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Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Almost Unbearably Sweet Account of Sole-Parenting His Small Son

“Mercy on me, was ever man before so be-pelted with a child’s talk as I am! It is his desire of sympathy that lies at the bottom of the great heap of his babblement.”

Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Almost Unbearably Sweet Account of Sole-Parenting His Small Son

Nathaniel Hawthorne (July 4, 1804–May 19, 1864) was forty-seven when he became five. He had never had a childhood himself — his father, a sea captain, had died when Nathaniel was a small boy, hurling his mother into a near-catatonic grief from which she never recovered. But when his own small son was left in his sole care for three summer weeks in the mountains, Hawthorne contacted the spirit of childhood with uncommon sweetness and sincerity as little Julian collected flowers, fished with an imaginary rod, “philosophized about rainbows” in the August mist, and ran across the room “with a marvellous swagger of the ludicrousness of which he seems perfectly conscious.” Hawthrone partook of their joint sword-war on the thistles “which represented many-headed dragons and hydras,” climbed trees, engaged in nightly wrestling, and relished the ravishments of nature with childlike wonder.

On July 28, 1851, his wife Sophia — a gifted artist, and sister to the pioneering education reformer and Transcendentalism founding mother Elizabeth Peabody — left for Boston on business for three weeks, taking with her their beloved daughter Una and their newborn baby Rosebud, and leaving the five-year-old Julian in his father’s care in the Red Shanty — the modest red farmhouse they had rented in the Berkshires, where Hawthorne met and cast his spell on the young Herman Melville.

Nathaniel Hawthorne by John Adams Whipple

Melancholy by nature and painfully introverted to the rest of the world, Hawthorne came alive in a different way with his children. “He was capable of being the gayest person I ever saw,” Una would later recall. “He was like a boy.”

Now, alone with Julian and their pet rabbit, Hawthorne was simultaneously five and almost fifty, both playmate and artist at the peak of his powers, trying to write while affectionately grumbling about “the babble which [runs] like a brook through all my thoughts” in the diary he kept for Sophia, rediscovered nearly a century later — the almost unbearably wonderful Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa (public library).

With infinite sweetness, tenderness, and patience, Hawthorne indulged little Julian’s bombardment of questions, nursed his stomachaches, attended to the misfires of childhood with touching amiability (“There had been a deluge in his bed, and nowhere else.”), and curled the boy’s hair each morning before they headed out on their daily expedition for milk, picking flowers and fighting thistles along the way.

It was joyful, but it was hard. “I have all his mother’s anxieties, added to my own,” Hawthorne wrote in the diary. “It must have been weary work [for my father],” Julian would recall half a lifetime later of those three weeks, “though for the little boy it was one uninterrupted succession of halcyon days.”

Julian with his sister Una

Having been made to tip-toe around the baby since her birth in the spring, Julian immediately sets about making unfettered ruckus as soon as he is alone with his father, hammering on an empty box with great enjoyment — Hawthorne, bemused rather than annoyed, lets him — before exhausting himself and growing very pensive about his mother’s absence. Then begins the barrage of queries and musings, pelting the helpless father from dawn until dusk, making it impossible “to write, read, think, or even to sleep (in the daytime).” And yet Hawthorne delights in the “genial and good-humored little man” — “the old gentleman” — with such unalloyed love that he finds it difficult to get annoyed, even as he watches his son “felicitating himself continually on the license of making what noise he pleased… He enjoys his freedom so greatly, that I do not mean to restrain him.”

Hawthorne marvels:

He is never out of temper or out of spirits, and is certainly as happy as the day is long. He is happy enough by himself; and when I sympathize or partake in his play, it is almost too much; and he nearly explodes with laughter and delight.

He meets even the boy’s occasional remonstrations with the loving assessment that his “sharp, quick, high voice” makes him sound “very much like the chattering of an angry squirrel.” When the father does reach the end of his rope, it is only with bemused amiability:

Either I have less patience to-day than ordinary, or the little man makes larger demands upon it; but it really does seem as if he had baited me with more questions, references, and observations, than mortal father out to be expected to endure. He does put me almost beside my propriety; never quitting me, and continually thrusting in his word between the clauses of every sentence of all my reading, and smashing every attempt at reflection into a thousand fragments.

He reflects on the storm of interruptions with lucid and largehearted insight into their deeper roots in human nature, always clearest in children:

Mercy on me, was ever man before so be-pelted with a child’s talk as I am! It is his desire of sympathy that lies at the bottom of the great heap of his babblement. He wants to enrich all his enjoyments by steeping them in the heart of some friend. I do not think him in danger of living so solitary a life as much of mine has been.

A living reminder that even the largest minds and most generous spirits are captors of their time and culture, the diary reveals Hawthorne’s ineptitude in domestic matters and his genuine confusion about how to take care of himself, much less his son, in Sophia’s absence:

Went to bed without any supper — having nothing to eat but half-baked, sour bread.

He does receive the steady help of a part-time housekeeper — a Mrs. Peters, who comes to make breakfast for the two boys and whom Hawthorne regards with respect bordering on deference; only toward the end of the diary, in a passing mention, do we learn that the cherished woman is “a colored angel.” Most of the time, though, Julian is in Hawthorne’s sole care, down to the suppers of crushed currants and plain bread, which father and son savor with perfect contentment upon finishing each long summer day of outdoor adventure. Over and over, Hawthorne delights in the child’s delights:

Julian climbed up into the tree, and sat astride of a branch. His round merry face appeared among the green leaves, and a continual stream of babble came dripping down upon me, like a summer shower.

[…]

After a while, I took him down from the tree; and removing a little way from the spot, we chanced upon a remarkable echo. It repeated every word of his clear little voice, at his usual elevation of talk ; and when either of us called loudly, we could hear as many as three or four repetitions — the last coming apparently from far away beyond the woods, with a strange, fantastic similitude to the original voice, as if beings somewhat like ourselves were shouting in the invisible distance. Julian called “Mamma,” “Una,” and many other words; then he shouted his own name, and when the sound came back upon us, he said that mamma was calling him. What a strange, weird thing is an echo, to be sure!

Together, father and son observe their pet rabbit, who at first “does not turn out to be a very interesting companion” — “with no playfulness, as silent as a fish, inactive,” passing his life “between a torpid half-slumber, and the nibbling of clover-tops, lettuce, plantain-leaves, pig-weed, and crumbs of bread” — but eventually becomes a curious object of meditation. (Shine the beam of curiosity upon even the dullest object and it becomes interesting; polish anything with attention and it becomes a mirror for the meaning of life.) Reflecting on the bunny’s tendency to tremble “as an aspen leaf” and the general “apprehensiveness of his nature,” Hawthorne considers the creature’s unwelt:

I do not think that these fears are any considerable torment to Bunny; it is his nature to live in the midst of them, and to intermingle them, as a sort of piquant sauce, with every morsel he eats. It is what redeems his life from dulness and stagnation.

[…]

The mystery that broods about him — the lack of any method of communicating with this voiceless creature — heightens the interest.

One of Japanese artist Komako Sakai’s tender illustrations for The Velveteen Rabbit

As the days unspool, Hawthorne finds himself “getting rather attached to this gentle little beast” and devoted to satisfying the bunny’s increasingly finicky appetite with only the freshest grass and leaves, shares of his own bread, and borrowed green oats from the neighbor.

He ate a leaf of mint to-day, seemingly with great relish. It makes me smile to see how he invariably comes galloping to meet me, whenever I open the door, making sure that there is something in store for him, and smelling eagerly to find out what it is.

[…]

He has, I think, a great deal of curiosity, and an investigating disposition, and is very observant of what is going on around him. I do not know any other beast, and few human beings, who, always present, and thrusting his little paw into all the business of the day, could at the same time be so perfectly unobtrusive.

Punctuating the diary is Hawthorne’s exquisitely attentive relishment of the living world, once again affirming him as the greatest nature writer of all the nineteenth-century American novelists, second perhaps only to Mary Shelley. In one of many exquisite examples of the unphotographable, he writes:

The heavy masses of cloud, lumbering about the sky, threw deep black shadows on the sunny hill-sides; so that the contrast between the heat and coolness of the day was thus visibly expressed. The atmosphere was particularly transparent, as if all the haze was collected into these dense clouds. Distant objects appear with great distinctness; and the Taconic range of hills was a dark blue substance, with its protuberances and inequalities apparent — not cloud-like, as it often is. The sun smiled with mellow breadth across the rippling lake — rippling with the north-western breeze.

Two days later, on the last day of July, he records another reverie:

It was another cloudy and lowery morning, with a cloud (which looked as full of moisture as a wet sponge) lying all along the ridge of the western hill; beneath which the wooden hill-side looked black, grim, and desolate. Monument Mountain, too, had a cloud on its back; but the sunshine gleamed along its sides, and made it quite a cheerful object; and being in the centre of the scene, it cheered up the whole picture, like a cheery heart. Even its forests, as contrasted with the woods on the other hills, had a light on them; and the cleared tracts seemed doubly sunny, and a field of rye, just at its base, shone out with yellow radiance, quite illuminating the landscape.

Art from Every Color of Light — a stunning Japanese illustrated celebration of the weather and the fulness of life

A week later, admiring “the Kaatskills blue and far on the horizon,” he reverences another atmospheric dazzlement:

Across our valley, from east to west, there was a heavy canopy of clouds almost resting on the hills on either side. It did not extend southward so far as Monument Mountain, which lay in sunshine, and with a sunny cloud midway on its bosom; and from the midst of our storm, beneath our black roof of clouds, we looked out upon this bright scene, where the people were enjoying beautiful weather. The clouds hung so low over us, that it was like being in a tent, the entrance of which was drawn up, permitting us to see the sunny landscape. This lasted for several minutes; but at last the shower stretched southward, and quite snatched away Monument Mountain, and made it invisible, although now it is mistily re-appearing.

Along their rambles, Julian invents Giant Despair — an evil spirit responsible for every misfortune that befalls them, from the cow dung he runs through to the menacing summer storms.

Hawthorne himself frequently touches despair as he dwells on Sophia’s absence — his Phoebe. He misses her terribly. He walks to the post office again and again, anguished each time he finds no letter from her; when the letters do come, he mourns how “excruciatingly short” they are. “I spent a rather forlorn evening,” he writes after another joyful day with Julian, “and to bed at nine.”

Visits from Melville, ever-adoring, distract him, prompting Julian to declare that he now loves “Mr. Melville” as much as he does his mother and Una. (“I do not think he has given Rosebud any place in his affections yet.”) He records:

After supper, I put Julian to bed; and Melville and I had a talk about time and eternity, things of this world and of the next, and books, and publishers, and all possible and impossible matters, that lasted pretty deep into the night.

Herman Melville by Asa Weston Twitchell

When spells of Hawthorne’s lifelong melancholy descend upon him, he finds nothing more salutary than Julian’s contagious cheer. During one of their daily jaunts to the local lake, watching the indefatigable boy amuse himself, he writes:

I lay on the bank, under the trees, and watched his little busyness — his never-wearing activity — as cheerful as the sun, and shedding a reflected cheer upon my sombreness.

Two weeks into this experiment in sole-parenthood, Hawthorne’s longing for Sophia and the girls grows unbearable, prompting an ecstatic outpouring on the pages of the diary he knows she will soon read:

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! God bless Phoebe for giving him to me! God bless her as the best wife and mother in the world! God bless Una, whom I long to see again! God bless little Rosebud! God bless me, for Phoebe’s and all their sakes! No other man has so good a wife; nobody has better children. Would I were worthier of her and them!

And then, immediately, he adds a forlorn reflection on the reality of their absence:

My evenings are all dreary, alone, and without books that I am in the mood to read; and this evening was like the rest. So I went to bed at about nine, and longed for Phoebe.

But then, on the eve of Sophia’s much anticipated and thrice delayed return, Giant Despair deals his cruelest blow — after a spell of shivers in the evening, Bunny is found still and stiff in his lair by morning. Julian, however, becomes a living testament to children’s ability to perceive the naturalness of death as a part of life, before it has been tainted with our adult dogmas and frights. After breakfast, father and son dig a small hole in the garden and bury the creature as Julian whispers his hope that a flower will spring up over the grave, then elaborates on his ecological cosmogony, telling his father:

Perhaps tomorrow there will be a tree of Bunnies, and they will hang all over it by their ears!

One of Maurice Sendak’s illustrations for The Velveteen Rabbit

Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa is a charm of a read in its entirety. Complement it with Hawthorne on life, death, and what fills the interlude with meaning — his touching account of watching his young daughter interact with his dying mother — then revisit Melville’s passionate and heartbreaking love letters to him and Kahlil Gibran’s poetic advice on parenting.

BP

The Choreography of Everyday Life: A Leaping Antidote to Our Modern Loneliness

Finding that vitalizing “a reciprocity between us perceiving the world together through art, and the world in turn reading us through what we make.”

The Choreography of Everyday Life: A Leaping Antidote to Our Modern Loneliness

“If the universe is meaningless, so is the statement that it is so,” Alan Watts wrote as he contemplated our search for meaning. “The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance.”

It is a fertile metaphor, for the way we move through the world — and how we move the world through the mind — shapes our entire experience of it. Out of this existential choreography, which we perform a million times a day in a million unconscious ways, arises our perception of reality.

The metaphor comes alive with uncommon vitality in The Choreography of Everyday Life (public library) by choreographer Annie-B Parson, who has shaped living artworks by cultural icons ranging from David Bowie and David Byrne to Mikhail Baryshnikov and the Martha Graham Dance Company.

Reading the Odyssey as a kind of secular theology and reckoning with Tik-Tok as the folk art form of our time, she turns a cautious eye to our menacing pandemic of selfing, observing the self-made corner into which we have punished ourselves:

Social media forms are performative solo forms with an odd conflation of friendship and marketing; the body is alone in a room performing the self, with an undercurrent of desire for applause. Without a town square to gather in and hash out the day with neighbors, social media communications have a shading of loneliness underneath.

Art by Maira Kalman for her illustrated adaptation of David Byrne’s American Utopia, choreographed by Annie-B Parson

The way out, she intimates, is movement — a movement of the spirit that mirrors the movement of bodies toward the togetherness of the town square, the place where generative change takes place, for all creativity — which is the antidote to loneliness — is a kind of dance we perform not in isolation but with the world:

The wide shot is the camera position that allows the audience to see the full body of everyone in the scene in their environment, it’s the most objective and potentially the most compositional of camera positions, and for very brief moments I can perceive our wide shot: that we experience contentment, then we suffer, we slog through what we deem uninteresting, we get inspired, we see things, we miss things, we trip or fall or slowly crumble, we get up, we fight, we reconnect, and then in despair or fascination or just reflexively, we write about it.

And this desire to articulate what you feel and perceive, to tell it, to name it, to describe it, this is as natural as the progression from walking to running to leaping, to shaping that leap into a pattern of leaps, and then a group of leapers in unison — into a dance.

And if I go into the extreme wide shot, I can see a generative duality between us and the world, a reciprocity between us perceiving the world together through art, and the world in turn reading us through what we make. In this mirror structure, I can imagine the creative act as world-actualization rather than self-actualization, that what we make becomes a part of nature’s generative system.

Art by Maira Kalman for American Utopia

Couple this fragment of The Choreography of Everyday Life with Zadie Smith on what writers can learn from the great dancers, then revisit Helen Keller, upon visiting Martha Graham’s studio, on how dance is like thought.

BP

David Bowie on Creativity and His Advice to Artists

“It’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfill other people’s expectations”

Every creator’s creations are their coping mechanism for life — for the loneliness of being, for the longing for connection, for the dazzling incomprehension of what it all means. What we call art is simply a gesture toward some authentic answer to these open questions, at once universal and intimately felt — questions aimed at the elemental truths of being alive, animated by a craving for beauty, haunted by the need to find a way of bearing our mortality. Without this elemental longing, without this authentic gesture, what is made is not art but something else — the kind of commodified craftsmanship Virginia Woolf indicted when she weighed creativity against catering.

The year he turned fifty, and a year before he gave his irreverent answers to the famous Proust Questionnaire, David Bowie (January 8, 1947–January 10, 2016) contemplated the soul of creativity in a television interview marking the release of his experimental drum’n’bass record Earthling — a radical departure from the musical style that had sprinkled the stardust of his genius upon the collective conscience of a generation, and a testament to Bowie’s unassailable devotion to continual creative growth.

Nested into the interview is his most direct advice to artists and the closest thing he ever formulated to a personal creative credo.

In consonance with E.E. Cummings’s splendid insistence that “the Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself,” Bowie reflects:

Never play to the gallery… Always remember that the reason that you initially started working is that there was something inside yourself that you felt that if you could manifest in some way, you would understand more about yourself and how you coexist with the rest of society. I think it’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfill other people’s expectations — they generally produce their worst work when they do that.

Echoing Beethoven’s life-tested insight that though the true artist “may be admired by others, he is sad not to have reached that point to which his better genius only appears as a distant, guiding sun,” Bowie adds a mighty antidote to the greatest enemy of creative work — complacency:

If you feel safe in the area that you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth, and when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.

Complement with John Lennon on creativity, Nick Cave on the relationship between art and mystery, Paul Klee on how an artist must be like a tree, and Wassily Kandinsky on the three responsibilities of the artist, then revisit Virginia Woolf’s account of the epiphany that revealed to her what the creative life means.

BP

The Art of Receiving: John Steinbeck on the True Meaning of Gratitude

“It is so easy to give, so exquisitely rewarding. Receiving, on the other hand, if it be well done, requires a fine balance of self-knowledge and kindness.”

The Art of Receiving: John Steinbeck on the True Meaning of Gratitude

“It’s only when we demand that we are hurt,” Henry Miller observed when he weighed the delicate balance of giving and receiving. A demand is a metastasis of longing. Because longing is the defining feature of human life, learning to bear our longing without demanding is the beginning of healing.

Nothing is more salutary to the soul than that which comes unbidden and is received freely. And yet, paradoxically enough, it is in receiving that we most often trip up — for to receive is an act of tremendous trust and tremendous vulnerability. True gratitude has as its object not what is given but what is received. The art of receiving is therefore the precursor to any sense of gratitude — our deepest wellspring of thanks-giving.

That is what John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) explores in one of the myriad dazzling passages that strew The Log from the Sea of Cortez (public library) — his uncommonly insightful meditation on how to think better and see the pattern beneath the particulars.

John Steinbeck

With an eye to a friend so skillful at receiving that “everyone felt good” in giving to him — “a present, a thought, anything” — Steinbeck writes:

Perhaps the most overrated virtue in our list of shoddy virtues is that of giving. Giving builds up the ego of the giver, makes him superior and higher and larger than the receiver. Nearly always, giving is a selfish pleasure, and in many cases it is a downright destructive and evil thing. One has only to remember some of our wolfish financiers who spend two-thirds of their lives clawing fortunes out of the guts of society and the latter third pushing it back. It is not enough to suppose that their philanthropy is a kind of frightened restitution, or that their natures change when they have enough. Such a nature never has enough and natures do not change that readily. I think that the impulse is the same in both cases. For giving can bring the same sense of superiority as getting does, and philanthropy may be another kind of spiritual avarice.

It is a countercultural notion, this indictment of the greed of generosity, especially in our culture of virtue-signaling and performative giving. But only by acknowledging this particular form of selfing can we begin to appreciate the beauty of its mirror-image in the art of receiving — an art truer and more tender, for it requires not an exercise of the ego but its exorcism.

Art by Jacqueline Ayer from The Paper-Flower Tree

Steinbeck writes:

It is so easy to give, so exquisitely rewarding. Receiving, on the other hand, if it be well done, requires a fine balance of self-knowledge and kindness. It requires humility and tact and great understanding of relationships. In receiving you cannot appear, even to yourself, better or stronger or wiser than the giver, although you must be wiser to do it well.

It requires a self-esteem to receive — not self-love but just a pleasant acquaintance and liking for oneself.

The Log from the Sea of Cortez remains one of the finest things I have ever read. Complement this fragment with Seneca on gratitude and what it really means to be a generous human being, then revisit Steinbeck on love, the necessary contradictions of human nature, the difficult art of the friend breakup, and his Nobel Prize acceptance speech about what it means to be a writer.

BP

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