JULIAN HAWTHORNE (1846–1934), whose work took many forms and whose career led him in multiple directions, was the son of American author Nathaniel Hawthorne and Sophia Peabody Hawthorne. Born in Salem, Massachusetts, he and his two sisters spent some of their childhood in Concord once the family settled there, growing up in the company of the literary luminaries of the day. After Nathaniel Hawthorne was named American consul to Liverpool, the family moved to England from 1853 to 1857, then traveled to Italy for an extended stay. Julian Hawthorne pursued his education at Harvard in 1863 but never reached graduation; after his father’s death in the spring of 1864 he assumed the role of head of household and came to occupy his father’s study, the writing chamber described in these pages. Testing out new possibilities, this young man, whose athletic build and prowess led some to urge him to consider prizefighting, sought training as a civil engineer in Dresden in 1868–69. It was there that he met Minnie Amelung, whom he married in 1870 and with whom he would have seven children.
While employed as an engineer in the New York Docks Department, he published his first story (“Love and Counter Love; or, Masquerading”) in Harper’s Weekly Magazine in 1870, and from this time on endeavored to make his living as a writer. In Germany and England during the next ten years he continued to place stories in American magazines, and in 1873 published a novel titled Bressant, soon followed by Idolatry: A Romance. Over the next decades he produced a wide variety of works, including forays into gothic horror, detective fiction, cultural commentary, and textbook surveys of history and literature. Among his most memorable achievements are two studies of his family background: Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife (1884) and Hawthorne and His Circle (1903). From the early 1880s to the mid-1890s he spent most of his time in New York, serving in 1885 as literary editor of the New York World; from 1894 to 1897 he lived in the West Indies, and in the later part of this period, more and more drawn to journalism, he published reports on the 1897 plague and famine in India (in Cosmopolitan magazine) and on the Spanish-American War (in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal ).
In later years many of the projects that he took on were determined by a pressing need for money. In addition to his family, he had a longtime lover requiring support—Edith Garrigues (whom he would ultimately marry after the death of his wife in 1925). Under these circumstances, he lent his name to a speculative mining venture organized by an old friend, and though he consistently maintained his innocence, after litigation by shareholders in 1913 both he and the friend were convicted of mail fraud, resulting in a one-year sentence in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary for Hawthorne. Following his release, in 1914 he published The Subterranean Brotherhood, an argument against inhumane incarceration. Resuming work as a journalist, covering baseball for the Boston American, he was able to interview Babe Ruth, but he soon decided to move to California, where he continued to produce pieces appearing in the Los Angeles Herald and also tried his hand at screenplays. In the summer of 1934 he died in Newport Beach, where, after a private ceremony, his ashes were scattered.
The selection here is taken from Hawthorne and His Circle, published by Harper & Brothers (New York and London), 1903.
The study was on the third floor of the house, secluded from the turmoil of earth, so far as anything could be in a city street. No one was supposed to intrude upon him there; but such suppositions are ineffectual against children. From time to time the adamantine gates fell ajar, and in we slipped. It seemed a heavenly place, tenanted by a being possessed of every attribute that our imaginations could ascribe to an angel. The room and its tenant glimmer before me as I write, luminous with the sunshine of more than fifty years ago. Both were equipped for business rather than for beauty; furniture and garments were simple in those Salem days. A homely old paper covered the walls, a brownish old carpet the floor. There was an old rocking-chair, its black paint much worn and defaced; another chair was drawn up to the table, which stood to the left of the eastern window; and on the table was a mahogany desk, concerning which I must enter into some particulars. It was then, and for years afterwards, an object of my most earnest scrutiny. Such desks are not made nowadays.
When closed, it was an oblong mahogany box, two feet long by half that width, and perhaps nine inches high. It had brass corners, and a brass plate on the top, inscribed with the name, “N. Hawthorne.” At one end was a drawer, with a brass handle playing on a hinge and fitting into a groove or socket when down; there was a corresponding handle at the other end, but that was for symmetry only; the one drawer went clear through the desk. I often mused over the ethics of this deception.
Being opened, the desk presented a sloping surface two feet square, covered with black velvet, which had been cut here and there and pasted down again, and was stiffened with many ink-spatterings. This writing surface consisted of two lids, hinged at their junction in the centre; lifting them, you discovered two receptacles to hold writing-paper and other desk furniture. They were of about equal capacity; for although the upper half of the desk was the more capacious, you must not forget that two inches of it, at the bottom, was taken up by the long drawer already mentioned.
But there was, also, a more interesting curtailment of this interior space. Along the very top of the desk, as it lay open, was a narrow channel, perhaps a couple of inches wide and deep, divided into three sections; two square ones, at the opposite ends, held the ink-bottle and the sand-bottle; the long central one was for quill pens. These, in the aggregate, appeared to the superficial eye to account for all that remained of the cubic contents of the structure; but the supreme mystery and charm of the affair was that they did not!
No; there was an esoteric secret still in reserve; and for years it remained a secret to me. The bottle-sockets and pen-tray did not reach down to the level of the long drawer by nearly an inch. Measurement would prove that; but you would have said that the interval must be solid wood; for nothing but a smooth panel met the eye when you pulled aside the sheets of writing-paper in their receptacle to investigate. But the lesson of this world, and of the desk as a part of it, is that appearances are not to be trusted. The guile of those old desk-makers passes belief.
I will expose it. In the pen-tray lay a sort of brass nail, as long as your little finger, and blunt at the end. Now take the sand-bottle from its hole. In one corner of the bottom thereof you will see a minute aperture, just big enough to admit the seemingly useless brass nail. Stick it in and press hard. With an abrupt noise that makes you jump, if you are four or five years old, that smooth, unsuspected strip of panel starts violently forward (propelled by a released spring) and reveals—what? Nothing less than the fronts of two minute drawers. They fit in underneath the pen-tray, and might remain undiscovered for a hundred years unless you had the superhuman wit to divine the purpose of the brass nail. The drawers contain diamonds, probably, or some closely folded document making you the heir to a vast estate. As a matter of fact, I don’t know what they contained; the surprise of the drawers themselves was enough for me. I need not add that I did not guess the riddle myself; but nothing that I can call to mind impressed me more than when, one day, my father solved it for me with his little brass wand. At intervals, afterwards, I was allowed to work the miracle myself, always with the same thrill of mysterious delight. The desk was human to me; it was alive.
There were little square covers for the ink and sand-bottles; and on the under sides of these were painted a pair of faces; very ruddy in the cheeks they were, with staring eyes and smiling mouths; and one of them wore a pair of black side-whiskers. They were done by my father, with oil—colors filched from my mother’s paint-box. They seemed to me portraits of the people who lived in the desk; evidently they enjoyed their existence hugely. And when I considered that the desk was also somehow instrumental in the production of stories—such as the Snow Image—of a delectable and magical character, the importance to my mind of the whole contrivance may be conceived. When I grew beyond child’s estate, I learned that it had also assisted at the composition of The Scarlet Letter. If ever there were a haunted writing-desk, this should have been it; but the ghosts have long since carried it away, whither I know not.