Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Romances.

From: Literary Sketches (1888)
Author: Henry S. Salt
Published: Swan Sonnenschein Lowrey & Co. 1888 London

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Romances.

HAWTHORNE rides well his horde of the night.” This remark of Emerson’s, in allusion to the reticence of one of his guests at a social meeting, is happily descriptive of the literary characteristics by which the author of The Scarlet Letter has won himself a peculiar place among the immortals. There is something spectral and elusive about the creations of Hawthorne’s genius. The reader of his tales is haunted throughout by a weird, indefinable sense of nocturnal phantasy, which seems to brood over these writings as over no other works of fiction. There have been greater and more powerful masters of the emotions of pity and terror; other novelists have depicted the mysteries and sorrows of human existence in darker and stronger colours, and with a far wider range; but no other writer has ever succeeded in displaying his conceptions through the medium of that twilight glimmer and filmy half-light, which affects our minds so strangely in reading Hawthorne’s romances.

  The combination of stern Calvinistic principles with some sort of classical refinement or artistic culture has often been observed to produce a character possessed of certain rich and picturesque qualities. In Hawthorne’s case we see an instance of a similar effect. His genius resulted from a mixture of rigid Puritanism with the highest imaginative faculty. His Puritan sympathies—inherited from a line of ancestors who, as he himself loved to record, were famous for their persecution of Quakers and witches had been fostered still further in boyhood by his intense study of The Pilgrim’s Progress and other Puritan books. On the other hand, his love of the mysterious and romantic was derived partly from his sensitive organisation and partly from the circumstances of his early life—the lonely days spent in skating on Sebago Lake or shooting in the Maine woods, amid scenes full of traditionary legends and superstitions. His imagination, quickened by these youthful experiences-these “cursed habits of solitude,” as he calls them-enabled him to live afresh in the stern old Puritan times, and realise in vision the scenes with which his forefathers had been acquainted. “Every phase of early New England life,” writes one of his American admirers,1 every type of early New England character, is familiar to him. The sea, the sky, the air, the storms, the winds, the seasons, the blazing hearth, the deep snows, the dark forest over which superstition had thrown its terrors, thanksgiving day, the election sermon, Thursday lecture, the solemn Sunday-all the memories of New England crowd his pages.” Thus equipped, he appeared early in life on the field of literature, choosing as his special and congenial theme the mystery of Sin, in which subject his two natural proclivities, the religious and the imaginative, could meet and harmonise. To estimate the working of the moral law; to note how the germ of evil sown by one man can result in a crop of calamities to others; to track the secret effect of sin on the soul, and to question if it may be, like sorrow, a step in man’s education-ail this could give an outlet both to Hawthorne’s innate Puritan tendencies and his love of imaginative speculation. Among his reminiscences of England, published in Our Old Home, there is an account of a certain doctor of divinity, “a perfect model of clerical propriety,” who, having just come over from America for a tour in Europe, paid Hawthorne a visit at the Liverpool consulate. A week later he again presented himself, but this time transformed in appearance “from the most decorous of metropolitan clergymen into the rowdiest and dirtiest of disbanded officers,” having fallen into some pitfall “not more of vice than terrible calamity.” This tragedy, which Hawthorne says was the deepest he ever witnessed, was nothing more than an illustration from actual life of the topic on which he so often dwelt in his romances.

  Hawthorne’s literary career was singularly and fortunately deficient in stirring and exciting incidents, the unruffled happiness of his domestic life contrasting strongly with the proverbial troubles of men of genius. Yet there was in him a restlessness of disposition which caused him to make many changes and migrations. In America, as his son tells us in his biography, he was ever shifting his quarters between Concord, Salem, and Lenox; in England he yearned for the climate of Italy; but when he found himself at Rome his affections reverted to England and America. “I should like to sail on and on for ever”—so he said to a fellow-voyager— “and never touch the shore again;” and those who study his life will probably come to the conclusion that this roving tendency, inherited perhaps from his seafaring ancestors, was the main cause of the gloomy depression of his later years, which seems otherwise unaccountable. At any rate, two very distinct periods may be observed, without any fanciful arrangement, in Hawthorne’s career; the former comprising the sixteen years preceding his visit to Europe, and the latter consisting of the last ten years of his life. It will be observed that almost all his most valuable work was done during the first, the American period; once uprooted from his native soil, and sent a wandering tourist through the regular European beat, he could produce nothing comparable to his great early romances. Twice-told Tales, Mosses from an Old Manse, The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, and The Blithedale Romance were all published between 1837 and 1853. Then Hawthorne was made American Consul at Liverpool, and henceforth wrote nothing better than Transformation, Our Old Home, and the fragmentary stories of which Septimius is the chief. It is obvious that for some reason he had partly lost the cunning of his hand in these later years, and the explanation must probably be sought in the prolonged absence from his native soil, the desultory kind of life he led in Europe, and the unintellectual nature of his employment at Liverpool. It is odd to think of the author of The Blithedale Romance as an inmate of “Mrs. Blodgett’s boarding-house” at Liverpool, where, as Hawthorne’s son and biographer apologetically remarks, “the company, though not consisting of the most cultivated persons imaginable, was very hearty and genuine.” Hawthorne seems to have done his best in good-fellowship at Liverpool, as at Brook Farm; but his character was scarcely adapted for boarding in a nautical establishment, where the conversation “savoured of tar and bilge-water,” and where sea-captains sat enveloped in a blue cloud of smoke. “It is rather comfortless,” he wrote in his English Notebook, “to think of home as three years off, and three thousand miles away. With what a sense of utter weariness, not fully realised till then, shall we sink down on our own threshold when we reach it.” No doubt these words were written in a mood between jest and earnest, but there was, nevertheless, a prophetic truth in them which was only too literally fulfilled in the sadness of the last few years in his old home at Concord.

  Surprise has sometimes been expressed that the Puritan element in Hawthorne’s character, together with the matter-of-fact system of American life, were not fatal obstacles to the production of highly imaginative work. In the Preface to The Blithedale Romance Hawthorne himself says that he chose the Brook Farm episode as the most romantic of his own life, and as offering a kind of enchanted atmosphere usually unavailable to an American novelist. Again, in the Preface to Transformation he remarks that Italy, where the scene of the story is laid, was “a sort of poetic or fairy precinct where actualities would not be so terribly insisted upon, as they are, and needs must be, in America.” “No author,” he adds, “without a trial can conceive of the difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong.” Yet surely this idea is confuted by Hawthorne’s own best writings. Nothing could be more truly poetical. and imaginative than his admirable treatment of the prim Puritan villages, surrounded by the primeval forests where the witches were thought to assemble on dark nights; the occasional glimpses into Indian character and customs; the unexplored mountains, where “the great carbuncle” might possibly be sighted by some adventurous pilgrim; the calm slow-flowing rivers, with their broad prairies, long meadow-grass, and yellow water-lilies. All these scenes he describes with a measured and meditative delight, which proves that his imagination drew more strength than he himself was aware of from the influence and traditions of his native soil. On the other hand, the Italian novel Transformation, is distinctly inferior in all essential qualities to its great American predecessors. Nor need we be surprised at this; for books written in a foreign country, under the impulse of travel and passing observation rather than life-long intimacy, can seldom attain to the same excellence as those which are inspired by the natural objects which the writer has known from childhood. There never lived a closer observer than George Eliot; yet how slight and artificial is her Italian study, Romola, elaborate as it is, compared with her simple, but immortal, delineations of homely English life. So, too, it was with Hawthorne. He set himself with great earnestness and considerable success to study Italian art; yet, with all his pains in founding a romance on this subject, he failed to wield the same power as in his stories of Puritan life.

  It can hardly be doubted that The Scarlet Letter is the best of all Hawthorne’s productions. It is, indeed, one of the greatest of all works of fiction; for in the whole range of English literature there are few things more tragic and more sublime than this simple tale. The resemblance of its general structure to that of Lockhart’s Adam Blair has more than once been commented on; it is also worth remark that The Scarlet Letter offers one or two very striking points of comparison with George Eliot’s Adam Bede. The relation existing between the two guilty characters are almost identical in the two books; a forbidden love; a fatal secret; a disgrace borne at first by the woman alone, but finally shared by her lover—these form a strange coincidence in the plans of the novels, which is maintained even in the names of the characters, Hester Prynne and Hester Sorrel, Arthur Dimmesdale and Arthur Donnithorne. But with the names and situation of the characters the similarity ends; for Hawthorne’s beautiful and pathetic story is happily free from the sensational incidents which so sadly mar the latter part of Adam Bede. In The Scarlet Letter the moral is not obtruded on the reader, yet the tone is altogether more lofty and spiritual, and aided by a power of poetical imagination of which George Eliot was wholly destitute. Nor can it be said that Hawthorne, on his side, was deficient in that keen insight and subtle analysis of character for which George Eliot is justly renowned. Indeed, this is one of the most striking features of The Scarlet Letter, after the publication of which Hawthorne is said to have been often consulted by various criminals and “spiritual invalids,” who thus bore unconscious testimony to the keenness of his observation.

  Opinions vary as to the comparative merits of The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance. The former certainly contains passages and scenes which equal anything which Hawthorne ever wrote, foremost among such being the description of the old house, which “affected the beholder like a human countenance,” with its acutely pointed gables and huge clusters of chimneys, but on the whole it is perhaps somewhat lacking in that mysterious glamour which Hawthorne usually contrived to throw over his romances, and it labours under the disadvantage of dealing with several generations of the same family, which renders the plot a little complicated and difficult to keep in mind. The Blithedale Romance is free from these blemishes, and it is hard to say which of the four chief characters in this book is most worthy of praise, Zenobia is one of the richest and most gorgeous studies ever produced by novelist or poet, and there is something scarcely less impressive in the delineation of the inexplicable yet persistent curiosity which impels Miles Coverdale to fathom the mystery of her life. Readers of Godwin’s novel, Caleb Williams, will not fail to notice the singular resemblance between the strange infatuation which led Williams to pry into the terrible secret of his master and benefactor, Falkland, and those passages of The Blithedale Romance where Zenobia turns furiously to bay under the scrutiny of her too inquisitive friend. “You know not what you do! It is dangerous, sir, believe me, to tamper thus with earnest human passions, out of your mere idleness and for your sport.” In The Blithedale Romance, as in The Scarlet Letter and Transformation, may be noticed Hawthorne’s odd partiality for a quartette of characters; and there is also a certain amount of resemblance between the characters of Zenobia and Priscilla in the one book and Miriam and Hilda in the other.

  Hawthorne’s position among novelists is wholly unique, for though some of the short tales, by which he first became known as an author, bear a resemblance to those of Poe, his maturer style is absolutely his own. It is worthy of remark that the short prose story has flourished far more on American than on English soil. No first-rate English writers seem to have thought it worth their while to cultivate it to any great extent; and though there are a few masterpieces of this style scattered here and there, as, for instance, in Dicken’s books, it cannot be said to have reached any high degree of excellence in this country as it did in the hands of Hawthorne and Poe. Perhaps of all English writers De Quincey is, on the whole, the one who is least dissimilar to Hawthorne, and it is disappointing to learn that two prose-poets never found an opportunity of meeting, though Hawthorne often spoke with warm appreciation of De Quincey. In one point they were closely akin: they both had a keen sense of the impressiveness of a great city. No writer has done justice to the poetry of London life so fully as De Quincey; and it is interesting to find that the London streets, with their countless thousands of unknown faces, exercised the same kind of spell over Hawthorne’s imagination as over that of “the English opium-eater.” “The bustle of London,” he writes, in his English Note-Book, “may weary, but never can satiate me. By night London looks wild and dreamy, and fills me with a kind of pleasant dread.” St. Paul’s Cathedral, we are not surprised to find, had a special fascination for Hawthorne. “There cannot,” he thinks, “be anything else in its way so good in the world as just this effect of St. Paul’s, in the very heart and densest tumult of London.” He loved to go out and lose himself in the labyrinth of streets, in the ‘same way that De Quincey used to roam at random through the network of crowded passages and alleys. In Wakefield, one of the Twice-told Tales, we have a fine example of Hawthorne’s vivid perception of the mystery of a great city, where the next street may mean practically another world.

  Like De Quincey again, Hawthorne was a pure artist, being quite devoid of all those feelings which may be comprised under the name of enthusiasm. He was a quietist in his devotion to literary leisure, a lotus-eater in his enjoyment of calm. His attitude towards idealism, and everything that savoured of transcendental philosophy, if not positively hostile, was very far from being friendly, and was certainly in some cases contemptuous and narrow-minded. His inability to sympathise with those whose opinions are in conflict with the conventional laws of society appears unmistakably in many parts of his biography, and is one of the few unpleasant traits in his character. “The sooner the sect is extinct the better, I think,” is the concluding sentence in his diary for a day in which he had visited an American Quaker establishment. He spoke of slavery as “one of those evils which Divine Providence does not leave to be remedied by human contrivance.” That he should have been a member of the Socialistic circle at Brook Farm has always been, and must continue to be, a matter of wonder and astonishment; and though none can regret an episode which furnished him with such good material for artistic treatment in The Blithedale Romance, it is evident that he was by nature incapable of doing justice to the higher aims of that ideal community. Very characteristic, too, is his criticism of Shelley in one of the most humorous stories of the Mosses from an Old Manse. Had he been able to understand more clearly the ideals which Shelley had in view, he could hardly have adopted, even in his humorous vein, the theory that the poet of Freethought, if he had lived to mature age, would have been reconciled to the orthodox faith, or, as he inimitably expresses it, would have written a defence of Christianity on the basis of the thirty-nine articles. It is obvious that when Hawthorne touches on great social questions, he does so merely from the artistic point of view; there is no sign either in his life or writings that he felt anything more than an intellectual interest, or rather indifference, in all such inquiries.

  If it were possible for a moment that we could wish Hawthorne’s genius to have been other than it was, we might be tempted to regret that he had not a dash of healthy enthusiasm. His admirers have been at great pains to show that there was nothing “morbid “ in his character or style of writing;2 but unless we are prepared to define the term in a sense altogether different from that in which it is generally understood, I do not think we can justly exonerate Hawthorne from the charge of morbidness. It is undeniable that his favourite study was that of decay rather than growth; sickness rather than health: failure rather than success; in a word, the mortality rather than the vitality of man; and this is not the less true because he has scattered throughout his books, by way of contrast to the prevailing gloom, many delightful pictures of purity and happiness. But it need not be assumed that in saying Hawthorne’s genius was of a somewhat morbid cast, we are in any sense disparaging it. The morbid has its place in literature as well as in nature, and it will be neither possible nor desirable to eliminate it altogether from the domain of art as long as mankind remains in its present condition.

  As I have already said, the most peculiar of all Hawthorne’s artistic features is the filmy haze of mystery with which he so dexterously contrives to invest his principal characters. This effect is partly gained by his strange habit of suggesting, rather than stating, his fanciful ideas, side by side with the option of some matter-of fact explanation-a peculiarity which must have arrested the attention of all careful readers of his books; as, for instance, in his description of the mysterious and fatal connection existing between Miriam and the Spectre of the Catacombs; or the unaccountably sudden manner of death hereditary in the Pyncheon family; or the various surmises about the scarlet letter branded on Arthur Dimmesdale’s breast; or the numerous references to witches and witchcraft; or lastly, the belief that Dr. Grimshawe’s huge spider was the devil in disguise, “a superstition,” as Hawthorne drily informs us, “which deserves absolutely no countenance.” It has been well remarked that Hawthorne possessed a power of abstracting himself, as it were, from his own genius, and viewing himself, his family, his circumstances of life, and his writings from an external ·standpoint, as if he were two persons, the one surveying and commenting on the other. Some of his short stories, notably Rappacini’s Daughter-which is, perhaps, as fine a specimen of its author’s power as anything he ever wrote—are cast in that half-imaginative, half scientific style, of which Poe was also a great exponent, wherein the charm consists in the subtle transition from the real to the fanciful. Given the fact that certain flowers may exercise a strange and deleterious influence on the human senses, and we are led on, step by step, and stage by stage, without any particular revolt of our reason against the improbability of the tale, to the weird conception of a human being whose whole existence is so impregnated with the breath of poisonous flowers that the poison itself has become life, and the antidote death. Here, too, may be noticed that mysterious attraction to the study of flowers in their relation to mankind, which appears in so many of Hawthorne’s writings; as in the description of the effect produced on Miles Coverdale by the splendid exotic which Zenobia wore in her hair; the continual recurrence to the su6ject of the sanguinea sanguinissima in Septimius; the many touches by which “Alice’s Posies” are wrought into the plot of The House of the Seven Gables; and the beautiful references in The Dolliver Romance to the tropical plant in the old. Doctor’s garden, which was so connected with memories of his long-lost wife, who had once worn its flowers in her bosom, that it had become “a kind of talisman to bring up her image.”

  It need not be supposed, however, that Hawthorne’s romances are unreal or unnatural, because they are surrounded by this halo of mystery. It is but a thin and transparent veil, which softens and tones down the broad glare of every-day life, yet at the same time leaves the outlines of the characters clear and well-defined. It is, in fact, what Wordsworth has described as

“The light that never was on sea or land,
The consecration, and the poet’s dream.”

  For Hawthorne’s genius, if we would judge him aright, was something loftier and more inspired than that of a mere prose-writer or novelist—he was rather a prose-poet, a dramatist and lyrist in one. His books were in the highest degree works of imagination, to which was added the most elaborate and careful finish which their author was capable of bestowing on them. None but a real poet could have written that description of Hester Prynne’s feelings when she sees her lover pass by “ in the procession of majestic and venerable fathers,” without sign of recognition, “enveloped, as it were, in the rich music,” while at the same time “the heavy footstep of their approaching fate might be heard, nearer, nearer, nearer.” Not less poetical is the account of the storm which raged over the House of the Seven Gables after the death of its owner. Many poets have sung of the wind, but few have ever described it better than this. “It is not to be conceived beforehand what wonderful wind-instruments are these old timber mansions, and how haunted with the strangest noises; which immediately begin to sing, and sigh, and sob, and· shriek, and to smite with sledge-hammer, airy but ponderous, in some distant chamber, and to tread along the entries, as with stately footsteps, and to rustle up and down the staircase, as with silks miraculously stiff, whenever the gale catches the house with a window open, and gets fairly into it.” It is interesting to observe that this rare poetical quality was the one that remained with Hawthorne to the end, even during that sad period of failing power and increasing dejection when he was no longer able to work out more than the disjointed fragments of a romance. There is scarcely in all his writings a more characteristic and imaginative passage than the description in The Dolliver Romance of the aged doctor’s patch-work gown, of which the original material was “the embroidered front of his own wedding waistcoat and the silken skirt of his wife’s bridal attire,” into which the spinsters of succeeding generations had “quilted their duty and affection in the shape of patches upon patches, rose-colour, crimson, blue, violet, and green, and then (as their hopes faded, and their life kept growing shadier, and their attire took a sombre hue) sober grey, and great fragments of funereal black; until the doctor could revive the memory of most things that had befallen him by looking at his patch-work gown as it hung upon a chair.”

  It would be easy to multiply instances drawn from Hawthorne’s works of this gift of brilliant imagination; but enough has now been said. His rare and subtle intellect, high creative powers, and singularly pure and lucid style of expression alike qualify him to rank among the great masters of English fiction.

1 J. W. Symonds’ Oration on Hawthorne, 1878.
2 Vide C. G. P. Lathrop’s “Study of Hawthorne,” Boston, U.S., 1876.

All Sub-Works of Literary Sketches (1888):
PDF Sub-Works open in a new tab. Close the tab when done viewing to return here.