Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stories (1835–1837)

“Votaries of the May-Pole merrily, all day long, have the woods echoes to your mirth. But be this your merriest hour, my hearts! Lo, here stand the Lord and Lady of the May, who I, a clerk of Ocford, and high priest of Merry Mount, am presently to join in holy matrimony.” (362)

In 1837, the first edition of Twice-Told Tales came out, collecting eighteen of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s stories. This appears to be a turning point in his life. He met his future wife in 1837 and gained the recognition of his classmate Henry W. Longfellow. Not long after, he began his work on children’s stories, which would continue throughout his life. I keep coming back to the story “Little Annie’s Ramble,” which seems to encompass so much of Hawthorne’s message. This may be lost if we focus too much on the “dark romanticism” and the sinister themes seen in “Young Goodman Brown” and other such stories. Like Philip K. Dick actually, Hawthorne fears the static and frozen world of the old, embracing the more creative, exuberant, and joyful perspective of children. From 1836 to 1837, his pace of writing slows a bit from the very impressive 1835. Partly this is due to his taking a job in Boston in a publishing company that quickly went bankrupt.

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The next ten stories I examined were “Sketches from Memory,” “The Wedding-Kneel,” “The May-Pole of Merry Mount,” “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “Old Ticonderoga,” “A Visit to the Clerk of the Weather,” “Monsieur du Miroir,” “Mrs. Bullfrog,” “Sunday at Home,” and “The Man of Adamant.”

Some of these stories are centered on a marriage of some sorts and this is worth a few comments. “The Wedding-Knell” touches on something that I have examined a few times in this blog, the horror of the eternity implied in marriage. Of course, the time when people took such vows seriously is perhaps past, but the cultural assumptions are still there. The story is about the marriage of the dead, but is that not what married couples are in some ways. At least that is how they appear in popular fiction, especially romantic comedies. The story ends with the marriage, for what is to be said after that? It is the modern equivalent of “happily ever after.” In Hawthorne’s words: “‘Come, my bride!’ said those pale lips. ‘The hearse is ready. The sexton stands waiting for us at the door of the tomb. Let us be married; and then to our coffins!’” (357)

The symbolism of marriage is given a sharp edge in “The Minster’s Black Veil,” about a minister who takes to wearing a black veil in everyday life, horrifying the people around him, including his wife. With the black veil a funeral and a wedding are thematically united. “When Mr. Hooper came, the first thing that their eyes rested on was the same horrible black veil, which had added deeper gloom to the funeral, and could portend nothing but evil to the wedding. Such was the immediate effect on the guests, that a cloud seem to have rolled duskily from beneath the black crape, and dimmed the light of the candles. . . .The bride’s cold fingers quivered in the tremulous hand of the bridgegroom, and her death-like paleness caused a whisper, that the maiden who had been buried a few hours before, was come from her grave to be married.” (376)

It seems to me weddings are far too golly affairs. I much prefer the horrible imagery Hawthorne presents in these two stories. If more weddings were properly seen as funerals perhaps people would enter into marriages a bit more philosophically and perhaps the divorce rate would fall.
The theme from “Young Goodman Brown” of the relationship between the foundation of Puritan New England with dark rituals is in “The May-Pole of Merry Mount.” Here the pagan rituals become a source of joy before being repressed. I found it much more fun as the ritual is not a witch’s Sabbath but more of a bacchanalia. Dionysius himself does not make an appearance but there is plenty of pagan celebration around the May-Pole, which united with Indian festivals. These are suppressed by the Puritan elders, specifically Governor Endicott. “As the moral gloom of the world overpowers all systematic gaiety, even so was their home of wild mirth made desolate amid the sad forest. They returned to it no more. But, as their flowery garland was wreathed of the brightest roses that had grown there, so, in the tie that united them, were intertwined all the purest and best of their early joys.” (370) What do you know, yet another wedding. How wonderful! Whither those early joys?

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It seems again and again in these stories, the joyful and free is so fragile and so quickly taken in by moral absolutism, which always seems to form a dark spot in the world. I do not really want to face Little Annie after she grows up, although we know her fate. “The Man of Adamant” tells of a man who seeks moral purity by fleeing into a cave with his Bible. In the end he becomes a corpse “embalmed” in the cave. Yet the spot remains a black hole for the community. “Yet, grown people avoid the spot, nor do children play there. Freidnship, and Love, and Piety, all human and celestial sympathies, should keep aloof from that hidden cave; for there still sits, and, unless an earthquake crumble down the roof upon his head, shall sit forever, the shape of Richard Digby, in the attitude of repelling the whole race of mortals—not from Heaven—but from the horrible loneliness of his dark, cold sepulcher.” (428)

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