[PDF Notes] Get complete information on Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)

His work:

In Hawthorne’s writings there are three characteristics that impress themselves upon the reader his sense of mystery, his gift of fantasy, his intellectual detachment.

His Sense of Mystery:

When Hawthorne declared that he was “a lover of the brown twilight,” he gave us, in that admirable, self-revealing phrase, a clue to his outlook as a literary artist. Twilight was his art medium.

Some flowers are the sweetest after sunset and keep their fragrance for the coming of night. So did Hawthorne’s genius. But the twilight in which it throve was a homely one; a warm twilight with gold and sepia in it. Poe also was a lover of the twilight; but it was a grey, brooding one, full of strange unrest.

Hawthorne’s twilight is a restful atmosphere. Thus his sense of mystery has an individual note about it. It has not the uncanny magic of Poe; it eschews the merely grotesque and horrible. It seeks only to reveal the unfamiliar side of familiar things; to put ordinary life in an unusual setting. That this is so is perfectly clear from the exquisite preface to The Scarlet Letter:

“Moonlight in familiar room”, he says, “falling so white upon the carpet and showing all its figures so distinctly, making every object so minutely visible, yet so unlike a morning or noontide visibility-is a medium the most suitable for a romance writer to get acquainted with his illusive guests.

There is the little domestic scenery of the well-known apartment; the chairs, with each its separate individuality; the centre table, sustaining a work-basket, a volume or two and an extinguished lamp; the sofa, the bookcase, the picture on the wall; – all these details, so completely seen are so spiritualized by the unusual light, that they seem to lose their actual substance and become thing of intellect.

Nothing is too small or too trifling to undergo this change and acquire dignity thereby. A child’s shoe, the doll seated ,n her little wicker carriage, the hobby-horse, – whatever, in a word, has been used or played with during the day, is now invested with a quality of strangeness and remoteness, though still almost as vividly present as by day-light.

Thus, therefore, the floor of our familiar room has become a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairyland, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet and each imbues itself with the nature of the other”.

Hawthorne’s world is a real enough world; for a thing seen in the twilight or the moonlight is no more unreal than that seen in the sunlight. But it is different. It gives us a fresh point of view, with a subdued and delicate charm of its own. Poe sought to heighten the excitement of everyday life; Hawthorne merely to heighten the beauty. “Some things we miss”, he said, “not because our eyes are not clear enough… but because the daylight is too blinding”.

His Puritan strain is shown unmistakably in his choice of subjects. Whether we look at his longer romances or his short stories, one thing is clear: Sin in one form or another is the constant pre­occupation.

Sinful passion in The Scarlet Letter, hereditary evil in The House of the Seven Gables; the unconscious cruelty of the philanthropist in The Blithe dale Romance; sin and human progress in The Marble Faun.

Yet no Puritan was ever less didactic than he; and it is in his treatment of the familiar Puritan formulas that the originality of the literary artist emerges. For it is the psychological, not the ethical implications, as we might expect, that immediately concern him. He is fascinated by the mystery of the problem; the obvious moral he passes by.

The Scarlet Letter, for instance, is only superficially a tale of sinful passion; fundamentally it is a study in the pathology of remorse. We are not called upon to assess the responsibility of the vindictive husband, the erring clergyman or the wife false to her vows.

Hawthorne asks us rather to watch the effect of remorse upon the character of the two chief actors; we find ourselves scrutinizing with meticulous care the evil arising from the necessarily furtive up-bringing of the child; the corroding effects of the enforced insincerity of the man’s daily life; the spiritual degradation caused by the fateful letter woven on the woman’s breast.

So in The House of the Seven Gables, the author is not concerned with the character of the original wrong-doing; but with the growing blight spread by this wrong-doing on future generations. It is not with the sour grapes eaten by the father that we are concerned but with the “children’s teeth set on edge”.

We may apply the same test to all the other stories, where Hawthorne states an ethical problem and in each case shall we find that it is the mysterious alchemy of sin that attracts him. He treats his subject in fact as an artist, not as a moralist.

A sense of mystery leads its possessor often into vague visions. It is not so with Hawthorne. His best work is clear, definite and simple. Take as an illustration that beautiful little interlude, The Story of David Swan. It deals with a young man, who while waiting for the coach to take him to the town where he may essay his fortune, falls asleep in a copse near the highway. While he is sleeping, a man and his wife pass by and attracted by his youth, wish he was their son.

They are wealthy. Why should they not adopt him? Had he awakened just than the half-formed resolution might have been confirmed; but he does not wake and they pass on. Then comes a maiden tripping along; she is fair and sweet and made for love and she looks with favor on the sleeping youth.

Again, if he had awakened just then-what might not the future have held for both of them? She looks wistfully at his upturned face and in her turn passes on. Then come men with murder in their hearts. They see the sleeping youth and covet his knapsack. But before they can actualize their ugly designs the rattle of the coach is heard on the road and the sound of the horn.

The youth leaps up from sleep and jumps on the coach, unconscious of the fact that in this brief space of time while he had been resting, wealth, love and death had each appeared in turn and in turn passed him by.

A simple little episode, told with rare delicacy and restraint -an eloquent little fancy on the possibilities of life… of the things that nearly happen; an idea that could so easily have been spoiled by a too ponderous purpose, or an over-anxious art. There is no more perfect piece in all Hawthorne’s writings than this.

His Gift of Fantasy:

Fantasy is common to two classes of writers -those who see more dimly than ordinary people, who see “men as trees walking” and who resort, therefore, to fantastic images and embellishments to conceal their poverty of sight and those who see more clearly than the majority and who use fantasy as a pictorial appeal to impress folk with dimmer power of vision than themselves.

Hawthorne belongs to the latter:

There is no greater mistake than to think of him as some readers do, as a vagrant dreamer who saw the world with half-closed eyes. He was a remarkably clear-sighted man and a proof of this may be seen in the clarity and vividness with which he could, when he chose, draw everyday characters.

Take as an illustration his picture of the old apple dealer-it is an amazing little vignette of delicate, detailed observation. Defoe himself could not have bettered its realism, for Hawthorne not only sees, but sees into. And it is because he saw behind the externals of his characters, that we are often disinclined to credit him with the power of seeing externals at all.

If we examine a few of his fantasies we shall realize the fundamental reality that underlies them and not regard them merely as the iridescent spray of an excitable imagination.

Hawthorne’s finest efforts are not the result of external stimulus at all. His gossamer fancies are spun like the spider’s web out of his own self. Shorn of romantic surroundings, he achieves his highest triumphs. He was always sighing for richer mental diet, but the sparse, ascetic living suited his temperament and genius best.

“No author”, he says, can conceive of the difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, as is happily the case with my dear native land.

It will be very long, I trust, before romance-writers may find congenial and easily-handled themes either in the annals of our stalwart republic or in any characteristic and probable events of our individual lives. Romance and poetry, ivy, lichens and wall-flowers need ruins to make them grow.”

We think of his New England Stories and smile at the perversity of the man unable to realize not only where his own strength lay, but wherein the real spirit of romance lies. “Romance and poetry, ivy, lichens and wallflowers need ruins to make them grow”. Fie! Nathaniel Hawthorne there is no worse pathetic fallacy than this; and your own fantasies give the lie to it.

You yourself have shown us that Romance is the poetry of reality; that below every commonplace lurks a mystery; and that the fantasies you love are merely imaginative attitudes without any reference to the thing looked at.

Nor can anyone doubt that in his heart he loved what a critic has called the “black granite rocks and half-baked civilization” of his own country; it is this zealous love for them that gives the note of petulance and childishness to his comments on English life.

With his sensitive artistic eye he drank in our richer store of romantic material; reveled in the old hospital at Leicester; the historical memories of the countryside; yet smarting all the while, loyal American as he was, that these things were not in his own land. Then in his jealousy he girds at our John Bullish.

For his diatribes on Englishmen he has been severely taken to task by English critics. But really it is not for us to cast stones at him. Our own insularity is often far more offensive, when we enter countries other than our own, lacking the excuse that Hawthorne had at his uncongenial post at the Liverpool Customs Office, where he first took stock of our countrymen.

Yet he is exquisitely alive to the romantic aspects of English life, though firmly convinced that we have too much beer and roast beef in us to appreciate them That he under-estimated our imaginative powers, need not prevent us from appreciating his.

His Intellectual Detachment:

Behind the romantic idealism of Hawthorne, behind that acute sense of spiritual perspective that we call mystery, there is a cool, inquisitive intellect. There is no passion in his writing, often as he deals with passion.

His imagination is fertile and exquisite, but the flowers it gives birth to are no rich, vital blooms, but delicate, faintly-tinted, faintly-scented blossoms, with a palpable yet chill beauty of their own-for the cool, bracing air of New England has helped to nurture them. He has the hand of the artist, but the soul of the scientist.

He probes, analyses, weighs dispassionately (when his prejudices are not engaged), keeping himself in detachment from his subject so as to more thoroughly rate its value.

Take as an illustration of this, the powerful passage where he addresses the dead body of quire Puncheon, running steadily only relentlessly through the dead Judge’s appointments and idiosyncrasies so as to make us realize the littleness of the man and the irony presented by his mute, lifeless figure.

It is a fine passage and the mystery and spitefulness of death are admirably suggested; yet the cold, relentless analysis of the man’s short-comings (just as it is), reveals a fresh side of Hawthorne’s nature.

“Half an hour, Why, Judge, it is already two hours by your own undeviatingly accurate chronometer. Glance your eye down in it and see. Ah! he will not give himself the trouble either to bend his head or elevate his hand, so as to bring the faithful time-keeper within his range of vision. Time all at once appears to have become a matter of no moment with the Judge I”

Yet Hawthorne’s emotions never radiate heat as do the emotions of some novelists. His characters pass through awful spiritual experiences; but he intellectualizes the tragedy and though we are interested, even fascinated, we are rarely moved.

Think what Charlotte Bronte would have made of the young girl Hilda, burdened by her dread secret or Mr. Hardy of Zenoah with her tragic affection. Hawthorne’s cool, prying intellect moves across his subject; and the emotional problem is scarcely felt.

We are looking at a scientific “case,” not at a human problem. The Scarlet Letter is a wonderful book, delicate and subtle in its art, noble in its austere beauty; but surely never was a poignant passion so frigidly treated. We are in the spirit of the dissecting-room. Hawthorne will pursue some nice point in psychology or moral pathology with a kind of intellectual fury.

This intellectualism comes as a surprise to many readers who imagine that the choice of emotional subject-matter necessitates an emotional treatment. But the imagination has its intellectual side as well as its sentimental side and the tendency to fantastic treatment is in itself an intellectual bent. Indeed fantasy is the intellect in holiday mood.

Yet, there is nothing hard in Hawthorne’s nature; indeed the intellectual detachment serves as a protection for his fine and delicate sensibilities. There are many fine, tender touches in the characterization of the girl Pricilla; while the splendid figure of Senoia is portrayed with a true sense of tragedy.

Mention has been made of Hawthorne’s humor, which is too often under-estimated. It is a quiet, insidious humor, the natural product of a brooding, meditative temperament, with no touch in it of animal spirits, but with a whimsical charm that lightens up many passages in his writings and flashes agreeably from his letters.

Thus he writes to a friend about his house at Concord:

“I know nothing of the house except Thoreau’s telling me that it was inhabited a generation or two ago by a man who believed he should never die. I believe, however, he is dead; at least I hope so; else he may probably reappear and dispute my title to his residence”.

Here is a fine touch of self-criticism dealing with his early Custom House experience:

“It was a folly, with the materiality of this daily life pressing so intrusively upon me, to attempt to fling myself back into another age; or to insist on creating a semblance of a world out of airy matter.

The wiser effort would have been, to diffuse thought and imagination through the opaque substance of to-day and thus, make it a bright transparency, to seek resolutely the true and indestructible value that lay hidden in the petty and wearisome incidents and ordinary characters with which I was now conversant. The fault was mine.

The page of life that was spread out before me was dull and commonplace, only because I had not fathomed its deeper import. A better book than I shall ever write was there. These perceptions came too late… I had ceased to be a writer of tolerably poor tales and essays and had become a tolerably good Surveyor of the Customs.

That was all. But, nevertheless, it is anything but agreeable to be haunted by a suspicion that one’s intellect is dwindling away or exhaling, without your consciousness, like ether out of a phial; so that at every glance you find a smaller and less volatile residuum”.

Hawthorne is referred to frequently as a mystic. Now a mystic is, above all things, a man who is in intimate touch with spiritual realities. If Vaughan, Blake and Francis Thompson are mystics (and no one would deny this), then assuredly Hawthorne is not.

He loved mystery; it touched his imagination and excited his curiosity; but he loved it as a literary artist, just as did Rossetti and to have a subtle sense of the mystery of life is not necessary to be a mystic. His inheritance of Puritan instincts, again, is used as a pigment to paint his pictures, not as a creed to regulate his outlook on life.

Ethical preoccupations drift through his pages, yet he is not really a moralist; he is not concrete, practical, direct enough; he never became more than a psychological dreamer, fascinated by the complexities of the human conscience and allowing his delicate fancies to play over them.

He holds, indeed, a unique place in English letters, by virtue of a subtle, elusive genius that concerns itself neither primarily with the world of everyday life, nor with the world of the spirit; but is poised midway – in a shadowy borderland- a visionary with his head amid the star-dust of romance, his feet set firm on the concrete actualities of life.

“A large number of passengers were already at the station-house awaiting the departure of the cars. By the aspect and demeanor of these persons it was easy to judge that the feelings of the community had undergone a very favorable change in reference to the celestial pilgrimage.

It would have done Bunyan’s heart good to see it. Instead of a lonely and ragged man, with a huge burden on his back, plodding along sorrowfully on foot while the whole city hooted after him, here were parties on the first gentry and most respectable people in the neighborhood setting forth towards the Celestial City as cheerfully as if the pilgrimage were merely a summer tour.

Among the gentlemen were characters of deserved eminence-magistrates, politicians and men of wealth, by whose example religion coli not but be greatly recommended to their meaner brethren. In the ladies’ apartment, too, I rejoiced to distinguish some of those flowers of fashionable society who are so well fitted to adorn the most elevated circles of the Celestial City.

There was much pleasant conversation about the news of the day, topics of business and politics or the lighter matters of amusement; while religion, though indubitably the main thing at heart, was thrown tastefully into the background. Even an infidel would have heard little or nothing to shock his sensibility.

“One great convenience of the new method of going on pilgrimage I must not forego to mention. Our enormous burdens, instead of being carried on our shoulders as had been the custom of old, were all snugly deposited in the baggage car and, as I was assured, would be delivered to their respective owners at the journey’s end. Another thing, likewise, the benevolent reader will be delighted to understand.

It may be remembered that there was an ancient feud between Prince Beelzebub and the keeper of the wicket gate and that the adherents of the former distinguished personage were accustomed to shoot deadly arrows at honest pilgrims while knocking at the door.

This dispute, much to the credit as well of the illustrious potentate above mentioned as of the worthy and enlightened directors of the railroad, has been pacifically arranged on the principle of mutual compromise.

The prince’s subjects are now pretty numerously employed about the station-house, some in taking care of the baggage, others In collecting fuel, feeding the engines and such congenial occupations; and I can conscientiously affirm that persons more attentive to their business, more willing to accommodate, or more generally agreeable to the passengers, are not to be found on any railroad. Every good heart must surely exult also satisfactory an arrangement of an immemorial difficulty”, etc.

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