posterity is in consequence of the necessity of death.  If a man were sure of living forever here, he would not care about his offspring.



Selfishness is one of the qualities apt to inspire love.



I want nothing to do with politicians.  Their hearts wither away and die out of their bodies.  Their consciences are turned to india-rubber, or to some substance as black as that, and which will stretch as much.

-Extracts from Private Letters, March 15th  [1840].


When I shall be again free, I will enjoy all things with the fresh simiplicity of a child of five years old.  I shall grow young again, made all over anew.  I will go forth and stand in a summer shower, and all the worldly dust that has collected on me shall be washed away at once, and my heart will be like a bank of fresh flowers for the weary to rest upon…

-of a time when he is no longer working for the Custom House.  Extracts from Private Letters, April 18th [1840].


What a misty disquisition I have scribbled!  I would not read it over for sixpence.

-after describing his melancholy state of mind.  Extracts from Private Letters, May 19th [1840].


I used to think I could imagine all passions, all feelings, and states of the heart and mind; but how little did I know!… Indeed, we are but shadows; we are not endowed with real life, and all that seems most real abou tus is but the thinnest substance of a dream,– till the heart be touched.  That touch creates us,– then we begin to be,– thereby we are beings of reality and inheritors of eternity…

-Salem, Oct. 4th, Union Street, Family Mansion, [1840].  [This is a rare philosophical exposition in the book.]


The intrusion of an outward necessity into labors of the imagination and intellect is, to me, very painful.

-September 25th [1841].


There is no season when such pleasant and sunny spots may be lighted on, and produce so pleasant an effect on the feelings, as now in October.  The sunshine is peculiarly genial; and in sheltered places, as on the side of a bank, or of a barn or house, one becomes acquainted and friendly with the sunshine.  It seems to be of a kindly and homely nature.  And the green grass, strewn with a few withered leaves, looks the more green and beautiful for them.  In summer or spring, Nature is farther from one’s sympathies.

-October 7th [1841].


Bees are sometimes drowned (or suffocated) in the honey which they collect.  So some writers are lost in their collected learning.



The yellow water-lily spreads its broad flat leaves upon its surface; and the frangrant white pond-lily occurs in many favored spots,– generally selecting a situation just so far from the river’s brink that it cannot be grasped except at the hazard of plunging in.  Bur thanks be to the beautiful flower for growing at any rate.  It is a marvel whence it derives its loveliness and erfume, sprouting as it does from the black mud over which the river sleeps, and from which the yellow lily likewise draws its unclean life and noisome odor.  So it is with many people in this world; the same soil and circumstances may produe the good and beautiful, and the wicked and ugly.  Some have the faculty of assimilating to themselves only what is evil, and so they become as noisome as the ellow water-lily.  Some assimilate none but good influences, and their emblem is the fragrant and spotless pond-lily, whose very breath is a blessing to all the region round about.

-Concord, August 5th [1842].


…even a human breast, which may appear least spiritual in some aspects, may still have the capability of reflecting an infinite heaven in its depths, and therefore of enjoying it.  It is a comfortable thought, that the smallest and most turbid mud-puddle can contain its own picture of heaven.  Let us remember this, when we feel inclined to deny all spiritual life to some people, in whom, nevertheless, our Father may perhaps see the image of His face.  This dull river has a deep religion of its own; so, let us trust, has the dullest human soul, though, perhaps, unconsciously.

-inspired by looking into the dirty Concord River and seeing a reflection of the beauty of the sky at sunset, Sunday, August 7th [1842].


Mr. —, a yeoman, of whose homely and self-acquired wisdom Mr. Emerson has a very high opinion.  We found him walking in his fields,  short and stalwart and sturdy personage of middle age, with a face of shrewd and kind expression, and manners of natural courtesy.  He had a very free flow o ftalk; for, with a little induction from Mr. Emerson, he began to discourse about the state of the nation, agriculture, and business in general, uttering thoughts that had come to him at the plough, and which had a sort of flavor of the fresh earth about them.  His views were sensible and characteristic, and had grown in the soil where we found them;… and he is certainly a man of intellectual and moral substance, a study fact, a reality, something to be felt and touched, whose ideas seem to be dug out of his mind as he digs potatoes, beets, carrots, and turnips out of the ground.

-Monday, August 15th [1842].  [An excellent example of Hawthorne’s powers of vibrant character description.]


A crow, however, has no real pretensions to religion, in spite of his gravity of mien and black attire.  Crows are certainly thieves, and probably infidels.

-Monday, August 22[1842].


Last evening there was the most beautiful moonlight that ever hallowed this earthly world; and when I went to bathe in the river, which was as calm as death, it seemed like plunging down into the sky.  But I had rather be on earth than even in the seventh heaven, just now.

-Monday, August 22d [1842].


I, likewise, am greedy of the summer days for my own sake; the life of man does not contain so many of them that one can be spared without regret.

-Sunday, August 28th [1842].


Mr. Thoreau dined with us yesterday… He is a keen and delicate observer of nature,– a genuine observer,– which, I supect, is almost as rare a character as even an original poet; and Nature, in return for his love, seems to adopt him as her especial child, and shows him secrets which few others are allowed to witness.

-Thursday, September 1st [1842].


…he being one of the few persons, I think, with whom to hold intercourse is like hearing the wind among the boughs of a forest-tree; and, with all this wild freedom, there is high and classic cultivation in him too.

-of Henry David Thoreau, Friday, April 7th [1843].


Our Creator would never have made such weather, and given us the deep heart to enjoy it, above and beyond all thought, if he had not meant us to be immortal.  It opens the gates of heaven and gives us glimpses far inward.

-while gardening on Sunday, September 23d [1843].


…often, when the air is perfectly still, I hear the quiet fall of a great apple.  Well, we are rich in blessings, though poor in money.

-Sunday, September 23d [1843].


But it is in vain for me to attempt to describe these autumnal brilliancies, or to convey the impression which they make on me.  I have tried a thousand times, and always without the slightest self-satisfaction.  Fortunately there is no need of such a record, for Nature renews the picture year after year.

-Friday, October 6th [1843].


I do not understand that I was quite such a miracle of precocity, but should think it not impossible, inasmuch as precocious boys are said to make stupid men.

-Extracts from Letters, Salem, April 14th, 1844.


The washing of dishes does seem to me the most absurd and unsatisfactory business that I ever undertook.  If, when once washed, they would remain clean forever and ever (which they ought in all reason to do, considering how much trouble it is), there would be less occasion to grumble; but no sooner is it done, than it requires to be done again.

-Extracts from Letters, May 31st [1844].


The advance of man from a savage and animal state may be as well measured by his mode and morality of dining, as by any other circumstance.

-May 6th [1850].


Great men need to be lifted upon the shoulders of the whole world, in order to conceive their great ideas or perform their great deeds.  That is, there must be an atmosphere of greatness round about them.  A hero cannot be a hero unless in an heroic world.

-May 7th, Afternoon [1850].  [An excellent, but somewhat tragic thought—worthy of a novel’s exposition!].


Language,– human language,–after all, is but little better than the croak and cackle of fowls and other utterances of brute nature,– sometimes not so adequate.

-Lenox, July 14th [1850].


If we consider the lives of the lower animals, we shall see in them a close parallelism to those of mortals,– toil, struggle, danger, privation, mingled with glimpses of peace and ease; enmity, affection, a continual hope of bettering themselves, although their objects lie at less distance before them than ours can do.  Thus, no argument for the imperfect character of our existence and its delusory promises, and its apparent injustice, can be drawn in reference to our immortality, without, in a degree, being applicable to our brute brethren.

-December 19th [1850].


How pleasant it is to see a human countenance which cannot be insincere,– in reference to a baby’s smile.

-October 13th [1851].


Happiness in this world, when it comes, comes incidentally.  Make it the object of pursuit, and it leads us a wild-goose chase, and is never attained.  Follow some other object, and very possibly we may find that we have caught happiness without dreaming of it; but likely enough it is gone the moment we say to ourselves, “Here it is!” like the chest of gold that treasure-seekers find.

-November 3d [1852].  [On the fleeting nature of joy; c.f. C. S. Lewis Surprised by Joy].


Caresses, expressions of one sort or another, are necessary to the life of the affections, as leaves are to the life of a tree.  If they are wholly restrained, love will die at the roots.

-Concord, March 9, 1853.



…you want to explore beneath a great author’s refined literary works to see his raw materials, and to discover what touched his imagination;


…you would like to stroll through the stately towns and rural valleys of Massachusetts as they were nearly two centuries ago.



(for the casual chronicler of early American nature and culture:)

  • Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition  (1803-1806)
  • Washington Irving, Knickerbocker’s History of New York  (1809)
  • Francis Parkman, The Oregon Trail  (1848)
  • Henry David Thoreau, The Maine Woods  (d.1862)

 (for the attender to Hawthorne’s perception and imagination:)

  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mosses from an Old Manse  (1846)
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter  (1850)
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance  (1852)
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, Passages from the English Notebooks  (1853-1858)

Find It!

Hardcover: This book is sadly out of print in hardcover except for facsimiles and a defunct publisher (“Prince Classics“). Take your chances there or else go used, although even used this is a rarity.

Paperback: The Ohio University Press has produced a nice edition.

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