Carl Van Doren (1885–1950). The American Novel. 1921.Chapter 4. Nathaniel Hawthorne
And yet The Scarlet Letter represents in Hawthorne’s own career the fruit of an apprenticeship to art the like of which no other American man of letters has demanded of himself. For twenty-five years a disposition which Hawthorne generally encouraged had held him to a task of preparation. Born in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1804, he came of a line of substantial citizens settled in the town since its earliest days. Once prominent, the line had become less so, but all its generations had busied themselves with affairs, latterly on the sea. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who could not point to even a clergyman among his ancestors, was the first of his name to be sedentary. As a boy he was robust, handsome, athletic, no particular student, but rather more of a reader of general literature than has been ordinarily noted, ranging easily from The Faerie Queene to The Newgate Calendar. When he was fourteen, Hawthorne proceeded to less literary adventures, and spent a year in the deep seclusion of the Maine woods along Lake Sebago. “It was there,” he later declared, “I got my cursed habits of solitude.” At the time he took a keen and wild delight in his exposure to the forest, which eventually played a larger part in his imaginative life than the sea which his fathers had followed and to which he himself at first wanted to go. He spent four years at Bowdoin College, which was then scarcely more than a clearing on the edge of the frontier, although it was also an average country college for the day and included among its students, besides Hawthorne and his particular friend Horatio Bridge, a future president and a feature poet—Franklin Pierce and Longfellow. After graduation in 1825 Hawthorne returned to Salem not yet finally decided upon a profession but evidently with a stronger drift, perhaps even a stronger determination, toward authorship than he was accustomed to admit.
The records of his life between this and the appearance of Twice-Told Tales (1837) are dusky and brief. His mother, since her widowhood in 1808, had lived in a rigid seclusion which naturally influenced the entire family, confirming in her son an original tendency. “I had very few acquaintances in Salem,” he afterward said, “and during the nine or ten years that I spent there, in this solitary way, I doubt whether so much as twenty people in the town were aware of my existence.” He rarely left the house except by twilight, but endlessly read and reflected, instructing himself in the dim Puritan past and absorbing into his imagination the residuum of its spirit, even while he grew increasingly critical of its doctrines. The gesture of sentimental asceticism with which the hero of his first book, the smooth but undistinguished Fanshawe (1828), in the conclusion waves aside a proposal of marriage from the heroine only himself to die interestingly of consumption within two paragraphs, could have come naturally from Hawthorne’s pen during but an inconsiderable period, for though solitary he was not morbid, and he developed in the grave sunniness of his temper as clearly as in any other quality he possessed. Viewing the matter subsequently, when love and ambition had plucked him from his first solitude, he did not disapprove of it; “if I had sooner made my escape into the world, I should have grown hard and rough, and been covered with earthly dust, and my heart might have become callous by rude encounters with the multitude.… But living in solitude till the fulness of time was come, I still kept the dew of my youth with the freshness of my heart.” From a less sincere man this would sound priggish enough. Hawthorne held aloof not because he thought himself too precious or merely because he knew himself too shy for general society, but in part also because of an opinion which governed his early behavior as an artist. “I used to think I could imagine all passions, all feelings, and states of the heart and mind.” So competent was his imagination to interest and sustain him, so pervasive if not powerful, in its silent way so full of vitality, that he did not starve during his twelve lonely years but gradually ripened into a spirit that was no less strong than tender, no less sane than original, no less massive and secure than delicate and sympathetic.
Nor must his imagination be thought of as feeding solely upon itself. At least once a year it was his habit to rouse himself for a season and make excursions here and there through his native section, an alert and observant traveler. The journal which he regularly kept and various of his tales and sketches bear witness to these journeys. The White Mountains are the scene of The Great Carbuncle and The Ambitious Guest; somewhere north of Boston Hawthorne laid the meeting genially recorded in The Seven Vagabonds; at Martha’s Vineyard he met the village sculptor of Chippings with a Chisel; upon a visit to the Shaker community at Canterbury, New Hampshire, he based The Canterbury Pilgrims and The Shaker Bridal, though the action of the latter story takes place elsewhere; the shaggy flanks of Greylock in the Berkshires furnish the wild setting for the wilder story of Ethan Brand; and in other sketches and journal entries Hawthorne writes of other regions in Vermont and Connecticut and New York to which he wandered, once as far as to Niagara and possibly still farther to Detroit. In none of these does there appear that elaboration of local color which was to characterize American short stories a generation or so later, but neither was Hawthorne in attentive to the outward manners of his age. He is a prime source for modern knowledge of them. Somewhat unexpectedly, he had a decided taste for the low life which he encountered, for peddlers, drovers, tawdry hawkers of amusement, stage-agents, and tavern-haunters. A Fielding would have known them better, but Hawthorne knew them.
At the same time he invaded the past of New England, hunting for pictures with which to enlarge his consciousness of life. From the very first, as in his sketches of Sir William Phips and Mrs. Hutchinson, he neglected analysis or historical narrative for the sake of constructing definite little scenes out of his material. “And now, having arranged these preliminaries,” he says after two or three pages, “we shall attempt to picture forth a day of Sir William’s life.” And similarly after the briefest discussion of Mrs. Hutchinson: “We shall endeavor to give a more practical idea of this part of her course”—a crisp little vignette of the trial. To the end of Hawthorne’s apprenticeship this was his historical method, perhaps best displayed in the vivid and diversified panorama of Salem, from its founding to the present, which he set forth in Main Street. He was not contented, however, to represent scenes for themselves, but sought assiduously for moments of drama, little episodes of controversy, clashes between the parties and ideas which divided old New England. In The Gentle Boy he exhibited the tragedy of the Quaker persecutions; in The Gray Champion the spirit of the Settlement flashing out against the aggressions of Governor Andros; in The Maypole of Merry Mount the conflict between the Pilgrims and the Merry Mounters, which Hawthorne deliberately symbolized. “The future complexion of New England was involved in this important quarrel. Should the grizzly saints establish their jurisdiction over the gay sinners, then would their spirits darken all the clime, and make it a land of clouded visages, of hard toil, of sermon and psalm forever. But should the banner staff of Merry Mount be fortunate, sunshine would break upon the hills, and flowers would beautify the forest, and late posterity do homage to the Maypole.” To compare a tale like The Canterbury Pilgrims, a simple though significant description of the meeting of certain persons going to join a Shaker community and certain others just leaving it, with Young Goodman Brown, the somber account of how a witches’ sabbath in the dark woods around early Salem tempted an honest man from his duty and his peace of mind, is to discover with what a poise Hawthorne stood at the center of his world and sent his imagination out on subtle errands equally into the past and the present, exploring everywhere, and with accurate instinct seizing upon the matters which were proper to his art.
Both these last-named stories are concerned with a theme which Hawthorne touched again and again and which rose from a deep inner experience; the conflict in a soul between the pride which would contract it to harsh and narrow limits and the affections which would reach out and bind it to the natural society of its kind. It is the theme also of Wakefield, Rappaccini’s Daughter, The Artist of the Beautiful, and Ethan Brand, as well as many others. Always Hawthorne stands with society and sunshine against pride and gloom. Much as he had inherited from his Puritan ancestors of the knowledge of the secret heart, which in New England, from once seeking incessantly within itself for signs of a light from God, had formed habits of dwelling too constantly there; and much as he employed the secrets he had found in his own buried researches, Hawthorne was little of a Puritan. His sympathies in the historical tales are steadily with the radical movements away from the domination of the straiter sects, and in his contemporary pieces he regularly demolishes the austerities which had come down from the Fathers. In all his tales he is nowhere more engaging than in The Seven Vagabonds, wherein he—or the teller of the story—falls in with a chance assembly of traveling entertainers, the minstrels and jongleurs of seldom-smiling New England, and plans to accompany them as a sort of peripatetic novelist. This is a conception of Hawthorne amazingly unlike that which sees him as a reflective owl blinking in his dingy garret, but it is not far from the conception of himself which he more than once cherished, and which he embodied in his original scheme for Twice-Told Tales. This collection he wanted to call The Story-Teller and to present as a series of narratives in a framework describing the adventures and observations of just such a novelist errant on his varied rounds. The publisher would not agree; the tales appeared without the framework in 1837, Horatio Bridge having guaranteed the expenses; and Hawthorne came promptly into a small but gratifying reputation decisively helped by approving reviews from Longfellow and, a little later, from Poe.
That he had heretofore been, as he not quite correctly said, “the obscurest man of letters in America,” elicits the less complaint over the blindness of his contemporaries since he had worn anonymity as a regular garment and had addressed the public, for the most part, from the pages of very modest magazines or annuals among the dying birds and weeping willows which made up the fauna and flora of those periodicals in that period. A touch of fame stirred him to rather greater activity; and he was stirred still more by falling in love, very soon after the publication of his book, with Sophia Amelia Peabody, whom he married in 1842 and with whom he subsequently led a life of exquisite felicity. “We are but shadows,” he wrote during his engagement; “We are not endowed with real life, 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.” Now he so far emerged from his solitude as to look about for some livelihood which would make marriage possible. Appointed by George Bancroft to be weigher and gauger at the Boston Custom House early in 1839, he served there two years and then entered the community at Brook Farm, not because he was a communist or a transcendentalist but because he was a lover who hoped that the experiment would help him to become a husband. A year sufficed to make it plain that his art could not flourish under such conditions. He left Brook Farm, issued a second series (1842) of Twice-Told Tales, was married, and went to live at the Old Manse in Concord, in the neighborhood of the two other most authentic New England authors, Emerson and Thoreau. There Hawthorne lived for three years, until he returned to Salem as surveyor of the Custom House for three years more; in Concord he wrote, beside certain hack pieces, the Mosses from an Old Manse (1846); there he rounded out his years of preparation for the greater novels. The differences between the Twice-Told Tales and the Mosses are not important, nor are the stories of the later collection always later in composition, but it should at least be noted that whereas the Tales contains a larger number of vivid pictures from past or present, the range of the Mosses is on the whole the greater. Here may be found those profound studies of conscience, Young Goodman Brown, Rappaccini’s Daughter, The Christmas Banquet, and Roger Malvin’s Burial; while side by side with them are smiling and elusive exercises of Hawthorne’s fancy, The Celestial Railroad and Feathertop. Rappaccini’s Daughter is longer than any tale Hawthorne had written since The Gentle Boy a dozen years before; the average sketch or story in the Mosses is nearly twice as long as in the Tales; and here, moreover, may be found all of those singular narratives—A Select Party, The Hall of Fantasy, The Procession of Life, The New Adam and Eve, The Intelligence Office, Earth’s Holocaust, A Virtuoso’s Collection—written between 1842 and 1844 in which Hawthorne assembles upon some fanciful scheme a gallery of personages or symbols or ideas among which he moves as showman or spectator commenting upon the varieties of life and legend. Perhaps without being aware of it he was growing ready for larger flights and a wider scene. At the same time he imparts an artful unity to the Mosses by the preface which conducts to the stories as an avenue of trees conducts to the Old Manse itself and which concentrates attention upon his themes as the cylinder of a telescope concentrates attention upon the object covered by the lens.
A similar function is performed for The Scarlet Letter, written in Salem during the winter of 1849–50, by the introductory essay on the Custom House where Hawthorne had recently, as he thought, been wasting his time. The essay understandably surprised his late associates, who, though the gravest of citizens, learned now that they had been for Hawthorne little more than the characters of a farce; and it still surprises those of his readers who, knowing his reputation better than his veritable self, find in it a humor so chuckling, an eye for personal traits so sharp, a hand so deft at whimsical caricature, an intelligence so shrewd in its grasp of concrete realities. It was not for lack of talent in that direction that Hawthorne overlooked the surfaces of life; it was for lack of interest in matters not central to the serious concerns of the soul. In being a Puritan to the extent that he rarely lifted his gaze from the human spirit in its sincerest hours, he was also a universal poet. He who during a long experimental stage had brooded over the confused spectacle of mankind, posing for himself various of the soul’s problems and translating them into lucid forms of beauty, had now posed a larger problem on a larger scale. To make a novel out of his material instead of a brief tale Hawthorne did not increase it, as he might have done, out of his antiquarian knowledge of early Salem: as regards such decorations his story is almost naked. Nor did he increase it by adding to his caste of characters: he need not have named, he need hardly have referred to, others than the four who hold the tense center of his stage. Nor yet again did he increase it by any multiplication of events, by any loud or active phantasmagoria: few events and half a dozen acts suffice him. With an austere economy that must have seemed parsimony had Hawthorne’s vision and his style been less rich, he discarded all but the essential cruxes of his argument. His tableaux succeed one another almost without the links of narrative which ordinarily distinguish the novel from the play; yet as the curtain dimly rises upon each new tableau there is the sense of something transacted since the last—a sense conveyed by subtle hints so numerous as to betray how much more Hawthorne knew about his characters than he had space to put into words. With the same parsimony he narrows the physical bounds of his action to a little strip of seacoast between the gray Atlantic which signifies all the memories of Salem and the grayer forest which spells its obstinate expectations. Only supreme skill could have exhibited within these limits the seven years of action which have to seem at once long enough to constitute a cycle of penance and also brief enough to present a drama of which all the parts knit solidly together under the spectator’s eye. Something more than mere technical devices, however, rounds out and compacts the story—something more than the scrupulous disposition of tableaux and the recurrence of that overshadowing symbol which is sewed upon Hester’s bosom and burned upon Dimmesdale’s; which is significantly and exquisitely woven into Pearl’s very nature, and which, rather too artificially, is blazoned upon the sky. Hawthorne gives every evidence of having moved through his first and greatest long romance with an unfaltering stride, never obliged to consider how he should construct because the story grew almost of itself, and never at a loss for substance because his mind was perfectly stored—neither too much nor too little—with the finest materials of observation and reflection gathered during a lifetime. For three years he had written almost nothing; now all the power that he had unconsciously hoarded freed itself and flowed into his book; now all the quarter-century of discipline in form and texture effortlessly shaped an abundant flood.
The historian should not hint at too much that is merely mystical in the making of The Scarlet Letter; it is an achievement of deliberate art grown competent and unconscious by careful exercise. At the same time, the impact which the story makes may be traced back of Hawthorne’s own art and personality to the Puritan tradition which, much as he might disagree with it on occasion, he had none the less inherited. An ancestral strain accounts for this conception of adultery as an affair not of the civil order but of the immortal soul. The same strain in his constitution, moreover, led him to make of these circumstances more than the familiar triangle. A Frenchman might have painted the joy of Dimmesdale, the lover, with his forbidden mistress; an Italian might have traced the fierce course of Chillingworth, the husband, to a justified revenge; a German might have exhibited Hester, the offending wife, as actually achieving an outer freedom to match that one within. Hawthorne transfers the action to an entirely different plane. Let the persons in the triple conflict be involved as they may with one another, each of them stands essentially apart from the remaining two, because each is occupied with a still vaster conflict, with good and evil as the rival elements which continually tug at the poor human creature. Small wonder, then, that the flesh, to which the sin was superficially due, should go unsung; that the bliss of the senses should hardly once be attended to. After such fleeting pleasures comes the inexorable judgment, which is of the spirit not of the body. To the Puritan imagination, journeys begin not end in lovers meeting. The tragedy of Dimmesdale lies in his defeat by evil through the temptation of cowardice and hypocrisy, which are sins. Chillingworth tragically, and sinfully, chooses evil when he decides to take a treacherous vengeance into his own hands, though vengeance, he knows, is another’s. Hester alone emerges from her guilt through her public expiation and the long practice of virtue afterward.
So far The Scarlet Letter agrees with the doctrines of the Puritans. Its broader implications critically transcend them. In what dark slumber during these seven years has that Jehovah wrapped himself whom the elder Puritans invoked day and night about all their business, praying for the remission of sins through the merciful affection of his son? What prayers go up? Who counts upon the treasury of grace from which any sinner might hope to obtain salvation if his repentance were only sore enough? The theology which for seventeenth-century men was almost as real as religion itself had come to be for their profound descendant no more authoritative than some remote mythology except as it shadowed forth a cosmic and moral order which Hawthorne had himself observed. In one respect he seems sterner than the elder Puritans, for he admits into his narrative no hope of any providential intervention which might set these jangled bells again into accord. Dimmesdale will not encourage Hester to hope for a compensating future life even. The consequences of deeds live forever. At the same time Hawthorne has drawn the action down from heaven’s pavement, where Milton would have conducted it, to earth and has humanized it to the extent that he centers it in human bosoms. The newest schools of psychology cannot object to a reading of sin which shows Dimmesdale and Chillingworth as the victims of instincts and antipathies which fester because unnaturally repressed while Hester Prynne is cleansed through the discovery of her offense and grows healthier by her confession. All the Christian centuries have known the truth here represented. But only certain of those centuries—and not the Puritan seventeenth—have been capable of viewing love as Hawthorne views it and unfolds its tragedy. To the actual contemporaries of Hester and Dimmesdale it would have seemed a blasphemy worse than adultery for the lovers to agree, in their meeting at the brookside, that “what we did had a consecration of its own.” These are Hester’s words, and so it was to Hester that eventually “it seemed a fouler offence committed by Roger Chillingworth, than any which had since been done him, that, in the time when her heart knew no better, he had persuaded her to fancy herself happy by his side.” Hester thus becomes the type—subtly individualized but yet a type—of the moving principle of life which different societies in different ways may constrain but which in itself irresistibly endures. Her story is an allegory of the passion through which the race continues. She feels the ignominy which attends her own irregular behavior and accepts her fate as the reward of evil, but she does not understand it so far as to wish uncommitted the act which her society calls a sin. A harder woman might have become an active rebel; a softer woman might have sunk passively down into unavailing penitence. Hester stands erect, and thinks. She asks herself whether women, as life was constituted, could be really happy, even the happiest woman. “As concerned her own individual existence, she had long ago decided in the negative, and dismissed the point as settled.” Yet her mind, though dismissing her particular case as a malady without a cure, still ranges the universe for some cure for the injustice her sex inherits. “The world’s law was no law for her mind.” In this manner those whom the world crushes always take their surest revenge. Hester finds no speculative answer; and so she turns to action, plays her necessary part, and gives herself to the nurture of her child, no less a mother than if approved by every human ordinance. A universal allegory of motherhood, her story is also a criticism of the Puritan attempt to bind life too tightly. In the midst of the drab circumstances of Salem this woman of such radiance of beauty and magnificence of life rises up and cracks the stiff frame of the time. Great as her own suffering is, she has in some measure contributed to let a little light into the general tragedy of her sex. The Scarlet Letter is not merely a Puritan story. A spirit larger than Puritanism, as large as the world’s experience, informs and ripens the book.
Against a background so somber all the more do the fantastic elements stand out. They are summed up in the crimson brand which Hester wears as the statutory label of her offense but which out of some trait of whimsy she embroiders and illuminates until it is a token of the “rich, voluptuous, Oriental” luxuriance of her nature. The idea of such a label and its consequences for the wearer had long haunted Hawthorne, at least since he introduced it in 1837 into his story of Endicott and the Red Cross. It haunted him, indeed, so impressively at last as now and then almost to detach itself from the matter symbolized and to assume an entity of its own—tending inevitably on such occasions to be a mere frozen fancy. What saved Hawthorne here was his felicitous conception of Pearl, the child of such wayward passion and defiant tenderness, as a reality sprung from a symbol, as the scarlet letter incarnate. Of this little creature, all brilliance and beauty yet all caprice and unaccountability, Hester “felt like one who has evoked a spirit, but, by some irregularity in the process of conjuration, has failed to win the master-word that should control this new and incomprehensible intelligence.” Pearl lends this story its note of exquisiteness: she is the light that flashes across the gloom, the color that warms the sober tapestry, the wings that wake the scene when intensity has arrested movement. Nothing better than the figure of Pearl illustrates the intimate connection between Hawthorne’s most delicate fancy and the closely scrutinized actuality upon which he founded his art. When he shaped her he must have been thinking constantly of his little daughter Una, who during the composition of the book, while his mother lay dying in his house, frolicked before his eyes like a bright fairy at the doors of a tomb. It was of pearl that he says: “Hester could not help questioning, at such moments, whether Pearl were a human child. She seemed rather an airy sprite, which, after playing its fantastic sports for awhile upon the cottage floor, would flit away with a mocking smile.” It was of Una at nearly the same time that Hawthorne wrote in his diary, among many other comments which suggest the qualities of Pearl: “there is something that almost frightens me about the child,—I know not whether elfish or angelic, but, at all events, supernatural. She steps so boldly into the midst of everything, shrinks from nothing, has such a comprehension of everything, seems at times to have but little delicacy, and anon shows that she possesses the finest essence of it,—now so hard, now so tender; now so perfectly unreasonable, soon again so wise. In short, I now and then catch an aspect of her in which I cannot believe her to be my own human child, but a spirit strangely mingled with good and evil, haunting the house where I dwell.”
It is a revealing fact about the American taste for fiction in 1850 that though Hawthorne’s publisher regarded The Scarlet Letter as a masterpiece he issued the book in an edition of only five thousand copies, which were, however, so soon sold as immediately to call for another. The fame of Hawthorne was henceforth assured, and it helped stir him during the next three years to an activity he had never known before. Leaving Salem in the summer of 1850 for the lovely Berkshire village of Lenox, he proceeded early in the fall to a new novel, The House of the Seven Gables, completed and published early in the following year. In 1851 he wrote A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys (1852) and collected various scattered pieces into The Snow-Image, and Other Twice-Told Tales (1852); that winter, now removed to West Newton, Massachusetts, he produced The Blithedale Romance (1852); the next summer, finally established at The Wayside, a house he had bought in Concord, he wrote his Life of Franklin Pierce (1852); and in the winter of 1852–53, his Tanglewood Tales (1853), completed just before he left for England, where upon Pierce’s appointment he was to be United States consul at Liverpool. The life of Pierce was a trivial biography of a trivial man who was Hawthorne’s close and loyal friend. The Wonder-Book and Tanglewood Tales, with their exquisite versions of Greek myths quaintly medievalized and gently Puritanized by a passage through Hawthorne’s imagination, in becoming unchallenged classics for all children have perpetuated the grace of his attitude toward his own and continue to exhale the light and sweetness which Hawthorne seems to have distilled into them in the sunny intervals between his profounder studies of these same years. The Snow-Image volume, besides earlier writings some of great merit and some of little, boasts in the title story, The Great Stone Face, and Ethan Brand, three late tales that are among his best. The most considerable achievement of the period, however, is of course the two novels, The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance.
Writing in the preface to the first of these Hawthorne distinguished between the Romance and the Novel. “The latter form of composition is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience. The former—while, as a work of art, it must rigidly subject itself to laws, and while it sins unpardonably so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart—has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation. If he think fit, also, he may so manage his atmospherical medium as to bring out or mellow the lights and deepen and enrich the shadows of the picture.” Hawthorne, who called The House of the Seven Gables a Romance, assumed the full license to which he thought himself entitled, but it is with respect to the “atmospherical medium” that his powers were most successfully employed. If The Scarlet Letter springs from the faculty which had earlier created Young Goodman Brown and Rappaccini’s Daughter and Ethan Brand, The House of the Seven Gables springs from the descriptive faculty which had set down The Seven Vagabonds and The Toll-Gatherer’s Day and Main Street. By some inexplicable alchemy practised upon the principles of color it multiplies and combines shades of gray until they become—if it is not too fanciful to say so—silver and rose, faded green and dull crimson. The House itself, though the brisk daily life of Salem swirls naturally about it, contrives to stand invested in a cloud of omen projected from the dusky interior which has been innocent of sunshine, physical or moral, for two centuries. Ghosts crowd it, the ghosts of extinct grandeurs which have left dim tokens in portraits and furnishings too valuable for the present fortunes of the Pyncheon stock, and yet fiercely cherished by old Hepzibah, whose pride is a token hardly less dim. All the elements of the story center around these dusky chambers: the ancestral curse upon the founder, the treasure hidden in some forgotten cranny, the faded old brother and sister who when they try to escape are drawn irresistibly back, even the “antique and hereditary” flowers in the garden and the almost exanimate poultry whose “queer, rusty, withered aspect” parallels somewhat over-significantly the appearance of their human owners. The groundwork of this narrative is more richly woven than that of The Scarlet Letter, more full of details which Hawthorne had personally observed, but in picture and atmosphere it is no less finely unified.
The characters and action suffer a little from the perfection of the background. At certain moments they fade into it and grow indistinct, like men speaking out of dark corners in muted voices. When Hepzibah ventures so far from the recesses of the Pyncheon pride as to begin keeping her poor little shop, the light strikes her and she becomes pathetically real, and again when she puts forth her timid efforts to cheer her brother; but most of the time she is half hidden against the background. So with Clifford, who actually first appears in a darkened room which he has not been seen to enter and who continues to inhabit shadows. It is because of the particularly withered look of these older Pyncheons and of the house which becomes them that Phœbe shines, rather than because of any superlative vitality in herself. Externally the most natural of Hawthorne’s women, she proves upon analysis to be scarcely more than a winsome type of young girl deliberately introduced for the sake of contrast. The same purpose accounts for the daguerreotypist Holgrave, who in a rented gable of the old mansion nurses opinions which challenge the authority of the past here lying so heavily upon the present. What Phœbe has only the instincts of youth and Holgrave argues without activity. Their marriage at the end, while promising a renewal of energy for two decaying stocks, does not contradict the moral which Hawthorne had in mind—“the truth, namely, that the wrong-doing of one generation lives into the successive ones, and, divesting itself of every temporary advantage, becomes a pure and uncontrollable mischief.” Clifford by his unjust imprisonment has been broken in mind and body until even his former love of beauty has turned to a sporadic gluttony, and Hepzibah has wasted her whole life waiting in poverty for her brother’s release. Nothing now can recompense them for what they have lost; in them the moral sternly and veraciously shows its head. Elsewhere, however, the tragedy wears thinner. Judge Pyncheon, who has oppressed his kinsfolk and falls himself under the family curse, belongs too much to the stage—or to Dickens. The curse hangs vaguely over the action, a part of the house’s furniture, an element thickening the shadow, but still a thing with little life apart from that preserved by the Pyncheon belief—and pride—in it. As in The Scarlet Letter the implications frequently go beyond the doctrine, so in The House of the Seven Gables the picture, with its richness of texture and depth of atmosphere, frequently overpowers the argument. The picture is the memorable aspect of the book.
Of The Blithedale Romance Hawthorne declared that he had “occasionally availed himself of his actual reminiscences” of Brook Farm—“essentially a day-dream, and yet a fact”—“merely to establish a theatre, a little removed from the highway of ordinary travel, where the creatures of his brain may play their phantasmagorical antics without exposing them to too close a comparison with the actual events of real lives.” The personages of his romance he said were all imaginary. Conjecture has persisted in identifying Zenobia with Margaret Fuller and Miles Coverdale with Hawthorne himself; and research, since the publication of various portions of Hawthorne’s diary, has found numerous “sources” for Blithedale, such as the masquerade in the woods, which actually occurred at Brook Farm, the little seamstress there from Boston, whose appearance must have suggested Priscilla’s, and the woman drowned at Concord in 1843, whose fate is known to have suggested that of Zenobia. These, and many other items of actuality which might be added, are all subordinated to the central invention, enough so that in spite of them the romance has often been called the most shadowy Hawthorne ever wrote. A fellow-craftsman, however, William Dean Howells, preferred The Blithedale Romance to the others, and Henry James thought it “the lightest, the brightest, the liveliest” of them all. It lacks, indeed, any such mastering theme as that in The Scarlet Letter, or any such brocaded vestures as is worn by The House of the Seven Gables. Its particular excellence must be looked for in a touching charm that springs from the very tenuousness of its substance—a tenuousness greater than life’s even when Hawthorne was writing about matters he had seen with his physical eye, because the entire action of the novel is represented through the medium of its narrator, Coverdale the minor poet, who daintily eyes the moving world without ever coming close to it. Because Coverdale has no means of knowing all the history of the principal characters, Hawthorne waives the right of omniscience and omits certain hidden motives and submerged links of the story. Coverdale, too, being in love with Priscilla, tends to the confusion and limitation of vision appertaining to his state. While Hawthorne doubtless did not calculate all the consequences of his device, he was enough of a dramatist to incur them. The story flickers, lightens up, broadens, deepens, contracts, almost disappears, flares forth again, as it would have done in the perceptions of a real Coverdale; and the whole is seen through a misty illusion comparable in effect to those curtains of gauze let down at theaters to soften a scene. Through that wavering veil Coverdale sees enacted, against scenery which truthfully represents a community like Brook Farm, the tragedy of Hollingsworth the philanthropist and the two women who interrupt his career to love him. Through the figure of Hollingsworth project some of the bones of Hawthorne’s reasoning; the man who blindly sacrifices actual hearts for an abstract cause is himself here something of an abstraction, though he eventually recognizes his fault with a human sincerity. Priscilla, outwardly so visible because so closely studied from the little seamstress at Brook Farm, is never quite impressive; she has been refined to a point which brings her too near the bloodless decorum of her decade. It is in Zenobia that the rather wintry senses of Coverdale—and readers of all degrees of vitality after him—detect the fullest flood of life, fire and color, passion and experience. Hester Prynne had been of this stature. Both of them come into Hawthorne’s New England from other regions; both to be gorgeous have to be exotic. This may perhaps be taken as his tacit accusation that magnificence of personality did not ripen on the rock-bound coast. At least his imagination had gone out and found abundance and ripeness where they dwelt.
The seven years which Hawthorne spent in Europe removed him for the first time from the village atmosphere which—except in his imagination—was all he had known heretofore. His journals in England, France, and Italy throw quite as much light backward upon his earlier days as upon those of which he sedulously records the very modest happenings. A man of genius, already a classic, nearly fifty years old when he left America, he had yet to make his acquaintance with architecture, music, painting, and sculpture on their native ground, had yet to study the remains of great antiquity or to encounter a brilliant society. Any such society he conspicuously missed; he met few men of letters of real distinction; and he never felt more at home than among the other American and British expatriates in Florence. With the eagerness of a very young American he tasted the delights of antiquity in the routine quarters. With the patience of a man long withheld from masterpieces he gorged cathedrals and galleries. Very often he was bored. At the end of his journey he could still seriously condemn the representation of the nude in art. But his consistent provincialism is saved from being disagreeable by his exquisite honesty. What far smaller men learn early Hawthorne was learning late, but he gave himself without stealth or affectation to the task of mastering a new world, as observant, sensitive, and masculine in spirit as he had been in familiar New England. How good his temper was in the new circumstances appears from Our Old Home (1863), an account of his English stay subsequently refined from his English note-books: a book both beautiful and shrewd and nicely touched with international satire. A still more eminent, though hardly a more characteristic, product of his European experience was the romance which he himself always thought his best, The Marble Faun, begun at Rome in 1859 and finished the next year in England.
The venerable commonplace regarding The Marble Faun says that it is a guidebook to Rome—the Rome, of course, of the tourist who studies the city as a glorious mausoleum without much attention to the living inhabitants unless they appear in carnival or procession. Learning and observation, indeed, went into the rich, smooth, trustworthy, and often penetrating descriptions which adorn the tale, but the atmosphere, when all is said, lacks the golden depth and substantial intimacy which Hawthorne had caught for The House of the Seven Gables. Though the Rome he saw was older than his Salem by millenniums to centuries, he had lived more years in Salem than months in Rome. The sole new quality he could impart to his Italian romance was the sense of crowds of people filling the scene, constantly stirring in variegated abundance, and providing a new privacy in the midst of which his important characters might take refuge. From these crowds the atmosphere derives more density than from the works of art and the landscapes, comments upon which just miss overloading the narrative. It is perhaps the best proof of Hawthorne’s capaciousness of mind that he could have admitted so much still life into his action without confusing it. Elaborate as the background is, and stiff and difficult as it must have been to handle, the few essential persons of the drama move as freely and naturally as in the earlier novels with their almost empty stages.
The idea of the romance occurred to Hawthorne when he first saw the Faun of Praxiteles in the gallery at the Capitol and thought “that a story, with all sorts of fun and pathos in it, might be contrived on the idea of [the faun’s] species having become intermingled with the human race; a family with the faun blood in them having prolonged itself from the classic era till our own days.” Originally struck, it seems, by the fanciful possibilities of his theme, Hawthorne afterward deepened it into another Paradise Lost—of a sort. Donatello, descendant of a faun and in spite of centuries of intermixture almost a faun himself, through sin estranges himself from his careless Eden and enters the human fraternity of guilt in the companionship of the more experienced Miriam, on whose behalf he sins, and who, by not preventing him, sins with him. Having thus shared a sin they find themselves indissolubly married by its spiritual consequences, whatever their outer fortunes may be. An accidental witness of the murder, Hilda, whose conscience grew in New England, in another degree also acquired the responsibility, which tortures her until she rises above her Puritan prejudices to a universal mood and unburdens herself at the confessional which her own creed has disallowed. The fourth character, Kenyon, has only technical duties to perform: to be a chorus in some scenes and a not-too-impassioned witness in others, and to marry Hilda at the end. The Marble Faun, though twice as long as The Scarlet Letter, has an equal unity—if not an equal depth—of tone and a still higher concentration of events. Donatello from his ancestral tower among the Apennines and Miriam and Hilda and Kenyon from their several birthplaces, their previous lives only hinted at, come together in the easy society of Rome, where the tragedy overtakes them. They act it with the swiftness of drama and then vanish, going as mysteriously as they came, so mysteriously, indeed, as to vex all but those readers who are competent to perceive how much the strength of the central impression depends upon the obscurity which hides the past and future of the characters.
Though set in an environment so amply pagan and Catholic, The Marble Faun is in some respects the most Puritan of all Hawthorne’s romances. He who under the gray skies of New England had created Hester and Zenobia, when he came to a world in which they and their kind might have grown to their intended stature, seems to have turned partially back to an austerer code. Among the children of the Renaissance he missed that sense of sin which in his native province had been as regularly present as sea and hills. Genial as were the pagan survivals in this many-stranded city, cheerful as were the Roman Christians, light-hearted as were the artists, Hawthorne’s imagination would not expand unreservedly. It asked itself what would happen if sin and conscience should invade these charming precincts. Once more pagan than the Puritans, he was now more Puritan than the pagans. He would not let even Donatello play forever, believing that as generous youth died out of the faun he would “become sensual, addicted to gross pleasures, heavy, unsympathizing, and insulated within the narrow limits of a surly selfishness.” There is more than Puritanism in such a prophecy. There is more than Puritanism in the speculation of Kenyon, which shocks Hilda but which touches the theme very sharply: “Sin has educated Donatello, and elevated him. Is sin, then,… like sorrow, merely an element of human education, through which we struggle to a higher and purer state than we could otherwise have attained?” This is almost as much as to wonder whether experience itself, evil as well as good, does not civilize us, as it civilized Donatello. Hawthorne’s language is the language of sin and conscience which he had inherited, but here as in all his romances lurk certain questions the answers to which conduct to the most spacious regions of morals and imagination.
From his return in 1860 to his death four years later Hawthorne accomplished no remarkable work except Our Old Home. Another theme for a romance constantly tempted him, or rather, two: the idea of an elixir of life and that of the return to England of an American heir to some hereditary estate; but though he experimented with them in four fragments, The Ancestral Footstep, Septimius Felton, Dr. Grimshawe’s Secret, and The Dolliver Romance, Hawthorne could not fuse or complete them. Not only had the Civil War fatally interrupted his reflections but his imagination was dissolving, his vitality breaking up, along with the New England era of which he had been, among its poets and romancers, the consummate flower. Had he survived he must have seemed an outlived figure in a community which after the war turned its eyes increasingly to Europe and to the American West, through emigration losing its compact strength, and as a result of larger connections with the rest of the world losing its stout old self-sufficiency. Although The House of the Seven Gables points forward to a whole school of prose elegists recording the New England decline, Hawthorne himself wrote while his corner of the country was still thriving and busy. Among men confident of the future of New England he could survey its past without the sense that life about him had diminished and so could utilize it without clutching it too closely as a compensation for the present. But though New England was still strong, it had softened its former iron theology to a more endurable set of beliefs and under the sweet uses of prosperity had considerably enriched its life with secular culture. And yet so recent were the fires of that passion which had refined the spirit of the elder Puritans that the spirit of their descendants was still fine, though in a new way. In all but the sturdiest this modern spirit tended to be thin, frail, flat, merely a gentility of the intellect and disposition. Hawthorne was of the sturdiest. To a full heritage of the traditional inwardness he added wide reading and wide speculation and not a little observation of the color and costume of his province; he had talked with vagabonds and lived with transcendentalists. Of the little group at Concord—Hawthorne, Thoreau, Emerson—which with the passage of time stands up so eminently above the Longfellows and Lowells and Holmeses of the Cambridge-Boston tradition, Emerson enunciated a larger diversity of maxims, and Thoreau most vividly lived the Yankee life; but Hawthorne alone shaped the stuff of his meditations into visible forms and living creatures.
Thus he may be said to sum up and body forth the inner vision of his age and section so far as that was done by any imaginative writer. What he insufficiently reflects is the homelier, coarser qualities of New England: its tough rustic fibre, its hickory-hearted endurance, its canniness yoked with dreams, its dry, knowing humor, its crackling dialect, its home-bred complacency, the fearful silence and obstinacy of which it is capable when crossed too long, the potentialities within it of degenerating when the stronger impulses weaken. Such of these as were surface matters Hawthorne eschewed as merely so much dialect—things not essential to the heart of his investigations.He took them for granted, without comment, and went deeper. In a world, he asked himself, where human instincts are continually at war with human laws, and where laws, once broken, pursue the offender even more fiercely than they hedged him before, how are any but the more docile spirits to hold their course without calamity? The Puritan Fathers at the same inquiry, which they asked hardly more frequently than Hawthorne, could point in answer to election and atonement and divine grace. Hawthorne had inherited the old questions but not the old answers. He did not free himself from the Puritan mode of believing that to break a law is to commit a sin, or that to commit a sin is to play havoc with the soul; but he changed the terms and considered the sin as a violation less of some supernatural law than of the natural integrity of the soul. Whereas another romancer by tracking the course of the instincts which lead to what is called sin might have sought to justify them as native to the offender and so inescapable, Hawthorne accepts sin without a question and studies the consequences: in the souls of Hester and Dimmesdale, who sinned through love; of Chillingworth, who sinned through malice; of Judge Pyncheon, who sinned through covetousness; of Hollingsworth, who sinned through pride; of Donatello, who sinned, one may say, through chivalry; of Miriam, who sinned through the passion to escape her past; and of Pearl and Hepzibah and Clifford and Zenobia and Hilda, who are only the victims of sin in others. Although Hawthorne of course touches other themes than the consequence of sin, he touched it most importantly. He brought to his representation of the theme sanity without cynicism and tenderness without softness; he brought also, what is rarer than depth of moralism, an art finely rounded, a rich, graceful style, a spirit sweet and wholesome. He found a substance apparently as unpromising as the original soil upon which the Pilgrims established their commonwealth, and no less than they with their stony province he tamed and civilized it—going beyond them, moreover, by lifting it into enduring loveliness.