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)

snowimage

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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?

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“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.

Conclusion
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.

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Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stories (1843-1844)

“Fight for your hearths? There will be done throughout the land. FIGHT FOR YOUR STOVES! Not I, in faith. If, in such a cause, I strike a blow, it shall be on the invader’s part; and Heaven grant that I may shatter the abomination all the pieces.” (“Fire-Worship,” 848)

New household technology: the stove

New household technology: the stove

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote his most important stories after he quit his job at the Boston Custom House, married, and moved into the “Old Manse” of Concord. This move drew him into the transcendentalist circles. Freed from work and enjoying domestic bliss (we assume), Hawthorne exploded with creativity. He is still working almost exclusively with short stories and A Scarlett Letter is still five years in the future.

I suspect Hawthorne was happily married from the stories of this era, because only someone who is content can be so openly hostile to the institution. I suspect that those who are the most miserable create stories of happy marriage, either through faking it or through dreaming of an alternative situation. The brutal honesty Hawthorne shows in his writing, I guess, was part of his relationship with Sophia Peabody and made for a happy time of it. In any case, marriage is a strong theme of the stories from the Old Manse period. I would also like to touch on the question of technology, which Hawthorne presents with great ambivalence in these stories. In this way, Hawthorne is taking on two of the pillars of civilization itself.

These stories were mostly written at the "Old Manse," and appeared in this collection in 1852

These stories were mostly written at the “Old Manse,” and appeared in this collection in 1852

This set of stories includes: “The Birth-mark,” “Egotism; or, the Bosom-Serpent,” “The Procession of Life,” “The Celestial Rail-road,” “Buds and Bird-Voices,” “Little Daffydowndilly,” “Fire-Worship,” “The Christmas Banquet,” “A Good Man’s Miracle,” “The Intelligence Office,” and “Earth’s Holocaust.” Almost all of these stories are allegorical, touching on various aspects of human nature. However, they also speak to the social and the trauma of civilization. In this way, I think we can approach an optimistic reading of these tales, suggesting that the human heart is not so fallen as struggling in a fallen world. The fact that so many seem to speak to the inevitable failure of reform movements suggest that much of the darkness in these stories rests on the influence of society.

“The Birth-mark” is a well-known and often anthologized tale about a scientist who marries the beautiful Georginia, who after the marriage becomes obsessed with her one imperfection, a small red mark on her cheek. Like the social reformers of Hawthorne’s time, he simply cannot accept even one corruption from the ideal. He then sets out to apply his scientific knowledge to eradicating that imperfection. He achieves this, but it comes at the cost of Geroginia’s death. “As the last crimson tint of the birth-mark — that sole token of human imperfection — faded from her cheek, the parting breath of the now perfect woman passed into the atmosphere, and her soul, lingering a moment near her husband took its heavenward flight.” (780) One reading of this that I find interesting is about the near sociopathic obsessions within a married couple. As soon as the scientist married, he became obsessed with this singular defect in his wife. At the same time, she becomes so willing to become perfect that she sacrifices her life. Overtime, rather than becoming accustomed to each other, the birthmark drives both deeper into obsession. “Until now, he had not been aware of the tyrannizing influence acquired by one idea over his mind, and of the lengths which he might find in his heart to go, for the sake of giving himself peace.” (767) If we read the story as an allegory for reform movements, the chilling aspect of the story is that human knowledge indeed makes it possible to create a perfection. Georgina, as the subject of Utopian experimentation, is in awe of her husband’s technical and scientific knowledge and surrenders her will to his efforts. At the moment of her death, she praises her husband’s quest for perfection through science, embracing his Prometheanism. “You have aimed loftily! —  you have done nobly! Do not repent, that, with so high and pure a feeling, you have rejected the best that earth could offer.” (780)

This is also what takes place in “Fire-Worship” but with a more open hostility to the destructive side of the technological spirit. Interestingly, the main focus of “Fire-Worship” is the domestic hearth, again connecting marriage and technology as companions in the process of civilization. It opens: “It is a great revolution in social and domestic life — and no less so in the life of the secluded student — this almost universal exchange of the open fire-place for the cheerless and ungenial stove.” (841) It is not an anti-technological message in itself. Fire has a place in the home, but it is the stove that destroys a form of community, a certain vernacular spirit that lived on in the ashes and fireplaces of thousands of homes. “The easy gossip–the merry, yet unambitious jest–the life-long, practical discussion of real matters in a casual way — the soul of truth, which is so often incarnated in a simple fireside word–will disappear from earth. Conversation will contract the air of debate, and all moral intercourse be chilled with fatal frost.” (847) The stove suggests the same type of technological progress condemned in “The Birth-Mark”

Clearly, fire makes a dramatic appearance in “Earth’s Holocaust” as well. In this story, fire takes the form of a massive crucible with the power to cleanse society of its old to prepare the world for a new age. Old music, old knowledge, money, liquor, law, weapons, and clothing all get thrown into the massive bonfire. In previous stories, Hawthorne cast the occasional dispersion on the old and ancient, pointing out the dangers of living permanently in the past and forgetting the child-like spirit of recreation. In “Earth’s Holocaust” it is clear that Hawthorne is reconsidering some of this, seeing some value in the preservation of old knowledge, but his main purpose here is to again warn against putting too much hope in technology (symbolized in the fire) as a solution to our problems. The throwing in of liquor and Hawthorne’s repeated use of “reformer” in the text shows that he was again considering the bold schemes of nineteenth-century social reformers. The conclusion of the story warns that a new age cannot be born without the cleansing of the human heart as well, but I wonder to what degree the human heart exists without the civilization that was tossed into the fire. Here he exposes a (in my view) unfortunate Puritanism, emphasizing the totally fallen human.

In the space I have left, I was to touch on a story that attempt a taxonomy of human civilization. “The Procession of Life” shows unambiguously that the human heart is not singularly evil or good. If anything unites humanity it is Love, but that feeling is constrained by the harsh boundaries between groups. “We have summoned this various multitude — and, to the credit of our nature, it is a large one — on the principle of Love. It is singular, nevertheless, to remark the shyness that exists among many members of the present class, all of whom we might expect to recognize one another by the free-masonry of mutual goodness, and to embrace like brethren, giving God thanks for such various specimens of human excellence. But it is far otherwise. Each sect surrounds its own righteousness with a hedge of thorns.” (803) It is thus our social categories that divide us, not our hearts.

Take what you want from that. I need to run.

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stories (1838)

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.

John Cilley

John Cilley

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stories (1837–1838)

“Patience, patience! You have been too long growing old. Surely, you might be content to grow young in half and hour! But the water is in your service.” (“Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” 475)

Wow, the stories from this set are all lovely and full of a great deal of joy. In his stories from 1837 and 1838, Hawthorne is continuing his warning against what is old and static and praising the creative, young, and daring. In this attempt, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” must be seen as a central text, taking this one directly with the administering of the waters of the Fountain of Youth on a group of boring old people. For those that are not following, I am reading Hawthorne’s works chronologically, going through the stories ten at a time. Today’s stories are “David Swan,” “The Great Carbuncle,” Fancy’s Show Box,” “The Prophetic Pictures,” “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” “A Bell’s Biography,” “A Journal of a Solitary Man,” “Edward Fane’s Rosebud,” “The Toll-Gatherer’s Day,” and “Sylph Etherege.” Here are some of my random thoughts.
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“David Swan” is a direct reminder of how much life is passing us by day by day. It is about a man sleeping through three life-changing events. The arrival of a rich man seeking an heir, a beautiful woman eager for a husband, and a gang of criminals. Had he woken up during any of the encounters he would have, respectively, won a large inheritance, gotten married, or been killed. How many of us sleep through events because of the danger of the robbers, forgetting the possibilities that our slumber also denies us.

In a similar vein, “The Great Carbuncle” warns against looking for meaning in symbols, ideologies, or precious items. The Great Carbuncle, the target of a quest by a group of people becomes simply an extension of their individual desires and perspectives. In this way, it loses its real function, while simultaneous reifying the perspectives of the various explorers searching for it. For an old experienced wanderer, the Great Carbuncle is valuable only as the question. He is the “Seeker.” For another, it is of scientific interests. For a third, it is a source of immense financial gain. For a poet is a source of inspiration. For an aristocrat, it is a potential symbol of his fame. For a married couple, the Great Carbuncle is a possible source of light for their humble home. Finally, for the “Cynic,” the Great Carbuncle cannot exist. He only seeks it to discredit the others who believe in the potential of beauty in the world. He wears glasses that corrupt his view of the world. It is the young couple who first gaze upon the glorious Great Carbuncle and when the show it to the Cynic without his glasses, he is blinded. They agree it is too much for their humble home and leave it for other seekers. Of course, the Great Carbuncle could symbolize anything we want it to. It could be the American Dream, anarchy, or the good life. Hawthorne’s point seems to be that it is reckless to invest too much in the search (the “Seeker” is killed in the attempt) and it is often fruitless to give it a singular meaning, but it does exist and should exist as a point of a projectral life. “Some few believe that this inestimable stone is blazing, as of old, and say that they have caught its radiance, like a flash of summer lightening, far down the valley of the Saco. And be it owned, that, many a mile from the Crystal Hills, I saw a wondrous light around their summits, and was lured, by the faith of poesy, to be the latest pilgrim of the GREAT CARBUNCLE.” (449)

 

“Dr. Hiedegger’s Experiment” is a strong and convincing tale about a bunch of old people who taste the water of the Fountain of Youth in order to relive their younger days and, they hope, approach it with more maturity—not making the same mistakes. This is a very adult way of pondering youthfulness. How often do we presume to be able to improve on our younger selves? It is the same arrogance that convinces us that we can teach children the right way to live, an arrogance institutionalized in universal public education. The Fountain of Youth (and I need to point out that I am not convinced it was much more potent than liquor, and maybe we should approach drunkenness as an elixir of agelessness. Acting in the same silliness their did the first time around (largely about jealously, failed courtship, and petty rivalries), we learn not that it is impossible to reform the youth, but that is an odious proposition. Here is part of Hawthorne’s description of the old’s transformation into youth. “Blushing, panting, struggling, chiding, laughing, her warm breath fanning each of their faces by turns, she strove to disengage herself, yet still remained in their triple embrace. Never was there a livelier picture of youthful rivalship, with bewitching beauty for the prize. . . . But they were young: their burning passions proved them so. Inflamed to madness by the coquetry of the girl-widow who neither granted nor quite withheld her favors, the three rivals began to interchange threatening glances.” (478) That Hawthorne sees this as a beneficial transformation, even if temporary, is suggested in how his characters end searching for the Foundation of Youth (a rather silly youthful quest in its own right).

I am trying to phase out more commentary on Hawthorne’s celebration of youth and disgust with the old and static, but I see it again and again in his work. Placing this theme into the historical context of a young nation attempting to find its own culture amid long standing English traditions (political, social, religious), Hawthorne is presenting a deeply important political critique as well as a path for life. So let me dwell on it a bit more. It is a good reminder.

“There is hardly a more difficult exercise of fancy, than, while gazing at a figure of melancholy age, to re-create its youth, and, without entirely obliterating the identity of form and features, to restore those graces which time as snatched away. Some old people, especially women, so ageworn and woful are they, seem never to have been young and gay.” (“Edward Fane’s Rosebud,” 501) Yes, growing old and leaving beyond childish things is murder. We should stop doing it so often. We have too much to learn from the young and even ourselves when we were young.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stories (1835–1837)

“Votaries of the May-Pole merrily, all day long, have the woods echoes to your mirth. But be this your merriest hour, my hearts! Lo, here stand the Lord and Lady of the May, who I, a clerk of Ocford, and high priest of Merry Mount, am presently to join in holy matrimony.” (362)

In 1837, the first edition of Twice-Told Tales came out, collecting eighteen of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s stories. This appears to be a turning point in his life. He met his future wife in 1837 and gained the recognition of his classmate Henry W. Longfellow. Not long after, he began his work on children’s stories, which would continue throughout his life. I keep coming back to the story “Little Annie’s Ramble,” which seems to encompass so much of Hawthorne’s message. This may be lost if we focus too much on the “dark romanticism” and the sinister themes seen in “Young Goodman Brown” and other such stories. Like Philip K. Dick actually, Hawthorne fears the static and frozen world of the old, embracing the more creative, exuberant, and joyful perspective of children. From 1836 to 1837, his pace of writing slows a bit from the very impressive 1835. Partly this is due to his taking a job in Boston in a publishing company that quickly went bankrupt.

tales

The next ten stories I examined were “Sketches from Memory,” “The Wedding-Kneel,” “The May-Pole of Merry Mount,” “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “Old Ticonderoga,” “A Visit to the Clerk of the Weather,” “Monsieur du Miroir,” “Mrs. Bullfrog,” “Sunday at Home,” and “The Man of Adamant.”

Some of these stories are centered on a marriage of some sorts and this is worth a few comments. “The Wedding-Knell” touches on something that I have examined a few times in this blog, the horror of the eternity implied in marriage. Of course, the time when people took such vows seriously is perhaps past, but the cultural assumptions are still there. The story is about the marriage of the dead, but is that not what married couples are in some ways. At least that is how they appear in popular fiction, especially romantic comedies. The story ends with the marriage, for what is to be said after that? It is the modern equivalent of “happily ever after.” In Hawthorne’s words: “‘Come, my bride!’ said those pale lips. ‘The hearse is ready. The sexton stands waiting for us at the door of the tomb. Let us be married; and then to our coffins!’” (357)

The symbolism of marriage is given a sharp edge in “The Minster’s Black Veil,” about a minister who takes to wearing a black veil in everyday life, horrifying the people around him, including his wife. With the black veil a funeral and a wedding are thematically united. “When Mr. Hooper came, the first thing that their eyes rested on was the same horrible black veil, which had added deeper gloom to the funeral, and could portend nothing but evil to the wedding. Such was the immediate effect on the guests, that a cloud seem to have rolled duskily from beneath the black crape, and dimmed the light of the candles. . . .The bride’s cold fingers quivered in the tremulous hand of the bridgegroom, and her death-like paleness caused a whisper, that the maiden who had been buried a few hours before, was come from her grave to be married.” (376)

It seems to me weddings are far too golly affairs. I much prefer the horrible imagery Hawthorne presents in these two stories. If more weddings were properly seen as funerals perhaps people would enter into marriages a bit more philosophically and perhaps the divorce rate would fall.
The theme from “Young Goodman Brown” of the relationship between the foundation of Puritan New England with dark rituals is in “The May-Pole of Merry Mount.” Here the pagan rituals become a source of joy before being repressed. I found it much more fun as the ritual is not a witch’s Sabbath but more of a bacchanalia. Dionysius himself does not make an appearance but there is plenty of pagan celebration around the May-Pole, which united with Indian festivals. These are suppressed by the Puritan elders, specifically Governor Endicott. “As the moral gloom of the world overpowers all systematic gaiety, even so was their home of wild mirth made desolate amid the sad forest. They returned to it no more. But, as their flowery garland was wreathed of the brightest roses that had grown there, so, in the tie that united them, were intertwined all the purest and best of their early joys.” (370) What do you know, yet another wedding. How wonderful! Whither those early joys?

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It seems again and again in these stories, the joyful and free is so fragile and so quickly taken in by moral absolutism, which always seems to form a dark spot in the world. I do not really want to face Little Annie after she grows up, although we know her fate. “The Man of Adamant” tells of a man who seeks moral purity by fleeing into a cave with his Bible. In the end he becomes a corpse “embalmed” in the cave. Yet the spot remains a black hole for the community. “Yet, grown people avoid the spot, nor do children play there. Freidnship, and Love, and Piety, all human and celestial sympathies, should keep aloof from that hidden cave; for there still sits, and, unless an earthquake crumble down the roof upon his head, shall sit forever, the shape of Richard Digby, in the attitude of repelling the whole race of mortals—not from Heaven—but from the horrible loneliness of his dark, cold sepulcher.” (428)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stories (1835): Fear the Gerontocracy

“Old and young, we dream of graves and monuments. I wonder how mariners feel, when the ship is sinking, and they, unknown and undistinguished, are to be buried together in the ocean—that wide and nameless sepulchre.” (306, from “The Ambitious Guest”)

The ten stories I looked at for today all appeared in print first in 1835 and carry with them some common themes as might be expected from such an aggressive expression of creative energies. Actually, he published fifteen stories in that year, including stories I looked at yesterday. One strong common thread is Hawthorne’s ominous presentation of the old, the ancient, the static, and the traditional. When set next to a work such as “Little Alice’s Ramble” (a story I feel in love with yesterday), this contrast becomes much clearer. Can we say that Hawthorne was at roots a Promethean, optimistic when it came to the  youthful, like the American republic itself during his life, and dark only when looking at the decrepit?  I will try to show that, in 1835 at least, Hawthorne consistently presented the old with a degree of suspicion and fear. If he is right, let me say that I totally agree with him. The idea that we have something special to learn from elders (by virtue of age and experience alone) is one of the most dangerous views out there. All things being equal, I will trust the child for a host of reasons, not least of which is that they need to live in this world much longer than the ancient.

The stories for today were “The Gray Champion,” “My Visit to Niagara,” “Old News,” “Young Goodman Brown,” “Wakefield,” “The Ambitious Guest,” “A Rill from the Town-Pump,” “The White Old Maid,” “The Vision of the Fountain,” and “The Devil in Manuscript.”

Hawthorne has a gerontocracy to work against thanks to the historical memory of New England and its Puritan elite. They are never far from his pen and they are the most common symbol of destructive, useless, rigid, or just plain silly values. He wants to tell his readers that despite a revolution and a century of distance, the Puritan elders maintain control over the minds of the people of New England, and rarely for the better. This is expressed in several places, including “The Gray Champion.” This story is essentially about the long-standing political and moral power of Puritanism in New England, even during a period of dramatic change brought on by James II’s attempt to rein in the colonies and the later Glorious Revolution. During the tyrannical rule of Sir Edmund Andros, the people of New England were challenged to stand up for liberty against tyranny, but the spirit of fierce independence that brought the Puritans to New England was weakening. This spirit lives on in the “gray champion” who appeared—it seems—out of the mists of time. He condemns Andros and threatens him with the return of the gallows, before retreating back to the shadows. The end of the story meditates on the meaning of these events, suggesting that this same spirit lived on in other events particularly the American Revolution. “But should domestic tyranny oppress us, or the invader’s step pollute our soil, still may the Gray Champion come; for he is the type of New-England’s hereditary spirit; and his shadowy march, on the even of danger, must ever be the pledge, that New-England’s son’s will vindicate their ancestry.” (243) This is actually a fairly positive image of the Puritan spirit, at least the part of it that led thousands to flee England and attempt to establish a new society away from the shackles of the king and his church. The ominous part of this is the Gray Champion’s unending moral authority and his authoritarian personality, his ability to command the attention of all and his immediate willingness to combine independence with the domination of morality, enforced by the gallows. It is also a reminder of how fine the line can be between tradition and liberty.

Arrest warrant for Andros by the people of New England (not the Gray Champion, as it turned out).

Arrest warrant for Andros by the people of New England (not the Gray Champion, as it turned out).

“Old News” is a summary of the highlights of New England’s history, including the French and Indian War and the Revolution. He makes some wonderful observations, including the way in which the newspaper record the minutiae of the life of the elite. Whatever nostalgia Hawthorne feels over this bygone age, is tempered by the realization that these newspapers are records of a dead world. “Whether it be something in the literary execution, or the ancient print and paper, and the idea, that those same musty pages have been handled by people—once alive and bustling amid the scenes there recorded, yet now in their graves beyond the memory of men—so it is, that in those elder volumes, we seem to find the life of a past age preserved between the leaves, like a dry specimen of foliage.” (275) We are ashamed not to reflect on those glories but cannot escape the fact that they are dead and poor models for the living.

The horrific nature of the Puritan past is the major theme of the famous “Young Goodman Brown,” about a man who attends a Witch’s Sabbath, populated by many of the town elders, who learns about the deep connection between New England’s traditions and the works of the devil. The events take on a dream-like quality when the protagonist, Goodman Brown, escapes the proceedings (which involve his wife he thought he left behind), but nevertheless, the hypocrisy of the community is exposed. Goodman Brown’s guide into the forest provides this historical context. “I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem. And it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip’s war.” (278)

In other stories, the ancient is just associated with oddness or a vapid stability. A character in “The Ambitious Guest” said: “Old folks have their notions as well as young ones. You’ve been wishing and planning; and letting your heads run on one thing and another, till you’ve set my mind a wandering too. Now what should an old woman wish for, when she can go but a step or two before she comes to her grave? Children, it will haunt me night and day, till I tell you.” (305) In “A Rill from the Town-Pump” it appears as a location in the town that is home to deep traditions and many ghosts. The story contains a warning against inherited sin and a celebration of alternatives freed from these traditions. “Until now, the phrensy of hereditary fever has raged in the human blood, transmitted from sire to son, and re-kindled, in every generation, by fresh draughts of liquid flame. When that inward fire shall be extinguished, the heat of passion cannot but grow cool, and war–the drunkenness of nations–perhaps will cease. At least, there will be no war of households. The husband and wife, drinking deep of peaceful joy–a calm bliss of temperate affections–shall pass hand in hand through life, and lie down, not reluctantly, at its protracted close. To them, the past will be no turmoil of mad dreams, nor the future an eternity of such moments as follow the delirium of the drunkard. Their dead faces shall express what their spirits were, and are to be, by a lingering smile of memory and hope.” (312)

The Good Old Days of 17th Century New England

The Good Old Days of 17th Century New England

The stories go on like this. “White Old Maid” gives us a quasi-ghost story about a widow who wanders through the town stuck in her grief for years. While the woman grows old from grief, we witness decaying buildings and the dominance of death and woe, which can only from from a world dominated by the past.

Ah, how I much prefer Little Annie and her ramble.

 

 

 

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)