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Introduction to "The Duston Family"

Introduction to "The Duston Family"

Materials prepared by:

Joseph R. Modugno, Department of English
North Shore Community College, Danvers, MA

"The Escape of the Duston Family," illustration from "The Duston Family" by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
"The Escape of the Duston Family," illustration from "The Duston Family" by Nathaniel Hawthorne. (courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA)

Hawthorne as Editor

In January of 1836, at the recommendation of publisher Samuel G. Goodrich, Nathaniel Hawthorne accepted the editorship of the Boston-based American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge. At 32 years of age, Hawthorne left Salem to take his new position with the hope of broadening his literary career and securing a regular income. For a yearly salary of $500, he was expected to compile and edit the contents of the monthly publication, which was owned and operated by the Boston Bewick Company.1

From the start, Hawthorne found himself struggling to produce material to fill the pages of the magazine. With little assistance from the company, he was forced to supply and edit nearly all of the content himself. He wrote biographical sketches and brief essays on history, geography, science, and the arts. He summarized information from a wide range of published sources, often including amusing topics and anecdotes, such as, "The Science of Noses," "The Uses of Dead Animals," and "The [Spontaneous] Combustion of a Professor of Mathematics." To meet the considerable monthly quota for the magazine, he often resorted to reprinting excerpts of essays or poetry from American and English books. Unable to afford or acquire company funds for a membership at the Boston Athenaeum, Hawthorne relied upon the assistance of his sister Elizabeth in Salem, who responded to his frenzied letters for help by sending him quotations and summaries from books in the Salem Athenaeum.2 "Concoct, concoct, concoct," he wrote her. "I make nothing of writing a history or biography before dinner. Do you the same."

Along with locating and composing brief articles of "useful and entertaining" knowledge, the Bewick Company officials required Hawthorne to write commentaries or sketches to complement the wood engravings they wished to highlight. These illustrations were often selected at the last minute and with little or no regard for Hawthorne's opinion. The quality often varied. Samuel Goodrich, who had published some of Hawthorne's first short stories in The Token, was a stockholder and director in the Bewick Company. According to B. Bernard Cohen, Goodrich's principal interest was in promoting the work of engravers.3 Cohen indicates that it was probably Goodrich who provided the engraving shown on the top of this page and asked Hawthorne to write a complementary piece for the magazine. In any case, "The Duston Family" sketch, inspired by the engraving, appeared with the print in the May 1836 issue of the American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge.

The engraving entitled "The Escape of the Duston Family" was a larger version of a similar engraving first published in Samuel G. Goodrich's Peter Parley's Method of Telling about the History of the World to Children (1832). While composing his Duston Family sketch, Hawthorne drew upon Peter Parley's Method and borrowed specifics from B. L. Mirick's The History of Haverhill, Massachusetts (1832) and Cotton Mather's Puritan history, Magnalia Christi Americana (1702).4 These works related the dramatic experiences of Thomas Duston and Hannah, his wife.

Hannah was a forty-year old mother of eight taken captive with her newborn daughter during an Indian raid on Haverhill, Massachusetts, March 15, 1697. Hannah witnessed the brutal killing of her baby and several of her neighbors. Later in her captivity, while detained on an island in the Merrimack River in central New Hampshire, she acquired the assistance of two other English captives--fifty-one year old Mary Neff of Haverhill and fourteen-year old Samuel Leonardson of Worcester, Massachusetts-and killed ten of their Indian captors.5

Before leaving with her companions, Hannah insisted that the three scalp the dead Indians as proof of their accomplishment. Upon their return to the English settlements, Duston, Neff, and Leonardson received high praises and a generous payment for the ten scalps. 6 Hannah was viewed as a frontier hero, and her story soon entered into American folklore.

B. Bernard Cohen points out that "'The Duston Family' is undoubtedly typical of Hawthorne's method of writing during his editorship of the magazine . . . . In order to lessen the pressure created by the necessity of hasty composition, he relied heavily on books he had already read and whose attractions had never left his memory." 7 The Duston Family sketch, in particular, Cohen believes, illustrates that "[Hawthorne] was able to mold the material which he derived elsewhere into a creation that definitely reveals the stamp of his maturing artistry and imagination." 8

In his letters to his sisters, however, Hawthorne expressed little satisfaction with his writing or his position. He complained to Louisa, "I am so busy with agents, clerks, engravers, stereotype printers, devils-and the devil knows what all-that I have not much time to write." In a letter to Elizabeth he declared that his contributions to the magazine were "bad enough to satisfy anybody," and added apologetically, "I can't help it."

Frustrated by the relentless hackwork, his lack of editorial control, and the company's lack of payment (by May he had received only $20 from the publishers and Goodrich still owed him payment for several stories), Hawthorne resigned from the magazine. He stayed in Boston for a short time to work on Goodrich's Peter Parley's Universal History. Goodrich paid him $100, which he gave to Elizabeth as compensation for her assistance. After eight months in Boston, feeling tired and discouraged, Hawthorne returned home to Salem. Arlin Turner in Hawthorne as Editor explains that the aspiring author "could not reconcile himself long to compiling a monthly hodge-podge of 'useful and entertaining knowledge.' "9 In an editorial note in the August issue of the magazine, Hawthorne announced his departure and offered some comments on his experience as editor:

It is proper to remark that we have not had full controul over the contents of the Magazine; inasmuch as the embellishments have chiefly been selected by the executive officers of the Boston Bewick Company, or by the engravers themselves; and our humble duty has consisted merely in preparing the literary illustrations. In some few cases, perhaps, the interests of the work might have been promoted by allowing the Editor the privilege of a veto, at least, on all engravings which were to be presented to the Public under his auspices, and for which his taste and judgment would inevitably be held responsible.
In his 1879 biography of Hawthorne, Henry James remarked that "There is something pitiful in this episode, and something really touching in the sight of a delicate and superior genius obliged to concern himself with such paltry undertakings. The simple fact was that for a man attempting at that time in America to live by his pen, there were no larger openings; and to live at all Hawthorne had, as the phrase is, to make himself small."10

Despite his artistic frustrations at the American Magazine and the limits of a literary career in the 1830s, Hawthorne still managed to produce a handful of writings that, according to Arlin Turner, "bear the recognizable stamp of the author's genius. . . and may well be included in the Hawthorne canon."11

"The Duston Family" sketch is not one of Hawthorne's most accomplished works, but it reveals something of the moral imagination of its author. The Duston captivity story-and its subsequent transformations in American lore and literature-must have intrigued the young Hawthorne who was discovering in his native history the subjects and themes for some of his best writing. Given his particular interests in moral conflicts and Puritan bigotry, it's easy to see why his Duston sketch turned out as it did. His judgement in "The Duston Family" is noticeably clear: The Indians are victims and Thomas Duston is the real hero. Hannah is the avenging mastermind, a "raging tigress!" driven to heartlessness and murder by the darker impulses of human nature. This, of course, would be the subject Hawthorne would explore repeatedly in his greatest literary achievements.


1. The Boston Bewick Company, no. 47 Court Street, was an association of authors, artists, printers, and bookbinders. The American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge (1834-1837) was founded by Freeman Hunt of Quincy, MA. Numbers 7-12 (Mar. 1836 - Aug. 1836) of Volume 2 of the magazine were edited anonymously by Nathaniel Hawthorne with the assistance of his sister Elizabeth.

2. Elizabeth Manning Hawthorne (b.1802, d.1883). Hawthorne also relied on his sister's assistance when he contributed to Samuel G. Goodrich's children's book Peter Parley's Universal History (1837).

3. B. Bernard Cohen, "The Composition of Hawthorne's 'The Duston Family,'" The New England Quarterly 21 (1948): 236-241.

4. The Duston story was first presented in Cotton Mather's sermon Humiliations followed by Deliverances (1697) then in Decennium Luctuosum (1702), and finally in Magnalia Christi American (1702). The name has several spellings: Duston, Dustun, Dustin, Dustan.

5. The Duston house was the first to be attacked in this raid, located on the northwesterly edge of the settlement. Thomas Duston and his seven children escaped to safety in one of the six garrison houses in the town. The island in the Merrimac is, according to tradition, Contoocook, sometimes called Dustin Island in Boscawen, NH. Of the ten Indians killed by Hannah and her two companions, six were children and two were adult women. Only two Indians escaped alive: a young boy and a woman who was badly wounded.

6. Though the bounty on Indian scalps had expired, the Province of Massachusetts Bay-in agreement with public support--awarded 25 to Hannah and 12 10s. each to Mary Neff and Samuel Leonardson. The Dustons may have received more money to compensate Thomas, the actual petitioner to the court, for the loss of "his estate" to fire during the Haverhill Indian raid.

7. Cohen, 240-41.

8. Cohen, 241.

9. Arlin Turner, ed., Hawthorne as Editor (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1941).

10. Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed. Dan McCall (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1998).

11. Turner, Hawthorne as Editor.

Page citation: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/11763/

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