Remarkable characters | Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for July 29th, 1838

July 29th.–Remarkable characters:–A disagreeable figure, waning from middle age, clad in a pair of tow homespun pantaloons, and a very soiled shirt, barefoot, and with one of his feet maimed by an axe; also an arm amputated two or three inches below the elbow. His beard of a week’s growth, grim and grisly, with a general effect of black; altogether a disgusting object. Yet he has the signs of having been a handsome man in his idea, though now such a beastly figure that probably no living thing but his great dog would touch him without an effort. Coming to the stoop, where several persons were sitting, “Good morning, gentlemen,” said the wretch. Nobodyanswered for a time, till at last one said, “I don’t know whom you speak to: not to me, I’m sure” (meaning that he did not claim to be a gentleman). “Why I thought I spoke to you all at once,” replied the figure, laughing. So he sat himself down on the lower step of the stoop, and began to talk; and, the conversation being turned upon his bare feet by one of the company, he related the story of his losing his toes by the glancing aside of an axe, and with what great fortitude he bore it. Then he made a transition to the loss of his arm, and, setting his teeth and drawing in his breath, said that the pain was dreadful; but this, too, he seems to have borne like an Indian; and a person testified to his fortitude by saying that he did not suppose there was any feeling in him, from observing how he bore it. The man spoke of the pain of cutting the muscles, and the particular agony at one moment, while the bone was being sawed asunder; and there was a strange expression of remembered anguish, as he shrugged his half-limb, and described the matter. Afterwards, in a reply to a question of mine, whether he still seemed to feel the hand that had been amputated, he answered that he did always; and, baring the stump, he moved the severed muscles, saying, “There is the thumb, there the forefinger,” and so on. Then he talked to me about phrenology, of which he seems a firm believer and skilful practitioner, telling how he had hit upon the true character of many people. There was a great deal of sense and acuteness in his talk, and something of elevation in his expressions,–perhaps a studied elevation, and a sort of courtesy in his manner; but his sense had something out of the way in it; there was something wild and ruined and desperate in his talk, though I can hardlysay what it was. There was a trace of the gentleman and man of intellect through his deep degradation; and a pleasure in intellectual pursuits, and an acuteness and trained judgment, which bespoke a mind once strong and cultivated. “My study is man,” said he. And, looking at me, “I do not know your name,” he said, “but there is something of the hawk-eye about you, too.”

This man was formerly a lawyer in good practice; but, taking to drinking, was reduced to the lowest state. Yet not the lowest; for after the amputation of his arm, being advised by divers persons to throw himself upon the public for support, he told them that, even if he should lose his other arm, he would still be able to support himself and a servant. Certainly he is a strong-minded and iron-constitutioned man; but, looking at the stump of his arm, he said that the pain of the mind was a thousand times greater than the pain of the body. “That hand could make the pen go fast,” said he. Among people in general, he does not seem to have any greater consideration in his ruin because of his former standing in society. He supports himself by making soap; and, on account of the offals used in that business, there is probably rather an evil odor in his domicile. Talking about a dead horse near his house, he said that he could not bear the scent of it. “I should not think you could smell carrion in that house,” said a stage agent. Whereupon the soap-maker dropped his head, with a little snort, as it were, of wounded feeling; but immediately said that he took all in good part. There was an old squire of the village, a lawyer probably, whose demeanor was different,–with a distance, yet with a kindliness; for he remembered the times when theymet on equal terms. “You and I,” said the squire, alluding to their respective troubles and sicknesses, “would have died long ago, if we had not had the courage to live.” The poor devil kept talking to me long after everybody else had left the stoop, giving vent to much practical philosophy, and just observation on the ways of men, mingled with rather more assumption of literature and cultivation than belonged to the present condition of his mind. Meantime his great dog, a cleanly looking and not ill-bred dog, being the only decent attribute appertaining to his master,–a well-natured dog, too, and receiving civilly any demonstration of courtesy from other people, though preserving a certain distance of deportment,–this great dog grew weary of his master’s lengthy talk, and expressed his impatience to be gone by thrusting himself between his legs, rolling over on his back, seizing his ragged trousers, or playfully taking his maimed, bare foot into his mouth,–using, in short, the kindly and humorous freedom of a friend, with a wretch to whom all are free enough, but none other kind. His master rebuked him, but with kindness too, and not so that the dog felt himself bound to desist, though he seemed willing to allow his master all the time that could possibly be spared. And at last, having said many times that he must go and shave and dress himself,–and as his beard had been at least a week growing, it might have seemed almost a week’s work to get rid of it,–he rose from the stoop and went his way,–a forlorn and miserable thing in the light of the cheerful summer morning. Yet he seems to keep his spirits up, and still preserves himself a man among men, asking nothing from them; nor is it clearly perceptible what right they have to scorn him, though he seems to acquiesce, in a manner, in their doing so. And yet he cannot wholly have lost his self-respect; and doubtless there were persons on the stoop more grovelling than himself.

Another character:–A blacksmith of fifty or upwards, a corpulent figure, big in the paunch and enormous in the rear; yet there is such an appearance of strength and robustness in his frame, that his corpulence appears very proper and necessary to him. A pound of flesh could not be spared from his abundance, any more than from the leanest man; and he walks about briskly, without any panting or symptom of labor or pain in his motion. He has a round, jolly face, always mirthful and humorous and shrewd, and the air of a man well to do, and well respected, yet not caring much about the opinions of men, because his independence is sufficient to itself. Nobody would take him for other than a man of some importance in the community, though his summer dress is a tow-cloth pair of pantaloons, a shirt not of the cleanest, open at the breast, and the sleeves rolled up at the elbows, and a straw hat. There is not such a vast difference between this costume and that of Lawyer H—- above mentioned, yet never was there a greater diversity of appearance than between these two men; and a glance at them would be sufficient to mark the difference. The blacksmith loves his glass, and comes to the tavern for it, whenever it seems good to him, not calling for it slyly and shyly, but marching steadily to the bar, or calling across the room for it to be prepared. He speaks with great bitterness against the new license law, and vows if it be not repealed by fair means it shall be by violence, and that he will be as ready to cock his rifle for such a cause as for anyother. On this subject his talk is really fierce; but as to all other matters he is good-natured and good-hearted, fond of joke, and shaking his jolly sides with frequent laughter. His conversation has much strong, unlettered sense, imbued with humor, as everybody’s talk is in New England.

He takes a queer position sometimes,–queer for his figure particularly,–straddling across a chair, facing the back, with his arms resting thereon, and his chin on them, for the benefit of conversing closely with some one. When he has spent as much time in the bar-room or under the stoop as he chooses to spare, he gets up at once, and goes off with a brisk, vigorous pace. He owns a mill, and seems to be prosperous in the world. I know no man who seems more like a man, more indescribably human, than this sturdy blacksmith.

There came in the afternoon a respectable man in gray homespun cloth, who arrived in a wagon, I believe, and began to inquire, after supper, about a certain new kind of mill machinery. Being referred to the blacksmith, who owned one of these mills, the stranger said that he had come from Vermont to learn about the matter. “What may I call your name?” said he to the blacksmith. “My name is Hodge,” replied the latter. “I believe I have heard of you,” said the stranger. Then they colloquied at much length about the various peculiarities and merits of the new invention. The stranger continued here two or three days, making his researches, and forming acquaintance with several millwrights and others. He was a man evidently of influence in his neighborhood, and the tone of his conversation was in the style of one accustomed to be heard with deference, though allin a plain and homely way. Lawyer H—- took notice of this manner; for the talk being about the nature of soap, and the evil odor arising from that process, the stranger joined in. “There need not be any disagreeable smell in making soap,” said he. “Now we are to receive a lesson,” said H—-, and the remark was particularly apropos to the large wisdom of the stranger’s tone and air.

Then he gave an account of the process in his domestic establishment, saying that he threw away the whole offals of the hog, as not producing any soap, and preserved the skins of the intestines for sausages. He seemed to be hospitable, inviting those with whom he did business to take “a mouthful of dinner” with him, and treating them with liquors; for he was not an utter temperance man, though moderate in his potations. I suspect he would turn out a pattern character of the upper class of New England yeomen, if I had an opportunity of studying him. Doubtless he had been selectman, representative, and justice, and had filled all but weighty offices. He was highly pleased with the new mill contrivance, and expressed his opinion that, when his neighbors saw the success of his, it would be extensively introduced into that vicinity.

Mem. The hostlers at taverns call the money given them “pergasus,”–corrupted from “perquisites.” Otherwise “knock-down money.”

Remarkable character:–A travelling surgeon-dentist, who has taken a room in the North Adams House, and sticks up his advertising bills on the pillars of the piazza, and all about the town. He is a tall, slim young man, six feet two, dressed in a country-made coat of light blue (taken, as he tells me, in exchange for dental operations), black pantaloons, and clumsy,cowhide boots. Self-conceit is very strongly expressed in his air; and a doctor once told him that he owed his life to that quality; for, by keeping himself so stiffly upright, he opens his chest, and counteracts a consumptive tendency. He is not only a dentist, which trade he follows temporarily, but a licensed preacher of the Baptist persuasion, and is now on his way to the West to seek a place of settlement in his spiritual vocation. Whatever education he possesses, he has acquired by his own exertions since the age of twenty-one,–he being now twenty-four. We talk together very freely; and he has given me an account, among other matters, of all his love-affairs, which are rather curious, as illustrative of the life of a smart young country fellow in relation to the gentle sex. Nothing can exceed the exquisite self-conceit which characterizes these confidences, and which is expressed inimitably in his face, his upturned nose, and mouth, so as to be truly a caricature; and he seems strangely to find as much food for his passion in having been jilted once or twice as in his conquests. It is curious to notice his revengeful feeling against the false ones,–hidden from himself, however, under the guise of religious interest, and desire that they may be cured of their follies.

A little boy named Joe, who haunts about the bar-room and the stoop, four years old, in a thin, short jacket, and full-breeched trousers, and bare feet. The men tease him, and put quids of tobacco in his mouth, under pretence of giving him a fig; and he gets enraged, and utters a peculiar, sharp, spiteful cry, and strikes at them with a stick, to their great mirth. He is always in trouble, yet will not keep away. They despatch him with two or three cents to buy candyand nuts and raisins. They set him down in a niche of the door, and tell him to remain there a day and a half: he sits down very demurely, as if he meant to fulfil his penance; but a moment after, behold! there is little Joe capering across the street to join two or three boys who are playing in a wagon. Take this boy as the germ of a tavern-haunter, a country roué, to spend a wild and brutal youth, ten years of his prime in the State Prison, and his old age in the poor-house.

There are a great many dogs kept in the village, and many of the travellers also have dogs. Some are almost always playing about; and if a cow or a pig be passing, two or three of them scamper forth for an attack. Some of the younger sort chase pigeons, wheeling as they wheel. If a contest arises between two dogs, a number of others come with huge barking to join the fray, though I believe that they do not really take any active part in the contest, but swell the uproar by way of encouraging the combatants. When a traveller is starting from the door, his dog often gets in front of the horse, placing his forefeet down, looking the horse in the face, and barking loudly; then, as the horse comes on, running a little farther, and repeating the process; and this he does in spite of his master’s remonstrances, till, the horse being fairly started, the dog follows on quietly. One dog, a diminutive little beast, has been taught to stand on his hind legs, and rub his face with his paw, which he does with an aspect of much endurance and deprecation. Another springs at people whom his master points out to him, barking and pretending to bite. These tricks make much mirth in the bar-room. All dogs, of whatever different sizes and dissimilarvarieties, acknowledge the common bond of species among themselves, and the largest one does not disdain to suffer his tail to be smelt of, nor to reciprocate that courtesy to the smallest. They appear to take much interest in one another; but there is always a degree of caution between two strange dogs when they meet.

From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s American Note-Books.

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