Hawthorne: The Artist of New England

Nathaniel Hawthorne died more than hundred years ago, a despondant and frustrated man. Today, says Mr. Kazin, his work stands as a school classic whose meaning for our time has yet to be established. This essay on Hawthorne and his "profound imaginative world" is drawn from an introduction to Mr. Kazin's Selected Short Stories Of Nathaniel Hawthorne  

Nathaniel Hawthorne died in 1864, in the midst of the Civil War, a social revolution which he profoundly distrusted; he was traveling in New Hampshire for his health with his old college friend Franklin Pierce, whose presidency of the United States (1853 to 1857) had been a failure because of his personal weakness and his attempts to compromise with the South, to head off the coming struggle. Hawthorne had felt that he himself, was also a failure. His sudden death in a New Hampshire inn ended his struggle to climb out of the despondency and creative frustration of his last years, when he was unable to complete any of his projects.

He had always thought that to be a "mere storyteller" in New England demanded too much of his imaginative will. Despite a fair success with his first novels, The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851), he had never been able to assure an income by writing fiction; he had never been sure of any public for it, and at the end no longer felt in command of his peculiar, delicate, hard-won gift. By the time the Civil War was over and a new, brazenly materialistic society came into being, Hawthorne had ceased to be an example—if, indeed, he had ever been one—to writers of fiction; he was from now on to be a school classic, one of the New England worthies to people who for patriotic or didactic reasons liked to celebrate New England. He had become another name in the New England Temple, like Emerson, who had never been able to read him (or any other novelist), and whose own theories Hawthorne thought charming moonshine.

Twentieth-century American writers do not generally feel much relation to Hawthorne. To those who value past writers because they influence our living and thinking now, Hawthorne is unreal. Those who create literature in our own day have never been touched by Hawthorne as they have been by Melville, Thoreau, and even Emerson. In 1916, when James died, T. S. Eliot acutely noted the "Hawthorne aspect" in James's later books The Golden Bowl and The Sense of the Past. Then casually, as a matter of New England kinship, Eliot paid homage to the depth of moral atmosphere in which Hawthorne's characters are steeped. In his remarkable play The Old Glory, the poet Robert Lowell has woven together situations from Hawthorne's "Endicott and the Red Cross," "The Maypole of Merry Mount," and "My Kinsman, Major Molineux." It is significant that both Eliot and Lowell are poets deeply concerned with New England themes and stirred by its religious absolutism. Lowell in The Old Glory very freely "modernizes" the rather stiff personages in Hawthorne's stories of the first Puritan settlements, and his use of "Endicott and the Red Cross" and "The Maypole of Merry Mount" is in striking contrast with the pageantlike formality of Hawthorne's own creation. Taking it all in all, it can be said that if literature embodies the consciousness of a generation, Hawthorne is not part of our generation.

Yet at the same time Hawthorne exists for us if not in us—he exists as Longfellow, Whittier, or Lowell do not. We may not be as affected by any single passage in Hawthorne as we are by so many in Melville; we do not even get exasperated with Hawthorne as we do with Melville or Poe. There is a subtlety about Hawthorne's mind, an elegance of perception, that tantalizes our intellectual curiosity and perhaps is as ungraspable as those figures and odd details of design in Gothic cathedrals, those knotted images in Elizabethan plays, which are so much the style of another period that we cannot assimilate them, however cleverly we explain them. There are writers far more removed from us in time who reach us more directly than Hawthorne does. He is one of those classics whose meaning for our time–above all, his meaning to modern literature—has yet to be established. This is why there are so many theological and psychoanalytical interpretations of Hawthorne; they fill the vacuum created by our modern uncertainty about the use and relevance of Hawthorne's art.

With all this, one curious fact stands out. A century after his death, Hawthorne is still the most interesting artist in fiction whom New England has produced—he is the only New England artist in fiction whose works form a profound imaginative world of their own, the only one who represents more than some phase of New England history. After all that "realism" claimed, and achieved, for the American novel, it is striking how little it has done for New England. Hawthorne's works constitute a unique imaginative world when compared with those of New England novelists from Harriet Beecher Stowe to J. P. Marquand; his "tales" of New England have a depth of interest that we do not find in representations of the fixity and eccentricity of the New England character.

New England itself has not produced one true master in fiction except Hawthorne. Even as a subject for fiction by New Yorkers like Henry James and Edith Wharton or foreigners like George Santayana, the "matter of New England" has usually resulted in a self-limiting social comedy. For the New England character is a fixed quantity in everybody's mind, not least in the New England mind itself, which sometimes seems prouder of its consistency through three centuries than of anything else. Realistic fiction sees the New England scene and the New England character as the same material. What we usually get in fiction laid in New England is a comedy that presupposes our detachment — New England as anachronism. If one were to review the character of New England in our fiction generally, it would entail a list of clichés about the rock-ribbed coast, sterling independence, unyieldingness, the flintiness of its merchants, and the unworldliness of its ministers. Fixed types appear in New England fiction as regularly as the cuckold in French farce. They recall the harsh Puritans whose procession opens The Scarlet Letter, the eccentric old maid Hepzibah Pyncheon in The House of the Seven Gables, the bustling old maid who appears briefly on board the Pequod in Moby Dick, the hysterical feminist in The Bostonians, the hardflsted Yankee farmer in The Rise of Silas Lap ham, the quaint fisher people in The Country of the Pointed Firs, the cold New Englanders in Ethan Frome, the dried-up New Englanders in The Last Puritan, the eccentric Yankees in The Wapshot Chronicle. There are no celebrated novels named Chicago or The New Yorkers, but we have The Bostonians, Boston, Boston Adventure, A Connecticut Yankee, The Last Puritan, and how many others to prove that if a Yankee is in your book, the title will tell the reader more than half of what he expects anyway.

Now Hawthorne certainly used many of these stock touches when, to speak here only of his "tales," he described the upright, stolid Puritans in "Endicott and the Red Cross," New England eccentricity in "Wakefield"—the story of a man who left home forever to live in a neighboring street— or the New England hardness that was leveled against the hero of "The Artist of the Beautiful." His best tales often start from what one must call the New England situation, for only in New England would a minister walk about with a black veil over his face, or young Goodman Brown, newly married, leave his bride, Faith, to consort with the devil in the woods. It is such symbols that are always the mise-en-scéne, the matter in hand, the human fact that asks to be developed, not explained, in the course of the story.

Hawthorne was indeed peculiarly dependent as an artist on his own small corner of the United States; he was never to know any other. He was to go abroad in 1853 and to write a novel laid in Rome, The Marble Faun, but in his own country he never went farther west than Detroit or farther south than the Potomac. Perhaps more than any other first-rate imagination in our fiction up to Faulkner, Hawthorne took it for granted that all his imaginative possibilities as a writer were bound up with his own local culture and his history. He studied New England in his notebooks, he looked for its characteristic details and listened for its voice, as if his very life depended on it.

But the great advantage that Hawthorne had over all the realists who took up the New England subject after his death is that while for most of them New England represented only frustration, decay, the absurdity of certain moral pretensions, it was exactly the inner life, the moral life, the dim and often unreal life of the soul, reflected as the perpetual drama of conscience, that seized his imagination. He took for his prime subject precisely that brooding inwardness, that perpetual examination of self, which later, described by realists from elsewhere, came out as eccentricity. All that the local colorists and satirists of the New England scene were to paint as provincial stuffiness, inarticulate hardness, Hawthorne had presented as the self-questioning, the debate of so many claims within the human heart, that goes on all the time.

Hawthorne's great subject was, indeed, the sense of guilt, that is perhaps the most enduring theme in the moral history of the West—guilt that is the secret tie that binds us to others and to our own past, guilt that all the characters in these stories accept and live in, because guilt, theologically conceived, is human identity. In guilt is the great rationale of human history, as Hawthorne knew it; in guilt alone is there a task for man to accomplish, a redemption of the past and promise of a future. In the greatest of all Hawthorne's stories, "Young Goodman Brown," the young husband leaves his bride to go into the wilderness just outside Boston for the ceremony presided over by the Arch-Fiend himself. "'Welcome, my children,' said the dark figure, 'to the communion of your race. You have found thus young your nature and your destiny. By the sympathy of your human hearts for sin ye shall scent out all the places. .. . Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness.'"

The inner life is the secret life, yet the only source of action on the external world. What finally most deeply moves us is the grip of the past, the force of the original sin in which we all share. Hawthorne certainly believed this. And even we who are uneasy with the word "sin" now agree with Hawthorne that "human nature," as we call it, is tainted. We are fascinated by this taint, as Hawthorne was, because it makes fiction possible. Without "sin," without sense of the evil that is at work in human affairs to rob this world of its promise, Hawthorne could not have explained to himself the depth of interest involved in the idea of personality that dominates his fiction.

Unlike the modern novelist, Hawthorne never thought it necessary to account for his characters individually. He believed that there was a common stamp of human nature from which all its characteristics derived. This common stamp created a spiritual interest, an inner motivation in all things, that had to be represented in external terms. This resulted in the allegories which readers used to find so quaint and odd. Reviewing Hawthorne's stories, Poe pronounced allegory tediously archaic. The young James, not the later one, was embarrassed by allegory. Our own generation is more sympathetic. As the interest of fiction has shifted from the external world back to the individual psyche, we have come to see that the inner life is a compelling subject for dramatic fiction, and needs "emblems" in the world of commonsense experience in order to be brought home.

As the background and unifying theme of Hawthorne's stories is the human obsession with guilt, so the central character in all these stories is the inward man, the human soul trying to represent itself. The minister's black veil hides his face but proclaims to everyone his sense of what things are really about. Wakefield leaves home in order to live nearby, with his eye always on his wife— that is his idea of human necessity. In "The Prophetic Pictures," the evil soul that the master painter has seen in the happy young bridegroom finally makes its way through the picture and onto the face itself. In story after story the given element, the central and unifying element, is what moves and stirs within us, the mysterious springs of our every action, our "soul." And the way into the soul is so difficult for a writer of fiction— who must write about anything, no matter how shadowy, in terms of the real world — that in his lesser stories, merely sketches or even essays, Hawthorne stated the grand theme and then embroidered moralistic reflections around it.

As a writer of fiction Hawthorne had a peculiarly hard time of it, and since he was so dependent on his will alone, blamed himself for his difficulties. He began with tales that were often nothing but moralities of the inner life, that could not sustain development at all. And though he achieved extraordinary subtlety of meaning in such great stories as "Young Goodman Brown," "Rappaccini's Daughter," "My Kinsman, Major Molineux," many of his stories show only too well the truth of Henry James's observation that provincialism limited Hawthorne. Our own generation no longer understands the kind of struggle Hawthorne had to put up in order to become a "storyteller" at all; the historic dimension is now left out of our studies of American literature, and all the great writers are treated as timeless contemporaries. But it is a fact that Hawthorne had New England to overcome as well as New England to represent. And while part of his trouble no doubt lay in the psychic tensions that haunt his fiction, the fact remains that just as he could write only when the weather turned cold, so he could never securely believe that he had an understanding audience for what he wrote. The odd facts and observations with which he filled his notebooks, and which astonished Henry James by their triviality, were fillings for "themes"; they show how anxious he was in his profession, how unreal the whole practice of fiction could be to someone in New England with his imaginative tendency, how elusive his work became to him. Not long before he died in the New Hampshire inn, he had recorded in the margins of his last, unfinishable novels a veritable nervous breakdown in his attempts to get hold of his own material. His characters became unreal to him, and in his panic he seems to have gone back to the uncertainties of his apprentice period, when he would study sunbeams, his face in the mirror, the rain, the outside of a house, as if to force his way into literature — to cross over from his natural tendency to silence.

In Hawthbrne's notebooks, in his slighter stories, in the highly personal prefaces he wrote to his novels and collections of stories, one sees this self-training, this determination to make the fullest use of his material, to find even the conventional sentiments, if necessary, that will ease his way through the labyrinth of appearance to the eloquence of the human heart. In his notebooks he seems to be saying of everything and anything: What can I make of this? But James, who understood, as we do not, the limitations of Hawthorne's training, still did not understand how real a spiritual world was to Hawthorne—that it is from his depth of absorption that the extraordinary pages come. Hawthorne is one of the few writers—Franz Kafka is another able to capture in fiction the reality of a moral tradition that has just lived itself out as religion but has not yet dissolved into mere culture. Hawthorne achieved this by his commitment to an inner world, by his conscious archaism as an allegorist.

The inner life is not eventful, and it can never recount itself; it must always be "handled," projected, commented on, mediated, and illustrated. As a subject for fiction, the inner life, the "sinful personality," requires a lot of pointing-up, and so can be made tolerable only by a superb manner or personal "style." Style always comes from so much attention to moral distinctions, which is why so many New Englanders wrote suavely and elegantly even when they were prudish and provincial.

Style in Hawthorne is like color in a painting: it is the surface you see first, and that leads you to see the shape of the whole. It is a fact that in Hawthorne's novels nothing much happens until the catastrophe. His tales are filled up with style in the eighteenth-century sense the author in his own voice talks the tale, pointing, explaining, describing, resolving. It is this that makes Hawthorne now seem old-fashioned; he tells us a great deal, and always in the same grave voice. Yet as he moves us into the dark wood of "Young Goodman Brown" or the revolutionary Boston of "My Kinsman, Major Molineux," we find that the picture "presented," the harsh setting, explains these people and that they, above all, explain the setting. Hawthorne convinces us that he knows all about Young Goodman Brown, the tragic couple in "The Prophetic Pictures," the heartless wizard in "Rappaccini's Daughter," the tormented Reuben Bourne in "Roger Malvin's Burial," who redeems the guilt of abandoning his father-in-law by accidentally killing his own son. Hawthorne knows, he seems to know, because to him the activity of the soul is not complicated, it is just fatally deep. Everything counts, everything tells, every action is fateful in the unraveling of the knot of which we are made.

This reasoning is behind the economy of action in Hawthorne's stories and the close logic of the consequences he draws. Hawthorne saw these distinct qualities of the soul in dramatic relief. Like all those artists of his generation in fiction—Poe, Gogol, Melville—who were fascinated by the inward, the fanciful, the symbolic, he could bring inward traits home to the reader only by making them colorful and picturesque; by dwelling on light and shadow, drapery, costume, reflections in a mirror, or a suit of armor. The torches light up the faces in "Young Goodman Brown" excited by the diabolic ceremony; the flowers in Rappaccini's garden are ominous; the Maypole of Merry Mount is hung with ribbons but surrounded by human beings wearing the skins and antlers of animals. Hawthorne's stories could not have come into being without the flowers, mirrors, poisons, vapors that to romancers of his generation were veritable dramatis personae. His stories are rooted in the intellectual melodrama of which his generation was so fond, and which perhaps derived from the very role of the writer himself as spellbinder, "wizard," moraliste. Romantic "atmosphere" was made necessary by the foreshortening of effect: Hawthorne had the human microcosm to portray in a few pages.

Yet Hawthorne is the uniquely profound artist of New England because in his greatest stories, as in The Scarlet Letter, he represents what one can only call the passion behind so much theocratic rigor, fundamentalism, sadism. "The witches! The witches!" the narrator cries out in one story when a couple saunter onto Gallows' Hill in Salem, to which Hawthorne's own ancestor condemned so many helpless old women. Sin is the past, and the past is sin. Human history proceeds from within, where every individual is alone with the mystery of sin. There is a solitude in which the human heart must live. Only love between man and woman can redeem existence from what Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letter called "the dark necessity."

It is odd to recall that alone of all the romancers in his generation, almost alone among later novelists in America, Hawthorne was able to celebrate women of a passionately vivid nature with an emotion unknown to Poe, Melville, James, Howells, Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis, Hemingway. Hawthorne the Puritan celebrates woman, and even in the stories—where there is no single, woman as splendid as Hester in The Scarlet Letter, Zenobia in The Blithedale Romance, Miriam in The Marble Faun,—Rappaccini's helplessly beautiful daughter, Faith, the bride of Goodman Brown, the patiently enduring wife in "The Prophetic Pictures," the victimwife in "The Birthmark," the tragic wife and mother in "Roger Malvin's Burial" stand out as heroines. If Hawthorne's total career leaves the inescapable impression on us of having in some sense been mysteriously thwarted, we also feel that he had a frustrated instinct for the passionate side of human nature. ' Perhaps the impression of fierce control that his work gives out also explains why he was able to suggest the sexual tensions in the poison garden of Rappaccini and in the gay, beribboned Maypole of Merry Mount that was cut down by the Puritans.

Hawthorne's imagination was, of course, fascinated by New England as historical material. And no doubt he felt that he might end his long isolation by confronting the New England past. But it is also a fact that Hawthorne became a writer of fiction, in these stories, by retracing old materials, by reusing the past. Hawthorne's own sense of things was very direct and commonsensical; he was not repelled by business and politics, and would have liked, I think, to do justice to them as a novelist. But all literary tradition in New England was really an offshoot of the church; there was no way for the New England novelist to approach his essential subject—the New England conscience—except in terms protective of New England's religious tradition. And New England in Hawthorne's time had already substituted literature for the church; it was already rich in those bookish habits that were to produce throughout the nineteenth century so many Bulfinches and Bartletts, so many retellings and retailings of Greek myths, familiar quotations, legends, and aphorisms.

To be a storyteller in New England—not a prophet or reformer or lecturer or essayist, not a sage or clairvoyant or medium—it was necessary to domesticate the classics, to bring them down to the New England fireside, to turn history into a cozy moral for here and now. Hawthorne, who projected story collections under such titles as Seven Tales of My Native Land, Provincial Tales, The Story Teller, Old Time Legends, was to call his actual collections Twice-Told Tales, Mosses From an Old Manse, The Snow-Image, Grandfather's Chair, A Wonder Book for Boys and Girls. He adapted old tales to present purposes; he offered storybooks whose very titles comforted and assured. Hawthorne was writing myths for New England to remember itself by. But "storybook fiction" involves a conscious reduction. There must always be some suggestion of playfulness about the tale told to charm children and to keep old men at the chimney corner. In the end the "storybook" vanished back into the tradition it is meant to uphold.

Every appreciative reader of Hawthorne knows that he was not a type, least of all this type. Yet the traits I have associated with the "storybook" manner may help to explain the archness of Hawthorne's allusions, the idle reverie that clouds up his mere sketches, the sometimes coy playfulness of his prefaces, and above all the faint sermonizing that one finds in some stories, as one finds it at the end of The Scarlet Letter.

All too often the allegorical method lent itself to the tranquilizing function of Transcendentalist preaching. Storybook fiction was a way of telling the audience that the values once imparted by the church, and now gently retailed by literature, were safe forever, that literature would serve to testify to a spiritual world as the church had once done. This was not true. Literature failed New England. It had to—New England was no longer unique. Of course Hawthorne's audience, in his time, did not realize as fully as we do now how much subtlety and even profanation he was able to smuggle into his wonder books and storybooks. "The blue-eyed Nathaniel," as D. H. Lawrence called him, was not the prig he tried to be. By the time the full complexity of Hawthorne's mind was made clear to scholars in our time, it was because, as James had suggested in his book of 1879, Hawthorne was as an artist no influence on other artists. He provoked interest among scholars, he stimulated new thinking among psychologists and theologians, because he had become a problem safely established in the past. It was almost as if he had aimed at that. He had become "New England"—the country of its imagination.