All of the Nathaniel Hawthorne stories in this set were published in 1838, mostly in the Democratic Review, which became his major platform for the next seven years of his life. He is also still ten years from picking up the pen to write his second novel A Scarlett Letter. It is also only eight years since his first published stories. Perhaps not enough of us read these authors (or listen to musicians) chronologically. There is a perspective gained by following the artists mind as they play with themes and live their lives. I notice a couple turns in Hawthorne’s writing in this year. One is a growing social and political critique grounded in the world that he lived in. He is becoming a more contemporary writer and less focused on the deep history of New England. This led him to a couple of sketches of contemporary figures (compared to his early sketches of Puritans). Second, he began to take some time to appreciate the nature around him. I do not think he was ever destined to become a nature writer of the caliber of Thoreau, but he did take out some time to smell the roses, so to speak.
The stories are “Peter Goldthwaite’s Treasure,” “Endicott and the Red Cross,” “Night Sketches,” “The Shaker Bridal,” “Foot-prints on the Sea-shore,” “Thomas Green Fessenden,” “Time’s Portaiture,” “Snow-Flakes,” “The Threefold Destiny,” and “Jonathan Cilley.” The first of the last of these will draw most of my attention today, but I will give a passing glance at a few others which seemed to me can teach us something useful for living free lives.
“Peter Goldthwaite’s Treasure” works as an extended critique of an aspect of American capitalism build on speculation. There has long been a tension in American capitalism between the creation of real wealth through labor, reflected in the work ethic, the frontier spirit, the strong manufacturing base of the early twentieth century, and the union town. Doubtless, the American economy created an enormous amount of wealth, through various forms of exploitation, but it did create. At the same time, speculation and schemes ran throughout American history. These are the forces always desiring to create wealth as if by magic, and always at the expense of someone else. As the character Frank Sobotka pointed out in the second season of The Wire, the speculators won out.
They were always there. They bought up paper money cheap after the Revolution on hopes they would be redeemed for real currency. They bought land on the frontier for a dollar an acre and flipped it to settlers. And they constructed the den of trickery called Wall Street. Americans are good at creating riches from magic. This is the central tension in “Peter Goldthwaite’s Treasure.” “This wealth, according to tradition, had been accumulated by a former Peter Goldthwaite, whose character seems to have borne a remarkable similitude to that of the Peter of our story. Like him, he was a wild projector, seeking to heap up gold by the bushel and the cart-load, instead of scraping it together, coin by coin. Like Peter the second, too, his projects had almost invariably failed, and, but for the magnificent success of the final one, would have left him with hardly a coat a pair of breeches to his gaunt and grizzled person. Reports were various, as to the nature of his fortunate speculation; one intimidating, that the ancient Peter had mad the gold by alchemy; another that he had conjured it out of people’s pocket’s by the black art; and a third, still more unaccountable, that the devil had given him free access to the old provincial treasury.” (525–526) Peter Goldthwaite searches for this treasure and finds much evidence that the fortune did not go beyond the paper. “Peter saw piles of yellow and musty account-books, in parchment covers, wherein creditors, long dead and buried, had written the names of dead and burned debtors, in ink now so faded, that their moss-grown tombstones were more legible.” (528)
How many people struggle to pay their debts, sacrificing life or family or happiness? How many of those people ponder the actual significance of their debts in the broader scheme of things. Like the debts recorded in these ancient ledgers, they are vapor. Unfortunately, they are used all too frequently to enslave the living. How many myths have such power as the myth that paying one’s debts is a moral absolute? (See David Graeber’s book, Debt: The First Five Thousand Years, for more on this.)
As the story progresses, Peter destroys the home searching for the treasure. This story really should have been revived in the aftermath of 2008.
“Endicott and the Red Cross” revives an old theme of the tension between tyranny and liberty in Puritan New England. It is also the first appearance of the red “A” as a sign of public humiliation. “It was the policy of our ancestors to search out even the most secret sins, and expose them to shame, without fear or favor, in the broadest light of the noonday sun.” (544) Endicott may have been a deep moralist, but he was also strongly opposed to external tyranny. But is this not always a tension in intentional communities? Hawthorne would experience this first hand when he lived on Brook Farm a few years after these stories were written.
“Foot-prints on the Sea-shore” is the nature writing I referred to above. Hawthorne approaches the scene with a degree of philosophical distance, but as with “Little Annie’s Ramble” he is enjoying the simple act of walking through a location, in total freedom, allowing his imagination to do the work. No, he is not bound by the reality of the scene. Listen with me: “Here can I frame a story of two lovers, and make their shadows live before me, and be mirrored in the tranquil water, as they tread along the sand. Here, should I will it, I can summon up a single shade, and be myself her lover. Yes, dreamer,— but your lonely heart will be the colder for such fancies. Sometimes, too, the Past comes back, and finds me here, and in her train comes faces which were gladsome, when I knew them, yet seem not gladsome now. Would that my hiding place were lonelier, so that the Past might not find me! Get ye all gone, old friends, and let me listen to the murmur of the seas,—a melancholy voice, but less sad than yours. Of what mysteries is it telling? Of sunken ships, and whereabouts they lie? Of islands afar and undiscovered, whose tawny children are unconscious of other islands and of continents, and deem the stars of heaven their nearest neighbors.” (567–568) I think we found little Annie grown up, but not lacking some of her childish spirit.
“Time’s Portraiture” is a memorable discussion of how horrible the passage of life can be, how great the burden of the past can be, and how the birth of new children makes us think (wrongly) that time is forestalled. Hawthorne ends the tale with a suggestion that we let time die because he so often pulls us into the past rather than projecting us into the future. The horror of Time is that is roots us to dead things, dead moments, and dead eras.
“Jonathan Cilley” is a nice little sketch of a young politician (I suppose near Hawthorne’s age) who died in a duel. He did not express much interest in contemporary politics in his earlier works, but the 1830s began the era of democracy in the US and I suppose politics became more difficult to avoid. Hawthorne was drawn to his humility and his honesty. Ah, the honest politician does not exist in contemporary politics. After 150 years, we no longer believe this figure exists. Hawthorne was sincerely impressed by Jonathan Cilley. In Hawthorne’s obituary, a figure like Cilley simply could not survive the brutal party politics, as reflected in his death in a duel, brought on by a political challenge. I think is worthwhile to read this sketch simply to think on where we have gone politically since 1838. Maybe there is still hope for political pleasure and political authenticity. If not, we need to ask why we can no longer look at a political obituary like this one by Hawthorne without cynicism.