If you’re looking for a charming bit of family-centered late-summer reading, I have a suggestion: Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. This short and sweet diary records the events of the three weeks the writer spent as sole caregiver to his 5-year-old son, Julian, and their pet rabbit, Bunny, in late July and early August 1851, while his wife, older daughter, and baby traveled. The writer originally produced this journal for his family’s enjoyment, but there’s a 2003 NYRB edition, with a forward by Paul Auster. It’s a delightful and intimate chronicle of what it’s like to while away the days of a summer “vacation” while taking care of a child.
During this particular summer, the Hawthornes were living temporarily in a friend’s cottage in Lenox, in western Massachusetts. Nathaniel had recently successfully published The Scarlet Letter (1850) and was trying to write full-time. The place didn’t quite suit Hawthorne, who wrote in this diary, “This is a horrible, horrible, most horrible climate,” exclaiming: “I hate Berkshire with my whole soul, and would joyfully see its mountains laid flat!” Despite his dissatisfaction, the book is full of idyllic descriptions of walks down country lanes to get pails of milk from nearby farmers, time spent lolling about on the shores of a lake, and harvests of string beans and squash from their garden—not to mention visits with neighbor and friend Herman Melville.
This book is made all the more interesting by the fact that it’s written by a man, at a time when many Americans venerated connections between mothers and children, while perceiving fathers as distant wage-earners who barely had relationships with their offspring outside of the administration of necessary discipline. Nathaniel was a more present father than many, but he still found life alone with a 5-year-old trying. On July 28, Nathaniel wrote: “I hardly know how we got through the fore-noon. It is impossible to write, read, think, or even sleep (in the daytime), so constant are his appeals in one way or another.” On Aug. 3:
Either I have less patience today 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 ought 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.
It was this incessant quality of Julian’s conversation that most bothered Nathaniel, who was clearly an introvert trying to parent an extrovert. Recording a July 31 walk, Nathaniel described Julian’s chatter: “All the time, a babble at my side as if a brook were running along the way.” On Aug. 8, father and son were housebound due to bad weather, and Hawthorne reported that he “deafened and confounded me with his interminable babble … I think I have hardly known Julian to talk so incessantly as he has today.”
Yet, at times, following his own fluctuating moods, the writer found the son’s monologues quite charming. On Aug. 3, during one of their daily walks, Nathaniel sat under a tree, and Julian climbed up and looked down: “His round merry face appeared among the green leaves, and a continual stream of babble came dripping down upon me, like a summer shower.” A few times in this journal, Nathaniel described a sentiment familiar to any parent who can’t quite figure out how to record the extremely context-dependent delights of a child’s conversation: “He often says odd things, which I either forget, or cannot possibly grasp them so as to write them down”; “I wish I could record all his apothegms; but they do not seem worth writing down, ‘til I have so far forgotten them that they cannot be recalled in their integrity.”
The Hawthorne children read (or had read to them) tons of Hans Christian Andersen and Brothers Grimm stories, and Julian’s chatter reflected this cultural influence. On a walk on July 31, Julian talked about the “jeu” on the grass, and “said he supposed fairies had been pouring it on the grass and flowers, out of their little pitchers. Then he pestered me to tell him at which side of the road I thought the dewy grass looked prettiest.” Julian, like many 19th-century children, seems to have had very few toys, aside from a much-beloved jackknife, a bat and ball, and the pet Bunny. He used sticks, rocks, weeds, and berries instead. On Aug. 11, the child vanished for a while, then reappeared “holding up his little fist, with a smiling phiz, and crying out that he had something very good for me”—“a squeezed-up pulp consisting of raspberries, blackberries, and gooseberries, which had been stewing in his fist for an hour past.”
Sleep could be a problem. Nathaniel was fairly firm about Julian’s 7 o’clock bedtime, despite the boy’s occasional “rampageous resistance,” but he found it somewhat hard to get up when Julian did—a habit that seems to have been necessary not only to provide fatherly supervision, but also because the cottage was small and the two seem to have been sleeping in the same room. The boy was “awake and summoning me, sometime before I was ready to receive him,” on July 29. On July 31, the father reports, “at about six o’clock, I looked over the edge of my bed, and saw that Julian was awake, peeping sideways at me out of his eyes, with a subdued laugh in them.” On the morning of Aug. 4, “the little man seemed to be sprightly and in good condition, although he had tumbled about, during the night, to a degree that often woke me up.”
Nathaniel sometimes found it hard to perform the daily tasks of caregiving. On a picnic with Melville and others, the father neglects to pre-confirm that the food in the basket will suit Julian’s tastes, and the boy (who won’t eat the sandwich bread because it’s covered in butter and mustard) ends up dining solely on gingerbread. The father needed to curl Julian’s hair, which he wore in ringlets according to the Victorian style for young children, with a hot iron. Nathaniel found himself less than adept at the task, and every time he did it Julian laughed at his befuddlement, while trying and failing to describe how his mother did the job; even so, every day Nathaniel took it upon himself to “operate on his wig” or “frizzle his wool.”
“The young Julian was indulged by permissive parents,” Julian Hawthorne’s biographer Gary Scharhorst judges, noting that his mother was particularly “soft” on the boy; Nathaniel once joked that “if Julian sent for mamma’s head I suppose she would do it up in a bundle” and send it along. And in some episodes recorded in this journal, Hawthorne does seem to lack the will to enforce parental boundaries. July 29: “He betook himself to playing bat and ball with huge racket and uproar about the room, felicitating himself continually on the license of making what noise he pleased, in the absence of baby. He enjoys this freedom so greatly, that I do not mean to restrain him, whatever noise he makes.” On Aug. 7, Hawthorne reported that Julian “began to tease for something to eat” an hour after lunch. “Although he had dined abundantly on rice and string beans,” he desperately wanted a snack and “began to bellow at the full stretch of his lungs for more, and beat me terribly because I refused it.” This beating, Hawthorne recorded proudly, was a stout one: “He really is as strong as a little giant.”
Near the end of their time together, with the return of the rest of the family nearing, Nathaniel began to see Julian with a new kind of tenderness and understanding. On Aug. 10: “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 this great heap of 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.” Later that same day, perhaps thinking of his wife, who would read the diary when she returned, Nathaniel recorded an outpouring of sentimental feeling:
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!
Julian Hawthorne’s childhood tendency toward prolixity persisted into his adulthood. This charming son was to become a prolific writer, his biographer Scharnhorst reports, who “out-published his father by a ratio of more than twenty to one.” Although little of what the younger Hawthorne wrote made much of a permanent cultural impression, he was a solid journeyman across genres, producing what Scharnhorst estimates might be “more than 3,000 items”—novels, poems, novellas, magazine journalism, profiles, book reviews, interviews, sportswriting—as if Julian had climbed up into a tree, and poured babble down over all the world.