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.”
By Maria Popova
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.