Findings - Summer 2005

Findings: The Battered Trunk

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By Brenda Wineapple

June 1, 2005


There I was, on a warm summer’s day, sipping hot tea out of a delicate porcelain cup with a group of octogenarian Hawthornes. Writing biography, as I was of Nathaniel Hawthorne, one pries open every oyster, hoping to find that single pearl, and so there I was in Connecticut in 1997, sipping tea.

One member of the group was Hawthorne’s great-grandson, a man eerily resembling his famous forebear. Soon his wife sidled up to me on the couch and pressed a phone number into my hand. Her niece had recently hired a plumber who, while fixing a leaky pipe, had stumbled over a battered iron trunk stuffed with old papers. Perhaps I’d want to speak with her. By the time I arrived back home, this niece, Hawthorne’s great-great-granddaughter, had already called, inviting me to stay and to help, please, sort the trunk’s contents, which she’d started selling piecemeal, much to my horror.

I rushed back to Connecticut and was soon surrounded by hundreds of Hawhorne family letters, not seen in a hundred years, which I cautiously laid out on the living room floor and labeled one by one. Hawthorne’s descendant was hoping the collection of papers—I’d convinced her to keep them together—would fetch a price high enough to buy a bed-and-breakfast in northern California.

All the letters were interesting to me, as other people’s mail invariably is, and a few quite startling. Hawthorne’s youngest daughter, Rose (aka Mother Alphonsa and today a candidate for canonization), had traveled to Washington to beg President Woodrow Wilson to pardon her brother, in jail for selling stock in a worthless silver mine called, alas, Hawthorne. And, as I suspected, Nathaniel himself had romanced his reform-minded sister-in-law, the woman Henry James caricatured in The Bostonians as the befuddled Miss Birdseye, who looked at the world with a squint. Scholars had long scoffed at the notion that someone as talented and sexy as Hawthorne might have toyed with someone so tiresome and, well, so earnest. But there she was, next to Mother Alphonsa.

Miss Birdseye did not marry Hawthorne, nor did Mother Alphonsa secure her brother a secular pardon. But Hawthorne’s heir sold those papers to Stanford for a price high enough to buy that seaside inn.


Brenda Wineapple is a member of the editorial board of The American Scholar. She is the author of Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877.


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