In a notable passage, Hawthorne has said of his own Twice-Told Tales that “they have the pale tint of flowers that blossomed in too retired a shade. … Instead of passion there is sentiment. … Whether from lack of power or an unconquerable reserve, the author's touches have often an effect of tameness; the merriest man can hardly contrive to laugh at his broadest humor; the tenderest woman, one would suppose, will hardly shed warm tears at his deepest pathos.” And a little further on he adds, “The sketches are not, it is hardly necessary to say, profound.” Rarely has a writer shown greater skill in self-criticism than Hawthorne, except where modesty caused him to lower the truth, and in ascribing this lack of passion to his works he has struck what will seem to many the keynote of their character. When he says, however, that they are wanting in depth, he certainly errs through modesty. Many authors, great and small, display a lack of passion, but perhaps no other in all the hierarchy of poets who deal with moral problems has treated these problems, on one side at least, so profoundly as our New England romancer; and it is just this peculiarity of Hawthorne, so apparently paradoxical, which gives him his unique place among writers.
Consider for a moment The Scarlet Letter: the pathos of the subject, and the tragic scenes portrayed. All the world agrees that here is a masterpiece of mortal error and remorse; we are lost in admiration of the author's insight into the suffering human heart; yet has any one ever shed a tear over that inimitable romance? I think not. The book does not move us to tears; it awakens no sense of shuddering awe such as follows the perusal of the great tragedies of literature; it is not emotional, in the ordinary acceptance of the word, yet shallow or cold it certainly is not.
In the English Note-Books Hawthorne makes this interesting comparison of himself with Thackeray. “Mr. S——. is a friend of Thackeray,” he writes, “and, speaking of the last number of The Newcomes, — so touching that nobody can read it aloud without breaking down, — he mentioned that Thackeray himself had read it to James Russell Lowell and William Story in a cider cellar! … I cannot but wonder at his coolness in respect to his own pathos, and compare it with my emotions when I read the last scene of The Scarlet Letter to my wife, just after writing it, — tried to read it, rather, for my voice swelled and heaved, as if I were tossed up and down on an ocean as it subsides after a storm.” Why, then, we ask, should we have tears ready for The Newcomes, and none for The Scarlet Letter, although the pathos of the latter tale can so stir the depths of our nature as it did the author's? What curious trait in his writing, what strange attitude of the man toward the moral struggles and agony of human nature, is this that sets him apart from other novelists? I purpose to show how this is due to one dominant motive running through all his tales, — a thought to a certain extent peculiar to himself, and so persistent in its repetition that, to one who reads Hawthorne carefully, his works seem to fall together like the movements of a great symphony built upon one imposing theme.
I remember, some time ago, when walking among the Alps, that I happened on a Sunday morning to stray into the little English church at Interlaken. The room was pretty well filled with a chance audience, most of whom, no doubt, were, like myself, refugees from civilization for the sake of pleasure or rest or health. The minister was a young sandy-haired Scotsman, with nothing notable in his aspect save a certain unusual look of earnestness about the eyes; and I wonder how many of my fellow listeners still remember that quiet Sabbath morn, and the sunlight streaming over all, as white and pure as if poured down from the snowy peak of the Jungfrau, and how many of them still at times see that plain little church, and the simple man standing in the pulpit, and hear the tones of his vibrating voice? Opening the Bible, he paused a moment; then read, in accents that faltered a little, as if with emotion, the words, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” and then paused again, without adding the translation. I do not know what induced him to choose such a text, and to preach such a sermon before an audience of summer idlers; it even seemed to me that a look of surprise and perturbation stole over their faces as, in tones tremulous from the start, with restrained passion, he poured forth his singular discourse. I cannot repeat his words. He told of the inevitable loneliness that follows man from the cradle to the grave; he spoke of the loneliness that lends the depth of yearning to a mother's eyes as she bends over her newborn child, for the soul of the infant has been rent from her own, and she can never again be united to what she cherished. It is this sense of individual loneliness and isolation, he said, that gives pathos to lovers' eyes when love has brought them closest together; it is this that lends austerity to the patriot's look when saluted by the acclaiming multitude. And you, he cried, who for a little while have come forth from the world into these solitudes of God, what hope ye to find? Some respite, no doubt, from the anxiety that oppressed you in the busy town, in the midst of your loved ones about the hearth, in the crowded market place; for you believe that these solitudes of nature will speak to your hearts and comfort you, and that in the peace of nature you will find the true communion of soul that the busy world could not give you. Yet are you deceived; for the sympathy and power of communion between you and this fair creation have been ruined and utterly cast away by sin, and this was typified in the beginning by the banishing of Adam from the terrestrial paradise. No, the murmur of these pleasant brooks and the whispering of these happy leaves shall not speak to the deafened ear of your soul, nor shall the verdure of these sunny fields and the glory of these snowy peaks appeal to the darkened eye of your soul: and this you shall learn to your utter sorrow. Go back to your homes, to your toil, to the populous deserts where your duty lies. Go back and bear bravely the solitude that God hath given you to bear; for this, I declare unto you, is the burden and the penalty laid upon us by the eternal decrees for the sin we have done, and for the sin of our fathers before us.
Think not, while evil abides in you, ye shall be aught but alone; for evil is the seeking of self and the turning away from the commonalty of the world. Your life shall indeed be solitary until death, the great solitude, absorbs it at last. Go back and learn righteousness and meekness; and it may be, when the end cometh, you shall attain unto communion with him who alone can speak to the recluse that dwells within your breast. And lie shall comfort you for the evil of this solitude you bear; for he himself hath borne it, and his last cry was the cry of desolation, of one forsaken and made lonely by his God.
I hope I may be pardoned for introducing memories of so personal a nature into an article of literary criticism, but there seemed no better way of indicating the predominant trait of Hawthorne's work. Other poets of the past have excelled him in giving expression to certain problems of our inner life, and in stirring the depths of our emotional nature; but not in the tragedies of Greece, or the epics of Italy, or the drama of Shakespeare will you find any presentation of this one truth of the penalty of solitude laid upon the human soul so fully and profoundly worked out as in the romances of Hawthorne. It would be tedious to take up each of his novels and tales and show how this theme runs like a sombre thread through them all, yet it may be worth while to touch on a few prominent examples.
Shortly after leaving college, Hawthorne published a novel which his maturer taste, with propriety, condemned. Despite the felicity of style which seems to have come to Hawthorne by natural right, Fanshawe is but a crude and conventional story. Yet the book is interesting if only to show how at the very outset the author struck the keynote of his life's work. The hero of the tale is the conventional student of romance, wasted by study, and isolated from mankind by his intellectual ideals. “He had seemed, to others and to himself, a solitary being, upon whom the hopes and fears of ordinary men were ineffectual.” The whole conception of the story is a commonplace, yet a commonplace relieved by a peculiar quality in the language which even in this early attempt predicts the stronger treatment of his chosen theme when the artist shall have mastered his craft. There is, too, something memorable in the parting scene between the hero and heroine, where Fanshawe, having earned Ellen's love, deliberately surrenders her to one more closely associated with the world, and himself returns to his studies and his death.
From this youthful essay let us turn at once to his latest work, — the novel begun when the shadow of coming dissolution had already fallen upon him, though still not old in years; to that “tale of the deathless man” interrupted by the intrusion of Death, as if in mockery of the artist's theme.
All, who shall lift that wand of magic power, And the lost clue regain! The unfinished window in Aladdin's tower Unfinished must remain!
In the fragment of The Dolliver Romance we have, wrought out with all the charm of Hawthorne's maturest style, a picture of isolation caused, not by the exclusive ambitions of youth, but by old age and the frailty of human nature. No extract or comment can convey the effect of these chapters of minute analysis, with their portrait of the old apothecary dwelling in the time-eaten mansion, whose windows look down on the graves of children and grandchildren he had outlived and laid to rest. With his usual sense of artistic contrast, Hawthorne sets a picture of golden-haired youth by the side of withered eld: “The Doctor's only child, poor Bessie's offspring, had died the better part of a hundred years before, and his grandchildren, a numerous and dimly remembered brood, had vanished along his weary track in their youth, maturity, or incipient age, till, hardly knowing how it had all happened, he found himself tottering onward with an infant's small fingers in his nerveless grasp.”
Again, in describing the loneliness that separates old age from the busy current of life, Hawthorne has recourse to a picture which he employed a number of times, and which seems to have been drawn from his own experience and to have haunted his dreams. It is the picture of a bewildered man walking the populous streets, and feeling utterly lost and estranged in the crowd: so the old doctor “felt a dreary impulse to elude the people's observation, as if with a sense that he had gone irrevocably out of fashion; … or else it was that nightmare feeling which we sometimes have in dreams, when we seem to find ourselves wandering through a crowded avenue, with the noonday sun upon us, in some wild extravagance of dress or nudity.” We are reminded by the words of Hawthorne's own habit, during his early Salem years, of choosing to walk abroad at night, when no one could observe him, and of his trick, in later life, of hiding in the Concord woods rather than face a passer-by on the road.
Between Fanshawe, with its story of the seclusion caused by youthful ambition, and The Dolliver Romance, with its picture of isolated old age, there may be found in the author's successive works every form of solitude incident to human existence. I believe no single tale, however short or insignificant, can be named in which, under one guise or another, this recurrent idea does not appear. It is as if the poet's heart were burdened with an emotion that unconsciously dominated every faculty of his mind; he walked through life like a man possessed. Often, while reading his novels, I have of a sudden found myself back in the little chapel at Interlaken, listening to that strange discourse on the penalty of sin; and the cry of the text once more goes surging through my ears, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” Truly a curse is upon us; our life is rounded with impassable emptiness; the stress of youth, the feebleness of age, all the passions and desires of manhood, lead but to this inevitable solitude and isolation of spirit.
Perhaps the first work to awaken any considerable interest in Hawthorne was the story—not one of his best—of “The Gentle Boy”. The pathos of the poor child severed by religious fanaticism from the fellowship of the world stirred a sympathetic chord in the New England heart, and it may even be that tears were shed over the homeless lad clinging to his father's grave; for his “father was of the people whom all men hate.”
But far more characteristic in its weird intensity and philosophic symbolism is the story of “The Minister's Black Veil”. No one who has read them has ever forgotten the dying man's fateful words: “Why do you tremble at me alone ? Tremble also at each other! Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil? What, but the mystery which it obscurely typifies, has made this piece of crape so awful? When the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend, the lover to his best beloved; when man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin; then deem me a monster, for the symbol beneath which I have lived, and die I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!”
In another of the Twice-Told Tales the same thought is presented in a form as ghastly as anything to be found in the pages of Poe or Hoffman. The Lady Eleanore has come to these shores in the early colonial days, bringing with her a heart filled with aristocratic pride She has, moreover, all the arrogance of queenly beauty, and her first entrance into the governor's mansion is over the prostrate body of a despised lover. Her insolence is symbolized throughout by a mantle which she wears, of strange and fascinating splendor, embroidered for her by the fingers of a dying woman, — a woman dying, it proves, of the smallpox, so that the infested robe becomes the cause of a pestilence that sweeps the province. It happens now and then that Hawthorne falls into a revolting realism, and the last scene, where Lady Eleanore, perishing of the disease that has flowed from her own arrogance, is confronted by her old lover, produces a feeling in the reader almost of loathing; yet the lady's last words are significant enough to be quoted: “The curse of Heaven hath stricken me, because I would not call man my brother, nor woman sister. I wrapped myself in pride as in a mantle, and scorned the sympathies of nature; and therefore has nature made this wretched body the medium of a dreadful sympathy.” Alas for the poor, broken creature of pride! She but suffered for electing freely a loneliness which, in one form or another, whether voluntary or involuntary, haunts all the chief persons of her creator's world. It is, indeed, characteristic of this solitude of spirit that it presents itself now as the original sin awakening Heaven's wrath, and again as itself the penalty imposed upon the guilty soul: which is but Hawthorne's way of portraying evil and its retribution as simultaneous, — nay, as one and the same thing.
But we linger too long on these minor works of our author. Much has been written about The Scarlet Letter, and it has been often studied as an essay in the effects of crime on the human heart. In truth, one cannot easily find, outside of Æschylus, words of brooding so profound and single-hearted on this solemn subject; their meaning, too, would seem to be written large, yet I am not aware that the real originality and issue of the book have hitherto been clearly discussed. Other poets have laid bare the workings of a diseased conscience, the perturbations of a soul that has gone astray; others have shown the confusion and horror wrought by crime in the family or the state, and something of these, too, may be found in the effects of Dimmesdale's sin in the provincial community; but the true moral of the tale lies in another direction. It is a story of intertangled love and hatred working out in four human beings the same primal curse, — love and hatred so woven together that in the end the author asks whether the two passions be not, after all, the same, since each renders one individual dependent upon another for his spiritual food, and each is in a way an attempt to break through the boundary that separates soul from soul. From the opening scene at the prison door, which, “like all that pertains to crime, seemed never to have known a youthful era,” to the final scene on the scaffold, where the tragic imagination of the author speaks with a power barely surpassed in the books of the world, the whole plot of the romance moves about this one conception of our human isolation as the penalty of transgression.
Upon Arthur Dimmesdale the punishment falls most painfully. From the cold and lonely heights of his spiritual life he has stepped down, in a vain endeavor against God's law, to seek the warmth of companionship in illicit love. He sins, and the very purity and fineness of his nature make the act of confession before the world almost an impossibility. The result is a strange contradiction of effects that only Hawthorne could have reconciled. By his sin Dimmesdale is more than ever cut off from communion with the world, and is driven to an asceticism and aloofness so complete that it becomes impossible for him to look any man in the eye; on the other hand, the brooding secret of his passion gives him new and powerful sympathies with life's burden of sorrow, and fills his sermons with a wonderful eloquence to stir the hearts of men. This, too, is the paradox running like a double thread through all the author's works. Out of our isolation grow the passions which but illuminate and render more visible the void from which they sprang; while, on the other hand, he is impressed by that truth which led him to say: “We are but shadows, and 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.”
Opposed to the erring minister stands Roger Chillingworth, upon whom the curse acts more hideously, if not more painfully. The incommunicative student, misshapen from his birth hour, who has buried his life in books and starved his emotions to feed his brain, would draw the fair maiden Hester into his heart, to warm that innermost chamber, left lonely and chill and without a household fire. Out of this false and illicit desire springs all the tragedy of the tale. Dimmesdale suffers for his love; but the desire of Chillingworth, because it is base, and because his character is essentially selfish, is changed into rancorous hatred. And here again the effect of the man's passion is two-fold: it endows him with a malignant sympathy toward the object of his hate, enabling him to play on the victim's heart as a musician gropes among the strings of an instrument, and at the same time it severs him more absolutely from the common weal, blotting out his life “as completely as if he indeed lay at the bottom of the ocean.”
And what shall we say of the fair and piteous Hester Prynne? Upon her the author has lavished all his art: he has evoked a figure of womanhood whose memory haunts the mind like that of another Helen. Like Helen's, her passive beauty has been the cause of strange trials and perturbations of which she must herself partake; she is more human than Beatrice, nobler and larger than Marguerite, — a creation altogether fair and wonderful. Yet she too must be caught in this embroilment of evil and retribution. The Scarlet Letter upon her breast is compared by the author to the brand on the brow of Cain, — a mark that symbolizes her utter separation from the mutual joys and sorrows of the world. She walks about the provincial streets like some lonely bearer of a monstrous fate. Yet because her guilt lies open to the eyes of mankind, and because she accepts the law of our nature, striving to aid and uplift the faltering hearts about her without seeking release from the curse in closer human attachments, following unconsciously the doctrine of the ancient Hindu book, —
Therefore apply thyself unto work as thy duty bids, yet without attachment;
Even for the profiting of the people apply thyself unto work, —
because she renounces herself and the cravings of self, we see her gradually glorified in our presence, until the blessings of all the poor and afflicted follow her goings about, and The Scarlet Letter, ceasing to be a stigma of scorn, becomes “a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too.”
As a visible outcome of the guilty passion little Pearl stands before us, an elfin child that “lacked reference and adaptation to the world into which she was born,” and that lived with her mother in a “circle of seclusion from human society.” But the suffering of the parents is efficient finally to set their child free from the curse; and at the last, when the stricken father proclaims his guilt in public and acknowledges his violation of the law, we see Pearl kissing him and weeping, and her tears are a pledge that she is to grow up amid common joys and griefs, nor forever do battle with the world.
And in the end what of the love between Arthur and Hester? Was it redeemed of shame, and made prophetic of a perfect union beyond the grave? Alas, there is something pitiless and awful in the last words of the two, as the man lies on the scaffold, dying in her arms—
‘Shall we not meet again?’ whispered she, bending her face down close to his. ‘Shall we not spend our immortal life together? Surely, surely, we have ransomed one another, with all this woe! Thou lookest far into eternity, with those bright dying eyes! Then tell me what thou seest?’
‘Hush, Hester, hush!’ said he, with tremulous solemnity. ‘The law we broke! — the sin here so awfully revealed! — let these alone be in thy thoughts! I fear! I fear! It may be that, when we forgot our God, — when we violated our reverence each for the other's soul, — it was thenceforth vain to hope that we could meet hereafter, in an everlasting and pure reunion.’
With his next novel Hawthorne enters upon a new phase of his art. Henceforth he seems to have brooded not so much on the immediate effect of evil as on its influence when handed down in a family from generation to generation, and symbolized (for his mind must inevitably speak through symbols) by the ancestral fatality of gurgling blood in the throat or by the print of a bloody footstep. But whatever the symbol employed, the moral outcome of the ancient wrong is always the same: in Septimius Felton, in The Dolliver Romance, and most of all in The House of the Seven Gables, the infection of evil works itself out in the loneliness of the last sufferers, and their isolation from the world.
It is not my intention to analyze in detail Hawthorne's remaining novels. As for The House of the Seven Gables, we know what unwearied care the author bestowed on the description of Miss Hepzibah Pyncheon, alone in the desoate family mansion, and on her grotesque terrors when forced to creep from her seclusion; and how finely he has painted the dim twilight of alienation from himself and from the world into which the wretched Clifford was thrust! And Judge Pyncheon, the portly, thick-necked, scheming man of action, — who, in imagination, does not perceive him, at last, sitting in the great oaken chair, fallen asleep with wide-staring eyes while the watch ticks noisily in his hand? Asleep, but none shall arouse him from that slumber, and warn him that the hour of his many appointments is slipping by. What immutable mask of indifference has fallen upon his face? “The features are all gone: there is only the paleness of them left. And how looks it now? There is no window! There is no face! An infinite, inscrutable blackness has annihilated sight! Where is our universe? All crumbled away from us; and we, adrift in chaos, may hearken to the gusts of homeless wind, that go sighing and murmuring about, in quest of what was once a world!
“Is there no other sound? One other, and a fearful one. It is the ticking of the Judge's watch, which, ever since Hepzibah left the room in search of Clifford, he has been holding in his hand. Be the cause what it may, this little, quiet, never ceasing throb of Time's pulse, repeating its small strokes with such busy regularity, in Judge Pyncheon's motionless hand, has an effect of terror, which we do not find in any other accompaniment of the scene.”
Many times, while reading this story and the others that involve an ancestral curse, I have been struck by something of similarity and contrast at once between our New England novelist and Æschylus, the tragic poet of Athens. It should seem at first as if the vast gap between the civilizations that surrounded the two writers and the utterly different forms of their art would preclude any real kinship; and yet I know not where, unless in these late romances, any companion can be found in modern literature to the Orestean conception of satiety begetting insolence, and insolence calling down upon a family the inherited curse of Atè. It may be reckoned the highest praise of Hawthorne that his work can suggest any such comparison with the masterpiece of Æschylus, and not be entirely emptied of value by the juxtaposition. But if Æschylus and Hawthorne are alike poets of Destiny and of the fateful inheritance of woe, their methods of portraying the power and handiwork of Atè are perfectly distinct. The Athenian, too, represents Orestes, the last inheritor of the curse, as cut off from the fellowship of mankind; but to recall the Orestean tale, with all its tragic action of murder and matricide and frenzy, is to see in a clearer light the originality of Hawthorne's conception of moral retribution in the disease of inner solitude. There is in the difference something, of course, of the constant distinction between classic and modern art; but added to this is the creative idealism of Hawthorne's rare and elusive genius.
I have dwelt at some length on The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, because they are undoubtedly the greatest of Hawthorne's romances, and the most thoroughly permeated with his peculiar ideas, — works so nearly perfect, withal, in artistic execution that the mind of the reader is overwhelmed by a sense of the power and self-restraint possible to human genius.
Over the other two long novels we must pass lightly, although they are not without bearing on the subject in hand. The Blithedale Romance, being in every way the slightest and most colorless of the novels, would perhaps add little to the discussion. But in The Marble Faun it would be interesting to study the awakening of Donatello's half-animal nature to the fullness of human sympathies by his love for Miriam; and to follow Miriam herself, moving, with the dusky veil of secrecy about her, among the crumbling ruins and living realities of Rome like some phantom of the city's long-buried tragedies. Hawthorne never made known the nature of the shadow that hovered over this strange creature, and it may be that he has here indulged in a piece of pure mystification; but, for my own part, I could never resist the conviction that she suffers for the same cause as Shelley's Beatrice Cenci. Granting such a conjecture to be well founded, it would be interesting to compare the two innocent victims of the same hideous crime: to observe the frenzy aroused in Beatrice by her wrong, and the passion of her acts, and then to look upon the silent, unearthly Miriam, snatched from the hopes of humanity, and wrapped in the shadows of impenetrable isolation. Powerful as is the story of the Cenci, to me, at least, the fate of Miriam is replete with deeper woe and more transcendent meaning.
It is natural that the reader of these strange stories and stranger confessions should ask, almost with a shudder, What manner of man was the author? We do not wonder that his family, in their printed memoirs, should have endeavored in every way to set forth the social and sunny side of his character, and should have published the Note-Books with the avowed purpose of dispelling the “often expressed opinion that Mr. Hawthorne was gloomy and morbid.” Let us admit with them that he had but the “inevitable pensiveness and gravity” of one to whom has been given “the awful power of insight.” No one supposes for a moment that Hawthorne's own mind was clouded with the remorseful consciousness of secret guilt; and we are ready to accept his statement that he had “no love of secrecy and darkness,” and that his extreme reserve had only made his writings more objective.
Morbid in any proper sense of the word Hawthorne cannot be called, except in so far as throughout his life he cherished one dominant idea, and that a peculiar state of mental isolation which destroys the illusions leading to action, and so tends at last to weaken the will; and there are, it must be confessed, signs in the old age of Hawthorne that his will actually succumbed to the attacks of this subtle disillusionment. But beyond this there is in his work no taint of unwholesomeness, unless it be in itself unwholesome to be possessed by one absorbing thought. We have no reason to discredit his own statement: “When I write anything that I know or suspect is morbid, I feel as though I had told a lie.” Nor was he even a mystery-monger: the mysterious element in his stories, which affects some prosaic minds as a taint of morbidness, is due to the intense symbolism of his thought, to the intrinsic and unconscious mingling of the real and the ideal. Like one of his own characters, he could “never separate the idea from the symbol in which it manifests itself.” Yet the idea is always there. He is strong both in analysis and generalization; there is no weakening of the intellectual faculties. Furthermore, his pages are pervaded with a subtle ironical humor hardly compatible with morbidness, — not a boisterous humor that awakens laughter, but the mood, half quizzical and half pensive, of a man who stands apart and smiles at the foibles and pretensions of the world. Now and then there is something rare and unexpected in his wit, as, for example, in his comment on the Italian mosquitoes: “They are bigger than American mosquitoes; and if you crush them, after one of their feasts, it makes a terrific blood spot. It is a sort of suicide to kill them.” And if there is to be found in his tales a fair share of disagreeable themes, yet he never confounds things of good and evil report, nor things fair and foul; the moral sense is intact. Above all, there is no undue appeal to the sensations or emotions.
Rather it is true, as we remarked in the beginning, that the lack of outward emotion, together with their poignancy of silent appeal, is a distinguishing mark of Hawthorne's writings. The thought underlying all his work is one to trouble the depths of our nature, and to stir in us the sombrest chords of brooding, but it does not move us to tears or passionate emotion: those affections are dependent on our social faculties, and are starved in the rarefied air of his genius. Hawthorne indeed relates that the closing chapters of The Scarlet Letter, when read aloud to his wife, sent her to bed with a sick headache. And yet, as a judicious critic has observed, this may have been in part just because the book seals up the fountain of tears.
It needs but a slight acquaintance with his own letters and Note-Books, and with the anecdotes current about him, to be assured that never lived a man to whom ordinary contact with his fellows was more impossible, and that the mysterious solitude in which his fictitious characters move is a mere shadow of his own imperial loneliness of soul. “I have made a captive of myself,” he writes in a letter of condolence to Longfellow, “and put me into a dungeon, and now I cannot find the key to let myself out; and if the door were open, I should be almost afraid to come out. You tell me that you have met with troubles and changes. I know not what these may have been, but I can assure you that trouble is the next best thing to enjoyment, and that there is no fate in this world so horrible as to have no share in its joys or sorrows.” Was ever a stranger letter of condolence penned?
Even the wider sympathies of the race seem to have been wanting in the man as they are wanting in his books. It is he who said of himself, “Destiny itself has often been worsted in the attempt to get me out to dinner.” Though he lived in the feverish antebellum days, he was singularly lacking in the political sense, and could look with indifference on the slave question. When at last the war broke out, and he was forced into sympathies foreign to his nature, it seemed as if something gave way within him beneath the unaccustomed stress. It is said, and with probable truth, that the trouble of his heart actually caused his death. His novels are full of brooding over the past, but of real historic sympathy he had none. He has mentioned the old Concord fight almost with contempt, and in his travels the homes of great men and the scenes of famous deeds rarely touched him with enthusiasm. Strangest of all, in a writer of such moral depth, is his coldness toward questions of religion. So marked was this apathy that George Ripley is reported to have said on the subject of Hawthorne's religious tendencies, “There were none, no reverence in his nature.” He was not skeptical, to judge from his occasional utterances, but simply indifferent; the matter did not interest him. He was by right of inheritance a Puritan; all the intensity of the Puritan nature remained in him, and all the overwhelming sense of the heinousness of human depravity, but these, cut off from the old faith, took on a new form of their own. Where the Puritan teachers had fulminated the vengeance of an outraged God, Hawthorne saw only the infinite isolation of the errant soul. In one of his stories, in many ways the most important of his shorter works, he has chosen for his theme the Unpardonable Sin, and it is interesting to read the tale side by side with some of the denunciatory sermons of the older divines. It is not necessary to repeat the story of Ethan Brand, the lime-burner, who, in the wilderness of the mountains, in the silences of the night while he fed the glowing furnace, conceived the idea of producing in himself the Unpardonable Sin. Every one must remember how at last he found his quest in his own wretched heart, that had refused to beat in human sympathy, and had regarded the men about him as so many problems to be studied. In the end, he who had denied the brotherhood of man, and spurned the guidance of the stars, and who now refuses to surrender his body back to the bosom of Mother Earth, — in the end he must call on the deadly element of fire as his only friend, and so, with blasphemy on his lips, flings himself into the flaming oven. It is a sombre and weird catastrophe, but the tragic power of the scene lies in the picture of utter loneliness in the guilty breast. And would you hear by its side the denunciations of our greatest theologian against sin? Read but a paragraph from the sermons of Jonathan Edwards: “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked. … If you cry to God to pity you, he will be so far from pitying you in your doleful case, or showing you the least regard or favor, that, instead of that, he will only tread you underfoot. … And though he will know that you cannot bear the weight of omnipotence treading upon you, yet he will not regard that; but he will crush you under his feet without mercy; he will crush out your blood, and make it fly, and it shall be sprinkled on his garments, so as to stain all his raiment.” Is it a wonder that strong men were moved to tears, and women fainted, beneath such words? Yet in the still hours of meditation there is to me, at least, something more appalling in the gloomy imaginations of Hawthorne, because they are founded more certainly on everlasting truth.
I have spoken as if the mental attitude of Hawthorne was one common to the race, however it may be exaggerated in form by his own inner vision; and to us of the Western world, over whom have passed centuries of Christian brooding, and who find ourselves suddenly cut loose from the consolation of Christian faith, his voice may well seem the utterance of universal experience, and we may be even justified in assuming that his words have at last expressed what has long slumbered in human consciousness. His was not the bitterness, the fierce indignation of loneliness, that devoured the heart of Swift; nor yet the terror of a soul like Cowper's, that believed itself guilty of the unpardonable sin, and therefore condemned to everlasting exile and torment; nor Byron's personal rancor and hatred of society; nor the ecstasy of Thomas á Kempis, whose spirit was rapt away out of the turmoil of existence; but rather an intensification of the solitude that invests the modern world, and by right found its deepest expression in the New England heart. Not with impunity had the human race for ages dwelt on the eternal welfare of the soul; for from such meditation the sense of personal importance had become exacerbated to an extraordinary degree. What could result from such teaching as that of Jonathan Edwards but an extravagant sense of individual existence, as if the moral governance of the world revolved about the action of each mortal soul? And when the alluring faith attendant on this form of introspection paled, as it did during the so-called transcendental movement into which Hawthorne was born, there resulted necessarily a feeling of anguish and bereavement more tragic than any previous moral stage through which the world had passed. The loneliness of the individual, which had been vaguely felt and lamented by poets and philosophers of the past, took on a poignancy altogether unexampled. It needed but an artist with the vision of Hawthorne to represent this feeling as the one tragic calamity of mortal life, as the great primeval curse of sin. What lay dormant in the teaching of Christianity became the universal protest of the human heart.
In no way can we better estimate the universality, and at the same time the modern note, of Hawthorne's solitude than by turning for a moment to the literature of the far-off Ganges. There, too, on the banks of the holy river, men used much to ponder on the life of the human soul in its restless wandering from birth to birth; and in their books we may read of a loneliness as profound as Hawthorne's, though quite distinct in character. To them, also, we are born alone, we die alone, and alone we reap the fruits of our good and evil deeds. The dearest ties of our earthly existence are as meaningless and transient as the meeting of spar with drifting spar on the ocean waves. Yet in all this it is the isolation of the soul from the source of universal life that troubles human thought; there is no cry of personal anguish here, such as arises from Christianity, for the loss of individuality is ever craved by the Hindu as the highest good. And besides this distinction between the Western and Eastern forms of what may be called secular solitude, the Hindu carried the idea into abstract realms whither no Occidental can penetrate.
He, in that solitude before
The world was, looked the wide void o'er
And nothing saw, and said, Lo, I
Alone! — and still we echo the lone cry.
Thereat He feared, and still we fear
In solitude when naught is near:
And, Lo, He said, myself alone!
What cause of dread when second is not known?
But into this ultimate region of Oriental mysticism we have no reason to intrude. We may at least count it among the honors of our literature that it was left for a denizen of this far Western land, living in the midst of a late-born and confused civilization, to give artistic form to a thought that, in fluctuating form, has troubled the minds of philosophers from the beginning. Other authors may be greater in so far as they touch our passions more profoundly, but to the solitude of Nathaniel Hawthorne we owe the most perfect utterance of a feeling that must seem to us now as old and as deep as life itself.
It would be easy to explain Hawthorne's peculiar temperament, after the modern fashion, by reference to heredity and environment. No doubt there was a strain of eccentricity in the family. He himself tells of a cousin who made a spittoon out of the skull of his enemy; and it is natural that a descendant of the old Puritan witch judge should portray the weird and grotesque aspects of life. Probably this native tendency was increased by the circumstances that surrounded his youth: the seclusion of his mother's life; his boyhood on Lake Sebago, where, as he says, he first got his “cursed habit of solitude”; and the long years during which he lived as a hermit in Salem. But, after all, these external matters, and even the effect of heredity so far as we can fathom it, explain little or nothing. A thousand other men might have written his books if their source lay in such antecedents. Behind it all was the dæmonic force of the man himself, the everlasting mystery of genius inhabiting in his brain, and choosing him to be an exemplar and interpreter of the inviolable individuality in which lie the pain and glory of our human estate.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.