- Nathaniel Hawthorne
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Outlines of English and American Literature
Nathaniel Hawthorne
by Long, William J.

Some great writers belong to humanity, others to their own land or people. Hawthorne is in the latter class apparently, for ever since Lowell rashly characterized him as "the greatest imaginative genius since Shakespeare" our critics commonly speak of him in superlatives. Meanwhile most European critics (who acclaim such unequal writers as Cooper and Poe, Whitman and Mark Twain) either leave Hawthorne unread or else wonder what Americans find in him to stir their enthusiasm.

The explanation is that Hawthorne's field was so intensely local that only those who are familiar with it can appreciate him. Almost any reader can enjoy Cooper, since he deals with adventurous men whom everybody understands; but Hawthorne deals with the New England Puritan of the seventeenth century, a very peculiar hero, and to enjoy the novelist one must have some personal or historic interest in his subject. Moreover, he alienates many readers by presenting only the darker side of Puritanism. He is a man who never laughs and seldom smiles in his work; he passes over a hundred normal and therefore cheerful homes to pitch upon some gloomy habitation of sin or remorse, and makes that the burden of his tale. In no other romancer do we find genius of such high order at work in so barren a field.


There is an air of reserve about Hawthorne which no biography has ever penetrated. A schoolmate who met him daily once said, "I love Hawthorne; I admire him; but I do not know him. He lives in a mysterious world of thought and imagination which he never permits me to enter." That characterization applies as well to-day as when it was first spoken, almost a century ago. To his family and to a very few friends Hawthorne was evidently a genial man, [Footnote: Intimate but hardly trustworthy pictures of Hawthorne and his family are presented by his son, Julian Hawthorne, in Nathaniel Hawthorne and his Wife. A dozen other memoirs have appeared; but Hawthorne did not want his biography written, and there are many unanswered questions in the story of his life.] but from the world and its affairs he always held aloof, wrapped in his mantle of mystery.

A study of his childhood may help us to understand the somber quality of all his work. He was descended from the Puritans who came to Boston with John Winthrop, and was born in the seaport of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1804. He was only four years old when his father, a sea captain, died in a foreign port; whereupon the mother draped herself in weeds, retired from the sight of neighbors, and for the next forty years made life as funereal as possible. Besides the little boy there were two sisters in the family, and the elder took her meals in her own room, as did the mother. The others went about the darkened house on tiptoe, or peeped out at the world through closed shutters.

The shadow of that unnatural home was upon Hawthorne to the end of his life; it accounts in part for his shyness, his fear of society, his lack of interest in his own age or nation.

Seclusion at Salem

At seventeen Hawthorne went to Bowdoin College, where Longfellow was his classmate and Franklin Pierce (later President of the United States) one of his friends. His college life seems to have been happy, even gay at times; but when he graduated (1825) and his classmates scattered to find work in the world he returned to his Salem home and secluded himself as if he had no interest in humanity. It was doubtful, he said afterwards, whether a dozen people knew of his existence in as many years.

All the while he was writing, gathering material for his romances or patiently cultivating his fine style. For days he would brood over a subject; then he would compose a story or parable for the magazines. The stamp of originality was on all these works, but they were seldom accepted. When they returned to him, having found no appreciative editor, he was apt to burn them and complain that he was neglected. Studying the man as he reveals himself at this time in his Note-Books (published in a garbled edition by the Hawthorne family), one has the impression that he was a shy, sensitive genius, almost morbidly afraid of the world. From a distance he sent out his stories as "feelers", when these were ignored he shrank into himself more deeply than before.

Love brought him out of his retreat, as it has accomplished many another miracle. When he became engaged his immediate thought was to find work, and one of his friends secured a position for him in the Boston customhouse, where he weighed coal until he was replaced by a party spoilsman. [Footnote: Hawthorne profited three times by the spoils system. When his Boston experience was repeated at Salem he took his revenge in the opening chapter of The Scarlet Letter, which ridicules those who received political jobs from the other party.] There were no civil-service rules in those days. Hoping to secure a home, he invested his savings in Brook Farm, worked there for a time with the reformers, detested them, lost his money and gained the experience which he used later in his Blithedale Romance. Then he married, and lived in poverty and great happiness for four years in the "Old Manse" at Concord. Another friend obtained for him political appointment as surveyor of the Salem customhouse; again he was replaced by a spoilsman, and again he complained bitterly. The loss proved a blessing, however, since it gave him leisure to write The Scarlet Letter, a novel which immediately placed Hawthorne in the front rank of American writers.

Farewell Greatness

He was now before an appreciative world, and in the flush of fine feeling that followed his triumph he wrote The House of the Seven Gables, A Wonder Book and The Snow Image. Literature was calling him most hopefully when, at the very prime of life, he turned his back on fortune. His friend Pierce had been nominated by the Democrats (1852), and he was asked to write the candidate's biography for campaign purposes. It was hardly a worthy task, but he accepted it and did it well. When Pierce was elected he "persuaded" Hawthorne to accept the office of consul at Liverpool. The emoluments, some seven thousand dollars a year, seemed enormous to one who had lived straitly, and in the four years of Pierce's administration our novelist saved a sum which, with the income from his books, placed him above the fear of want. Then he went for a long vacation to Italy, where he collected the material for his Marble Faun. But he wrote nothing more of consequence.

The Unfinished Story

The remainder of his life was passed in a pleasant kind of hermitage in Emerson's village of Concord. His habits of solitude and idleness ("cursed habits," he called them) were again upon him; though he began several romances--Dr. Grimshawe's Secret, Septimius Felton, The Ancestral Footstep and The Dolliver Romance--he never made an end of them. In his work he was prone to use some symbol of human ambition, and the symbol of his own later years might well have been the unfinished manuscript which lay upon the coffin when his body was laid under the pines in the old Concord burying ground (1864). His friend Longfellow has described the scene in his beautiful poem "Hawthorne."

Short Stories and Sketches

Many young people become familiar with Hawthorne as a teller of bedtime stories long before they meet him in the role of famous novelist. In his earlier days he wrote Grandfather's Chair (modeled on a similar work by Scott), dealing with Colonial legends, and broadened his field in Biographical Stories for Children. Other and better works belonging to the same juvenile class are A Wonder Book (1851) and Tanglewood Tales (1853), which are modern versions of the classic myths and stories that Greek mothers used to tell their children long ago.

Pictures of the Past

The best of Hawthorne's original stories are collected in Twice-Told Tales, Mosses from an Old Manse and The Snow Image and Other Twice-Told Tales. As the bulk of this work is rather depressing we select a few typical tales, arranging them in three groups. In the first are certain sketches, as Hawthorne called them, which aim not to tell a story but to give an impression of the past. "The Old Manse" (in Mosses from an Old Manse) is an excellent introduction to this group. Others in which the author comes out from the gloom to give his humor a glimpse of pale sunshine are "A Rill from the Town Pump," "Main Street," "Little Annie's Ramble," "Sights from a Steeple" and, as suggestive of Hawthorne's solitary outings, "Footprints on the Seashore."


In the second group are numerous allegories and symbolical stories. To understand Hawthorne's method of allegory [Footnote: An allegory is a figure of speech (in rhetoric) or a story (in literature) in which an external object is described in such a way that we apply the description to our own inner experience. Many proverbs, such as "People who live in glass houses should not throw stones," are condensed allegories. So also are fables and parables, such as the fable of the fox and the grapes, or the parable of the lost sheep. Bunyan's famous allegory, The Pilgrim's Progress, describes a journey from one city to another, but in reading it we are supposed to think of a Christian's experience in passing through this world to the next.] read "The Snow Image," which is the story of a snowy figure that became warm, living and companionable to some children until it was spoiled by a hard-headed person, without imagination or real sense, who forgot that he was ever a child himself or that there is such a beautiful and precious thing as a child-view of the universe.

In his constant symbolism (that is, in his use of an outward sign or token to represent an idea) Hawthorne reflected a trait that is common to humanity in all ages. Thus, every nation has its concrete symbol, its flag or eagle or lion; a great religion is represented by a cross or a crescent; in art and poetry the sword stands for war and the dove for peace; an individual has his horseshoe or rabbit's foot or "mascot" as the simple expression of an idea that may be too complex for words. Among primitive people such symbols were associated with charms, magic, baleful or benignant influences; and Hawthorne accepted this superstitious idea in many of his works, though he was apt to hint, as in "Lady Eleanor's Mantle," that the magic of his symbol might have a practical explanation. In this story the lady's gorgeous mantle is a symbol of pride; its blighting influence may be due to the fact that,--but to tell the secret is to spoil the story, and that is not fair to Hawthorne or the reader.

The Black Veil

Some of these symbolic tales are too vague or shadowy to be convincing; in others the author makes artistic use of some simple object, such as a flower or an ornament, to suggest the mystery that broods over every life. In "The Minister's Black Veil," for example, a clergyman startles his congregation by appearing with a dark veil over his face. The veil itself is a familiar object; on a woman or a bonnet it would pass unnoticed; but on the minister it becomes a portentous thing, at once fascinating and repellent. Yesterday they knew the man as a familiar friend; to-day he is a stranger, and they fear him with a vague, nameless fear. Forty years he wears the mysterious thing, dies and is buried with it, and in all that time they never have a glimpse of his face. Though there is a deal of nonsense in the story, and a hocus-pocus instead of a mystery, we must remember that veil as a striking symbol of the loneliness of life, of the gulf that separates a human soul from every other.

Another and better symbolic tale is "The Great Stone Face," which appeals strongly to younger readers, especially to those who have lived much out of doors and who cherish the memory of some natural object, some noble tree or mossy cliff or singing brook, that is forever associated with their thoughts of childhood. To others the tale will have added interest in that it is supposed to portray the character of Emerson as Hawthorne knew him.

Legendary Tales

In the third group are numerous stories dealing with Colonial history, and of these "The Gray Champion" and "The Gentle Boy" are fairly typical. Hawthorne has been highly praised in connection with these tales as "the artist who created the Puritan in literature." Most readers will gladly recognize the "artist," since every tale has its line or passage of beauty; but some will murmur at the "creation." The trouble with Hawthorne was that in creating his Puritan he took scant heed of the man whom the Almighty created. He was not a scholar or even a reader; his custom was to brood over an incident of the past (often a grotesque incident, such as he found in Winthrop's old Journal), and from his brooding he produced an imaginary character, some heartless fanatic or dismal wretch who had nothing of the Puritan except the label. Of the real Puritan, who knew the joy and courtesy as well as the stern discipline of life, our novelist had only the haziest notion. In consequence his "Gentle Boy" and parts also of his Scarlet Letter leave an unwarranted stain on the memory of his ancestors. [Footnote: Occasionally, as in "The Gray Champion" and "Endicott and the Red Cross," Hawthorne paints the stern courage of the Puritan, but never his gentle or humane qualities. His typical tale presents the Puritan in the most unlovely guise. In "The Maypole of Merrymount," for example, Morton and his men are represented as inoffensive, art-loving people who were terrorized by the "dismal wretches" of a near-by colony of Puritans. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Morton's crew were a lawless set and a scandal to New England; but they were tolerated until they put all the settlements in danger by debauching the Indians and selling them rum, muskets and gunpowder. The "dismal wretches" were the Pilgrims of Plymouth,--gentle, heroic men, lovers of learning and liberty, who profoundly influenced the whole subsequent history of America.]

The Four Romances

The romances of Hawthorne are all studies of the effects of sin on human development. If but one of these romances is to be read, let it be The House of the Seven Gables (1851), which is a pleasanter story than Hawthorne commonly tells, and which portrays one character that he knew by experience rather than by imagination. Many of Hawthorne's stories run to a text, and the text here is, "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge." The characters are represented as "under a curse"; [Foonote: This is a reflection of a family tradition. An ancestor of Hawthorne was judge at the Salem witch trials, in 1692. One of the poor creatures condemned to death is said to have left a curse on the judge's family. In his Note Books Hawthorne makes mention of the traditional curse, and analyzes its possible effect on his own character.] that is, they are bearing the burden and sorrow of some old iniquity committed before they were born; but the affliction is banished in a satisfactory way without leaving us in the haze of mystery that envelops so much of Hawthorne's work. His humor is also in evidence, his interest in life overcomes for a time his absorption in shadowy symbols, and his whole story is brightened by his evident love of Phoebe Pyncheon, the most natural and winsome of all his characters.

The other romances deal with the same general theme, the blighting effect of sin, but vary greatly in their scenes and characters. The Marble Faun (published in England as Transformation, 1860) is the most popular, possibly because its scene is laid in Rome, a city to which all travelers go, or aspire to go, before they die; but though it moves in "an atmosphere of art," among the studios of "the eternal city," it is the least artistic of all the author's works. [Footnote: The Marble Faun ends in a fog, as if the author did not know what to do with his characters. It has the amateurish fault of halting the narrative to talk with the reader; and it moralizes to such an extent that the heroine (who is pictured as of almost angelic virtue) eventually becomes a prig and a preacher,--two things that a woman must never be. Nevertheless, the romance has a host of enthusiastic readers, and to criticize it adversely is to bring a storm about one's ears.] In The Blithedale Romance (1852) Hawthorne deals with the present rather than the past and apparently makes use of his observation, since his scenes and characters are strongly suggestive of the Brook Farm community of reformers, among whom he spent one critical and unhappy year. The Scarlet Letter (1850) is not only the most original and powerful of the romances but is commonly ranked by our critics at the head of American fiction. The scene is laid in Boston, in the old Puritan days; the main characters are vividly drawn, and the plot moves to its gloomy but impressive climax as if Wyrd or Fate were at the bottom of it.

Characteristics of Hawthorne

Almost the first thing we notice in Hawthorne is his style, a smooth, leisurely, "classic" style which moves along, like a meadow brook, without hurry or exertion. Gradually as we read we become conscious of the novelist's characters, whom he introduces with a veil of mystery around them. They are interesting, as dreams and other mysterious things always are, but they are seldom real or natural or lifelike. At times we seem to be watching a pantomime of shadows, rather than a drama of living men and women.

Method of Work

The explanation of these shadowy characters is found in Hawthorne's method of work, as revealed by the Note-Books in which he stored his material. Here is a typical record, which was occasioned, no doubt, by the author's meeting with some old nurse, whom he straightway changed from her real semblance to a walking allegory:

    "Change from a gay young girl to an old woman. Melancholy events,
    the effects of which have clustered around her character....
    Becomes a lover of sick chambers, taking pleasure in receiving
    dying breaths and laying out the dead. Having her mind full of
    funeral reminiscences, and possessing more acquaintances beneath
    the turf than above it."

This is enough of a story in itself; we need not read "Edward Fane's Rosebud" to see how Hawthorne filled in the details. The strange thing is that he never studied or questioned the poor woman to discover whether she was anything like what he imagined her to be. On another page we read:

    "A snake taken into a man's stomach and nourished there from
    fifteen to thirty five years, tormenting him most horribly." [Then
    follows the inevitable moral.] "Type of envy or some other evil

There are many such story-records in the Note-Books, but among them you will find no indication that the story-teller ever examined the facts with a purpose to discover whether a snake could survive thirty-five years, or minutes, in the acids of a human stomach, or how long a Puritan church would tolerate a minister who went about with a veil on his face, or whether any other of his symbols had any vital connection with human experience. In a word, Hawthorne was prone to make life conform to his imagination, instead of making his imagination conform to life. Living as he did in the twilight, between the day and the night, he seems to have missed the chief lesson of each, the urge of the one and the repose of the other; and especially did he miss the great fact of cheerfulness. The deathless courage of man, his invincible hope that springs to life under the most adverse circumstances, like the cyclamen abloom under the snows of winter,--this primal and blessed fact seems to have escaped his notice. At times he hints at it, but he never gives it its true place at the beginning, middle and end of human life.

Artist and Moralist

Thus far our analysis has been largely negative, and Hawthorne was a very positive character. He had the feeling of an artist for beauty; and he was one of the few romancers who combine a strong sense of art with a puritanic devotion to conscience and the moral law. Hence his stories all aim to be both artistic and ethical, to satisfy our sense of beauty and our sense of right. In his constant moralizing he was like George Eliot; or rather, to give the figure its proper sequence, George Eliot was so exclusively a moralist after the Hawthornesque manner that one suspects she must have been familiar with his work when she began to write. Both novelists worked on the assumption that the moral law is the basis of human life and that every sin brings its inevitable retribution. The chief difference was that Hawthorne started with a moral principle and invented characters to match it, while George Eliot started with a human character in whose experience she revealed the unfolding of a moral principle.

A Solitary Genius

The individuality of Hawthorne becomes apparent when we attempt to classify him,--a vain attempt, since there is no other like him in literature. In dealing with almost any other novelist we can name his models, or at least point out the story-tellers whose methods influenced his work; but Hawthorne seems to have had no predecessor. Subject, style and method were all his own, developed during his long seclusion at Salem, and from them he never varied. From his Twice-Told Tales to his unfinished Dolliver Romance he held steadily to the purpose of portraying the moral law against a background of Puritan history.

Such a field would have seemed very narrow to other American writers, who then, as now, were busy with things too many or things too new; but to Hawthorne it was a world in itself, a world that lured him as the Indies lured Columbus. In imagination he dwelt in that somber Puritan world, eating at its long-vanished tables or warming himself at its burnt-out fires, until the impulse came to reproduce it in literature. And he did reproduce it, powerfully, single-heartedly, as only genius could have done it. That his portrayal was inaccurate is perhaps a minor consideration; for one writer must depict life as he meets it on the street or in books, while another is confined to what Ezekiel calls "the chambers of imagery." Hawthorne's liberties with the facts may be pardoned on the ground that he was not an historian but an artist. The historian tells what life has accomplished, the artist what life means.


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