“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.