Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  Nathaniel Hawthorne

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Nathaniel Hawthorne

By Charles Francis Richardson (1851–1913)

[Born in Hallowell, Me., 1851. Died, 1913. American Literature: 1607–1885. In Two Volumes. 1887–89.]


GLADLY we turn toward the singularly beautiful and characteristic list of writings which began with “Fanshawe” in 1828 and closed with the unfinished “Dolliver Romance” in 1864. Throughout nearly all of them we shall find that artlessness which characterizes the true genius, and that art which shows genius to be accompanied by high powers of construction and elaboration. An English painter and poet of Hawthorne’s own time wrote, in youth, a story which has for its central thought the idea that “an artist need not seek for intellectualized moral intentions in his work, but will fulfil God’s highest purpose by simple truth in manifesting, in a spirit of devout faith, the gift that God has given him.” This idea is one which, in some shape, often occurs to Hawthorne’s readers, and must more often have been in the romancer’s own mind, though he seldom formulated it.

The delight which we take in Hawthorne is, then, the joy of perception of the work of an artist. The several methods of intellectual communication between mind and mind are widely variant in method and result. We derive one impression or pleasure from painting, and another—now stronger, now weaker—from sculpture, architecture, action, music; or from the apprehension of inanimate nature by the sense. It is the privilege and power of literature in the hands of its masters to convey to readers a sort of combination or intense suggestion of almost all other methods of thought-transfer or soul-expression. If printing is the “art preservative of all arts,” literature is the art suggestive or inclusive of all arts. The author is an artist, and in direct proportion as he fulfils the highest artistic function in choice and elaboration of his creations does he deserve his craft-name in its highest sense….

The precise success which Hawthorne has attained, in his artist-work, is a matter of debate, which it is hopeless to try to settle definitely as yet. The neglect which once surrounded his name has changed to a too silly and reverential laudation. Already this modest writer has fallen into the hands of the zealots who study plays or poems of Shakespeare or Shelley or Browning for “inner meanings” or esoteric doctrine. There can no longer be question, however, that Hawthorne is an artist, to be measured by the canons applicable to the broader and more ambitious creations, and to stand or fall in letters according as his writings endure the large tests which they are brought to face.

Often enough did Hawthorne express his knowledge of the tremendous lesson which life teaches to a great artist like a Dante or a Milton, but cannot teach to a Schopenhauer or an Omar Khayyám. Bunyan never insisted more strongly upon the notion of God, duty, and immortality; upon the “sinfulness of sin,” as the old preachers used to phrase it, and as the liberal romancer in reality accepted it. The human heart was Hawthorne’s highest and most constant theme, and though he never wasted time in orotund sermonizing, and threw away as chaff fit for “Earth’s Holocaust” much that creed-makers, from Nice to Plymouth, deem sacred, he was ever, without being less an artist, a force in the world of life and letters. He watched with keen, deep eyes, but sometimes he wrote with a pen of flame. “The heart, the heart,—there was the little yet boundless sphere wherein existed the original wrong of which the crime and misery of this outward world were merely types. Purify that inward sphere, and the many shapes of evil that haunt the outward, and which now seem almost our only realities, will turn to shadowy phantoms and vanish of their own accord; but if we go no deeper than the intellect, and strive, with merely that feeble instrument, to discern and rectify what is wrong, our whole accomplishment will be a dream.”

This “inward sphere,” the human heart, was Hawthorne’s field of study and portrayal. He saw and described its innocence, its purity, its loveliness, its noble hopes, its truest triumphs, its temptations, its sinful tendency its desperate struggles, its downward motions, its malignity, its “total depravity,” at least in appearance, its final petrifaction and self-destruction—the only destruction of which, in the divine plan, it is capable. Life, in Hawthorne’s view, was no Human Comedy, as to Balzac, or tragedy of lost souls, as to the early New England theologians, but the struggle of individual men, women, and children with the powers within and without them, and chiefly the powers within. Surely a romancer could have no higher theme, and highly did Hawthorne treat it.


But did he thereby become the less an artist or the more?

The literature of the two great Anglo-Saxon peoples has always had a tolerably clear idea that there is a necessary connection between art and ethics. It has contained many mischievous or frivolous books; it has wavered between the austerity of Bunyan and the license of the dramatists of the Restoration; it has been successively influenced by Norman-French, Italian, Latin, and Greek culture; but it has never lost sight of certain principles peculiarly its own. One of these principles is that a book should have a definite purpose, a real reason for being, if it expects a long life. This principle has not been lost even in the imaginative literature of England and America.

Before the novel, the poem afforded our intellectual ancestors their means of amusement; and in early English poetry the moral element was seldom lacking….

When fiction took the place of poetry, as an intellectual amusement, the same principle held good. To this day, the best-known work of imagination in English prose is a terribly earnest sermon. It so happened that the growth of the English novel began when English society and religion were once more in a degraded state, but in the indecency and coarseness of the novel of the eighteenth century there still appears something that is not French, not Italian, not Spanish. Robinson Crusoe is a moral Englishman abroad, who has changed his sky, not his disposition. Moralizing, if not morality, is not absent from the loose sayings of Sterne. Swift, in his malignant, half-insane way, at least had reforms in view. Fielding, like Chaucer and the author of “Piers Plowman,” felt that accurate delineation was the precursor of a change for the better. Goldsmith’s pictures of virtuous rural life are still beloved because, in Taine’s phrase, the chief of them “unites and harmonizes in one character the best features of the manners and morals of the time and country, and creates an admiration and love for pious and orderly, domestic and disciplined, laborious and rural life; Protestant and English virtue has not a more approved and amiable exemplar.” Samuel Richardson, the precursor of the long-regnant school of sentimental novelists, spent his literary lifetime in trying to show that integrity and uprightness, even of the Grandisonian order, are more attractive than the vice of the “town” in the era of the Georges.

Something more than mere amusement, something behind the story, is still more evident in Scott, the Scheherezade of modern literature; in Dickens, promoting humanity and good fellowship, and attacking abuses in prisons, schools, law courts, and home-life; in Thackeray, tilting loyally against social shams; in saddened but brave Charlotte and Emily Brontë, amid the Yorkshire moors; in George Eliot, describing the Jew as she believed him to he in reality, doing justice to the stern righteousness of a Dinah Morris, or telling how Savonarola was a Protestant in spite of himself. Turning to America, we note, as in England, the almost total disappearance of the outward immorality which defiled British fiction a hundred years ago, and which still disgraces a part of French fiction: and more than this, we find positive qualities, and a belief that story-telling is something more than story-telling. Irving feels with the heart of humanity; Cooper, like Scott, magnifies the chivalric virtues, under new skies; and Hawthorne goes to the depth of the soul in his search for the basal principles of human action.

What does all this mean? Is a book great because its moral purpose is sound, or is all literature bad as art and literature if it lacks the righteous purpose? Not at all; neither has Anglo-Saxon literature monopoly of righteousness and purpose. It means that this literature has insisted more strongly than others upon the necessary connection between art and ethics; that it has never prized a profitless, soulless beauty; and that, so long as the world can be made better by literature, book-makers can and ought to help. Between two books of equal literary merit, but of unequal purpose, it gives greater and more lasting favor to the more useful book. It believes, with the American poet who is usually considered our chief apostle of the merely beautiful, that “taste holds intimate relations with the intellect and the moral sense.” Whether it is right or wrong in this general idea, it is certain that any change in it, whether wrought by believers in “art for art’s sake,” by pseudo Greek poets, by “cosmic” bards who sometimes confuse right and wrong, or by strictly “realistic” novelists, will change a principle in accord with which the race has acted for ten centuries.

In accord with that principle Nathaniel Hawthorne worked from the beginning to the end of his literary life; but he was too great an artist to confuse for a moment the demands of ethics with those of pure art….


Hawthorne was a pioneer and master of that literary method which, under the name of realism, has so strongly affected the fiction of the latter part of the nineteenth century. He studied minutely, and portrayed with delicate faithfulness, the smallest flower beneath his foot, the faintest bird in the distant sky, the trivial mark or the seemingly unimportant act of the person described. The microscopic artist was not more faithful in noting little characteristics or swiftly-fleeting marks. Such sketches as “A Rill from the Town Pump,” “Main Street,” “Sights from a Steeple,” or “Little Annie’s Ramble” are realism in its complete estate. Turguéneff himself, the prototype of so many followers in Russia, France, and America, is not more watchful with the eye or more painstaking with the pen. But between Hawthorne and Turguéneff there is an unlikeness as marked as their external similarity of method. Hawthorne, a realist in portrayal, is a thorough idealist in thought and purpose. The weariness and melancholy of Russian life and literature are nowhere present in his writings. Turguéneff’s exquisite “Poems in Prose” virtually end with the query of that weakly pessimistic song the burden of which is: “What is it all when all is done?” In Hawthorne’s books, to be sure, are the profoundest sin, the deepest veil of misery and mystery, the “infinite gloom” of which Mrs. Hawthorne wrote; but always above them the tremendous truth written with characters of fire, and yet with “divine touches of beauty,” with many a picture of artlessly lovely nature and life, and with the tender spirit of a child pervading the whole. At the close of Turguéneff’s portrayals silently falls the black impenetrable curtain through which we may not peer, behind which there is nothing. But in Hawthorne’s pages, beyond the blackness and woe of sin and of slow spiritual suicide, are the glow and the glory of the triumph that follows the struggle; of the proved virtue that is better than untried innocence, and of the eternity that tells the meaning of time….


Some critics have lamented that Hawthorne, so equipped with the strength and weapons of a genius, lacked the historic background which a great romancer should enjoy. They have actually apologized for the poverty of the materials which he was forced to use. On the contrary, it seems to me that he found at hand scenes possessing remarkable capabilities for literary treatment; strong and forceful characters never before portrayed; and (because of the vast changes caused by the Revolution) a sufficient remoteness of time. Castles, draw-bridges, black forests, tournaments, battles, and knights and dames had been used so often that none but a Scott could longer make them interesting. But houses of seven gables; witch-haunted Puritan villages, fringed by native woods from which the Indians had scarcely fled; soul-conflicts of stern dogmatists; heart-sorrows of men and women whose lives were forced back into their own selves; lovely little maidens from whom the poetry of nature could not be taken away; children as pure as the field-springs or half-hidden violets amid which they played, were unfamiliar in English fiction before Hawthorne. Irving in his Hudson stories, or Cooper in his Indian tales, was not more fortunate in theme nor more original in treatment; while Poe, the only other American novelist worth mentioning in a chapter devoted to Hawthorne, did not find Ghostland itself a better artistic background than Salem or Concord.

If it be an advantage for a novelist to follow other great workers in the same field, then Hawthorne lacked such advantage. But the great creator, whether he be novelist or poet, does not need prototypes and forerunners. He avails himself freely of the lessons and the work of his predecessors, but he is under no more than minor obligations to them. The man of genius is injured by following others, quite as truly as he is helped. A similar remark may be made concerning the picturesque or imposing historic background of literature. Such a background, in an ancient country, is pretty sure to be an unduly familiar one. A genius, in point of fact, takes his background where he finds it; if at home, and still comparatively unknown, he follows his national bent and local inspiration; if not, he forages all afield, without complaining of the disadvantages of his surroundings. When Hawthorne chose, he made solemn and august Rome his background; for the most part, however, he was glad to employ the singularly rich unused realm close at hand. It is the weaker novelist that is most concerned to find a fit setting for his plot; a mind like Hawthorne’s possesses the element of large natural spontaneity which characterizes the world-author as distinct from the provincialist. A Dante is Italian, a Goethe is German, and even a Shakespeare is intensely English; but in their writings the local typifies the general. To the statement, then, that Hawthorne was imprisoned or disadvantaged by his environment, a double reply can be made: first, that he found at hand a rich and virgin field, well suited to the nature of his working genius; and second, that his powers of invention and assimilation were too great to be crushed down by adverse conditions, had such surrounded him. Indeed, Hawthorne was related to his background as closely as flower to root, so naturally did he grow from it and so truly did he represent it to the beholder’s eye….


Among his faults I have not been able to include morbidness or inartistic incompleteness. That he had faults, however, is unquestionable, and they should be stated definitely and frankly. Pure and fine in mental nature, he was sometimes unexpectedly coarse (I mean coarse, not indecent) in utterance. Descriptions, or at times entire stories, are aggravatingly impassive; he stands without as a spectator, and what should be the broadly dramatic view falls into an apparent indifferentism which we cannot reconcile with his general purpose and attitude in literature. The unconscious strength summoned from a rich personal experience is missed at critical points. At times, as in reading the works of the Laodicean realists themselves, we are ready to cry out against the frigid philosophy of curious external observation. Again, while he was a great delineator of representative elements in the characters of men, women, and children, his colors were sometimes too pale and monotonous,—not the colors of flesh and blood. We seldom recognize a “Hawthorne character” on the streets of our daily walk. We are not always in the presence of vitality, but too often in that of personified ideas. His style is unvaried; half a dozen short stories, or three romances, read in succession, may for some readers emphasize this fact to the extent of weariness. The master seems a mannerist; self-control appears the dead level of a great mountain table-land, as dull as the valley-plains below.

But, after all, these faults are incidental, not inherent. Hawthorne was a great imaginative artist, with a highly ideal purpose and a strong and sure hand; therefore his fame, small at first, has steadily increased in the quarter of a century since his death, and shows no sign of waning as the years go on. He once wrote: “No man who needs a monument ever ought to have one.” Hawthorne’s monument is not beside the modest grave above which whisper the pines of Concord’s Sleepy Hollow; nor is it in the commendations or analyses of his many critics. His monument is in his books, which so combine genius and art, imagination and human nature. Those whose eyes may see the fulness of human existence—its bright gayety and its gloomy grief and sin—perceive in Hawthorne’s books the breadth of that mysterious thing in which we are, and which we call life. In “The Marble Faun” we are told that “a picture, however admirable the painter’s art and wonderful his power, requires of the spectator a surrender of himself, in due proportion with the miracle which has been wrought. Like all revelations of the better life, the adequate perception of a great work of art demands a gifted simplicity of vision.” Hawthorne’s students, indeed, need not claim that they must possess high gifts of mind in order to perceive the art of his books; for he but requires in his readers somewhat of his own simplicity and naturalness. They must follow him as a master, for the time being, and learn in his school. He whose knowledge of human nature goes beyond shallow optimism on the one hand, and worldly cynicism on the other, need find no riddles in Hawthorne’s pages. Perverse or dull was that French critic who once described Hawthorne as “un romancier pessimiste.” It would be difficult to frame a statement less accurate, or one more likely to amuse the romancer himself, if this title has come to his knowledge in the land of shades.

I have said that Hawthorne’s readers may follow him as a master, and learn in his school. The same advice is hardly to be given to those who not only read but write, and who would catch the secret of his literary success and apply it to their own novels or romances. Writers as well as readers, to be sure, may follow Hawthorne in his habit of minutely-faithful and ever-delicate observation of things great and small; they may discover that a realism which stoops to note the color of a single petal may be combined with a spiritualism which deems a heart-throb more important than a world of matter. They may study his pellucid English, simple and yet artistic; and may learn not to overcrowd their pages with too numerous figures or irrelevant episodes. He once made answer to a query as to his style: “It is the result of a great deal of practice. It is a desire to tell the simple truth as honestly and vividly as one can.” This seems easy enough; but there is no likelihood that there will be, in America or elsewhere, another Hawthorne. From his name has been derived an adjective, but we always apply the word “Hawthornesque” to a single effect or undeveloped idea, and even then some restriction is usually added to the expression. His field, method, and style were in a large sense his own…. At first unread, then underrated, then called morbid or at best cold and aloof, Hawthorne now stands before us as in some sense “the greatest imaginative writer since Shakespeare,” of whose greatness we are “beginning to arrive at some faint sense,”—a greatness “immeasurably vaster than that of any other American who ever wrote.”

In this greatness the spiritual element was of constant importance. Hawthorne, all in all, was no cold observer and impassive chronicler. As author, he looked into the heart of the world, and wrote. As man, this deathless soul could say in truth: “I have no love of secrecy and darkness. I am glad to think that God sees through my heart, and, if any angel has power to penetrate into it, he is welcome to know everything that is there.”