Nathaniel Hawthorne: New England - American Novelist

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      ANCESTRY AND EARLY YEARS.—William Hathorne, the ancestor of America's greatest prose writer, sailed at the age of twenty-three from England on the ship Arbella with John Winthrop, and finally settled at Salem, Massachusetts. He brought with him a copy of Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia, a very unusual book for the library of a New England Puritan.

      John Hathorne, a son of the first settler, was a judge of the poor creatures who were put to death as witches at Salem in 1692. The great romance writer says that this ancestor "made himself so conspicuous in the martyrdom of the witches, that their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon him. …I, the present writer, as their representative, hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse incurred by them—as I have heard, and as the dreary and unprosperous condition of the race, for many a long year back, would argue to exist—may be now and henceforth removed." Tradition says that the husband of one of the tortured victims appealed to God to avenge her sufferings and murder. Probably the ancestral curse hanging over The House of the Seven Gables would not have been so vividly conceived, if such a curse had not been traditional in the Hawthorne family.

      Nathaniel Hawthorne, the sixth in descent from the first New England ancestor, and the first of his family to add a "w" to his name, was born in Salem in 1804. His father, a sea captain, died of a fever at a foreign port in 1808. Hawthorne's mother was twenty-seven years old at this time, and for forty years after this sad event, she usually took her meals in her own room away from her three children. Everybody in that household became accustomed to loneliness. At the age of fourteen, the boy went to live for a while on the shore of Sebago Lake, Maine. "I lived in Maine," he said, "like a bird of the air, so perfect was the freedom I enjoyed. But it was there I got my cursed habits of solitude." Shyness and aversion to meeting people became marked characteristics.

      His solitariness predisposed him to reading, and we are told that Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and Shakespeare's plays were special favorites. Spenser's Faerie Queene was the first book that he bought with his own money. Bunyan and Spenser probably fostered his love of the allegorical method of presenting truth, a method that is in evidence in the bulk of Hawthorne's work. He even called his daughter Una, after one of Spenser's allegorical heroines, and, following the suggestion in the Faerie Queene, gave the name of "Lion" to the large cat that came to her as a playmate.

      At the age of seventeen, Hawthorne went to Bowdoin College, Maine, where he met such students as Longfellow, Franklin Pierce, and Horatio Bridge, in after years a naval officer, who published in 1893 a delightful volume called Personal Reminiscences of Nathaniel Hawthorne. These friends changed the course of Hawthorne's life. In his dedication of The Snow Image to Bridge in 1850, Hawthorne says, "If anybody is responsible for my being at this day an author, it is yourself."

      LITERARY APPRENTICESHIP.—After leaving college, Milton spent nearly six years in studious retirement; but Hawthorne after graduating at Bowdoin, in 1825, passed in seclusion at Salem a period twice as long. Here he lived the life of a recluse, frequently postponing his walks until after dark. He was busy serving his apprenticeship as an author. In 1828 he paid one hundred dollars for the publication of Fanshawe, an unsuccessful short romance. In mortification he burned the unsold copies, and his rejected short stories often shared the same fate. He was so depressed that in 1836 his friend Bridge went quietly to a publisher and by guaranteeing him against loss induced him to bring out Hawthorne's volume entitled Twice—Told Tales.

      The Peabodys of Salem then invited the author to their home, where he met the artistic Miss Sophia Peabody, who made an illustration for his fine historical story, The Gentle Boy. Of her he wrote, "She is a flower to be worn in no man's bosom, but was lent from Heaven to show the possibilities of the human soul." We find that not long after he wrote in his American Note-Books:—

 "All that seems most real about us is but the thinnest substance of a dream,—till the heart be touched. That touch creates us,—then we begin to be,—thereby we are beings of reality and inheritors of eternity."

      He was thinking of Sophia Peabody's creative touch, for he had become engaged to her.

      Fired with the ambition of making enough money to enable him to marry, he secured a subordinate position in the Boston customhouse, from which the spoils system was soon responsible for his discharge. He then invested in Brook Farm a thousand dollars which he had saved, thinking that this would prove a home to which he could bring his future wife and combine work and writing in an ideal way. A year's trial of this life convinced him of his mistake. He was then thirty eight, and much poorer for his last experiment; but he withdrew and in a few months married Miss Peabody and took her to live in the famous Old Manse at Concord. The first entry in his American Note-Books after this transforming event is:—

 "And what is there to write about? Happiness has no succession of events, because it is a part of eternity, and we have been living in eternity ever since we came to this old manse. Like Enoch we seem to have been translated to the other state of being, without having passed through death."

      The history of American literature can record no happier marriage and no more idyllic life than this couple lived for nearly four years in the Old Manse. While residing here, Hawthorne wrote another volume, known as Mosses from an Old Manse (1846). The only serpent to enter that Eden was poverty. Hawthorne's pen could not support his family. He found himself in debt before he had finished his fourth year in Concord. Moncure D. Conway, writing Hawthorne's Life in 1890, the year before American authors were protected by international copyright, says, "In no case has literature, pure and simple, ever supported an American author, unless, possibly, if he were a bachelor." Hawthorne's college friends, Bridge and Pierce, came to his assistance, and used their influence with President Polk to secure for Hawthorne the position of surveyor of customs at Salem, with a yearly salary of twelve hundred dollars.

      HIS PRIME AND LATER YEARS.—He kept his position as head customs officer at Salem for three years. Soon after President Taylor was inaugurated in 1849, the spoils system again secured Hawthorne's removal. When he came home dejected with this news, his wife smiled and said, "Oh, then you can write your book!" The Scarlet Letter, published in 1850, was the result. The publisher printed five thousand copies, all that he had ever expected to sell, and then ordered the type to be distributed at once. Finding in ten days, however, that every copy had been sold, he gave the order to have the type reset and permanent plates made. Hawthorne had at last, at the age of forty-six, become one of the greatest writers of English prose romance. From this time he wrote but few short tales.

      He left Salem in the year of the publication of The Scarlet Letter, never again to return to it as a place of residence, although his pen continued to help immortalize his birthplace.

      In 1852 he bought of Bronson Alcott in Concord a house since known as the "Wayside." This was to be Hawthorne's American home during his remaining years. Here he had a tower room so constructed as to be well-nigh inaccessible to visitors, and he also had a romantic study bower built in the pine trees on a hill back of his house.

      His college friend, Pierce, was inaugurated President of the United States in 1853, and he appointed Hawthorne consul at Liverpool. This consulship then netted the holder between $5000 and $7000 a year. After nearly four years' service in this position, he resigned and traveled in Europe with his family. They lived in Rome sufficiently long for him to absorb the local color for his romance of The Marble Faun. He remained abroad for seven years. The record of his travels and impressions may be found in his English Note-Books and in his French and Italian Note-Books. Our Old Home, a volume based on his English Note-Books, is a more finished account of his thoughts and experiences in England.

      In 1860 he returned quietly to his Concord home. His health was failing, but he promised to write for the Atlantic Monthly another romance, called The Dolliver Romance. This, however, was never finished, and The Marble Faun remains the last of his great romances. His health continued to fail, and in May, 1864, Pierce, thinking that a trip might prove beneficial, started with him on a journey to the White Mountains. Hawthorne retired for the night at the hotel in Plymouth, New Hampshire, and the next morning Pierce found that Hawthorne's wish of dying unawares in his sleep had been gratified. He had passed away before the completion of his fifty-ninth year. He was buried underneath the pines in the Sleepy Hollow cemetery at Concord. His classmate, Longfellow, wrote:—

 "There in seclusion and remote from men,  The wizard hand lies cold."

      "TWICE TOLD TALES" AND "MOSSES FROM AN OLD MANSE."—Many do not realize that these two volumes contain eighty-two tales or sketches and that they represent the most of Hawthorne's surviving literary work for the first forty-five years of his life. The title for Twice-Told Tales (1837) was probably suggested by the line from Shakespeare's King John: "Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale." The second volume, Mosses from an Old Manse (1846), took its name from Hawthorne's first Concord home. His last collection is called The Snow Image and Other Twice-Told Tales (1851). Each one of these volumes contains some of his short-story masterpieces, although, taken as a whole, the collection in Mosses from an Old Manse shows the greatest power and artistic finish.

      The so-called tales in these volumes are of several different types. (1) There is the story which presents chiefly allegorical or symbolic truth, such as Rappacini's Daughter, The Great Stone Face, The Birthmark, The Artist of the Beautiful, and The Snow Image. The last story, one of the greatest of this class, relates how two children make a companion out of a snow image, how Jack Frost and the pure west wind endow this image with life and give them a little "snow sister." She grows more vigorous with every life-giving breath inhaled from the west wind. She extends her hands to the snow-birds, and they joyously flock to her. The father of these children is a deadly literal man. No tale of fairy, no story of dryad, of Aladdin's lamp, or of winged sandal had ever carried magical meaning to his unimaginative literal mind, and he proceeds to disenchant the children. Like Nathan the prophet, Hawthorne wished to say, "Thou art the man," to some tens of thousands of stupid destroyers of those ideals which bring something of Eden back to our everyday lives. This story, like so many of the others, was written with a moral purpose. There are to-day people who measure their acquaintances by their estimates of this allegorical story.

      (2) Another type of Hawthorne's stories illustrates the history of New England. Such are The Gentle Boy, The Maypole of Merry Mount, Endicotts Red Cross, and Lady Eleanore's Mantle. We may even include in this list Young Goodman Brown, in one sense an unreal and fantastic tale, but in another, historically true to the Puritanic idea of the orgies of witches in a forest. If we wish, for instance, to supplement the cold page of history with a tale that breathes the very atmosphere of the Quaker persecution of New England, let us open The Twice-Told Tales and read the story of The Gentle Boy, a Quaker child of six, found sobbing on his father's newly-made grave beside the scaffold under the fir tree. Let us enter the solemn meeting house, hear the clergyman inveigh against the Quakers, and sit petrified when, at the end of the sermon, that boy's mother, like a Daniel entering the lion's den, ascends the pulpit, and invokes woe upon the Puritans.

      (3) We shall occasionally find in these volumes what eighteenth-century readers of the Spectator would have called a "paper," that is, a delightful bit of mixed description and narration, "a narrative essay" or "a sketch," as some prefer to call it. In this class we may include The Old Manse, The Old Apple-Dealer, Sights from a Steeple, A Rill from the Town Pump, and the masterly Introduction to The Scarlet Letter.

      The Old Manse, the first paper in Mosses from an Old Manse, is excellent. Hawthorne succeeds in taking his readers with him up the Assabeth River, in a boat made by Thoreau. We agree with Hawthorne that a lovelier river "never flowed on earth,—nowhere indeed except to lave the interior regions of a poet's imagination." When we return with him at the end of that day's excursion, we are almost tempted to say that we can never again be enslaved as before. We feel that we can say with him:—

 "We were so free to-day that it was impossible to be slaves again tomorrow. When we crossed the threshold of the house or trod the thronged pavements of a city, still the leaves of the trees that overhang the Assabeth were whispering to us, 'Be free! Be free.'"

      These volumes entitle Hawthorne to be ranked among the greatest of short-story writers. Like Irving, Hawthorne did not take the air line directness of narration demanded by the modern short story; but the moral truth and beauty of his tales will long prove their elixir of life, after the passing of many a modern short story which has divested itself of everything except the mere interest in narration.

      CHILDREN'S STORIES.—Hawthorne's Grandfather's Chair (1841) is a series of simple stories of New England history, from the coming of the Mayflower to the death of Samuel Adams in 1803. Hawthorne's greatest success in writing for children is to be found in his A Wonder Book (1851) and Tanglewood Tales (1853). In these volumes he has adapted the old classical myths to the tastes of American children. His unusual version of these myths meets two supreme tests. Children like it, and are benefited by it. Many would rejoice to be young enough again to hear for the first time the story of The Golden Touch,—how Midas prized gold above all things, how he secured the golden touch, and how the flies that alighted on his nose fell off little nuggets of gold. What a fine thing we thought the golden touch until he touched his beautiful little daughter, Marygold! No sermon could better have taught us that gold is not the thing above all to be desired.

      Hawthorne stands in the front rank of a very small number whose writings continue to appeal to the children of succeeding generations. He loved and understood children and shared their experiences. He was one of those whose sixteenth amendment to the Constitution reads, "The rights and caprices of children in the United States shall not be denied or abridged on account of age, sex, or formal condition of tutelage."

      GREAT ROMANCES.—Hawthorne wrote four long romances: The Scarlet Letter (1850), the scene of which is laid in Boston in Governor Winthrop's time, The House of the Seven Gables (1851), with the scene laid in Salem, The Marble Faun (1860), in Rome, and The Blithedale Romance (1852), in an ideal community similar to Brook Farm. The first three of these works have a great moral truth to present. Accordingly, the details of scene, plot, description, and conversation are handled so as to emphasize this central truth.

      The Scarlet Letter was written to show that the consequences of a sin cannot be escaped and that many different lives are influenced by one wrong deed. The lives of Hester Prynne, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth are wrecked by the crime in The Scarlet Letter. Roger Chillingworth is transformed into a demon of revenge. So malevolent does he become that Hester wonders "whether the tender grass of early spring would not be blighted beneath him." She would not be surprised to see him "spread bat's wings and flee away." The penalty paid by Arthur Dimmesdale is to appear to be what he is not, and this is a terrible punishment to his sensitive nature. The slow steps by which his soul is tortured and darkened are followed with wonderful clearness, and the agony of his soul alone with God is presented with an almost Shakespearean pen. The third sufferer is the beautiful Hester Prynne. Her fate is the most terrible because she not only writhes under a severe punishment inflicted by the authorities, but also suffers from daily, even hourly, remorse. To help assuage her grief, and to purify her soul, Hester becomes the self-effacing good Samaritan of the village. Her uncomplaining courage, noble beauty, and self-sacrifice make her the center of this tragic story.

      Shakespeare proposed no harder problem than the one in The Scarlet Letter,—the problem of the expiation of sin. The completeness with which everything is subordinated to the moral question involved, and the intensity with which this question is treated, show the Puritanic temperament and the imaginative genius of the author. Hawthorne is Puritan in the earnestness of his purpose, but he is wholly the artist in carrying out his design. Such a combination of Puritan and artist has given to American literature in The Scarlet Letter a masterpiece, somber yet beautiful, ethical yet poetic, incorporating both the spirit of a past time and the lessons of an eternal present. This incomparable romance is unified in conception, symmetrical in form, and nobly simple in expression.

      Far less somber than The Scarlet Letter is The House of the Seven Gables. This has been called a romance of heredity, because the story shows the fulfillment of a curse upon the distant descendants of the wrongdoer, old Judge Pyncheon. The present inhabitants of the Pyncheon mansion, who are among the worst sufferers, are Hepzibah Pyncheon and her brother Clifford. Hawthorne's pages contain nothing more pathetic than the picture of helplessness presented by these two innocent souls, bearing a burden of crime not their own. The brightness of the story comes through the simple, joyous, home-making nature of Phoebe Pyncheon. She it is who can bring a smile to Clifford's face and can attract custom to Hepzibah's cent shop. Hawthorne never loses sight of his purpose. The curse finds its last victim, and the whole story is a slow preparation for this event. The scenes, however, in which Phoebe, that "fair maker of sunshine," reigns as queen, are so peaceful and attractive, the cent shop, which Hepzibah is forced to open for support, offers so many opportunities for comic as well as pathetic incidents, and the outcome of the story is so satisfactory that it is the brightest of all Hawthorne's long romances.

      In The Marble Faun, Hawthorne's last complete romance, the Puritan problem of sin is transplanted to Italian soil. The scene is laid in Rome, where the art of Michael Angelo and Raphael, the secret orders of the Church, the tragic history of the eternal city, with its catacombs and ruins, furnish a rich and varied background for the story. So faithfully indeed are the galleries, churches, and historic corners of Rome described, that The Marble Faun has served as a guide for the cultured visitor. This expression of opinion by the late A. P. Stanley (1815-1881), a well-known author and dean of Westminster Abbey, is worth remembering: "I have read it seven times. I read it when it appeared, as I read everything from that English master. I read it again when I expected to visit Rome, then when on the way to Rome, again while in Rome, afterwards to revive my impressions of Rome. Recently I read it again because I wanted to." In this historic setting, Hawthorne places four characters: Donatello, the faun, Miriam, the beautiful and talented young artist, Kenyon, the American sculptor, and Hilda, the Puritan maid who tends the lamp of the Virgin in her tower among the doves and makes true copies of the old masters. From the beginning of the story some mysterious evil power is felt, and this power gains fuller and fuller ascendency over the characters. What that is the author does not say. It seems the very spirit of evil itself that twines its shadow about human beings and crushes them if they are not strong enough to resist.

      In The Scarlet Letter it was shown that the moral law forces evildoers to pay the last farthing of the debt of sinning. In The Marble Faun the effect of sin in developing character is emphasized, and Donatello, the thoughtless creature of the woods is portrayed in his stages of growth after his moral nature has first been roused by a great crime. The question is raised, Can the soul be developed and strengthened by sin? The problem is handled with Hawthorne's usual moral earnestness of purpose, and is expressed in his easiest and most flexible style. Nevertheless this work has not the suppressed intensity, completeness of outline, and artistic symmetry possessed by The Scarlet Letter. The chief defects of The Marble Faun are a vagueness of form, a distracting variety of scene, and a lack of the convincing power of reality. The continued popularity of this romance, however, is justly due to its poetic conception, its atmosphere of ancient mystery, and its historic Roman background.

      The Blithedale Romance and the cooperative settlement described in it were suggested to Hawthorne by his Brook Farm experience, although he disclaims any attempt to present an actual picture of that community. The idea of the division of labor, the transcendental conversations, and many of the incidents owe their origin to his sojourn at Brook Farm. Although The Blithedale Romance does not equal the three romances already described, it contains one character, Zenobia, who is the most original and dramatic of Hawthorne's men and women, and some scenes which are as powerful as any drawn by him.

      GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS.—Hawthorne gave the Puritan to literature. This achievement suggests Irving's canonization of the Knickerbockers and Cooper's of the pioneer and the Indian. Himself a Unitarian and out of sympathy with the Puritans' creed, Hawthorne nevertheless says, "And yet, let them scorn me as they will, strong traits of their nature have intertwined themselves with mine." He and they had the same favorite subject,—the human soul in its relation to the judgment day. He could no more think of sin unrelated to the penalty, than of a serpent without shape or color. Unlike many modern novelists, his work never wanders beyond a world where the Ten Commandments rule. Critics have well said that he never painted a so-called man of the world, because such a man, by Hawthorne's definition, would really be a man out of the great moral world, which to Hawthorne seemed the only real world.

      He is preeminently a writer of romance. He was always powerfully influenced by such romantic materials as may be found in the world of witchcraft and the supernatural, or such as are suggested by dim foreshadowings of evil and by the many mysteries for which human philosophy does not account. For this reason, his works are removed from the commonplace and enveloped in an imaginative atmosphere. He subjects his use of these romantic materials—the unusual, the improbable, and the supernatural—to only one touchstone. He is willing to avail himself of these, so long as he does not, in his own phrase, "swerve aside from the truth of the human heart."

      His stories are frequently symbolic. He selects some object, token, or utterance, in harmony with his purpose, and uses it as a symbol to prefigure some moral action or result. The symbol may be an embroidered mantle, indicative of pride; a butterfly, typical of emergence from a dead chrysalis to a state of ideal beauty; or the words of a curse, which prophesy a ghastly death. His choice of scene, plot, and character is in harmony with the moral purpose indicated by the symbol. Sometimes this purpose is dimly veiled in allegory, but even when his stories are sermons in allegory, like The Snow Image, he so invests them with poetic fancy or spiritual beauty as to make them works of art. His extensive use of symbolism and allegory has been severely criticized. It is unfortunate that he did not learn earlier in life what The Scarlet Letter should have taught him, that he did not need to rely on these supports. He becomes one of the great masters when he paints character from the inside with a touch so vivid and compelling that the symbolism and the allegory vanish like a dissolving picture and reveal human forms. When he has breathed into them the creator's breath of life, he walks with them hand in hand in this lost Eden. He ascends the pillory with Hester Prynne, and writhes with Arthur Dimmesdale's agony. He plays on the seashore with little Pearl. He shares Hepzibah Pyncheon's solitude and waits on the customers in the cent shop with Phoebe. He eats two dromedaries and a gingerbread locomotive with little Ned Higgins.

      Hawthorne did not care much for philosophical systems, and never concerned himself with the intricacies of transcendentalism. Yet he was affected by that philosophy, as is shown by his personal isolation and that of his characters. His intense belief in individuality is also a transcendental doctrine. He holds that the individual is his own jailer, his own liberator, the preserver or loser of his own Eden. Moral regeneration seems to him an individual, not a social, affair.

      His style is easy, exact, flowing, and it shows the skill of a literary artist. He never strains after effect, never uses excessive ornament, never appears hurried. There was not another nineteenth-century prose master on either side of the Atlantic who could in fewer words or simpler language have secured the effect produced by The Scarlet Letter. He wished to be impressive in describing Phoebe, that sunbeam in The House of the Seven Gables, but he says simply:—

 "She was like a prayer, offered up in the homeliest beauty of one's mother tongue."

      Sincerity is the marked characteristic of this simplicity in style, and it makes an impression denied to the mere striver after effect, however cunning his art.

      A writer of imperishable romances, a sympathetic revealer of the soul, a great moralist, a master of style, Hawthorne is to be classed with the greatest masters of English fiction. His artist's hand

 "Wrought in a sad sincerity;
 Himself from God he could not free."

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