Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stories (1837–1838)

“Patience, patience! You have been too long growing old. Surely, you might be content to grow young in half and hour! But the water is in your service.” (“Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” 475)

Wow, the stories from this set are all lovely and full of a great deal of joy. In his stories from 1837 and 1838, Hawthorne is continuing his warning against what is old and static and praising the creative, young, and daring. In this attempt, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” must be seen as a central text, taking this one directly with the administering of the waters of the Fountain of Youth on a group of boring old people. For those that are not following, I am reading Hawthorne’s works chronologically, going through the stories ten at a time. Today’s stories are “David Swan,” “The Great Carbuncle,” Fancy’s Show Box,” “The Prophetic Pictures,” “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” “A Bell’s Biography,” “A Journal of a Solitary Man,” “Edward Fane’s Rosebud,” “The Toll-Gatherer’s Day,” and “Sylph Etherege.” Here are some of my random thoughts.
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“David Swan” is a direct reminder of how much life is passing us by day by day. It is about a man sleeping through three life-changing events. The arrival of a rich man seeking an heir, a beautiful woman eager for a husband, and a gang of criminals. Had he woken up during any of the encounters he would have, respectively, won a large inheritance, gotten married, or been killed. How many of us sleep through events because of the danger of the robbers, forgetting the possibilities that our slumber also denies us.

In a similar vein, “The Great Carbuncle” warns against looking for meaning in symbols, ideologies, or precious items. The Great Carbuncle, the target of a quest by a group of people becomes simply an extension of their individual desires and perspectives. In this way, it loses its real function, while simultaneous reifying the perspectives of the various explorers searching for it. For an old experienced wanderer, the Great Carbuncle is valuable only as the question. He is the “Seeker.” For another, it is of scientific interests. For a third, it is a source of immense financial gain. For a poet is a source of inspiration. For an aristocrat, it is a potential symbol of his fame. For a married couple, the Great Carbuncle is a possible source of light for their humble home. Finally, for the “Cynic,” the Great Carbuncle cannot exist. He only seeks it to discredit the others who believe in the potential of beauty in the world. He wears glasses that corrupt his view of the world. It is the young couple who first gaze upon the glorious Great Carbuncle and when the show it to the Cynic without his glasses, he is blinded. They agree it is too much for their humble home and leave it for other seekers. Of course, the Great Carbuncle could symbolize anything we want it to. It could be the American Dream, anarchy, or the good life. Hawthorne’s point seems to be that it is reckless to invest too much in the search (the “Seeker” is killed in the attempt) and it is often fruitless to give it a singular meaning, but it does exist and should exist as a point of a projectral life. “Some few believe that this inestimable stone is blazing, as of old, and say that they have caught its radiance, like a flash of summer lightening, far down the valley of the Saco. And be it owned, that, many a mile from the Crystal Hills, I saw a wondrous light around their summits, and was lured, by the faith of poesy, to be the latest pilgrim of the GREAT CARBUNCLE.” (449)

 

“Dr. Hiedegger’s Experiment” is a strong and convincing tale about a bunch of old people who taste the water of the Fountain of Youth in order to relive their younger days and, they hope, approach it with more maturity—not making the same mistakes. This is a very adult way of pondering youthfulness. How often do we presume to be able to improve on our younger selves? It is the same arrogance that convinces us that we can teach children the right way to live, an arrogance institutionalized in universal public education. The Fountain of Youth (and I need to point out that I am not convinced it was much more potent than liquor, and maybe we should approach drunkenness as an elixir of agelessness. Acting in the same silliness their did the first time around (largely about jealously, failed courtship, and petty rivalries), we learn not that it is impossible to reform the youth, but that is an odious proposition. Here is part of Hawthorne’s description of the old’s transformation into youth. “Blushing, panting, struggling, chiding, laughing, her warm breath fanning each of their faces by turns, she strove to disengage herself, yet still remained in their triple embrace. Never was there a livelier picture of youthful rivalship, with bewitching beauty for the prize. . . . But they were young: their burning passions proved them so. Inflamed to madness by the coquetry of the girl-widow who neither granted nor quite withheld her favors, the three rivals began to interchange threatening glances.” (478) That Hawthorne sees this as a beneficial transformation, even if temporary, is suggested in how his characters end searching for the Foundation of Youth (a rather silly youthful quest in its own right).

I am trying to phase out more commentary on Hawthorne’s celebration of youth and disgust with the old and static, but I see it again and again in his work. Placing this theme into the historical context of a young nation attempting to find its own culture amid long standing English traditions (political, social, religious), Hawthorne is presenting a deeply important political critique as well as a path for life. So let me dwell on it a bit more. It is a good reminder.

“There is hardly a more difficult exercise of fancy, than, while gazing at a figure of melancholy age, to re-create its youth, and, without entirely obliterating the identity of form and features, to restore those graces which time as snatched away. Some old people, especially women, so ageworn and woful are they, seem never to have been young and gay.” (“Edward Fane’s Rosebud,” 501) Yes, growing old and leaving beyond childish things is murder. We should stop doing it so often. We have too much to learn from the young and even ourselves when we were young.

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