Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny (By Papa)
For those readers who have associated Nathaniel Hawthorne’s name with obscurity, the anatomy of “the interior of the heart,” the nature of guilt as a “stain upon the soul,” darkness and the impingement of the Puritan past on the present, his book Twenty Days with Julian & Little Bunny (by Papa) will be unanticipated.
Originally kept by Hawthorne as diary entries over the period of twenty days spent with his five-year-old son Julian, when his wife and two other daughters visited West Newton, outside Boston, the book, now published in an individual volume, is significant for the insights it allows the reader to have into Hawthorne’s character. One might see the book as complementing The American Note-Books which, as George Parsons Lathrop puts it in his “Introductory Notes,” do not “furnish a complete picture of Hawthorne’s mind and qualities though they convey hints of them” [p. iii]. Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny (by Papa) comes to supply the missing puzzle pieces to form, not the entire picture of Hawthorne’s “minds and qualities,” but a more inclusive one.
Left to mind “genial and good-humored” little Julian, Hawthorne finds the boy’s constant talk cumbersome despite his paternal love: “It is impossible to write, read, think or even sleep (in the daytime) so constant are his appeals to me in one way or another” [p. 4].
Julian’s childhood as presented in the book has nothing to do with the Wordsworthian idealized childhood and praise of children as “blessed seers” enjoying insights into the nature of things, a realm man is denied. Father Hawthorne is overwhelmed by Julian’s questions and tired by the boy’s endless curiosity. He notes, “it is to be observed that he has a marvelous opinion of his own wisdom and thinks himself beyond a comparison sager and more experienced than his father” [p. 4].
Humor and irony are noted on virtually every page of the book: talking about Bunny, the pet rabbit he has to mind along with Julian, Hawthorne records: “He seemed to think himself in rather too much peril, so important a personage as he is” [p. 7]; or about their favorite pastime: “we renewed our warfare with the thistles; and they suffered terribly in the combat” [p. 9]; or on occasion of Julian’s visit to a nearby house, Hawthorne is happy to note that “his majesty departed” [p. 18].
Indulging in a libertarian upbringing of children—“I do not mean to restrain him, whatever noise he makes” [p. 7]—he most often wishes he would inflict corporeal punishment in an effort to set things right: “And here my patience gives way, and I entreat him not to trouble me with anymore foolish questions. I really think it would do him good to spank him apropos to this habit” [p. 34]—an outburst strongly contradicting Sophia Peabody-Hawthorne’s dictum as this is recorded in Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife: A Biography by Julian Hawthorne, “Alas for those who counsel sternness and severity … towards young children” who need “infinite patience” [p. 379].
Instead, however, on occasions, it is “master Julian” who is seen hitting Hawthorne: he “beat me terribly [….] He is really as strong as a little giant” [p. 42]. Hawthorne is so overwhelmed by the child’s constant demands and bellowing “at the full stretch of his lungs” [p. 42] that he wonders whether a man has ever been “so be-pelted with a child’s talk” [p. 55] and it is on these occasions that he resorts to eulogies and thanks to God for honoring him to be Julian’s father: “Let me say outright for once, that he is a sweet and lovely little boy, and worthy of all the love that I am capable of giving him. Thank God! God bless him!” [p. 56].
Although most of the diary is devoted to the “old gentleman” [pp. 3, 15, 24], the reader can get glimpses of Hawthorne’s patriarchal New England views, especially when it comes to women undertaking what was so far considered a male pastime, horse-riding: “a woman is a monstrous and disagreeable spectacle, in such an attitude” [p. 70]. At the same time, however, Hawthorne replaces his wife in her absence and feels that by donning her maternal role, even for twenty days—along with other duties, including the frizzling of the boy’s hair according to the current fashion—he is donning her anxieties: “now that I am alone with him, I have all his mother’s anxieties added to my own” [p. 62].
Additional information is given especially of Hawthorne’s friendship with Herman Melville, his abhorrence of the “horrible, most hor-ri-ble climate” [p. 98], “the infernal atmosphere” [p. 3] and the Berkshire area [p. 8]. Further, the reader comes to share along with father Hawthorne his realization that Julian has not inherited his father’s somber and reclusive personality: “I do not think him in danger of living so solitary a life as much of mine has been” [p. 55].
Hawthorne’s religious attitudes towards the Hancock Shaker community are obliquely noted in his entry on the visit to their establishment on August 8, 1851. What he presents as Julian’s “great puzzlement” [p. 45] becomes his own open aversion of them: they are “a filthy set” and he believes that the sooner the sect is extinct the better [p. 46] as they are “foolish” and outlandish” and the “most singular and bedeviled set of people that ever existed in a civilized land” [p. 47]. Despite dismissing them as “filthy,” he acknowledges their neatness but only as a “pain and constraint to look at” [p. 46] while at the same time blaming the close supervision of each other.
It would be unjust to review the book without referring to the detailed and enlightening introduction by Paul Auster. This part of the book not only gives important background information to facilitate the reader but also draws into sharp relief what Hawthorne has achieved with the recording of these journal entries: “to keep his child alive forever,” what “every parent dreams of doing” [p. xiiv].
all the explicit and implicit references not only to childhood,
which, as Paul Auster puts it in the Introduction, is “a remarkable
portrait of the reality of childhood” [p. xi] but also
for the other issues that are raised, the book is heartily recommended.