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Professor Studies Woman Behind The Man

Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne
Sophia Hawthorne, wife of American author Nathaniel (right), was not only a prolific writer but a trusted editor for her husband's works.

Sophia Peabody Hawthorne was more than just the wife of the great American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne.

She was a great writer, editor and a published author, as well as someone from whom Nathaniel drew much influence, according to SHSU associate professor of English Julie Hall.

“We can say she was almost a literary professional in that time period,” Hall said.

On Monday afternoon, Sophia and Nathaniel were reunited for the first time in almost 150 years, when her remains and those of their daughter Una were moved from a London cemetery to the Hawthorne family plot in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, in New England.

The decision to re-inter the remains was made by both Hawthorne descendants and nuns from the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne after a tree fell over and damaged the graves.

“It (Nathaniel and Sophia’s story) is supposed to have been one of the great love stories in American literature; that’s what people often say of it,” Hall said. “We do have, preserved, all the love letters that Nathaniel wrote to her, and indeed they do testify to a wonderful love.

“Most people are very, very happy that she is being brought back, because we want to see them together in death as in life,” she said.

Not only was it a momentous opportunity to reconnect the two lovers, but Hall said she is happy for the opportunity to bring attention to Sophia as more than just “the other side” of Nathaniel.

Julie Hall
Julie Hall

Hall, who has studied the Hawthornes for over 15 years and wrote her dissertation over Sophia, was just recently interviewed in a story about the lesser-known Hawthorne for the Boston Globe.

“I think she has been underappreciated, but she’s been gaining increasing attention in the past 10 or 20 years,” she said. “As we saw with this article, it just sort of brings her back into the public mind. It makes people question who this woman was and what she did.”

And just what did she do?

“She wrote all of her life in forms that were more accepted for women in the 19th century,” Hall said. “There was resistance to women authors, women who published, but it was OK if they wrote privately, such as letters and journals.

“What we have of hers are her journals and letters and one book that was published after Hawthorne died,” she said. “It was a travel book, and those were very, very popular in the 19th century. It was based upon the Hawthornes’ life abroad, from 1853-1860.”

The book, “Notes in England and Italy,” was published five years after Nathaniel’s death, in 1869.

Hall said she believes the reasons Sophia, which she pronounces as Soph-eye-a, waited until after her husband’s death to publish any of her works were multifaceted, including the non-acceptance of women writers and the desire not to overshadow Nathaniel while he was alive.

“One factor in her publication was that she needed the money for herself and her three children, so she turned to her writing as a way to make money,” she said, adding that it’s all just speculation without speaking to Sophia herself. “Also, during that time after his death, she edited Hawthorne’s private notebooks and journals. That was a huge enterprise that was at least four different volumes of notebooks and journals, and it took her about six years to do that.”

Called “perhaps the first American Transcendentalist nature writer” by another scholar interviewed for the Boston Globe story, Sophia’s contributions to literature are “of a lot of value,” Hall said.

“In the book that I co-edited, my essay is on the letters that she wrote,” she said. “These would have been private letters, some of them to Nathaniel, during the Civil War, so they have great historical value in and of themselves.”

Her place in American literature is also found in her contributions to her husband’s work, serving as a model for some of Nathaniel’s fictional women.

“Another more direct means of influence was the fact that he actually used one of her journals, and he ‘lifted’ passages from her journal and used them in two of his short stories,” Hall said. “She was OK with the shared glory for most of her life, but at the same time, she was a very accomplished woman, and that’s what I think we need to take note of.”

So revered was she and her gifts, both writing and editorial, by her husband that she and Nathaniel collaborated on several works, including a honeymoon journal, in which the two responded to each others’ entries, that was fully published in 2006. Before 2006, only Nathaniel’s parts had been printed.

“After he composed his fiction, his short stories and his novels, he read every single one of them to her, or she read them in manuscript before he sent them to his publisher,” Hall said “So that tells us something of her importance to him.”

The whole notion of the “woman behind the man” was quite common during that time, Hall said, listing Mark Twain and his wife as both another example and a couple to whom the Hawthornes have been compared.

“I think this woman behind the man deal with women and men writers is probably much more common in the 20th century because there were so many more obstacles to women becoming published authors, so they often sort of satisfied their desires through their mates,” she said.

The book Hall is co-editing on Sophia, “Reinventing the Peabody Sisters,” is due out in November but is already available on




SHSU Media Contact: Jennifer Gauntt
June 26, 2006
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