Wednesday, June 11, 2014
Author Spotlight: Patricia Dunlavy Valenti
Sophia Peabody Hawthorne: A Life, Volume I, 1809-1847, by Patricia Dunlavy Valenti
Q. What prompted you to write a biography of Sophia Peabody Hawthorne?
A. I first encountered her when I wrote my dissertation on the fiction of Nathaniel Hawthorne. I was intrigued by his pictorial technique; that made me curious about his artist wife, Sophia, and I wondered how she might have influenced his writing. I discovered that she was a professional artist in the first half of the nineteenth century when a woman artist was a rarity in America. She exhibited her work at the Boston Athenaeum. Her mentors were some of the most important artists of her day: Washington Allston, Chester Harding, and Thomas Doughty. She was, in fact, very different from the person described in biographies of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Her life deserved to be presented on its own terms, in her own biography.
Q. How was she portrayed in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s biographies?
A. Nathaniel’s biographies presented Sophia as an amateur, dilettante painter when in fact she possessed the hallmarks of a professional artist. But in terms of her character, the misrepresentation was even more profound, thanks to her husband. Nathaniel had invented a persona for Sophia: the timid, frail “Dove.” This image stuck with his biographers, but in reality she was more practical, worldly-wise, and daring than he.
Q. How so?
A. For example, before they met, she traveled to Cuba--another uncommon activity for young women at that time. There she kept a three-volume, eight-hundred-page journal. This Cuba Journal is an ecstatic, transcendental response to nature, but it also reads like a novel of manners with lively narratives about her experiences, including those with a handsome suitor. Sophia rode horses during the day and waltzed at night, something strictly forbidden to proper young women. Her sister Mary called her a “tinderbox.” This was Sophia as she presented herself in her Cuba Journal, which Nathaniel read before he met her in person. Sophia’s life was radically different from his. He had traveled only as far Niagara Falls; he had been living in a room in his mother’s house for nearly a decade. So though he was attracted to Sophia, she was also a bit threatening. It seems as if he wanted to tame her by referring to her as his “Dove.”
Q. The Cuba Journal must be a fascinating piece of writing if it captivated one of the most prominent writers in American literature. Has it been published?
A. Not on paper, but now it can be read online at the digital archives of the New York Public Library, where it is housed in the Berg Collection. Isaac Gewirtz, curator of that collection, determined that the Cuba Journal should be digitized in order to conserve it and to make it widely available. It had become very fragile, and scholars increasingly want to read it. I was fortunate enough to read the actual Cuba Journal. Sophia really knew how to draw a reader into life on a plantation in Cuba in the early 1830s, so much so that I recall feeling somewhat disoriented when I would leave the library to take a break. It somehow felt wrong that I was really in the middle of the noise and bustle of Manhattan and not in a tropical coffee plantation.
Q. You mention Sophia’s discussion of nature and social life. You don’t mention that she wrote about Cuban politics or slavery on the island. Did she?
A. Sophia believed that Providence would right all wrongs, and she was disquietingly oblivious to the moral evil of slavery. She was certainly on the wrong side of history in that regard. But her sisters and most of her friends were committed abolitionists. Her arguments with them illuminate a painful moment in American history.
Q. Let’s return to the question of Sophia’s influence upon her husband’s writing. Can you say exactly what that was?
A. Nathaniel used his pet names for Sophia—Dove and Phoebe—for characters in two of his novels. That’s an exact, but trivial, example of her presence in his writing. Her more significant influences are far more pervasive and subtle. For example, Nathaniel’s female characters became more sensuous and complex after Sophia entered his life. Where he saw darkness and shadows, she saw light. The tension between their worldviews filtered into his fiction. One of his most famous stories, “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” was written shortly after they married and should be read against the Cuba Journal because that story absorbs the tone of Cuba’s brilliant, lush tropical scenery. I examine this story’s debt to the Cuba Journal in Chapter 20, “More Poison in Thy Nature.”
Q. One reviewer of your book called it a hybrid. Why?
A. Volume I has, and Volume II will have, more literary analysis than most biographies. But literary analysis is essential when dealing with a subject such as Sophia because writing was tantamount to living for her. I mentioned the holdings of the Berg Collection earlier. No author has a greater number of items in the Berg Collection than Sophia, and her manuscripts are found in major collections or in private hands all over the country. The scope of her writing is enormous; it’s not just a source for her biography but a major topic in it.
Q. What else can you hint about the upcoming Volume II?
A. I think there will be some surprises for scholars and general readers alike. After Sophia’s marriage, Nathaniel squelched her artistic career, and she turned her creative energies into raising her children at a moment when the notions of mothering were in flux. The Hawthornes’ storied marital love did not confine Sophia’s passionate affections. She formed deep attachments to men other than her husband and to one woman. Sophia continued to be an interesting travel writer, and she documented her life in the British Isles, Italy, Portugal, and Germany. Sophia’s perspective of her husband during his declining years reveals him as he has never before been seen. Much of the second volume is set during the Civil War and its aftermath. Volume II will be of interest to anyone who wants an insight into that period of national crisis. Sophia’s story could not be confined to a single volume.