From: Short Studies of American Authors (1880)
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Published: Lee and Shepard 1880 Boston




I DO not know when I have been more surprised than on being asked, the other day, whether Hawthorne was not physically very small. It seemed at the moment utterly unconceivable that he should have been any thing less than the sombre and commanding personage he was. Ellery Channing well describes him as a

“Tall, compacted figure, ably strung,
To urge the Indian chase, or point the way.”

  One can imagine any amount of positive energy—that of Napoleon Bonaparte, for instance—as included within a small physical frame. But the self-contained purpose of Hawthorne, the large resources, the waiting power,—these seem to the imagination to imply an ample basis of physical life; and certainly his stately and noble port is inseparable, in my memory, from these characteristics.

  Vivid as this impression is, I yet saw him but twice, and never spoke to him. I first met him on a summer morning, in Concord, as he was walking along the road near the Old Manse, with his wife by his side, and a noble-looking baby-boy in a little wagon which the father was pushing. I remember him as tall, firm, and strong in bearing; his wife looked pensive and dreamy, as she indeed was, then and always; the child was Julian, then known among the neighbors as “the Prince.” When I passed, Hawthorne lifted upon me his great gray eyes, with a look too keen to seem indifferent, too shy to be sympathetic—and that was all. But it comes back to memory like that one glimpse of Shelley which Browning describes, and which he likens to the day when he found an eagle’s feather.

  Again I met Hawthorne at one of the sessions of a short-lived literary club; and I recall the imperturbable dignity and patience with which he sat through a vexatious discussion, whose details seemed as much dwarfed by his presence as if he had been a statue of Olympian Zeus. After his death I had a brief but intimate acquaintance with that rare person, Mrs. Hawthorne; and with one still more finely organized, and born to a destiny of sadness,—their elder daughter. I have staid at “The Wayside,” occupying a room in the small tower built by Hawthorne, and containing his lofty and then deserted study, which still bore upon its wall the Tennysonian motto, “there is no joy but calm,”—this having been inscribed, however, not by himself, but by his son. It is not my purpose to dwell upon the facts of private life; and these circumstances are mentioned only because it is well to know at what angle of incidence any critic has been touched by the personality of a great author.

  Perhaps it always appears to men, as they grow older, that there was rather more of positive force and vitality in their own generation and among their immediate predecessors, than among those just coming on the stage. This may be the reason why there seems to me a perpetual sense of grasp and vigor in Hawthorne’s most delicate sketches; while much of the most graceful writing now done in America makes no such impression, but either seems like dainty confectionery, or like carving minute heads on cherry-stones. In England the tendency is just now to the opposite fault,—to a distrust of all nice attention to form in writing, as being necessarily a weakness. Hawthorne happily escaped both these dangerous alternatives; and, indeed, it is hard to see that his genius was much affected by his surroundings, after all. He had, to be sure, the conscientious fidelity of Puritanism in his veins, a thing equally important for literature and for life: without it he might have lavished and wasted himself like Poe. He had what Emerson once described as “the still living merit of the oldest New-England families;”1 he had moreover the unexhausted wealth of the Puritan traditions,—a wealth to which only he and Whittier have as yet done any justice. The value of the material to be found in contemporary American life he never fully recognized; but he was the first person to see that we really have, for romantic purposes, a past; two hundred years being really quite enough to constitute antiquity. This was what his “environment” gave him, and this was much.

  But, after all, his artistic standard was his own: there was nobody except Irving to teach him any thing in that way; and Irving’s work lay rather on the surface, and could be no model for Hawthorne’s. Yet from the time when the latter began to write for “The Token,” at twenty-three, his powers of execution, as of thought, appear to have been full grown. The quiet ease is there, the pellucid language, the haunting quality: these gifts were born in him; we cannot trace them back to any period of formation. And when we consider the degree to which they were developed, how utterly unfilled remains his peculiar throne; how powerless would be the accumulated literary forces of London, for instance, at this day, to produce a single page that could possibly be taken for Hawthorne’s,—we see that there must, after all, be such a thing as literary art, and that he must represent one of the very highest types of artist.

  Through Hawthorne’s journals we trace the mental impulses by which he first obtained his themes. Then in his unfinished “Septimius Felton,”—fortunately unfinished for this purpose,—we see his plastic imagination at work in shaping the romance; we watch him trying one mode of treatment, then modifying it by another; always aiming at the main point, but sometimes pausing to elaborate the details, and at other times dismissing them to be worked out at leisure. There hangs before me, as I write, a photograph of one of Raphael’s rough sketches, drawn on the back of a letter: there is a group of heads, then another group on a different scale; you follow the shifting mood of the artist’s mind; and so it is in reading “Septimius Felton.” In all Hawthorne’s completed works, the penciling is rubbed out, and every trace of the preliminary labor has disappeared.

  One of the most characteristic of Hawthorne’s literary methods is his habitual use of guarded under-statements and veiled hints. It is not a sign of weakness, but of conscious strength, when he surrounds each delineation with a sort of penumbra, takes you into his counsels, offers hypotheses, as, “May it not have been?” or, “Shall we not rather say?” and sometimes, like a conjurer, urges particularly upon you the card he does not intend you to accept. He seems not quite to know whether Arthur Dimmesdale really had a fiery scar on his breast, or what finally became of Miriam and her lover. He will gladly share with you any information he possesses, and, indeed, has several valuable hints to offer; but that is all. The result is, that you place yourself by his side to look with him at his characters, and gradually share with him the conviction that they must be real. Then, when he has you thus in possession, he calls your attention to the profound ethics involved in the tale, and yet does it so gently that you never think of the moral as being obtrusive.

  All this involved a trait which was always supreme in him,—a marvellous self-control. He had by nature that gift which the musical composer Jomelli went to a teacher to seek,—“the art of not being embarrassed by his own ideas.” Mrs. Hawthorne told me that her husband grappled alone all winter with “The Scarlet Letter,” and came daily from his study with a knot in his forehead; and yet his self-mastery was so complete that every sentence would seem to have crystallized in an atmosphere of perfect calm. We see the value of this element in his literary execution, when we turn from it to that of an author so great as Lowell, for instance, and see him often entangled and weighed down by his own rich thoughts, his style being overcrowded by the very wealth it bears. Hawthorne never needed Italic letters to distribute his emphasis, never a footnote for assistance. There was no conception so daring that he shrank from attempting it; and none that he could not so master as to state it, if he pleased, in terms of monosyllables.

  For all these merits he paid one high and inexorable penalty,—the utter absence of all immediate or dazzling success. His publisher, Goodrich, tells us, in his “Reminiscences,”2 that Hawthorne and Willis began to write together in “The Token,” in 1827, and that the now-forgotten Willis “rose rapidly to fame,” while Hawthorne’s writings “did not attract the slightest attention.” The only recognition of his merits that I have been able to find in the contemporary criticism of those early years is in “The New-England Magazine” for October, 1834, where he is classed approvingly with those who were then considered the eminent writers of the day,—Miss Sedgwick, Miss Leslie, Verplanck, Greenwood, and John Neal. “To them,” the critic says, “we may add an anonymous author of some of the most delicate and beautiful prose ever published this side of the Atlantic,—the author of ‘The Gentle Boy.’”3 For twenty years he continued to be, according to his own statement, “the obscurest man Of letters in America.” Goodrich testifies that it was almost impossible to find a publisher for “Twice-Told Tales” in 1837, and I can myself remember how limited a circle greeted the reprint in the enlarged edition of 1841. When Poe, about 1846, wrote patronizingly of Hawthorne, he added, “It was never the fashion, until lately, to speak of him in any summary of our best authors.”4 Whittier once told me that when he himself had obtained, with some difficulty, in 1847, the insertion of one of Hawthorne’s sketches in “The National Era,” the latter said quietly, “There is not much market for my wares.” It has always seemed to me the greatest triumph of his genius, not that he bore poverty without a murmur,—for what right has a literary man, who can command his time and his art, to sigh after the added enjoyments of mere wealth?—but that he went on doing work of such a quality for an audience so small or so indifferent.

  Whether more immediate applause would have modified the result, it is now impossible to say. Having so much, why should we ask for more? An immediate popularity might possibly have added a little more sunshine to his thought, a few drops of redder blood to his style; thus averting the only criticism that can ever be justly made on either. Yet this very privation has made him a nobler and tenderer figure in literary history; and a source of more tonic influence for young writers, through all corning time. The popular impression of Hawthorne as a shy and lonely man, gives but a part of the truth. When we think of him as reading “The Scarlet Letter” to his sympathetic wife, until she pressed her hands to her ears, and could bear no more; or when we imagine him as playing with his children so gayly that one of them told me “there never was such a playmate in all the world,”—we may feel that he had, after all, the very best that earth can give, and all our regrets seem only an impertinence.

1 “The Dial,” iii, 101.
2 Vol. ii, p 269.
3 New-England Magazine, October, 1834, p. 331.
4 Poe’s Works (ed. 1853), iii. 189.

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