Review of “Julian Hawthorne: The Life of a Prodigal Son” by Gary Scharnhorst

Matthew McEver


The Man Who Sold His Name


He was the only son of Nathaniel Hawthorne and he wrote for a living. He wrote true crime, mystery, potboilers, children’s stories, bodice rippers, science fiction, and travel narratives. He was advice columnist, poet and playwright, political correspondent and sports reporter. He covered heavyweight title fights, the dedication of the Statue of Liberty, and the assassination of William McKinley. He was the first celebrity journalist, interviewing Thomas Edison, Henry James, and Jack London. As literary critic, he disparaged Joyce, Stein, and Hemingway. He lived eighty-seven years and published more than 3,000 items over six decades. He fathered two daughters by a mistress, touted stock in a worthless mining company, and served time in federal prison for mail fraud.

The story of Julian Hawthorne may be likened to that of the biblical Esau who sold his birthright for a mess of pottage—so says our biographer, Gary Scharnhorst, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English at the University of New Mexico. Julian Hawthorne: The Life of a Prodigal Son is the compelling story of one of the most prolific yet unknown writers in the history of American letters. Reading this biography, one will wonder how it is that the younger Hawthorne’s story has eluded us. Then again, our biographer shows us why.

Scharnhorst considers Hawthorne’s 1913 mail fraud conviction the interpretive moment, framing the biography within this episode, insuring that we will read the book through the lens of this event. Julian left the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary that day with a five dollar bill and a train ticket to New York, we learn, but he delayed his journey, meeting with an Atlanta Constitution writer. The outcome was expose on corruption within the prison: the stench, the floors alive with vermin, men sent to the hole and fed a slice of bread a day, men chained to walls and forced to sleep in standing postures.

Julian’s former cellmate called these allegations lies.

In other words, Scharnhorst has written a three-dimensional biography, an account that involves and demands something of the reader. We must decide for ourselves, is Julian Hawthorne the rogue, the opportunist, or the misunderstood genius?

Apparent is that following the death of his father, Julian Hawthorne perpetually lived hand-to-mouth. This is the story of a writer who turned to writing not out of aesthetic calling, but economic necessity. His literary coming of age, for lack of a better term, coincided with a publishing industry burgeoning, the number of newspapers and magazines doubling, paper prices declining, literacy spreading. Julian was “perfectly positioned to exploit these trends” (59). First, he contributed to the parlor magazines—Harper’s Monthly and Scribner’s—before turning to novel-writing.  Unfortunately, he wrote “no great novels and few good ones” (60).

His novels were commercial successes and critical disasters, and one suspects Scharnhorst is having a little fun in telling us about them. Idolatry (1874) tells the story of a man searching for dead family members. Henry James wrote in the Atlantic, “We have not, really, the smallest idea what Idolatry is about.” The Golden Fleece (1892) is about a reincarnated Aztec priest searching for Montezuma’s gold. Brabazon Waring (1892) is about a man who hires people to remodel his cave. The erotically-charged Love Is a Spirit (1896) is composed mostly of internal monologues. Critics eventually decided that Julian Hawthorne didn’t actually write books; he simply threw bottles of ink in the public’s face (124).

Among Julian’s other literary endeavors–a textbook compiled for high school American literature classes. No female authors are mentioned, James Fenimore Cooper’s work is “stupid,” and Nathaniel Hawthorne is the greatest American author. Further cashing in on his name, Julian penned his father’s biography, which became a mechanism for settling old scores and slandering enemies. In 1870, he discovered two partial manuscripts written by his father, knitted the fragments together, and passed the story off as a long, lost Nathaniel Hawthorne novel. Critics caught on to the ruse, calling it, “little better than nonsense” (103).

Julian’s writing career was invigorated, our biographer tells us, when newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst came calling. Yellow journalism and Julian Hawthorne were made for each other. His reportage of the Cuban revolt against Spain and the explosion aboard the Maine inflamed the public, to Hearst’s satisfaction. Julian became a sports reporter and covered murder trials, a coal miner’s strike, the Galveston hurricane. He even wrote an advice column on health and fitness, appearing in all Hearst newspapers. Invigorated, he ventured back into the magazine market, penning stories of vampires, zombies, and time travel.

Scharnhorst is the first biographer of Julian Hawthorne to speak of Julian’s mistress and the children fathered by this union. One cannot help but conclude that one reason Julian Hawthorne became such a prolific author at the end of the century was because he had two families to support. The financial burden was so great that Julian not only wrote, but hawked his father’s wares, selling notebooks, letters, even the elder Hawthorne’s fourteen-volume Shakespeare collection.

In his conclusion, Scharnhorst returns to his framing story: Julian’s role in the sale of worthless mining stock. In keeping with the overriding theme of this life story, Julian’s services were sought by the mining company precisely because he had the name recognition that would draw investors. Did Julian know the stock was worthless? Was Julian misled? A patsy? Or was he so desperate for money that he looked the other way, ignored the red flags? Let the reader decide.

The challenge for a biographer is to reach beyond the narrating of events and provide us with a sense of why these events occurred, to narrate the motives and drives that birthed and shaped the events. Scharnhorst’s thesis is that Julian Hawthorne’s great burden in life was his name. Julian cursed the expectations that name wrought. Yet he was a chronic liar and philanderer and, when it all caught up with him, he never hesitated in banking on the marquee value of that name, exploiting it for all it was worth, selling his name for a mess of pottage.

In short, Scharnhorst has written a fascinating account which stirs up the debate of art vs. money. Meticulously researched, it is an enjoyable read, the prose accessible. At the same time, this work is highly recommended for teachers not only of writing, but all the fine arts, as a method for drawing students into conversation on the purposes of art, on selling out vs. buying in, whether writing is a trade “no different than making horseshoes” (Julian’s position) or a sacred calling.


GARY SCHARNHORST. Julian Hawthorne: The Life of a Prodigal Son. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2014.