“Why, to tell you the truth, my good Mr. Wigglesworth, to be quite sincere with you, I care little or nothing about a stone for my own grave, and am somewhat inclined to skepticism as to the propriety of erecting monuments at all, over the dust that once was human. The weight of these heavy marbles, though unfelt by the dead corpse or the enfranchised soul, presses drearily upon the spirit of the survivor, and causes him to connect the idea of death with the dungeon-like imprisonment of the tomb, instead of with the freedom of the skies. Every gravestone that you ever made is the visible symbol of a mistaken system. Our thoughts should sour upward with the butterfly—not linger with the exuviae that confined him.” (“Chippings with a Chisel,” 624–625)
The pace of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writings seems to have slowed down in the years 1839 to 1843, at least for the short stories which formed the core of his career up to this point. Four important things happen during these years, which will shape his future. First, he took a job as weigher and gauger at the Boston Custom House. That just meant he took weight and inspected cargo as it came in. Those who have read A Scarlett Letter (not me yet, but I cannot help but peak), know he talks about the Salem port in some detail there. Like Melville, Hawthorne had to take a day job. He worked there for a couple years, but would go back into the business with a political appointment in the Salem Custom House in 1846. A second life-changing event was his engagement and later marriage (in 1842) to Sophia Peabody. Third, as if to prepare for his future children or simply as part of a mid-life crisis, he began to write children’s books, three of which are published in 1840 and 1841. The Library of America did not collect these, but the volume I am currently working on does have some of his tales for children, which were published late in his life. Finally, Hawthorne spent eight months at Brook Farm, a utopian socialist community, but leaves disillusioned by it. He will write a book on his experiences. In 1842 and 1843, he make a transition to his “Old Manse” period, centered on his years in Concord, connected to the transcendentalists. That is for the next post. For now, we find Hawthorne more busy with life than with writing.
He did produce the following ten stories, excepting his children’s books: “Chippings with a Chisel,” “Legends of the Province House” (a four part narrative of a home’s deep connection to historical events), “The Sister Years,” “The Lily’s Quest,” “John Inglefield’s Thanksgiving,” “A Virtuoso’s Collection,” “The Old Apple-Dealer,” “The Antique Ring,” “The Hall of Fantasy,” and “The New Adam and Eve.” The major theme in these stories is again the tension between the old and the young, and Hawhtorne’s anxiety over giving the past too much power over our lives.
As for the major theme of “Chippings with a Chisel,” a magnificent work in my point of view, it is made clear for you in the quote opening this post, which was spoken by a man in dialogue with a tomb builder. At the very least the story forces us to think about the way our attitudes toward death and the memorializing of the dead shapes how we see life. I reckon we should take the same attitude with ruined relationships, failed ambitions, and discarded dreams. If we memorialize and dwell on them, we will tend to associate those beautiful things (mad passions, grand plans, and bold risk taking) with ultimate failure.
“The Lily’s Quest” gets at this tension by juxtaposing “two young lovers” (Adam and Lily) who want to build a summer-house “in the form of an antique Temple.” When they find the ideal spot, they are stopped by old Walter Gascoigne, who warns them that everyone who tried to build there has met with failure and disasters, adding, “Poor child, in one shape or another, every mortal has dreamed your dream.” (687) The lesson he gives is clear and could be applied to anything. The fact that most romances end in heartbreak and most dreams are dashed is, for many, reason enough not to risk those things. After building the Temple of Happiness at another site, Lily dies, leading the young man to transform the Temple of Happiness into a tomb. In doing so, Adam redefines the foundation of happiness as the grave. But unlike the traditional grave, which buries memories of happiness under a symbol of death, Adam builds instead the temple of his and Lily’s dream. This seems to defeat the pessimism of old Walter Gascoigne, who “stalked drearily away, because his gloom, symbolic of all earthly sorrow, might no longer abide there now that the darkest riddle of humanity was read.” (691)
“The Virtuoso’s Collection” is a delightful story about a American who enters a museum, “A Virtuoso’s Collection,” which contains am unbelievable list of relics from mythology and history. It seems there is almost nothing that this collectors has not obtained. The Big Bad Wolf (stuffed, of course), the shell that fell on Aeschylus’ head killing him, Excalibur, and much more. Much of the joy comes from seeing these items listed, but we are taken aback by the American observer, who although impressed, is nevertheless quickly bored by these things. Is this part of the American spirit of Hawthorne’s democratic age? A disgust with the old and fetishization of the new and original? If so, I will tend to be sympathetic to this fetish. It turns out that the collector is the Wandering Jew, but that in itself is less interesting than the continual indifference the American shows to the collection. At one point he stakes out his opposition to “earthly immortality” more directly. “Were man to live longer on the earth, the spiritual would die out of him. The spark of ethereal fire would be choked by the material, the sensual. There is a celestial something within us that requires, after a certain time, the atmosphere of Heaven to preserve it from decay and ruin. I will have none of this liquid. You do well to keep it in a sepulchral urn; for it would produce death, while bestowing the shadow of life.” (708) So, again, we have an image of death and sterility presented in the preservation of the old.
Well, there are other stories that cover some of the similar ground (“The Antique Ring” for one), but I will save it. I will start the next post with the masterful “The Birth-mark,” which due to my fondness for science fiction anthologies was the first Hawthorne story I ever read.