The Centenary of Hawthorne

IN watching a performance of Shakespeare’s most famous play, the attention of the spectator is arrested by one essentially solitary figure. Surrounded by the personages of a barbaric court, who eye him with curiosity, respect, or secret apprehension, stands a grave young man garbed in black. His bearing is princely. He begins to speak; but he veils deep ironic parables in a tone of perfect deference and courtesy. In vain do the king and queen utter their resonant commonplaces, and cast troubled glances at each other. They cannot sound him. How much does the prince know ? What does he think ? What will he do ? He is inscrutable.

As the play runs its course, certain traits of Hamlet become clear enough. He is of melancholy disposition, and of an intellectual cast of mind. He has “the courtier’s, scholar’s, soldier’s, eye, tongue, sword.” He has won the friendship of a man and the love of a woman. He possesses an exquisite humor, and delights in talk. He is reverent; believing in the powers of good, and fearing the powers of evil. He has a restless intelligence which probes into the secret places of human life. He broods over man’s mortality, and plays with it imaginatively. He has infirmities of will, yet there is in him something dangerous, which on occasion sweeps all before him. For the space of some three hours we can observe this creation of Shakespeare play his part,— listening, planning, conversing, avenging, dying. Yet no one has ever plucked out the heart of his mystery. No actor or critic or lonely reader has ever been able to pronounce to us, indubitably and without fear of contradiction, what manner of man this Hamlet really is.

In the best known and best loved circle of our American writers there is likewise one figure who stands in a sort of involuntary isolation. Nathaniel Hawthorne had, indeed, warm and faithful friends. His affectionate family have loved to dwell upon the details of his domestic life. He moved as an equal among a few of the best spirits of his time. The impression he made upon them may be traced in the journals of Longfellow and Emerson, the letters of Browning and Story and Lowell, the recollections of Bridge and Fields. His writings have been analyzed by accomplished critics. He was himself a diarist of extraordinary minuteness and precision, and, thanks to his own descriptions, we can still see him sitting with the tavern-haunters of North Adams, with the “defiant Democrats” in the Salem Custom House, with the blameless sea-captains in Mrs. Blodgett’s boardinghouse in Liverpool; we can stand by his side in the art-galleries of Florence and the studios of Rome. He died but forty years ago, and many living men and women remember him with strange vividness. Yet he remains, after all, a man apart. Mystery gathers about him, even while the annalists and the critics are striving to make his portrait clear.

Certain characteristics of Hawthorne are of course indisputable, and it is not fantastic to add that some of these qualities bear a curious resemblance to those of that very Prince of Denmark who seems more real to us than do most living men. Hawthorne was a gentleman; in body the mold of form, and graced with a noble mind. Like Hamlet, he loved to discourse with unlettered people, with wandering artists, with local humorists, although without ever losing his own dignity and inviolable reserve. He had irony for the pretentious, kindness for the simple-hearted, merciless wit for the fools. He liked to speculate about men and women, about temptation and sin and punishment; but he remained, like Hamlet, clear-sighted enough to distinguish between the thing in itself and the thing as it appeared to him in his solitude and melancholy. His closest friends, like Horatio Bridge and W. D. Ticknor, were men of marked justice and sanity of mind, — of the true Horatio type. Hawthorne was capable, if need be, of passionate and swift action, for all his gentleness and exquisite courtesy of demeanor. Toward the last he had, like Hamlet, his forebodings, — “such a kind of gaingiving, as would perhaps trouble a woman;” and he died, like Hamlet, in silence, conscious of an unfinished task.

We celebrate, in this summer time, the centenary of Hawthorne’s birth. It is possible to understand him, in relation to his generation, better than he was understood in the middle of the nineteenth century, though we can scarcely praise him more generously than did those few contemporaries who, like Poe, made adequate recognition of his genius. If we cannot penetrate to the heart of his mystery, we can nevertheless perceive the nature of it. Critics will long continue to assess, as best they may, the precise value of his contributions to literature, and to assign, as exactly as possible, his place in the development of his chosen art of romancewriting. But we who are gathered in his honor at the college of his choice may leave to the specialists the discussion of this and that detail of his craftsmanship. In a world where literary values, and the very basis of literary judgments, shift as they seem to be shifting in our contemporary civilization, it is impossible to predict what Hawthorne’s popular rank will be in another hundred years. But we can at least say why two generations of Americans have respected Hawthorne’s character and admired his writings. We can draw once more in memory the outward features of the man, and, before they fade again into the shadow, may assert our own faith in the enduring significance of his work.

No glimpse of Hawthorne, at any period of his career, is without its charm; yet a peculiar fascination attaches to those pictures of the handsome, brooding, impenetrable boy which have been sketched, in lines all too few, by his college classmates. Here in a rustic school of learning, on the edge of the wilderness, our student found his Wittenberg. His contact with books had been that of the well-bred New England lad of a day when books were still respected. He had had free choice among them, and had read, before he was fourteen, Rousseau and the Newgate Calendar, while the first book purchased with his own money was Spenser’s Faerie Queen. But under the Brunswick pines he was to find a better thing than books: namely, friendship. When Hawthorne matriculated in 1821, Bowdoin College had had but nineteen years of struggling life. There were a handful of professors and slightly more than a hundred students. Yet the place already had character, and it somehow bred aspiration. It is a suggestive coincidence, that in sketching Bowdoin College under an assumed name in his first book, Fanshawe, Hawthorne pictures his academic hero as mastered by the “dream of undying fame ;” and that fifty years later, when his classmate Longfellow described the college of his youth in the noble Morituri Salutamus, it was in the words, —

Ye halls, in whose seclusion and repose
Phantoms of fame, like exhalations, rose.

To many of those dreaming youths, fame, of various degrees, became a reality. In Hawthorne’s class were Longfellow, Cheever, Abbott, and Cilley; among his college mates were the highly honored names of Appleton, Bell, Fessenden, Pierce, Stowe, Prentiss, Hale. Among such ambitious companions, the shy young Hawthorne held quietly to his own path. He seems to have liked the plain, country-bred lads better than the sons of wealth and social opportunity; he belonged to the more democratic of the two literary societies. The scanty records of his undergraduate life tell us something of him, although not much: he rooms in Maine Hall, he boards at Mrs. Dunning’s, he is fined for card-playing, refuses to declaim, writes better Latin and English prose than the others, — but that is about all. One trait is, indeed, marked, and it is a wholesome one: namely, tenacity of friendship, — quite consistent with a certain cool, obstinate independence. Nearly forty years after graduation Hawthorne dedicated a book, Our Old Home, to his college friend Franklin Pierce, who had become in 1863 extremely unpopular at the North. His publishers, with professional caution, advised Hawthorne not to ruin the chances of his book by dedicating it to the discredited ex-President. Whereupon Hawthorne wrote to them, in words that should be dear to all who believe in the vitality of college attachments: —

“I find that it would be a piece of poltroonery in me to withdraw either the dedication or the dedicatory letter. My long and intimate relations with Pierce render the dedication altogether proper, especially as regards this book, which would have had no existence without his kindness; and if he is so exceedingly unpopular that his name is enough to sink the volume, there is so much the more need that an old friend should stand by him. I cannot, merely on account of pecuniary profit or literary reputation, go back from what I have deliberately thought and felt it right to do; and if I were to tear out the dedication, I should never look at the volume again without remorse and shame.”

Although the young Hawthorne came no nearer winning academic distinction than Lowell or Thackeray, his college career betrays everywhere this steady insistence upon what he deliberately thought and felt it right to do. He had his own inner life, and if Bowdoin did not impart to him all the manifold intellectual and spiritual culture which an old world university in theory possesses, he found there freedom, health, and a few men to love. One at least of these friends perceived the genius which was latent in the dark-haired, keen-eyed, rosy-cheeked boy, so reticent, so obstinate, so loyal. The clairvoyant was his classmate Bridge. In the preface to the Snow Image Hawthorne wrote, in sentences that every Bowdoin man perhaps knows by heart, yet so winning in their sentiment and phrase that they tempt quotation: —

“If anybody is responsible for my being at this day an author, it is yourself. I know not whence your faith came; but, while we were lads together at a country college, — gathering blueberries, in studyhours, under those tall academic pines; or watching the great logs, as they tumbled along the current of the Androscoggin; or shooting pigeons and gray squirrels in the woods; or bat-fowling in the summer twilight; or catching trouts in that shadowy little stream which, I suppose, is still wandering riverward through the forest, — though you and I will never cast a line in it again, —two idle lads, in short, doing a hundred things that the Faculty never heard of, or else it had been the worse for us, — still it was your prognostic of your friend’s destiny, that he was to be a writer of fiction.”

But what sort of writer of fiction ? Many elements contribute to the answer to that question. There are lines of literary inheritance to be reckoned with; influences of race and nationality and epoch play their part. But of all the factors that shaped Hawthorne’s career as a writer, Salem inevitably comes first. Back to that weather - beaten, decrepit seaport Hawthorne returned when the bright college days were over. The gray mist of the place settles about him and gathers within him, and for a dozen years one can scarcely tell whether he is man or spectre. All that is certain is that he is alone. His classmates fare forth eagerly into law, polities, business. But Hawthorne has no taste for any of the professions. He lingers on in Salem, sharing the scanty income of his mother and sisters, reading desultory books, taking long nocturnal and daytime rambles, brooding, dreaming, and trying to learn in his dismal chamber to write stories about human life.

Many years later he penned this pathetic fragment of autobiography: —

“ For a long, long while I have been occasionally visited with a singular dream; and I have an impression that I have dreamed it ever since I have been in England. It is, that I am still at college, — or, sometimes, even at school, — and there is a sense that I have been there unconscionably long, and have quite failed to make such progress as my contemporaries have done; and I seem to meet some of them with a feeling of shame and depression that broods over me as I think of it, even when awake. This dream, recurring all through these twenty or thirty years, must be one of the effects of that heavy seclusion in which I shut myself up after leaving college, when everybody moved onward and left me behind.”

Such tragedies, unrelieved by any later victories of the spirit, are familiar enough to college men. As the roll is called at their reunions, there will always be here and there a name, once rich in promise, of some man who has “gone to seed.” The sojourn of Hawthorne in Salem is an old story now. Nothing new is to be added to the record of morbid physical isolation and of intellectual solitude. Set those twelve years over against the corresponding twelve in the life of Scott, Balzac, Dickens, Turgenieff, and they have a ghostly pallor. True, Hawthorne’s separation from the world preserved him from those distractions which often dissipate the powers of the artist. He kept, as he said, the dew of his youth and the freshness of his heart. His unbroken leisure left him free to ponder upon a few permanent objects of meditation, and no one can say how much his romances may not have gained thereby in depth of tone and concentration of intention.

Yet the plain fact remains that he hated his self - imposed prison, even while he lacked vigor to escape from it. “There is no fate in the world so horrible as to have no share in either its joys or its sorrows;” thus he writes in 1837 to Longfellow, who had already made a career and tasted deep of both sorrow and joy. And Hawthorne’s sombre seclusion was affecting his nascent art as well as his life. “I have another great difficulty,” he adds to Longfellow, “in the lack of materials; for I have seen so little of the world that I have nothing but thin air to concoct my stories of.” Strip the veil of romantic mystery from these Salem years, and they show their sinister significance. It was an abnormal, melancholy existence, which sapped Hawthorne’s physical vitality and left its twilight upon his soul and upon the beautiful pages of his books.

The artistic record of that period is preserved in Twice-Told Tales, a collection of some twoscore stories, none of which, on their first publication, had been signed with the author’s name. Hawthorne said of them afterward, — and it is the final word of criticism as well as a confession of his way of life while composing them, — “They have the pale tint of flowers that blossomed in too retired a shade.”

Nevertheless the flowers did blossom in spite of all. The soil would have been better had it been enriched and watered, yet it was Hawthorne’s native soil. For two hundred years his ancestors had trodden the Salem streets; they had gone to sea, had persecuted the witches, had whipped Quaker women, had helped to build a commonwealth. He had no particular pride in them or love for them, but he could not escape the bond of kinship. Toward the more hospitable and cultivated aspects of Salem society in his own day, — the Salem of the Pickerings and Saltonstalls,of Judge Story and many another name, — toward the dignity and beauty that still clothe the stately houses of Chestnut Street, Hawthorne remained indifferent. His imagination homed back to the superstition-burdened past, with its dark enthusiasms, its stern sense of law. Open the mouldering folio of Cotton Mather’s Magnalia and you will discover the men and the scenes that haunted Hawthorne’s mind as he sat in his dusky chamber writing tales.

He practiced himself also, with unwearied patience, in reporting the trivial incidents of the life around him, until he had developed a descriptive style marked by exceptional physical accuracy, and yet subtly suggestive, too. Listen to this lonely and as yet scarcely recognized man of letters, as he gives counsel in 1843 to his friend Horatio Bridge, who had also taken his pen in hand: —

“Begin to write always before the impression of novelty has worn off from your mind, else you will be apt to think that the peculiarities which at first attracted you are not worth recording; yet these slight peculiarities are the very things that make the most vivid impression upon the reader. Think nothing too trifling to set down, so it be in the smallest degree characteristic. You will be surprised to find on re-perusing your journal what an importance and graphic power these little particulars assume.”

This is the assured tone of the finished craftsman. And he is careful to add: “ I would advise you not to stick too accurately to the bare fact, either in your descriptions or your narrative; else your hand will be cramped and the result will be a want of freedom that will deprive you of a higher truth than that which you strive to attain.”

Pale blossoms, indeed, are many of these earlier stories, yet genius was stirring at their root, and their growth was guided by a hand that already distinguished between the lower truth of fact and the higher truth of imagination. Sunshine was all that was needed, and by and by, though tardily, the sunshine came. Hawthorne falls in love; he craves and finds contact with “the material world;” he goes to work in the Boston Custom House; he makes investment of money and coöperation at Brook Farm, where his handsome figure and quizzical smile seem almost substantial now, among the ghosts of once eager reformers that flit about that deserted hillside. He marries a charming woman, and lives with her in the Old Manse at Concord for four years of idyllic happiness. He publishes a new collection of tales, marked by originality of conception, a delicate sense of form, and deep moral significance. He goes picnicking with politicians, too, and gets appointed surveyor of the port of Salem. He is doing a man’s work in the world now, and in spite of some humorous grumbling and the neglect of his true calling, takes a manly satisfaction in it. But partisan politics rarely did America a better service than in 1849, when the Whig administration at Washington threw Hawthorne out of office. He soon steadied himself under the bitter blow, — writing to George S. Hillard: “I have come to feel that it is not good for me to be here. I am in a lower moral state than I have been, — a duller intellectual one. So let me go; and under God’s providence, I shall arrive at something better.” His admirable wife was — womanlike — more concrete. When he told her that he had been superseded, she exclaimed, “Oh, then you can write your book!”

This book, as every one knows, was the Scarlet Letter, that incomparable masterpiece of American fiction, which has long since taken its place among the great literature of the world. The boyish dream of Fame, analyzed in so many exquisite parables during his weary years of waiting, had at last come true for him. He was too unworldly to value it over-, much, but he took a quiet pleasure in his success, without losing his cool, detached attitude toward his own creations. “Some parts of the Scarlet Letter,” he pronounces, “are powerfully written.” His long apprenticeship in one of the most exacting fields of literary composition was over. He was forty-six; and he had but fourteen more years to live. The first two of these were the most rich in production, for they brought forth the House of the Seven Gables, that well-nigh faultless romance of Old Salem; the beautiful Wonder-Book, written in six weeks with marvelous technical mastery of a difficult genre of literature; and, finally, the shrewd, ironical, surprisingly novel handling of his Brook Farm material, the Blithedale Romance.

When Hawthorne accepted the Liverpool consulship in 1853, he was already, what he has ever since remained, the foremost of our fiction writers. His extended sojourn abroad illuminated his mind in many ways, but it can scarcely be said to have contributed new elements to his art. It brought him again into contact with executive duties, always scrupulously fulfilled; with new types of men and new scenes; and with a whole world of pictorial and plastic art, hitherto undreamed of. The record of it may be read in his laborious note - books and in one profoundly imaginative romance. But Hawthorne’s spiritual commerce with Europe came, on the whole, too late; both in England and Italy he remained the observant alien. One likes him none the less for a certain sturdy provinciality, — a touch even, here and there, of honest Philistinism. But one misses, in the records of these later years, the spontaneity, the vigor, the penetration, which marked the more fragmentary American NoteBooks. The unseen springs of vitality in him were beginning to fail; the shadows, dispersed by many a year of happiness, were beginning to close in once more. Longfellow notes in his diary, March 1, 1860: “A soft rain falling all day long, and all day long I read the Marble Faun. A wonderful book; but with the old dull pain in it that runs through all of Hawthorne’s writings.”

It was in that year that the romancer returned home, and settled at The Wayside in Concord. Wartime was nearing. Hawthorne, never an eager politician in any cause, was perplexed about his country, gloomy about himself. He wrote indeed, with his customary skill of surface composition, upon a new romance whose theme was the elixir of immortality. “I have a notion,” he writes to Longfellow, “that the last book will be my best, and full of wisdom about matters of life and death.” But it was fitful, despairing work, without unity of architecture. He sketched it now under one title, now under another. At last he prepared the opening chapter for the Atlantic Monthly, but in May, 1864, the unfinished manuscript rested upon his coffin. And so there passes from sight our New England Hamlet, with his grave beauty, his rich, mournful accents, his half-told wisdom about matters of life and death.

Yet not in these events of his outward career, natural as it is to recall them now, but in the peculiar processes of his creative activity, shall we find, if at all, the secrets of that power which gives Hawthorne his unique position in our literature. First among those deep instincts which give unity to his character and his books, should be placed his choice of moral problems as material for his art. For nearly half a century we have witnessed painstaking endeavors to base the art of fiction upon the science of physiology. Men of massive talent have wrought at such books, but their experiments are already crumbling. And we have had schools of fiction dealing with the mere intellect, registering the subtle influence of mind upon mind, and the open struggle of mind with mind, or playing with extraordinary cleverness upon the surface of motives, while ignoring a whole world of profound emotions. But the greatest masters of English fiction have never forgotten that man has a conscience. The novelist who ignores the moral and spiritual nature abandons the very field of fiction where the highest triumphs have been won. There is a word to describe this field, — a word broader than either “mind” or “conscience,” and inclusive both of mental processes and spiritual perceptions. It is the word “heart.”

In the Blithedale Romance, Westervelt, the embodiment of intellectual acuteness, is perplexed and irritated to find that Zenobia has drowned herself. He cannot grasp her motive. “Her mind was active and various in its powers,” said he. “She had life’s summer all before her, and a hundred varieties of brilliant success. How forcibly she might have wrought upon the world! Every prize that could be worth a woman’s having — and many prizes which other women are too timid to desire — lay within Zenobia’s reach.” Then, in a note that Hawthorne always touches quietly, but unerringly, Miles Coverdale answers: “In all this, there would have been nothing to satisfy her heart.” Even the romance-writer, according to Hawthorne’s own dictum, “sins unpardonably as far as he swerves aside from the truth of the human heart.”

To interpret that truth was his artistic task. He was haunted by moral problems. The extraordinary fragment, Ethan Brand, is an attempt to solve the problem of the development of the intellect at the expense of the soul. In Rappaccini ’s Daughter the father’s love of scientific experiment overmasters his love for his child. In the Christmas Banquet we have a man who misses the secret that gives substance to a world of shadows. The Scarlet Letter is a study of the workings of conscience after a committed crime; the House of the Seven Gables is devoted to the legacy of ancestral guilt and its mediation; the Marble Faun to the influence of a sin upon the development of character.

Why did Hawthorne’s imagination fasten upon subjects like these ? It is not enough to say that he wrote under the influence of Puritanism. Too much has been made, by his critics, of such phrases as “Puritan gloom” and “the morbid New England conscience.” It is true that Hawthorne inherited from Puritan ancestors a certain tenseness of fibre, a sensitiveness of conscience, a conviction of the reality of the moral life. It is also true that he was intensely interested in Puritanism as an historic phenomenon. It gave him the material he needed. How thoroughly he apprehended both the spirit and the outward form of life in early New England is evidenced by his Legends of the Province House, Goodman Brown, the Gentle Boy, the Minister’s Black Veil. Yet neither his inheritance in Puritanism nor his profound study of it is enough to account satisfactorily for his choice of themes for his stories. Judged by his reading, by his friends and associations, by the spiritual emancipation which was already liberalizing New England when he began to write, he was Transcendentalist rather than Puritan. Puritan theology, as such, had no hold upon him personally; he was not even a church-goer. One can only say that he was drawn to moral problems by the natural gravitation of his own mind, just as Newman was inevitably attracted to theology, or Darwin to science. From the days of Job to the day of Ibsen and Maeterlinck there has been here and there a person able to find in the moral nature of man material for the creative imagination. Hawthorne was one of these persons; he was nurtured by Puritanism, but not created by it.

A striking illustration of this habit of his mind is found in the introduction to his Mosses from an Old Manse, where he repeats a story of the Concord fight, which had been told to him by Lowell. On that famous April morning, a youth who had been chopping wood for the Concord minister was drawn by curiosity to the battlefield, the axe still in his hand. He encountered a wounded British soldier, and in a nervous impulse of momentary terror dealt him a fatal blow. “The story,” says Hawthorne, “comes home to me like truth. Oftentimes, as an intellectual and moral exercise, I have sought to follow that poor youth through his subsequent career, and observe how his soul was tortured by the blood stain, contracted as it had been before the long custom of war had robbed human life of its sanctity, and while it still seemed murderous to slay a brother man. That one circumstance has borne more fruit for me than all that history tells us of the fight. " Observe that Hawthorne finds “an intellectual and moral exercise” in brooding over the question of the young man’s responsibility. This may be called, if one pleases, the working of the morbid Puritan conscience. But it is also the very stuff out of which Greek tragedy is woven. It is the same brooding that is back of Othello and Macbeth. “England is not the world,” says an old courtier in one of Schiller’s plays. New England has no monopoly of the conscience,

The present generation has grown somewhat impatient of all analysis of that tragic guilt which our weak humanity may so easily incur. No doubt it is no very cheerful occupation. The anatomist of the heart develops a professional instinct for morbid pathology; he forsakes, perhaps too often, the normal organ for the abnormal. In his search for motives, it is easy for him to fall into casuistry; to impute guilt where there is none; to discover moral pitfalls where the ground is really smooth. It is with real satisfaction, with a positive glee, that Browning’s monk in the Spanish Cloister cries, —

“ There’s a great text in Galatians,
Once you trip on it, entails
Twenty-nine distinct damnations,
One sure, if another fails.”

Solitude is a prolific breeder of fancies like these. Over the windows of the romancer’s lonely study, as of the monk’s cell, the cobwebs may gather till the whole sky seems darkened. But there is other darkness, too, terribly real. “ I do not see any sin in the world,” said Hawthorne’s brilliant contemporary, George Sand; “but I see a great deal of ignorance.” Not so with his profounder insight. The presence of evil in the human heart, palpable, like that gross darkness which could be touched, was one of the axioms of his thinking. Without it, he would have been but a sacrilegious juggler.

The solitariness of Hawthorne’s life, particularly in its formative years, united with a habit of ruminating over his work to determine in some measure the character of his themes. His note-books, which have never been adequately studied in their relation to his finished stories, are filled with random suggestions. But the purely fanciful themes were for the most part silently discarded; those that really bore fruit are the imaginative ones. To this long brooding of a fertile mind over an apparently insignificant symbol we are indebted for the rarest productions of Hawthorne’s genius. To take the most familiar example, it was in his tale of Endicott and the Red Cross that he first described “a young woman with no mean share of beauty, whose doom it was to wear the letter A, embroidered in scarlet cloth, on the breast of her gown.” Miss Elizabeth Peabody said promptly, “We shall hear of that letter by and by;” — and year after year that bit of embroidery glowed in the cloudy depths of Hawthorne’s mind, until, when he drew it forth, it had become one of the master conceptions of the world’s fiction. In similar fashion we can discover how the germs of the House of the Seven Gables and the Marble Faun were rooted, like vagrant truths, in the soil of that fertile imagination.

Yet a mind of this strange retentiveness — almost secretiveness — has, with all its fertility, certain defects. Some ideas committed to it become refined, overrefined. refined away. Symbolism, always a mode of art congenial to Hawthorne, is sometimes allowed to take the place of expression. The individual loses color and precision of outline, and becomes a mere type. Hawthorne’s imagination seldom misled him; it had the inevitableness of genius. But his fancy, playing upon superficial resemblances, sporting with trivial objects, was his besetting weakness as a writer. It is none the less a weakness because it first drew public attention to him, or because it is in itself exquisite. Delicate and lovely as his fancies were, Hawthorne often played with them too long. He overelaborated them; he painted his lily instead of letting it alone. It is true that as he advanced in life there is less and less of this. Contact with the world, with real joys and sorrows, deepened his insight, and dispelled some of the pretty, playful, soap-bubble allegories with which his more idle and solitary hours had been too often filled. He might have stayed in Salem and described Town Pumps and invented Celestial Railroads to the end of his days without drawing any nearer to the Scarlet Letter. But little by little his powers were directed upon adequate objects; his imagination, rather than his fancy, dictated his choice of themes; and he followed that unerring guide.

Fortunate, also, was his instinct for shaping his work of art from that which lay nearest. All of his romances except one, and all of his short stories except a very few, are given a New England background. To the task of describing the landscape and people most familiar to him, Hawthorne brought an extraordinary veracity, and a hand made deft by years of unwearied exercise. Yet he is equally effective in dealing with the Pilgrims, or the stately days of the Massachusetts Province. He loves, in stories like the Seven Gables, to bring the past, gray with legendary mist, into the daylight of the present. Here the foreground and background are perfectly harmonized; the present is significant in proportion as its tones are mellowed and reinforced by the sombre past. Thus Hilda and Kenyon, New Englanders of Hawthorne’s day, walk over the bloodstained pavements of old Rome, and the ghostly shadows of the Eternal City are about them as they move, Hawthorne himself considered the House of the Seven Gables and the Marble Faun his best achievements. They belong to the same type. Time and place and circumstance conformed to his feeling for the Romantic. Indeed, his sensitiveness to the Romantic note affects his characters throughout. They include a wide range of individualities, but they are not depicted by the usual methods of realistic portraiture. New Englanders in the main, few of them exhibit that New England eccentricity of speech and manner so assiduously observed by short, story writers since Hawthorne’s time. He did not trouble himself — and us — with dialect. Indeed, all his characters, like Browning’s, talk much the same language. His men and women are visible through a certain atmosphere which does not blur their features, yet softens them. Even his fullest and richest personalities, like Zenobia, maintain a distance from us.

His plots likewise, various as they are, have the simplicity of true Romance. His most Widely read production, the story of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale, has practically no plot whatever; it is a study of a situation. For moral problems, in spite of the ingenious practice of Mr. Henry James and Mr. Meredith, can usually be reduced to a very simple equation. An elaborate, manythreaded plot, full of incidents and surprises, of unexpected labyrinths and heaven-sent clues, would destroy the very atmosphere which Hawthorne seeks to create. The action of his romances is seldom dramatic, in the strict sense of the word. To dramatize the Scarlet Letter is to coarsen it. The deliberate action, the internal moral conflict, the subtle revelation of character, are all suited to the descriptive, not the dramaturgic method. They are in perfect keeping with the tone which Hawthorne instinctively maintained. He placed the persons who were to exemplify his themes now in the present, now in the past, if possible in the half-light of mingled past and present, and out of the simplest, most familiar materials he learned to compose a picture so perfect in detail, so harmonious in key, that even were the theme of slight significance, he would still vindicate his right to a high place among literary artists.

Yet perhaps the most convincing test of Hawthorne’s merit is one of the most obvious. Open one of his books anywhere, and read a page aloud. Whatever else there may be, here is style. Hawthorne was once asked the secret of his style. He replied dryly that it was the result of a great deal of practice; that it came from the desire to tell the simple truth as honestly and vividly as he could. We may place alongside of this matter-of-fact confession a whimsical dream which he once noted in his journal, to the effect that the world had become dissatisfied with the inaccurate manner in which facts were reported, and had employed him at a salary of a thousand dollars a year, to relate things of importance exactly as they happened.

Is simple truth-telling, then, explanation enough? Hawthorne had, indeed, a passion for observing and reporting facts. Sometimes these facts are insignificant. For instance: “The aromatic odor of peat smoke in the sunny autumnal air is very pleasant.” Mr. Henry James has remarked of this sentence that when a man turned thirty gives a place in his mind — and his inkstand — to such trifles as these, it is because nothing else of superior importance demands admission. But this is much like saying that because a botanist happens to put a dandelion into his can he has, therefore, no eye for an orchid. To the genuine collector there are no trifles, and Hawthorne had at one time the collector’s passion. No French or Russian realist had more of it. Certain pages of his note-books and early sketches make one exclaim, “Here is a man with the gifts of Balzac or Tolstoi! Why might he not have become a great realistic writer, endowed as he was with this thirst for the actual ? He would so well earn that thousand dollars a year!” But the facts, as such, were not enough to hold Hawthorne long; he pressed on beyond the fact to the truth behind it. As he developed, he collected certain facts to the neglect of others. He observed, but he also philosophized. If, therefore, the technique of his descriptive work often reminds us of the great realists, the use he makes of his talent as an observer and reporter forbids us to group him with them. He was born with too curious an interest in the unseen world. However striking his technical gifts, he wrote as a romancer, a creator.

And what a writer this provincial New Englander is! We talk glibly nowadays about painting and writing with one’s eye on the object. Hawthorne could do this when he chose; but think of writing with your eye on the conscience of Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne, and never relaxing your gaze till the book is done! What concentration of vision! What exposing power! Hawthorne’s vocabulary is not extraordinarily large; — nothing like Balzac’s or Meredith’s; but the words are chosen like David’s five smooth stones out of the brook. The sentences move in perfect poise. Their ease is perhaps a little self-conscious; — pains have been taken with their dressing, — it is not the careless inevitable grace of Thackeray, — but it is a finished grace of their own. It is a style exquisitely simple, except in those passages where Hawthorne’s fancy gets the better of him, and leads him into forced humor, all the worse for its air of cultivated exuberance. Yet even when he sins against simplicity, he is always transparently clear. The certainty of word and phrase, the firmness of outline are marvelous, when we consider the airy nature of much of his material; he may be building cloud-castles, but it is in so pure a sky that the white battlements and towers stand out sharp-edged as marble.

Because Hawthorne gave his work such an elaborate finish, some readers are apt to forget its underlying strength. Our own day of naturalistic impressionism and correct historical costuming has invented a hundred sensational and clever ways of tearing a passion to tatters. But it is well for us to remember that the real strength of a work of fiction is in the conception underlying it, and that the deepest currents of thought and feeling are

Too full for sound and foam.

Strong-fibred, sane, self-controlled, as was Hawthorne, one may nevertheless detect in his style that melancholy vibration which marks the words of all — or almost all — those who have interpreted through literature the more mysterious aspects of life. This pathos is profound, though it is quiet; it is an undertone, but not the fundamental tone; “the gloom and terror may lie deep, but deeper still is this eternal beauty.”

Yet the most marked quality of Hawthorne’s style is neither simplicity, nor clearness, nor reserve of strength, nor undertone of pathos. It is rather its unbroken melody, its verbal richness. Its echoes linger in the ear; they wake old echoes in the brain. The touch of a few other men may be as perfect, the notes they evoke more brilliant, certainly more gay; but Hawthorne’s deep-toned instrument yields harmonies inimitable and unforgettable. The critics who talk of the colorless life of New England and its colorless reflection in literature had better open their Hawthorne once more. His pages are steeped in color. They have a dusky glory like the great window in Keats’s Eve of St. Agnes :

. . . diamonded with panes of quaint device,
Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes,
As are the tiger-moth’s deep-damask’d wings ;
And in the midst, ’mong thousand heraldries,
And twilight saints, and dim emblazonings,
A shielded scutcheon blush’d with blood of
queens and kings.

This subdued splendor of Hawthorne’s coloring is a part of the very texture of his style; compared with it the brushwork of his successors seems thin and washy, or else crude and hard; it is like comparing a rug woven in Bokhara with one manufactured in Connecticut. But surely our New England soil is not wholly barren if even for once it has flowered into such a consummate artist as Nathaniel Hawthorne, who, while he devoted his art to the interpretation of truth, was nevertheless dowered with such instinct for beauty that his very words glow like gems and echo like music, and grant him a place among the few masters of English style.

After all, we do not celebrate the centenary of Hawthorne’s birth merely because he was a skillful, an admirable writer. Rather do we take a solemn pride in commemorating one who steadfastly asserted the claims of spiritual things. He wrote in a generation fortunate in its balance between the hard material struggles of the colonist and pioneer, and the far more dangerous materialism that comes with luxury and power. America had lived through sufficient history to give perspective to her romancers; she had not yet undergone the demoralizing strain of prosperity which has followed upon the epoch of the civil war. Never were Americans so profoundly idealistic, so temperamentally fit to understand the spiritualized art of Hawthorne, as between 1840 and 1860. And our pride in him is touched with a subtle regret at the disappearance of a fine civilization, provincial as it was. A more splendid civilization is still to come, no doubt; but the specific conditions that blossomed into many of Hawthorne’s tales are irrevocably gone. Great as he seems when we look back, he seems still greater when we look around us. It is no service to Hawthorne’s memory to disparage the industrious men and women who are producing our fiction of to-day. But to glance at them, and then to think of him, is to perceive the startling difference between talent and genius.

No one would claim that that genius was faultless in all its divinations. Feeble drawing, ineffective symbolism, morbid dallying with mortuary fancies, may indeed be detected in his books. That sound critic Edwin P. Whipple, who is passing into such ill-deserved oblivion, once said of Hawthorne: “He had spiritual insight, but it did not penetrate to the sources of spiritual joy.” The note of robust triumph, of unquestioning faith in individual happiness and in the sure advance of human society, is indeed too rarely heard in his writings. In repeating his Pater Noster, the stress falls upon Forgive us our trespasses rather than upon Thy Kingdom, come.

Yet he believed that the sin and sorrow of humanity, inexplicable as they are, are not to be thought of as if we were apart from God. A neighbor of Hawthorne in Concord has recently written me that once, when death entered a household there, Hawthorne picked the finest sunflower from his garden and sent it to the mourners by Mrs. Hawthorne with this message: “Tell them that the sunflower is a symbol of the sun, and that the sun is a symbol of the glory of God.” A shy, simple act of neighborhood kindness, — yet treasured in one memory for more than forty years; and how much of Hawthorne there is in it! The quaint flower from an old-fashioned garden; the delicate sympathy; the perfect phrase; the faith in the power of a symbol to turn the perplexed soul to God! Hawthorne was no natural lover of darkness, but rather one who yearned for light. The gloom which haunts many of his pages is the long shadow cast by our mortal destiny upon a sensitive soul, conscious of kinship with the erring race of men. The mystery is our mystery, perceived, and not created, by that finely endowed mind and heart. The shadow is our shadow; the gleams of insight, the soft radiance of truth and beauty, are his own.

  1. An address delivered at Bowdoin College in commemoration of the one hundredth anniversary of Hawthorne’s birth.