In the spring of 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), having just enjoyed his first great success with The Scarlet Letter, moved with his wife and two young children from bustling Salem, Massachusetts, to the Berkshire Hills in the western part of the state. Although “The Berkshires” are now one of America’s premier cultural and natural resorts, they were then a rather wild and remote place. The beauty and peace of its rolling hills made it the perfect setting for a writer who wanted inspiration and no distractions.
The Hawthornes rented a little red farmhouse in Lenox, on the summer estate of the wealthy Tappan family, and Hawthorne set to work. In just a year and a half, Hawthorne produced his masterpiece, The House of the Seven Gables, as well as The Blithedale Romance. And it was here that he wrote his enchanting book for children, A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys.
A Wonder Book is a collection of stories within a frame story. Eustace Bright, a lively student at nearby Williams College, is visiting Tanglewood (Hawthorne’s fictional name for the Tappan estate). He gathers a group of “little folks” — the Hawthorne and Tappan children under assumed names like “Primrose” and “Cowslip” — and, in various places on and around the estate, charmingly narrates for them several ancient Greek myths.
Here is Perseus, lopping off the Gorgon’s Head; Midas, miserably living with his Golden Touch; Pandora and that terrible box; Hercules braving monsters to retrieve the Three Golden Apples; the generous old couple, Baucis and Philemon, unwittingly entertaining the gods in their poor cottage; Bellerophon taming Pegasus and defeating the Chimæra. Both the frame story and the myths are simply and beautifully told, with Hawthorne’s wonderfully evocative touches:
The golden days of October passed away, as so many other Octobers have, and brown November likewise, and the greater part of chill December, too. At last came merry Christmas, and Eustace Bright along with it, making it all the merrier by his presence. And, the day after his arrival from college, there came a mighty snow-storm. Up to this time, the winter had held back, and had given us a good many mild days, which were like smiles upon its wrinkled visage. The grass had kept itself green, in sheltered places, such as the nooks of southern hill-slopes, and along the lee of the stone fences. It was but a week or two ago, and since the beginning of the month, that the children had found a dandelion in bloom, on the margin of Shadow Brook, where it glides out of the dell.
In spite of his appreciation of the beauty of the Berkshires, his productivity there, and the birth of his daughter Rose in 1851, Hawthorne loathed the changeable climate. In one of his journals (later published as Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa), he wrote, “I detest it! I detest it!! I de-test it!!! I hate Berkshire with my whole soul, and would joyfully see its mountains laid flat.” The Hawthornes went back east in November 1852 and never returned.
But Hawthorne’s Wonder Book lives on, as does its sequel, Tanglewood Tales, published in 1853. The Tappans, in fact, adopted Hawthorne’s name for their estate, and their descendants donated Tanglewood to the Boston Symphony Orchestra for its now-famous summer concert series. The little red farmhouse burned down in 1890 and a privately-owned replica stands in its place.
Project Gutenberg’s version of A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys is the 1893 edition, with lovely, richly-detailed illustrations by Walter Crane.