Nathaniel Hawthorne: Stories (1832-1835), Triumph of the Vernacular

“She feels that impulse to go strolling away—that longing after the mystery of the great world—which many children feel, and which I felt in my childhood. Little Annie shall take a ramble with me.” (228, from “Little Annie’s Ramble”)

I am finding in Nathanial Hawthorne’s short stories a touching documentation of the endurance and power of the American vernacular. I will confess to being heavily influenced lately by James Scott’s newest book Two Cheers for Anarchism, which suggests that the anarchist tension of everyday life exists in the many vernacular processes at work in all social spaces (whether in traffic, the workplace, or in the actual functioning of a city). Take for instance, “Mr. Higginbotham’s Catastrophe,” first published in 1834. The story is about a traveling tobacco peddler, who makes his way through New England. This man, Dominicus Pike, plays a role in the area far beyond his selling of various grades of tobacco and seducing local farm girls. He was a reporter of sorts, “always itching to hear the news, and anxious to tell it again.” (188) When hearing the news about the murder of Mr. Migginbotham by “an Irishman and a nigger.” He begins to make a name for himself retelling the story in every town on his circuit. The story develops with each telling. This is the power of an oral culture. With stories written down, confirmed, and supported by evidence, they become reified and quickly stale. With rapid retellings it becomes possible to improve on the truth. This tension is worked out when the lawyers get involved and try to get Pike to write down his deposition. As it turns out, Higginbotham is not dead, a fact confirmed by lawyers and members of the Higginbotham family. The one telling the story to Pike was a conspirator hoping to commit the murder but was stopped by Pike’s fortunate arrival. Another benefit to having plenty of well-natured people wandering civilization seems to be that they work as a set of eyes that reaches places the state  cannot. Hawthorne does touch on the more insidious nature of vernacular myth-making, such as the real threats it posed to a black man, deemed by listeners to be the murderer. This aside, I want to touch on the joy created by Pike’s constant retelling of the tale. He did this not as an authority (as an author) but in a more popular format, laced with uncertainty. “He deemed it advisable, however, not to be too positive as to the date of the direful fact, and also to be uncertain whether it were perpetrated by an Irishman and a mulatto, or by the son of Erin along. Neither did he profess to relate it on his own authority, or that of any one person; but mentioned it as a report general diffused.” (192) This way, the tale could evolve on its own right.

Brother Jonathan, the Yankee pedlar, makes an appearance in this blog. It is about time.

Brother Jonathan, the Yankee pedlar, makes an appearance in this blog. It is about time.

“The Gentle Boy” is a nice little story about a Puritan family taking in the surviving son of a persecuted Quaker family. They are conflicted between their desires to take in this wounded child, but their duty to the Puritan community which saw Quakers (even children) as unredeemable. Their solution—not unexpected—is to raise the child in a good Puritan fashion. Although this turns out to be easier vowed than achieved. When the boy’s mother returns to preach Quakerism and mostly against Puritan persecution, she initially attempts to take her son with her but changes her mind due to the potential of a good home, even if it is bought at the price of her religious values. Her sacrifice is total. When persecution ends due to royal order, it is too late. Interesting for us is how both the boys natural and adopted parents attempted a more practical and humane approach to the one offered by religious doctrine.

The Hawthorne stories for this post cover the period from 1832 and 1835, consisting of “The Gentle Boy,” “The Seven Vagabonds,” “The Canterbury Pilgrims,” “Sir William Pepperell,” “Passages from a Relinquished Work,” “Mr. Higginbotham’s Catastrophe,” “The Haunted Mind,” “Alice Doane’s Appeal,” “The Vilage Uncle,” and “Little Annie’s Ramble.” As you can see from some of the titles, the marginal, mobile person is prominent in these texts. At times, Hawthorne all but shouts at us to break free from our provincial, hometown perspective and venture out. Sometimes, that requires uncovering the truth behind the local history, so important to the New England setting for Hawthorne.

As “Alice Doane’s Appeal,” opens we meet a trio walking up a hill on the outskirts of town. It is “Gallows Hill,” a place of executions in an earlier era. “But the curious wanderer on the hill will perceive that all the grass, and everything that should nourish man or beast, has been destroyed by this vile and ineradicable weed [wood-wax]: its tufted roots make the soil their own, and permit nothing else to vegetate among them; so that a physical curse may be said to have blasted the spot, where guilt and phrenzy consummated the most execrable scene, that our history blushes to report.” While a horrifying place in many ways, deemed off limits by the society, the narrator urges its exploration. “[H]ow few come on pilgrimage to this famous hill; how many spend their lives almost at its base, and never once obey the summons of the shadowy past, as it beckons them to the summit.” (205–206) This place of horrible punishment and Puritan tyranny is confronted, imagined, and ultimately challenged by the boldness of the narrator and his two companions. The community’s silence and isolation of Gallows Hill allowed the suppression of this historical memory. The past may not be fully escapable but it can often be forgotten. This is another role of the vernacular in our communities. They hold onto memories that would more likely be forgotten by institutions and too often by communities (e.g. violent labor conflicts, lynching).

I started here with “Little Annie’s Ramble,” which I found breathtakingly beautiful in its celebration of the optimism, curiosity, and moral courage of children. (I cannot help but be reminded of Huck Finn in a story like this.) “Is not little Annie afraid. . . No; she does not even shrink closer to my side, but passes on with fearless courage. . . . Many, many have leaden feet, because their hearts are far heavier than lead.” (229) Ah the contrast here almost does not need commentary. During the ramble we learn that Annie is not bound by the burden of the written word but consumes literature for the pictures, which create new worlds in her imagination. The story is mostly a journey through Annie’s imagination and her creative reworking of the tales and folklore of her culture. Along with her is an older companion who appreciates her freedom and dwells on the comparative confinement and banality of the adult world. When we come to the community of the beasts, so important to the minds of children we find this lovely thesis on liberty, lost on so many of our leaders. “But they are choosing neither a king nor a Presidents; else we should hear a more horrible snarling! They have come from the deep woods, and the wild mountains, and the desert sands, and the polar snows, only to homage to my little Annie.” (232) Later, the related statement: “Are there any two living creatures who have so few sympathies that they cannot possibly be friends?” (232–233) If to make his point about the huge divide between the mind of the child and the adult world, the only animal that Annie dislikes is the monkey, because it looks just too human.

Ah, Hawthorne’s advice for us is well-taken. “When our infancy is almost forgotten, and our boyhood long departed, though it seems but as yesterday; when life settles darkly down upon us, and we doubt whether to call ourselves young any more; then it is good to steal away from the society of bearded men, and even of gentler women, and spend an hour or two with children.” (235)