25 September 2006

Julian Hawthorne and Giant Despair

For about three weeks in the summer of 1851, novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne was left alone with his five-year-old son, Julian, and a pet rabbit. Well, alone with only the housekeeper and other servants to look after them.

Hawthorne kept a diary of their days together for his wife Sophie to read on her return. A few years ago Paul Auster extracted those diary entries in an absolutely delightful little book called Twenty Days with Julian & Little Bunny By Papa. Here are three excerpts that show Julian's five-year-old imagination at work.

On 31 July 1851, Papa wrote:

Then we made our way along the tangled lake-shore, and sitting down, he threw in bits of moss, and called them islands--floating green islands--and said that there were trees, and farms, and men, upon them. By and by, against his remonstrances, I insisted upon going home. He picked up a club, and began over again the old warfare with the thistles--which we called hydras, chimaeras, dragons, and Gorgons. This we fought our way homeward...
At the time, Nathaniel was working on A Wonder-Book and Tanglewood Tales, retellings of Greek and Roman myths for children. They're full of slashing battles of just this sort.

Like the Alcott sisters fictionalized in Little Women, Julian was obviously raised on a diet of Pilgrim's Progress and based some of his play on it. This from 11 August:
Thence we turned back, and rested ourselves on some logs, a little withdrawn from the roadside. The little man said that one of these logs was Giant Despair, and that the old giant was dead, and he dug a shallow hole, which he said should be the giant's grave. I objected that it was not half large enough; but he informed me that Giant Despair grew very small, the moment he was dead.
But the giant is not so easily killed. Here is a ***SPOILER*** from 16 August:
On entering the bathing-room, I peeped into Bunny's box, within something like a foreboding of what had happened; and sure enough, there lay the poor little beast, stark and stiff. . . . Julian seemed to be interested and excited by the event, rather than afflicted. He imputed it, as he does all other mishaps, to the agency of Giant Despair; and, as we were going for the milk, he declared it was the wickedest thing the giant ever did.

Julian Hawthorne grew up to be a writer, like his father, though not as successful or as happy at it. Late in life he was jailed for fraud.

1 comment:

Jude said...

Fascinating. Thanks for posting it.