Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Marble Faun,” (1860)

“Perhaps it is the very lack of moral severity, of any high and heroic ingredient in the character of the Faun, that makes it so delightful an object to the human eye and to the frailty of the human heart. That being, here represented, is endowed with no principle of virtue, and would be incapable of comprehending such. But he would be true and honest, by dint of his simplicity. . . . Only a sculptor of the finest imagination, the most delicate taste, the sweetest feeling, and the rarest skill—in a word, a sculptor and a poet too—could have first dreamed of a Faun in this guise, and then have succeeded in imprisoning the sportive and frisky thing, in marble. Neither man nor animal, and yet no monster, but a being in whom both races meet, on friendly ground.” (860–861)


Forgive the long introductory quote for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun, the last of his works to appear in the two volume collection of his work that I have been working from these past three weeks. For a novel as stuck so deeply in the ancient past through symbols and allegories, the novel is surprisingly upbeat—even in its darkest moments and implications. It strikes me that it was a luxury for Hawthorne, writing about a mythical Italy to look on the Italian past with mirth—at least in the opening of the novel, and when the horrible turn comes it is a recent event. He looked at New England’s past with comparative horror. The pleasures of being a tourist in Italy is that she can look at the bloodstained walls of the Coliseum without feeling any historical burden. Or perhaps it is the deeper nature of Roman history, which allows Hawthorne and his characters a certain distance from the events of the past, lacking in the more condensed timeline of American history. “Each succeeding century, in Rome, has done its best to ruin the very ruins, so far as their picturesque effect is concerned, by stealing away their marble and hewn stone and leaving only yellow bricks, which never can look venerable.” (990)

The Marble Faun was Hawthorne’s final completed novel, coming after his time abroad first as an American Consul to Italy, appointed by long-time friend President Franklin Pierce, and later as a traveler to England, the Holy Land, and France. He would return to the United States around the time this novel was published and just before the Civil War broke out.


The story of The Marble Faun is a romance involving four young people living in Rome. An American sculptor Kenyon. A painter Miriam, who with a dubious past is the most familiar Hawthorne character. Hilda is also a painter but she makes her living as a copyist and starts the novel very innocently. Donatello is the Italian noble they befriended, who is strikingly familiar to the statue of the faun, as noticed by the group. Miriam and Donatello, one of the two romantic couplings in the book, are the most complex. Miriam’s past is opaque and Donatello has a fake innocence that is completely abolished when he commits the crime of murder in defense of Miriam from some stalker. This defining act takes place early in the novel, in chapter eighteen. The novel was released in England under the name The Transformation. It is referring to the change in Donatello after this act and to a lesser degree the change in the other characters.

Miriam is initially resolved to the act and quickly justifies it. She even compares themselves to the murders of Caesar. But a deep change comes nonetheless. “Their deed—the crime which Donatello wrought, and Miriam accepted on the instant—had wreathed itself, as she said, like a serpent, in inextricable links about both their souls, and drew them into one, by its terrible contractile power. It was closer than a marriage-bond.” (997) They are also unified into the broader community of criminals, something that Miriam also embraces.

The lively, pastoral setting quickly transforms into the darker narrative we have come to expect from Hawthorne. Hlida becomes more and more burdened by the crime as someone bound by friendship to keep it quiet. As the once-innocent Hilda points out: “Ah, now I understand how the sins of generations past have created an atmosphere of sin for those that follow! While there is a guilty person in the universe, each innocent one must feel his innocence tortured by that guilt. Your deed, Miriam, has darkened the whole sky!” (1028) The narrator follows on the same page “every crime destroys more Edens than our own.”

The humanistic sculptor Kenyon seems to be the most balanced in the aftermath. The rapidly maturing Donatello is asked by Kenyon to model his bust for him, which horrifies Donatello. In response Kenyon provides his philosophy on death. “What I am most inclined to murmur at, is this death’s head. I could laugh, moreover, in its ugly face! It is absurdly monstrous, my dear friend, thus to fling the dead weight of our mortality upon our immortal hopes. While we live on earth, ‘tis true, we must needs carry out skeletons about with us; but, for Heaven’s sake, do not let us burthen our spirits with them, in our feeble efforts to soar upward! Believe me, it will change the whole aspect of death, if you can once disconnect it, in your idea, with that corruption from which it disengaged out higher part.” (1064)

Thus we have a transformation of the soul brought on by sin, but also two possible answers. One is Kenyon’s rejection of moral burden. In a sense, we see The Scarlet Letter’s Pearl alive in this sentiment, although she was not so philosophical about it. Another is the more common for Hawthorne of brooding over sin, possibly for generations. We can imagine Donatello’s lineage carrying on the legacy of sin.

I rushed this work, largely in haste to get through with Hawthorne and moving on to other writers. So, I apologize for my haste. But let me take a moment to summarize some of my feelings about Hawthorne’s significance in the American libertarian tradition.

Hawthorne in 1865

Hawthorne in 1865

1. The horror of decrepitude run through much of his work. The living dead exist in many different forms: undead marriages, sins providing burdens for generations, cultural legacies, or just the rigid uncreatively of those who have traveled around the sun a few too many times.

2. The other side of the first point is Hawthorne’s continued optimism about childhood. If it is often missed by readers it may be because they have put up blinders to the creative, Promethean potential of youth. Children take a playground and create empires. Adults (even teenagers) turn them into places to eat stale lunches and smoke cigarettes. “Little Annie’s Ramble” remains one of my favorite his early stories and is one that everyone should read before they get too old of mind.

3. Hawthorne’s life bridged the time when the memory of the Puritan past in New England was strong, as was a New England identity, with the period of burgeoning industrial capitalism, the market revolution, and democratic politics. I perhaps did not emphasize this transformation as much as I could have.

4. Hawthorne was often in awe of the vernacular, the mobile, and the discontent. To the degree we want to write an anarchist history of the US (not a history of anarchism in the US), we need to focus, like Hawthorne, on these people.

5. Another thing I said only a little about was Hawthorne’s use of the supernatural. So many of his works are allegorical that they do not really work as horror or even the uncanny. Almost always the supernatural functions allegorically or symbolically. In The House of the Seven Gables it was a weapon of the weak. At other times it exposed the evils of tradition (“Young Goodman Brown”). Its use is non-consistent and rarely explained fully.

This is the end of an affair, and The Marble Faun was an obligatory final tryst. Sorry, Hawthorne, you were great and you knew one path to my heart but Melville was there first and no easily displaced. I may call you.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Blithedale Romance,” (1852)

“Thus the summer was passing away; a summer of toil, of interest, of something that was not pleasure, but which went deep into my heart, and there became a rich experienced. I found myself looking forward to years, if not to a lifetime, to be spent on the same system.” (745)


Nathaniel Hawthorne tells us in the introduction The Blithedale Romance, the third in a series of later career works that solidified his place in American letters, that the utopian community that he lived in, Brook Farm, was indeed the model for Blithedale, the fictional Utopian socialist agrarian community where the novel is set. He says that he chose it because it is the setting that is “removed from the highway of normal travel” and would allow certain literary freedoms without “exposing them too close a comparison with the actual events of real lives.” In short, he claimed not to be making a position on Utopianism, Brook Farm, or any creative efforts at radical reform of society. However, this work comes between his two works of retelling the Greek myths for American children (A Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales). Given that context, it seems that creative alternatives were very much on his mind in these years. Having viciously deconstructed the legacy of history in The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, this novel at least gave Hawthorne a setting to consider alternatives to the past and the crazy democratic capitalist environment of the 1840s and 1850s. We also know that Hawthorne was very influenced by his time at Brook Farm. He associated closely with Transcendentalists (some of whom are mentioned in The Blithedale Romance) and valued his time there, even if he believed that in the end he was better placed in the world as it is, not the world that might be. For that reason and because I have not touched intentional communities in quite a while, want to discuss the Blithedale as a vision of an alternative and its perils.

brook farm

Images of Brook Farm

Images of Brook Farm

The major criticisms of intentional communities come forth in various ways in this novel. One such criticism is that small communities will tend not toward consensus but toward petty factionalism. That this is true of non-intentional communities as well (see university departments) is beside the point. This is revealed through the continuous tension between the narrator Coverdale and the social reformer Hollingsworth. Hollingsworth sees Blithesdale as an experiment for the reform of prisoners. He symbolizes the typical exuberant reformism of the era but also the tendency of founders of intentional communities to project their values on the society they create. Coverdale is more neutral in terms of purpose and seems to enjoy the community for the pleasure and meaning it gives his own life. He lashes out at one point saying: “In Heaven’s name, Hollingsworth, cannot you conceive that a man may wish well to the world, and struggle for its good, on some other plan than precisely that which you have laid down? And will you cast off a friend, for no unworthiness, but merely because he stands upon his right, as an individual being, and looks at matters through his own optics, instead of yours?” (750–751)

A second criticism of intentional communities is related. Since they are so small, they will create petty tyrants who have dictatorial power over the members of the community. Again, we need only look at many a workplace where a pathetic middle manager dominates colleagues to know that this is not simply a fault of Utopian experiments, but inherent in our institutions. At one point the founders sit together and think about a time, years in the future, when they will be looked at as mythical founders of the community, the stuff of legends. Zenobia, one of the leaders and another reformer, is a clear leader as is Hollingsworth. At various times they seem at risk of centralizing power and directing its development. In fact, we see quite little of the democratic institutions of consensus that we might expect in intentional communities. The discussions they do have tend to be theoretical and devoted to the works of Fourier. When May-Day becomes a festival day, Coverdale does not even know that was due to “Zenobia’s sole decree, or by the unanimous vote of our Community.” (682) This suggests that direct democracy and dictatorship coexisted in Blithedale.

Yet another criticism is that intentional communities, due to their isolation from their neighbors, tends to cultivate strange ideas and religious practices. Again, this explains the Puritans as much as it does the some new religious movement living in a community. Perhaps the clearest picture of this is the Veiled Lady occurrence, which emerges into a myth re-told by Zenobia. But it is also seen in the cultivation of distinctive Sabbath-day practices.

Hawthorne does interrogate the presumption of many Utopian socialists that hard labor could facilitate or at least co-exist alongside intellectual activity. Given the right social context, there is no reason why a hard working farmer could not write brilliant poetry. Hawthorne questions this idea. “The yeomen and the scholar—the yeoman and the man of finest moral culture, though not the man of sturdiest sense and integrity—are two distinct individuals, and can never be melted or welded into one substance.” (689) I am not sure I would put it quite this way. For me, it is simpler. A body bound by labor is simply not a good receptacle for an active and creative mind. Better to liberate us from work and allow all people to explore their innate creativity than to force it in at the end of the day. (We also notice that cramming one hour of band practice into a day of preparation for standardized tests will not, in a million years, produce musicians.)

But of these, the strongest criticism of intentional communities in the novel is that personalities seem to interfere with the stability and success of the community. Within this short novel, there is a surprising amount of fighting, often with quite bitter words, between community members.

There is much that is impressive about Blithedale, despite these difficulties. I think most important is that the characters actual come to know and understand each other quite well. Yes, it causes conflicts, but they are, as often as not, based on shared solidarity and not animus. Even if people came to Blithedale for different reasons, they shared a commitment to its success, if not all of its socialist presumptions.

Margaret Fuller, one of the residents of Brook Farm, and someone lacking a Library of America volume

Margaret Fuller, one of the residents of Brook Farm, and someone lacking a Library of America volume

Blithedale does have a strong woman leader in the character of Zenobia at a time when women could not vote and married women could not own their own property. Historians have long known that social reform was a way that women established a place of power in patriarchal antebellum America. If Zenobia is akin to Margaret Fuller, it seems that the community itself was not capable of breaking down any of the gender barriers in itself, it just attracted brilliant and autonomous women. The narrator often takes pains to point out how Zenobia is atypical. Whether these communities were liberating for women is a question we can only begin to investigate here.

Finally, Hawthorne makes clear that Blithesdale was an economic success. Despite hardship, jealousy of neighboring farmers, and broad disbelief that they could be successful, Blithedale thrived.

So, intentional communities are a mixed bag, as are any other community. In any case, too much planning tends to lead us to think like states.

“I rather imagine that your appreciation falls short of Mr. Hollingswoth’s just claims. Blind enthusiasm, absorption in one idea, I grant, is generally ridiculous, and must be fatal to the respectability of an ordinary man.; it requires a very high and powerful character, to make it otherwise. But a great man—as, perhaps, you do not know—attains his normal condition only through the inspiration of oneo great idea. . . . There can be no truer test of the noble and heroic, in any individual, than the degree in which he possesses the faculty of distinguishing heroism from absurdity.” (777)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The House of the Seven Gables” (1851)

“Shall we never, never rid of this Past! It lies upon the Present like a giant’s dead body! In fact, the case is just as if a young giant were compelled to waste all his strength in carrying about the corpse of the old giant, his grandfather, who died a long while ago, and only needs to be decently buried. Just think a moment; and it will startle you to see what slaves we are to by-gone times–to Death, if we give the matter the right word!” (509)



Through my exploration of Nathaniel’s Hawthorne’s works over the past few weeks, I kept coming back to the question stated in the above quote from his The House of the Seven Gables. It is not only that the young tend to me more creative (at least until they are educated), more energetic, and seem to have a better conception of freedom than adults. More troubling is that our elders have created a world that is hard to free ourselves from. Perhaps it is inevitable that the elders attempt to pass on their values to their children through education, but they also more unknowingly create systems and institutions that bind us to their values, whether we agree or not. How could it be otherwise? Without being too hard on my parents and grandparents, it is hard not to accuse them of exasperating the ecological crisis to the point where repair and sustainability is unlikely and of codifying a system of exploitation that is now global in its reach. And it is unlikely that it will be that generation that either dismantles those systems or is left to pick up the pieces after it falls. That is the job of the youth. So why do so many of us feel that we owe our parents so much loyalty?

Hawthorne at the time he was writing his novels.

Hawthorne at the time he was writing his novels.

That quote is spoken by Holgrave, the photographer, who is actually the scion of the Maule family, who had their home (The House of the Seven Gables) taken in the aftermath of the murder of witches in Salem by the Pyncheons. The Pyncheons hold onto the home with their dying grasp, while the surviving Maule cannot let go of the past, hiding out in the house under a false name. Here is some of the rest of what he had to say. “A Dead Man, if he happen to have made a will, disposes of wealth no longer his own; or, if he died intestate, it is distributed in accordance with the notions of men much longer dead than he. A Dean Man sits on all our judgement-seats; and living judges do but search out and repeat his decisions. We read in Dead Men’s books! We laugh at Dead Men’s jokes, and cry at Dead Men’s pathos! We are sick of Dead Men’s diseases, physical and moral, and die of the same remedies with which dead doctors killed their patients! We worship the living Deity, according to Dead Men’s forms and creeds! Whatever we seek to do, of our own free motion, a Dead Man’s icy hand obstructs us!” (509)  Yes, what more do we owe these zombies.

Hawthorne’s main argument running through The House of the Seven Gables is the almost unbearable decrepitude of life for all the characters. Most of the characters are old and cannot help but live in the past. Hepzibah Pyncheon and Judge Pyncheon and Clifford Pyncheon are all of the same old and barren generation. The Judge, the man responsible for putting Clifford in prison for thirty years, is searching for ancient land titles to provide wealth for the family, which is soon to die out anyway. Clifford, just out of jail, is so frozen that the loss of the one youthful element in the home, Phoebe, sends him into a catatonic state. You must read the novel to get a full feeling of the paralysis and banality of aging. However, it is not easy to recover from. For the Maule’s the past is so alive, they seem to truly maintain the witchcraft that their ancestor was killed for practicing. Whether it was real then or not, it became real in the resentful heirs to the Maule line. In one of the more horrifying episodes, we learn how witchcraft was used to literally enslave the body and mind of Alice Pyncheon, an act of an Maule eager for revenge.

The House of the Seven Gables, the tourist site. It looked different in Hawthorne's day.

The House of the Seven Gables, the tourist site. It looked different in Hawthorne’s day.

This was written and published one year after The Scarlet Letter and is thematically similar. Both deal with dead sins and their burden on the living. The House of the Seven Gables is vastly more disturbing to me. At least in The Scarlet Letter, there were signs of the youthful potential in Pearl’s disobedience and impertinence. In Phoebe we find someone who can and does escape the home but is still of the Pyncheon clan. In both novels, the solution to the burden of the past was simply letting go. For Hester Prynne it was the symbolic removal of the red “A” for the Pyncheon’s it only took moving out of the House of the Seven Gables and leaving the past dead.

Another important message of The House of the Seven Gables (and perhaps its only hopeful message) is that our individual clinging to the past may not necessarily result in social stagnation. The Pyncheon wealth was in land and social prestige, but was largely used up by the opening of the story. When we meet Hepzibah, she is opening a small shop near the home in order to make ends meet. This may symbolize the shift to a democratic, commercial economy. Judge Pyncheon’s obsessive over the old land deeds and his position is really of the old colonial ways. Interestingly, the Pyncheons escape from the judge on a modern train. Holgrave–full of resentments to be sure–was the most modern character in profession and social mobility. (Was this a legacy of his witch heritage?) “Thought now bu twenty-two years old . . . he had already been, first, a county-schoolmaster; next, a salesman in a country-store; and, either at the same time or afterwards, the political-editor of a country-newspapers. He has subsequently travelled New England and the middle states as a peddler, in the employment of a Connecticut manufactory of Cologne water and other essences. In an episodical way, he had studies and practiced dentistry.” (503-504) It actually goes on, with his adventures in a utopian community, his participation in mesmeism, and his travels to Europe. It is hard not to see him as a symbol for democratic America.



Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Scarlet Letter” (1850)

“Such was the sympathy of Nature—that wild, heathen Nature of the forest, never subjected by human law, nor illumined by higher truth—with the bliss of these two spirits! Love, whether newly born, or aroused from a deathlike slumber, must always create a sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance, that it overflows upon the outward world. Had the forest still kept its gloom, it would have been bright in Hester’s eyes, and bridge I Arthur Dimmesdale’s!” (293)


The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s first novel since his youthful Fanshawe, came after Hawthorne had been writing for over twenty years and only fourteen years before his death in 1864. Despite my training I had never read this novel before, even sitting on it for almost a year after the volume of Hawthorne’s novels came as part of my Library of American subscription. I suppose I was confident that it was well understood without me reading it and there was little I can contribute. Neither have I read any commentary on the novel, outside of the occasional mention. I only knew it was an important novel and somehow (as with folklore in general) knew its basic plot.

In the novel, Hester Prynne’s sin is extremely well-defined, clearly proven, and apparent to all in the community. Even without the infamous red letter on her clothing, she had a daughter obviously born out of wedlock. Of course, the authorities of the state—in this case the Puritan elite—had to follow the letter of the law. It is a well-defined crime, but in my reading of the novel I cannot find any explanation of why it was so odious. The narrator, although occasionally waffling on this point, clearly sees the crime of adultery as evil, the work of the devil, and an unredeemable sin. (Although he is of Hawthorne’s generation, he is more of old New England.) Of course, given the situation—a distant and decrepit husband with a young wife—it is rather hard to find fault in Hester’s actions. But my point is that Prynne, the minister Dimmesdale (Pearl’s biological father), the town, the narrator, Hawthorne, and readers from the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first century seem to take it for granted that there was a sin committed. The debate would then rest on the proper response, given the situation. I suggest we should not so quickly surrender this point. This is not simply an argument for free love, but the necessary anarchist orientation that requires all authority (moral, legal, political) to justify itself.

The enforcement mechanisms of this moral law are very well-developed and incredibly harsh. The scaffolds and the gallows are a constant threat throughout the novel. The coercive tools of a cynical state hardly seem the appropriate tool of a regime based on moral authority, but when of course, how else can the state enforce moral law. Look at the ridiculous convictions of Pussy Riot members in Russia as evidence that morality can still be a tool of state political control. The list of disciplinary measures applied or threatened in this novel is impressive, even by twentieth century standards, and must have seen downright draconian to Hawthorne’s contemporary readers. These institutions of control included jails, the gallows, public shaming, exclusion, economic and social isolation, family, and religious threats of eternal damnation. Even the governor became intensely interested in the transgression of Prynne. And, if we believe the narrator comes from the society of Puritan New England it seems these threats work most of the time. Prynne and Dimmesdale’s transgression is entirely unique in the world of the novel.

The novel begins with another institution of state power, one that emerged much later in New England history, but became central to Hawthorne’s life and the economic history of the region: the custom-house. It works to create the narrator of the story, who worked in a custom-house, like Hawthorne, and discovered the story of Hester Prynne buried in some documents. As I already suggested, unlike Hawthorne, this narrative has much more fully internalized the values of Puritan New England and is apparently not as detached from that tradition as Hawthorne himself was by the time he wrote the novel. What I want to suggest is that instead of reading this just as a story of sin, guilt, and alienation we should also read it as a story of power and in this way, the “Custom-House” chapter fits nicely. We see the locus of New England society move from the internal morality of its residents to their place in the emerging world system, but power remained central to its working.

Salem Custom House

Salem Custom House

The consequences of the enforcement of this constructed and pathetically useless morality are catastrophic. Image Hester Prynne’s situation absent the enforcement regimen. Pearl could have had a normal childhood, Hester could have remained of the community, her returning husband would not have needed to pose as someone else and work for seven years for revenge, and a whole lot of internal trauma could have been avoided. The conclusion we can draw is the root tension in the story is not the sin itself, which except for the arrival of Pearl, is largely a non-event, hardly worth anyone’s time to worry about. It is the naming of the sin that is the problem. We should spend less time doing such nonsense. As if to make this point, the narrator clarifies how easy it is to simple stop naming the sin. Hester could remove the “A” at any time, which she does as she develops a plan to leave New England with Dimmesdale.

The straight-forward way to look at Pearl is that she inherited the sin of her mother and father. She becomes obsessed at a young age with her mother’s red “A.” She is not controllable and shocks the Puritan elite because of her non-orthodox understanding of theology. Providing such information is one of Hester’s main responsibilities and doubts about this produce one of the major tensions, the attempt by the elite to take Pearl from her mother. Can we not also look at Pearl in a more optimistic way? Hester’s transgression carries onto her child. It is not sin that is passed on, but the spirit of rebellion, which lives onto the next generation. She survives the story to go to Europe, breaking free entirely of the institutions of power that so oppressed her mother and near ruined her own childhood.

That is enough on The Scarlet Letter. Others have done better than me (I spent a day when others have spent a career), but I hope this is not entirely useless for the commons. Let me end on a nice, politically-powerful quote.

“Before Mr. Dimmesdale reached home, his inner man gave him other evidences of a revolution in the sphere of thought and feeling. In truth, nothing short of a total change of dynasty and moral code, in that interior kingdom, was adequate to account for the impulses now communicated to the unfortunate and startled minister. At every step he was incited to do some strange, wild, wicked thing or other, with a sense that it would be at once involuntary and intentional; in spite of himself, yet growing out of a profounder self than that which opposed the impulse.” (306)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Tanglewood Tales for Girls and Boys: Being a Second Wonder Book” (1853)

“Evil had never existed; and sorrow, misfortune, crime, were mere shadows which the mind fancifully created for itself, as a shelter against too sunny realities—or, at most, but prophetic dreams, to which the dreamer himself did not yield a waking credence. Children are now the only representatives of the men and women of that happy era; and therefore it is that we must raise the intellect and fancy to the level of childhood, in order to re-create the original myths.” (“The Wayside: Introductory,” 1310)

These words appear in the introduction to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s second collection of reinterpretation of Greek myths, Tanglewood Tales for Girls and Boys. It lacks the superstructure of A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys, but is set in the universe and provides the same type of challenge as the first volume by rewriting myths for a democratic age.


What are some of the lessons from this bygone age, this happy era? I will just pick ten at random.
1. Tyrants are defeated by courage, love, and ingenuity. One of the worst examples of this is King Minos of Crete, who maintained the Minotaur a maze, demanding his subject nation of Athens send him fourteen prisoners to be fed to the monster every year. Theseus of course overcomes the Minotaur, defeating Minos.
2. The oppressed have nothing to lose by speaking truth to power. As Theseus tells King Minos before facing the Minotaur: “I tell thee to thy face, King Minos, thou art a more hideous monster than the Minotaur himself.” (1329)
3. An army of pygmies can defeat Heracles. There are strength in numbers.
4. The muses sing about heroic deeds, not banalities.
5. Even rude centaurs can raise well-meaning, brave, and principled children, who know how to throw great parties (Fifty heroes on a boat, including Orpheus! I hope they brought enough wine.)
6. Women do not really need to join with the man at the end of the tale. Hawthorne rewrote Ariande so she is not abandoned on Naxos but stays with her defeated father.
7. Diversity is the norm. Giants and pygmies lived side by side as “brothers” and will risk their life for each other in necessary.
8. Everyone has some good characteristics and even the worst situation has a bright side. “Do not speak so harshly of poor King Pluto. He has some very good qualities, and I really think I can bear to spend six months in his palace if he will only let me spend the other six with you.” (1436)
9. Rulers step aside to ensure the survival of justice and kings can be chosen for virtues instead of blood. “Because Thasus was an upright, true-hearted, and courageous man, and therefore fit to rule.” (1366–1367)
10. Being imprisoned by a witch, tends to mean being served on by beautiful women and given no shortage of feasts. (At worst you might be turned into a pig.)
Of course this undisciplined and silly list fall short of including all the messages celebrating freedom and whitewashes some of the horrible messages contained within. In a sense, it really does not matter if the list is complete or fully honest. These tales are part of our collective heritage. They are as much a part of the commons as water or air (at least until Homer’s heirs find a way to copyright The Iliad).
Onto the four great Hawthorne novels.

Audiobook version of Tanglewood Tales. Enjoy!

Nathaniel Hawthorne, “A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys” (1852): In Praise of Remixing

“It would be a great pity if a man of my learning (to say nothing of original fancy) could not find a new story, every day, year in and year out, for children such as you.” (“Tanglewood Porch: Introduction to ‘The Gorgan’s Head,’” 1166)

Perhaps too much children’s literature takes on a moral message. A great thing about A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys is that it is arranged as a dialogue with the listeners. The major arc of the book takes place in the Tanglewood academy, where one of the children, Eustace Bright, retells stories from Greek mythology to the students. After each tale is told, an interlude is include in which the other students speak their mind about the story, often reinterpreting the story in ways radically different from traditional readings. Over the course of a year, we hear of six such story sessions, including some “often-told” tales: Perseus and the Gorgon, King Midas and the golden touch, Pandora’s box, Heracles and the golden apples, the bottomless pitcher, and Bellerophon’s slaying of the Chimera. I would like to point out my initial reading of some of these tales and follow with the voices of the children who take their own message from it.


The Gorgon’s Head
One thing I enjoyed about that new version of Clash of the Titans was how the emphasis was on the triumph of humanity over the scheming of the gods. In the story retold by Hawthorne—and I suppose this is the standard version because it is in the version of the Perseus tale I read to my daughter—the hero triumphs over the kings with the help of Hermes (called Quicksilver here). This version removes the battle with the Leviathan and Persesus winning of a bride and centers just on the slaying of Medusa and Perseus’ return to slay the king who sent him on the foolish quest. Here the gods are not the malevolent forces they appear in my memory of Greek mythology. The horrors comes from men. The children, however, were more interested in the Three Grey Woman who shared a single eye.


The Golden Touch
The story of Midas sets up a broader discussion among the children over the meaning of the story. In Hawthorne’s retelling of the Midas story, Dionysus is replaced with a simple man (I suppose it still could be Dionysus). He also focuses much more on the relationship between Midas and his daughter, who is given a prominent place in this story. The children’s response is fascinating. One points out immediately that in the world she lives in most adults seem to have a “Leaden Touch” and “make everything dull and heavy that they lay their fingers on.” Another wants the ability to turn things from gold, back again in order to change the autumn leaves to green. Eustace seizes on this idea and invents an origin of the beautiful New England autumn. King Midas “gilded the leaves of the great volume of Nature.” (1210–1211)


The Paradise of Children
Hawthorne very carefully constructs his retelling of the story of Pandora as both a fall from innocence and a fall from eternal childhood. “Then everybody was a child. They needed no fathers and mothers, to take care of the children; because there was no danger, nor trouble of any kind, and no clothes to be mended, and there was always plenty to eat and drink.” (1215) What I see coming through is that Hawthorne retold these stories for the ears of children. Too often the stories remain adult in content and perspective, but are merely simplified. In my memory of the story of Pandora’s Box, the stress is on the origin of adult problems. Hawthorne prefers to dwell on the world of blissful childhood. In the post story dialogue, one of the children thinks only about how she would have been punished for the act, apparently ignoring the sins Pandora unleashed. Another child, wondered if every evil was unleashed. Eustace confirmed this by providing an example of a very youthful dilemma, a snowstorm that stopped them from ice skating (he is telling this tale in winter). The child replies that that is not trouble at all, “but a pleasure.” (1230)

So, you get the idea of how Hawthorne constructed these re-tellings as a dialog with children and how the children pushed the interpretation of the stories, stealing them from the authority. Eustace discusses this in more detail at the close of his re-telling of the Heracles/golden apples/Atlas story. “And besides, the moment you but any warmth of heart, any passion or affection, any human or divine morality, into a classic mould, you make it quite another thing from what it was before. My own opinion is, that the Greeks, by taking possession of these legends, (which were the immemorial birthright of mankind,) and putting them into shapes of indestructible beauty, indeed, but could and heartless, have done all subsequent ages an incalculable injury.” (1255) There you have it, a brilliant argument for the creative power of remixing.

Children’s literature must leave children free to think about their world on their own terms. Any moral message will be from a bygone age (that of their parents and grandparents) and whatever their wisdom may have been, it will not necessarily be of use to the epoch that is emerging. And if it is, the next generation will get there on their own, without our help.


If you allow me one final quote from this brilliant little book.
“For my part, I wish I had Pegasus here, at this moment. I would mount him, forthwith, and gallop about the country, within a circumference of a few miles, making literary calls on my brother-authors. Dr. Dewey would be within my reach, at the foot of Taconic. In Stockbridge, youder, is Mr. James, conspicuous to the world on his mountain-pile of history and romance. Longfellow, I believe, is not yet on the Ox-bow; else the winged horse would neigh at the sight of him. But, here in Lexos, I should find our most truthful novelist, who has made the scenery and life of Berkshire all her own. On the hither side of Pittsfield sits Herman Melville, shaping out the gigantic conception of his ‘White Whale,’ while the gigantic shape of Greylock looms upon him from his study-window. Another bound of my flying steed would bring me to the door of Holmes, whom I mention last, because Pegasus would certainly unseat me, the next minute, and claim the poet as his rider.” (1301)

This literary heritage summarized here is ours to remix. And this is one of the goals of my project.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stories (1844–1852)

“The remarkable story of the snow-image, though, to that sagacious class of people to whom good Mr. Lindsey belongs, it may seem but a childish affair, is nevertheless capable of being moralized in various methods, greatly for their edification. One of its lessons, for instance, might be, that it behoves men, and especially men of benevolence, to consider well what they are about, and, before acting on their philanthropic purposes, to be quite sure that they comprehend the nature and all the relations of the business at hand.” (“The Snow-Image,” 1102)



What a simple protest against the reformism of Hawthorne’s age, or any age. The same, it seems to me, could be said of any urban development project declared the necessity for the well-being of all, but affected only at the great destruction of communities, businesses, and homes. This short passage near the end of the tragic tale “The Snow-Image” is a wonderful summation of “seeing like a state.”

I have reached the end of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tales, not including his retelling of ancient mythologies for children, written in his last decade. His writing became dramatically more allegorical (at least his short stories) and difficult as he matured. I truly miss some of his more optimistic tales exploring the creative vernacular side of life, but that theme still always lies on the edge of the dark clouds (I am borrowing from Melville’s description of Hawthorne’s writings here). The overpowering darkness of these stories is evident, but it is not overpowering because it is nearly always explicable. Hawthorne was describing a human heart, dark and terrible at times, but always rooted in a certain historical context. For instance, if we look at “Earth’s Holocaust” the demonic figure at the end suggests humanity to toss the human heart into the fire along with the rest of the trappings of civilization. Yet, it is not entirely clear that the human heart was fallen. This contradicts what I wrote on that tale yesterday, but now I want to believe that “Earth’s Holocaust” was not a warning that the human heart was part of the fallen world, but that the human heart is one of the redeeming features of humanity. (What Kroporkin would call “mutual aid” or what we simply call “solidarity.”)

One important issue that he kept coming back to is the figure of the artist and the line between the artistic and the real. It is the central theme of at least three of the stories in this last set, covering the eight years from 1844 to 1852. At least one of these considers the playful creativity of children and the hostile disbelief and indifference of adults, an issue I have seen emerge again and again in Hawthorne’s stories.

The stories I worked through for today are: “The Artist of the Beautiful,” “Drowne’s Wooden Image,” “A Select Party,” “A Book of Autographs,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” “P.’s Correspondence,” “Main-Street,” “Ethan Brand,” “The Great Stone Face,” “The Snow-Image,” and “Feathertop.” This is also, by the way, the longest set of stories reaching almost 200 pages, compared to the earlier sets which were all around 100. Was Hawthorne getting long to prepare for his novels?


“The Artist of the Beautiful” is one of those stories that explores the line between the artistic and the real. In this case, it is contextualized in the tension between the quest for artistic perfection and the “real” of commercial practicality. Owen Warland is a brilliant apprentice watchmaker who has little time to spend honing his craft as an artisan and instead focuses on creating small beautiful items. He indeed has a quest to produce “The Beautiful Idea,” which is not dependent on size. Since he enjoys producing miniscule works of art, it seems from the master watchmaker’s point of view that his talent is being wasted. He certainly has a skill with the small that would help him succeed in the craft. When he inherits the shop, he quickly runs it into the ground because he has little time for the practicality of business. This tension between the artistic and the practical runs through the story. “This it is, that ideas which grow up within the imagination, and appear so lovely to it, and of a value beyond whatever men call valuable, are exposed to be shattered and annihilated by contact with the Practical. It is requisite for the ideal artist to possess a force of character that seems hardly compatible with its delicacy; he must keep his faith in himself, while the incredulous world assails him with its utter disbelief; he must stand up against mankind and be his own sole disciple, both as respects his genius, and the objects to which it is directed.” (913) Eventually, he completes his work, a small butterfly, which is alive and departs, thus the act of creation becomes real through the art. “When the artist rose high enough to achieve the Beautiful, the symbol by which he made it perceptible to mortal senses became of little value in his eyes, while his spirit possessed itself in the enjoyment of the Reality.” (931)

A similar tale is told in “Drowne’s Wooden Image.” Here the artist is a sculpture tasked with created a figure-head for a ship. Much like Owen, the watchmaker, Drowne is a masterful craftsman and even draws the attention of Copley, the famous early American painter. What shocks Copley and other observers is that he wasters his talent on a mere figure-head for a ship (and not even a British warship). Like Owen, Drowne has abandoned wealth for the purity of the art, and his fame grows without padding his wallet. As with Owen’s butterfly the figure-head comes alive at the end, convincing the obsevrers that Drowne has sold himself to the devil. This is part of the Romantic era spirit of art for Art’s sake. Like Schubert, who died unable to pay his burial costs, Hawthorne was at a point of his life where he was kicked out of the Old Manse in 1845, with 12 dollars to his name and had to move in with his parents. (Note to college graduates, there is nothing wrong with moving back in with your parents, but you also no longer have an excuse not to create something wonderful.) The rejection of wealth for art may become more silly in the art world proper, where most production is for the private collections of the .1%, but as we see in the proliferation of blogging, there are millions (and yes most of us suck) who are still striving to create without hoping for financial rewards. I am glad this spirit lives on, proving that not everything can be bought.

The third in this series of stories on artistic creation is “The Snow-Image.” Again we see an artistic creation come alive. Akin to Frosty the Snowman, two children produce a “snow-image” that is so life-life the children’s parents deem it a real child. It plays with the girls. The parents insist on allowing this girl to come inside to warm up, despite the sister’s protest she is made of snow. Of course, when brought inside, she quickly melts near the stove. Here, creation is perhaps the most purposeless in any practical terms. Owen used his butterfly for courtship. Drowne at least got fame and prestige for his labors. These two girls created only a playmate. We are not surprised when it is the parents’ stringent rationality that destroyed the perfect creation.

Before I put a close to this series of Hawthorne tales (we still have the novels and the children’s stories to cover), it would be improper not to five some passing mention to “Rappaccini’s Daughter” simply because it is so often seen as one of his great stories. Like “The Birth-Mark” it is one of those stories that appears in science-fiction anthologies as an early American example of the genre. Beatrice is a young woman, locked up in a garden with some poisonous flowers. As a result she becomes poisonous herself while also gaining an immunity to the flowers. The young student Giovanni Guasconti lusts after Beatrice from afar. As Beatrice’s professor (really mad scientist) father explains: “This lovely woman had been nourished with poisons from her birth upward, until her whole nature was so imbued with them, that she herself had become the deadliest poison in existence. Poison was her element in life. With that rich perfume of her breath, she blasted the very air. Her love would have been poison.” (996) Eventually, another scientist, Pietro Baglioni, attempts an antidote, which, of course, kills her, proving that the scientific experiment had fully transformed Beatrice’s being into poison. This story works as a polemic against scientific progress that might transform our nature, the reformist effort to transform nature, and the authoritarian power of parents over their children.

At the close of these nine posts on 92 Hawthorne stories, I am unable to provide for you a summary that would be adequate. I only suggest perusing my musings of the past two weeks and look forward to another week of Hawthorne as I look into the novels he wrote in his last decade. It seems to me that there is a true value in sitting down and enjoying the completeness of an artist’s work, with all its ups and downs. This breaks us away from the authority of the canon and the anthologies, which would have you read only 5 or 6 of these tales. I have done this with composers before to great personal benefit. Yes, it may mean you stop focusing on work for a while (maybe even a year or two) but there is nothing wrong with that. There is plenty of work being done already. You will not be missed.

Here is a movie based on some of Hawthorne’s works. Despite its title, only one of the stories in this anthology film was from Twice-told Tales. It includes a depiction of “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” I did not watch them.