Nathaniel Hawthorne by Henry Seidel Canby, Ph.D.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

by Henry Seidel Canby, Ph.D.

Hawthorne, in his search for wisdom’s pearl by means of fancy, resembles this contemporary Englishman. He is related to the German romanticists in his fondness for the weird, the mystical, and the supernormal manifestations of the spirit. It is unnecessary to establish more definitely his connection with the romantic movement, and we may, therefore, pass on to more important matters.

Table of Contents

Poe is a more glorious, Hawthorne a more sympathetic study for the American critic. The former, at his best, is always cosmopolitan; the latter betrays on every page a perplexing, but certainly a thoroughly American personality. The genius of Poe wrought upon the current narrative of his time with the results recorded in the last chapter; this personality of Hawthorne exercised itself as powerfully upon the same material, the product belonging to that still scanty literature of which an American may say, "Here is how some of us have felt and thought according to our own race and our own history."

The short story familiar to the young Hawthorne was romantic narrative of the kind practised in the annuals, and it was in the school of the annuals that he began to write. Grimness, for example, appealed to him as to the rest of his generation. In one of his earliest stories, Alice Doane's Appeal, the narrator professes to be pleased when the terror of the incidents sets the nerves of his audience trembling, nor does this fashion fail to be reflected in many later narratives. The mysterious, again, was his favorite province, albeit he trod there for his own purposes. The sentimental — here his somber spirit was too austere for the Zeitgeist, as Poe's was too intense.

Many a tale of Hawthorne's might have been as sentimental as the most sickly of The Token or The Forget-me-not, if its author had not worked below the levels from which sentimentality bubbles. He began, in truth, as a worker in the hot-house gardens cultivated by Mrs. Shelley and Emma Roberts; but he soon transcended such narrow limits.

Indeed, if we are seeking the spiritual kinsmen of Hawthorne, we must leave this English group of writers and look to the German romanticists. Tieck's mystic stories, The Fair Haired Eckbert (1796), and The__Runenberg (1802), are romances with a moral analysis behind them, and so, at least in this particular, resemble the later American stories. There is also a resemblance to Hawthorne in Hoffmann's Sandmann, which depicts an unpleasant personality whose influence upon the weak hero symbolizes the feebleness of the latter's will; indeed, the idea of this story is paralleled in Hawthorne's early tale, The Prophetic Pictures.

Der Sandmann was pubished in 1817, before Hawthorne's career had begun. Yet neither here, nor elsewhere, is there reason to suppose even so much dependence upon Germany as in the case of Poe. It is true that a rather typical selection of translations into English from the German romanticists was scattered in periodicals and in book form before 1830. It is true that Hawthorne might have been influenced by some of these narratives, or by the other literature which flowed from German romanticism.

But scholars who found possible sources for his tales in German, have been referred to undoubted sources in The American Note-Books. This circumstance, and the thoroughly un-German form of The Twice-Told Tales, make it tolerably certain that the foreign influence was of the kind which is said to be "in the air." One remembers that Edward Caryl, hero of Hawthorne's early story, The Antique Ring, had been writing "tales imbued with German mysticism." Just so with Hawthorne, whom this character thinly disguises. The evidence suffices merely to prove that he was "imbued" with the German phase of romanticism.

This kinship with the Germans I have called spiritual. The like might be said of Hawthorne's relations to John Sterling, an English writer, but not of the annualist breed, who survives by virtue of Carlyle's biography of him, and Mrs. Carlyle's letters, rather than in the graceful sketches which, from 1828 to 1840, he contributed to The Athenaum and Blackwood's. Sterling infused these fanciful stories with an ethical or transcendental significance which, nowadays, we should call Hawthornesque. The Palace of Morgiana (1837), A Chronicle of England (1840) are instances in point. "Wisdom's Pearl doth often dwell Closed in Fancy's rainbow shell," says the posy at the head of the latter story.

Hawthorne, in his search for wisdom's pearl by means of fancy, resembles this contemporary Englishman. He is related to the German romanticists in his fondness for the weird, the mystical, and the supernormal manifestations of the spirit. It is unnecessary to establish more definitely his connection with the romantic movement, and we may, therefore, pass on to more important matters.

I have no desire to maintain that the prepotent personality of Hawthorne, a personality powerful enough to restamp into new coin both the gold and the alloy of the " current story," was that of the typical American. Probably, as yet, there is no such type. But an American personality through and through, bred from home traditions, fostered upon home culture, and as independent of foreign influences as a cultured mind well could be, it is safe to maintain his to have been.

He was American, for example, in combining the two traits which have been so often ascribed to us; on the one hand, a high idealism amounting to mysticism, on the other, an extreme desire for reality. Indeed, the conjunction of these two qualities in his character is the best point at which to enter upon the study of Hawthorne.

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Life Behind the Veil

First, for the secret of the idealism. "His soul was like a star and dwelt apart." Hawthorne's solitary way of life, his fondness for the word "recluse," the testimony of friends, make one sure that he would have been gratified had this line been applied to him. It is perfectly clear that his inmost thoughts seldom appear in the diaries which have been published as his notebooks. He scorns the Quaker who professed to know him through his works, and professes to despise the seemingly personal thoughts of the Mosses from an Old Manse. "A cloudy veil stretches over the abyss of my nature."

So he wrote in his notebook in 1843, "I am glad to think that God sees through my heart, and, if any angel has power to penetrate into it, he is welcome to know anything that is there. Yes, and so may any mortal who is capable of full sympathy, and therefore worthy to come into my depths. But he must find his own way there. I can neither guide nor enlighten him. It is this involuntary reserve, I suppose, that has given the objectivity to my writings; and when people think that I am pouring myself out in a tale or essay, I am merely telling what is common to human nature, not what is peculiar to myself. I sympathize with them, not they with me."

What did the veil cover? It is easy to be scornful, and answer that it hid nothing more considerable than the moonings of a provincial thinker, who was at work upon old, old thoughts long since common property, although he supposed them to be mystical and his own!

Is this true?

Hawthorne belonged to a group who did the thinking for their community, and that community was small. Although Emerson was one of the thinkers, and was assuredly busied with no stale thoughts, this is no proof that Hawthorne was original. However, such an uncomplimentary explanation is superficial. It does not explain the tremendous force of what did rise from out the abyss, and get itself expressed in Hawthorne's published works.

If we wish to know the truth, we must search these works. Had any startling novelty in clear thought lain behind the veil (and Hawthorne loved no thought that was not clear), would not some manifestation have irradiated his books?

Would the hours of meditation have been thrown aside, and a new and shallower inspiration drawn upon for work the world was to see?

In spite of his seeming denial, and no matter how imperfectly, these stories must retain some image of his mental life. If a man is busy with original thinking, original thought must come forth when he writes.

But in Hawthorne's books no distinctly new ideas, no thoughts derived from novel methods of thinking appear, few conceptions excellent chiefly because they are fresh. The Birthmark does not owe its force to novelty. There is nothing new in that representative story except details of plot and setting; its idea may be traced through languages and centuries. What we do find there is intensity. And it is not depth, but intensity of thinking which appears, to a varying degree, in all of Hawthorne's narratives. Though sometimes childlike in simplicity, cold and allegorical in expression, they have been conceived at white heat. Not originality, but force, is their prime characteristic.

In fact, the mind of this recluse seems to have been endowed with a certain attentiveness, like Poe's, but this time fastened upon the ethical manifestations of human nature, character, and the soul. It is this intense deliberation upon life which cast its shadow upon his diary, and was transmitted, with what seemed to the unhappy author a tremendous loss of intensity, to his stories.

This attentiveness, I believe, filled his hours of meditation, and deeply affected his outer life. It was a mania like Ethan Brand's, less serious, but sometimes, to judge from his diaries, scarcely less compelling. Indeed, Ethan's terrible obsession by the sin against the Holy Ghost is only a perverted image of Hawthorne's own mental peculiarities. An obsession by questions of ethics or character, this, to judge from what found its way into the outer world, was the governing principle of Hawthorne's inner life, the life behind the veil. It led to idealism, and, as we shall see, to idealism of a very exacting nature.

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Hawthorne's Puritanism

First a word, however, upon the unavoidable subject of Hawthorne's Puritanism. Those who have called him a Puritan seem to have recognized his preoccupation with moral problems, and sought to give it a name. A liberal-minded Unitarian, for whom dogma and the difficulty of salvation had only a nineteenth century interest, Hawthorne was, in no sense, a spiritual brother of such as Cotton Mather. But there is a mental resemblance. It may be that the peculiar intensity of thought, just commented upon, was an atavistic return to the witch-judges and religious fanatics among Hawthorne's forefathers.

Compare his tales with the Grace Abounding of one of his favorite authors, John Bunyan. Note, in the seventeenth century writer, the circuits of the mind round and round the problems of sin, of grace, of his soul's state, and the possibility of salvation, and then observe Hawthorne's attentiveness to the voices of his inner life. The subject-matter of the Twice-Told Tales is character, ethics, and the nature of the soul, instead of sin, grace, and its chances of salvation, but the habit of mind, the conscientious introspectiveness, is identical. Thus far, Hawthorne is a Puritan.

"The lyf so short, the craft so longe to lerne."

Hawthorne never mastered his art, never, except in a few best instances, really controlled it. And this was not due to his provincial environment nor to a lack of persistence, but came about through his idealism, through the very ambition of an attempt to make his stories the ripe product of that secret inner life whose nature we have just been discussing. An extreme attentiveness to the nature of humanity must result in abstract thinking, no matter how intense the thoughts may be. Good narrative is concrete, and highly concrete.

Fully half of The American Note-Books is made up of Hawthorne's struggles to turn one into another; of experiments in crystallizing the abstract into the concrete.

"A woman to sympathize with all emotions, but to have none of her own "(1837).

"A person to catch fire-flies, and try to kindle his household fire with them. It would be symbolical of something." (1838).

Here is one suggestive, and one apparently trivial example. In the first, an idea is caught and becomes graspable, but is not yet made so real that a story could grow from it. In the second, a symbol is recorded in the hope, it seems, that it may serve to make tellable some of the speculations which filled his brain. Both throw light on Hawthorne's artistic difficulties. The naked thought had to be clothed in the appearance of life before it could leave the abstract and become fiction.

Unless given the most exact semblance to the affairs of this world, the moral would remain a moral, the axiom an axiom, the sermon a sermon, and no one would read the story; indeed, the story, regarded as a narrative of the actions of flesh and blood, would never come to life at all. And so, through all the notebooks, and in the completed stories, a discerning reader will see Hawthorne experimenting, practising with externals, which, fitted into words, could be used to cover or embody abstract ideas. In this, he exhibits that other phase of the typical American temperament, the desire for reality, the wish to "get it down in black and white."

With this in mind, we see the value of the innumerable "strange characters," laboriously depicted in the notebooks. They were preliminary studies for the transformation of an abstract idea into a real Rappaccini's daughter or an Ethan Brand. With this in mind, we view sympathetically the scenes minutely described, particularly the little sensations of the day: "a gush of violets along a wood path," or that observation which so annoyed one critic, " the smell of peat-smoke in the autumnal air is very pleasant;" and we understand his eagerness for measuring coal, earning his salary, all that the world called work, an eagerness which appears again and again in his letters. One biographer has been so misled by these externals as to make his narrative mainly an account of them.

But consider Hawthorne's artistic difficulties, and all of this yearning after the real and tangible falls into its proper place. Hawthorne knew that his early life had been mainly dreams. We do not need his confessions to tell us that he realized how difficult was the passage from those dreams to a presentation of them which his fellowmen could know to be real and true. It is written in every story, and echoes from his disappointment when he had done his best and knew that most of his fine rapture had escaped.

For, though dedicated to meditation upon the philosophy of character, the desire came upon him to put souls into his ideas, to let them be characters and act as in life. He strove hard to make them real characters, as art demanded. But life, which has no formula, cannot be truly seen by one who views it only to clothe his formulas with reality. In art, no more than in the affairs of the world, can a man serve two masters and be sure of success.

In spite of all efforts, in spite of a faithful, sometimes a tedious realism of detail, and an unusual truth of portrayal, the thought would not altogether fuse with the narrative, the abstract did not entirely dissolve, and sermon or philosophy still choked the flow of the story. Hawthorne was true not first, but last, to the realities of the concrete world which lay without his mind.

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The Desire to Make A Narrative

The effect of this divided allegiance upon the stories themselves is almost pathetically easy to trace. No man was ever more clearly possessed of the itch of story-telling than Hawthorne. Busied with some problem of character, his mind would often be seized with the desire to make a narrative.

The first result was a plot-nugget recorded in one of the notebooks. Then, but sometimes years later, came the story. If no strong thought was striving to express itself, if it was to be a tale like The Seven Vagabonds, where careful external descriptions, thrown into striking contrasts, were enough for success, see how easily his pen runs along the path of almost uninterrupted narrative.

But if the tale means much to the author, if there is a strong thought to be packed into it, observe his struggles. Follow through, for instance, the career of The Birthmark. Its embryo is in The American Note-Books for 1840.

"A person to be the death of his beloved in trying to raise her to more than mortal perfection; yet this should be a comfort to him for having aimed so highly and holily."

In such a crystallization of thought, the first reaction has taken place between the speculation of the recluse and the desire to give it to other men in a tangible fashion. It lacks, of course, both characters and a practicable plot; these, when added, should complete a transformation from abstract to concrete.

But Aylmer, the hero, is scarcely flesh and blood. He is a formula, conceived with the idea written down in the 1840 notebook. A clothing of life-likeness has been painstakingly given to him that he may seem a real chemist, at real work, and with a most worldly ambition. It fits, as well as clothing, but not so well as the skin he should have been born with. In spite of honest trying, Hawthorne could not make this formula live.

Here, nevertheless, are materials for a good short story: a powerful idea, reasonably effective characters, to which is added the splendid plot of the crimson hand. For a realization of the potentiality of these materials, sermon should now be dropped, narrative should move unhampered. It does move, and with an intensity which makes you never forget it, but the movement is not all on a right line. When Aylmer fails and Georgiana's birthmark fades away in death, "a hoarse, chuckling laugh was heard again! Thus ever does the gross fatality of earth exult in its invariable triumph over the immortal essence which, in this dim sphere of half-development, demands the completeness of the higher state."

Hawthorne could not leave it alone! He felt the intense truth of his original idea so strongly that he must needs thus emphasize it and at the very climax. Indeed, he has enlarged, and varied the sermon at other places in the story.

Like a speaker who spoils an argument by oscillating between its two main points, he swings from the more or less concrete Aylmer and the crimson hand upon the cheek of Georgiana, to abstract humanity and its failure to achieve the highest, then back again, with disastrous effect upon artistic unity and narrative vividness. The Birthmark strikes deep, it has durable stuff in it, but o' that Hawthorne conceiving, it had been constructed and written by Poe!

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The Peculiarly Ethical Nature of Hawthorne's Short Stories

This analysis, and the theory which preceded it, explains, I believe, the peculiarly ethical nature of all of Hawthorne's short stories. They are the fruit of an intense and abstract speculation upon character, in which has been placed the fructifying graft of expression for the benefit of other men. This, too, explains their failure in the eyes of their author.

Like Owen Warland's mechanical butterfly in The Artist of the Beautiful, which droops and fades upon the practical finger of Peter Hovenden, the materialist, so Hawthorne's imaginings lost some of their color and beauty when they were translated into the terms of human experience. He fought against this partial failure, and exulted when, after vainly thinking that he could "imagine all passions, all feelings, and states of heart and mind," there came the touch upon the heart which made it possible to conceive "beings of reality," to "send thoughts and feelings any distance — and transfuse them warm and fresh into the consciousness of those whom we love" (1840).

But he never ceased being philosopher long enough to be all artist, and of his failure to put the final and perfect stamp upon his refined gold he seems, in spite of these words, to have been well aware.

Naturally, Hawthorne made progress. He had too much genius not to understand that mere allegories would not do, nor disquisitions on familiar problems mingled with narrative examples. If many of The Twice-Told Tales are called, as Poe suggested, essays outright, others are far better narrative, and the best of his later stories testify, by the effect they have made upon some three or four generations of readers, to the success of their art.

Yet, by a strange circumstance, but, in view of what has just been said, a natural one, his most artistic stories are not his best. Imagination is to the fore in the Legends of the Province House, The White Old__Maid, and that Hollow of the Three Hills which Poe admired, and structure, color, and unity of effect all respond. Nevertheless, his best stories are those in which the native mood of the man expresses itself most powerfully, and as this mood was ethically philosophical, so these stories are no mere tales of imaginative effect, but convey, every one of them, a weighty and philosophical moral.

The Great Stone Face, The Birthmark, The Ambitious Guest, with a few others like them, are the great tales. They have artistic defects in abundance, but also an intensity and a power of narrative which gives preeminence over the more perfect stories of less specific gravity. If the narrative had only dissolved the moral we should have had Poe exceeded. But can the snake swallow himself? The more strongly this modern Puritan thought and felt, the more difficult it was to sink the idea in the figure. And in a recluse, and an independent, it is not surprising that his art never grew fast enough to master a personality which grew faster still.

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Hawthorne's Inner Life and Need of Expression

Thus far, it has seemed to be most important to study the nature of that reaction between Hawthorne's inner life and his need of expression which explains so much that is characteristic in his stories. So doing, I have neglected all excellencies except those of moral and spiritual force, and perhaps overemphasized the artistic defects of his narrative. For, when all is said, it is impossible to assign to Hawthorne any rank but a high one as a story-teller.

We grumble at his moralizing, but we read his tales, and it is probable that the next generation will read them with as much interest. The reasons for this enduring interest are complex, but not obscure. He was blessed with far more humor than Poe possessed, and, in situations where character is involved, quite enough of it to account for much of the flavor of the narrative.

Yet Hawthorne's mind was prevailingly somber; he had not the elasticity of view-point which belongs to the great humorist. As for style, in his own vein, when romance is to the fore, and exposition left behind, the movement of his prose is unequaled in American literature for mellow richness or for dignity. It is an early Victorian, or a pre-Victorian, style, like Lamb's, De Quincey's, and Thackeray's, a style charged with poetical feeling, and pleasantly savoring of archaism.

If it never reaches the rhythmic ecstasy of Poe, it never sins by excess of rhetorical music. Bad taste of one kind is to be found in Hawthorne, but it is a false taste in minor matters which misled him in artistic judgment, and never followed, as with Poe, into the higher regions of imagination.

Indeed, with rare exceptions, he is a high artist in words, a great stylist even when he most fails in the attempt to weld structure, idea, character, and diction into one artistic unity. Again, he is a good, if not a great romanticist. But his stories owe their longevity most of all to the power of their author as an analyst of character and as a sane thinker.

In this respect, Hawthorne is infinitely more successful than Poe. Measure him by the standards of moral inspiration, of ethical influence, by any standards save those of high art, and he deserves the nobler rating. The flighty mind of Poe, morbid, fertile of poses, full of egotisms, proficient in short cuts to the profundities, is almost pitiful when one compares it with this New England brain, independent, steady, ready for little tasks, hiding its power, yet glowing white hot with its own intensity.

Poe, the greater artist indubitably, was the lesser man. Hawthorne said more, if he said it less well. He is worthy of his high place among American writers. And his stories are great stories, even in their imperfection, even though they are made up of,

"Thoughts hardly to be packed Into a narrow act,

Fancies that broke through language and escaped."

Hawthorne's position in the development of the short story may now be reckoned with some justice. First, it is clear that he belongs, with Irving and Poe, to the trinity of Americans who, by structure, or by substance, or by both, gave specific gravity to the short story when, through the romantic movement, it was cut free from eighteenth century didacticism.

It is in substance that he rendered his greatest service. Under his pen, the story was supercharged with literary quality, so that the shortness of Ethan Brand is as far from intimating that it lacks excellence as the brevity of a lyric from implying triviality.

In structure his services are less notable, not so much because he could not construct, as that, for reasons already explained, his best story material was at war with a purely narrative development. It is interesting to compare The__Ambitious Guest of 1835 with Poe's Berenice, published in the same year. In the former, a tragedy of an avalanche, it is important that the reader should know that the climax is not the death of all in the great slide, but the sudden end of that ambition which has been spreading infectiously from the guest to the simple household of his hosts.

It took a master of story-telling to realize this, as Hawthorne did, and the mere attempt to accomplish such a purpose by means of a simple situation is enough to make a good short story. But whereas Berenice moves uninterruptedly to its horrid conclusion, this far nobler story is halted, like The Birthmark, while ambition in the abstract is lugged in to be talked about and moralized upon until there should be no doubt as to the significance of the tale. The substance, unified purpose, harmonious tone of the story, measure its value; the structure does not.

In one feature, however, Hawthorne's method of storytelling led the way towards the full development of the modern type. Why (to come at it Socratically), with an inherent proneness to construct a story badly, did this American write tales which, after all, are better made than those of any contemporary writer exclusive of Irving, Poe, Balzac, Merimee, Gautier, and possibly Poushkin?

For, say your worst against the architectonics of The Twice-Told Tales, and then try to match them in England or in Germany of this period! The answer, again-, is to be worked out through The American Note-Books. Scattered through them are those aforesaid notes for future stories, nearly all, and all of the best, not so much plots as situations, that is, not successions of incidents, but relationships of character to character, or of character to circumstances.

"To have ice in one's blood."

"A phantom of the old royal governors, — on the night of the evacuation of Boston by the British."

"The print in blood of a naked foot to be traced through the streets of a town."

Clearly, Hawthorne, in these instances, had conceived a striking relationship in which some character was to be placed, a relationship, single and unified, which was to be the upshot of the story. Howe's Masquerade was made from the second of these items; there, Lord Howe's interesting situation is certainly the gist of the tale. Make a story of a situation, as Hawthorne did.

In the majority of cases, it must be a short story to be effective; it must have unity of impression, and the final impression will be of the situation with which the writer began his thinking, for otherwise the tale will have missed its point. Furthermore, it must have harmony of tone, that requisite of the modern short story, for otherwise no subtle situation can be expressed.

And thus, to answer the introductory question, certainly, in some degree, it was because Hawthorne chose situations to work up into stories that the completed narratives, in spite of all handicaps, attained a moderately good short-story form.

But of such material as Hawthorne's situations, nearly all modern short stories are made! To express the myriads of situations in which we subjective moderns find ourselves, and in which we are interested, the technique of the modern short story has its raison d'etre! Thus, it is in his emphasis of a situation as a subject for a short narrative that Hawthorne's importance in the development of the modern short story chiefly lies.

With Poe, one reached the technique able to convey an intense impression, sometimes of simple terror, or horror, sometimes of a terrible or horrible situation. With Hawthorne, the introspective, the analytical, comes a greater interest in the situation than in the impression to be made by means of it. Sometimes he fails to turn his situation into a plot-story, as, for example, in The Gray Champion; sometimes he half tells, half expounds it, as in Rappaccini's Daughter. But, nevertheless, it was his kind of work which widened the scope of the short story, which gave it play elsewhere than in tales of ratiocination and impressionistic terror.

It was Hawthorne, far more truly than Poe, who first bent it toward a great usefulness, the uncovering of those brief, yet poignant, situations which interest us in modern life. The machine for turning his profound situations into story was a little crude, a little stiff in its workings, and sometimes refused to work at all, but he put in sound grain at the hopper, and he got good grist, even though only moderately well ground.

Probably no one ever learned how best to tell a short story from his method, but many must have been taught that it was a situation, and not a chain of incidents, which the short story was best fitted to express.

One must understand Hawthorne's introspective nature, and his attentiveness to the problems of humanity, in order to comprehend his short stories. Then, with an added knowledge of how hard it was to make intense thoughts real and communicable, and how much he desired to do so, it is easy to recognize both the defects and the excellencies of these twice-told tales. Such a sympathetic knowledge will take us further; the very nature of his meditations led him to seize upon striking situations, situations which his attentive mind must have dwelt upon in solitude until the story shaped itself, dwelt upon, sometimes, until too much of the reflection hardened into moralizing and remained to clog the narrative.

Here, indeed, in a Hawthornesque fashion, is a formula for Hawthorne, a formula which connects him with the historical development of our short story.

~ The End ~

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