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Hawthorne and Melville

Excerpts from the Lecture "The Meanings of Hawthorne's Women," by Smith College Professor Richard H. Millington, presented at the House of the Seven Gables Historic Site (Turner House), Salem, Massachusetts, 8 September 2000

Professor Millington's lecture "The Meanings of Hawthorne's Women" connects most clearly with the relationship between Hawthorne and Melville when he notes that "Melville's famous label-'Hawthorne: a Problem'-seems to belong with special force to this whole question of identification with women-of vicarious femininity or feminism in Hawthorne's work." While Millington necessarily leaves open many of the questions that can be raised about his topic, he persuasively shows that Hawthorne identified in many ways with women in his work whereas he lacked any corresponding advocacy for women in the real world. The following excerpts from Millington's lecture develop the concept of Hawthorne's "imaginary femininity."

Excerpts from "The Meanings of Hawthorne's Women":

". . . What does it mean that Hawthorne-apparently no friend to the hunger for new possibilities and patterns of life felt by the century's emerging feminist thinkers-seems to have written the most powerfully feminist fiction of the American 19th Century?

. . . Can we discern a pattern, an implicit analytic shape, to Hawthorne's representation of women, and to his portrayal of gender relations more largely?

. . . If one accepts the overall accuracy of Baym's account of the consistency of Hawthorne's way of telling the stories of his couples-and, it seems to me, it is hard not to-what interpretive conclusions ought we to draw about the meanings of women (or, more broadly, the meanings of gender) in his fiction?

. . . If this picture of Hawthorne's deep understanding of the inner shape of middle-class gender roles is accurate, what are we to make of the account of Hawthorne's life that has emerged so compellingly in T. Walter Herbert's work-where gender relations within and around that family seem ridden by breakdowns of sympathetic identification, by failures to recognize in life and in actual women the debilitating narratives so fully understood in the fiction? How did such rich analysis come to yield so little usable wisdom?

Readers of Hawthorne scholarship will of course recognize that this knot of questions does not originate with me, and Melville's famous label-'Hawthorne: a Problem'-seems to belong with special force to this whole question of identification with women-of vicarious femininity or feminism in Hawthorne's work. I want now to propose a way of understanding the relationship between the pieces of my puzzle-the imaginary femininity of the Prefaces, the analytic feminism of the fiction, the apparent short-circuiting of wisdom in the life. I will set aside the psychological explanations, whether personal or cultural, that seem like the most plausible routes toward such an understanding . . . and speculate instead about what might be called the 'cultural location'of reading in antebellum America.

Let me turn first, and most extensively, to the 'imaginary femininity' of the figure of himself Hawthorne composes in the Prefaces. The definitive public celebration of Hawthorne's womanly qualities comes in Longfellow's 1842 review of Twice-told Tales. Longfellow discovers the many "feminine elements" of Hawthorne's genius: 'depth and tenderness of feeling,' exceeding purity of mind,' 'a certain airy grace and arch vivacity in narrating incidents and delineating characters.' He notices the intensity of the maternal sentiment achieved in 'The Gentle Boy,' the 'minute delicacy of touch' and 'womanly knowledge of a child's mind and character' apparent in 'Little Annie's Ramble,' the fineness and delicacy of his portrayal of female character-concluding, at last, that 'Every woman owes [Hawthorne] a debt of gratitude for those lovely visions of womanly faith, tenderness, and truth, which glide so gracefully through his pages' (Idol 62).

What's going on here? This passage, both in its content and in the enthusiasm of its own public performance of the femininity it evokes, has long signaled to me that there's something 'off,' or partial, in our standard account of the relation between a combative, rivalrous, anxious 19th-Century masculinity and the male writer's task of establishing a writerly identity. For what we must infer from the context is the complete 'normality' of what I have been calling 'imaginary femininity.' The other paragraphs of Longfellow's review-and this one must be doing the same thing-each identify an element of Hawthorne's talent (his 'poetic' capacity, his preference for authentically American materials, the elegance of his prose) that demonstrates his qualifications as an elite American writer. What Hemingway would have heard as fighting words, then, Hawthorne must have heard as compliments. And from this, I think, we might learn two things: not only is a publically acknowledged femininity fully compatible with at least some styles of middle-class masculinity, but the capacity to perform femininity emerges as a crucial aspect of the male writer's professional qualifications-at least as Longfellow was setting out to define them. In a sense, Longfellow welcomes Hawthorne as one of the boys by pointing out his ability to be one of the girls.

We might glimpse an intriguing professional exchange or act of instruction here: Longfellow finds and celebrates in Hawthorne's fiction the feminine qualities that Hawthorne will later learn to foreground in his prefaces. But this public exchange between the two writers is preceded by an earlier, more personal one that is still more curious. Upon the appearance of the first version of Twice-told Tales (and in anticipation, one must imagine, of a review), Hawthorne sent Longfellow a now-famous account of his life since college. The figure that emerges from this letter-self-sequestered; "carried apart from the main current of life"; not having lived, but only dreamed about living; untouched by personal or readerly responsiveness-has, a number of readers have noticed, a striking later life. It appears both as the Prefaces' figure of the writer, seeking a mutually enlivening interchange with his reader, and-more surprisingly-as the figure of the lover in Hawthorne's courtship letters to Sophia, demonstrating his eagerness for love's self-completing connection and shared selfhood. To take the most famous instance: 'Thou only hast revealed me to myself; for without thy aid, my best knowledge of myself would have been merely to know my own shadow-to watch it flickering on the wall, and mistake its fantasies for my own real actions. Indeed we are but shadows . . . till the heart is touched. That touch creates us-then we begin to be-thereby we are beings of reality, and inheritors of eternity' (Letters, 1813-1843, 495).

It is, at last, from the curious dual career of this emotionally vulnerable figure-its capacity to function as both a lover and a figurative professional identity-that I will compose my 'solution' to the puzzle I have proposed. For what the double life of this version of Hawthorne shows us, I think, is the affinity, within antebellum middle-class culture, between writing and courtship: that these two domains, each a curious mix of the private and the social, are cognate cultural locations, occupying allied positions in the emotional life of middle-class men and women. Social historians, most notably Karen Lystra in Searching the Heart, have begun to give us a striking picture of the relation between the emergence of an ethos of romantic love and the reshaping of understandings of selfhood and gender roles in Victorian America. Courtship-itself an intensely literary activity-emerges from Lystra's materials and analysis as a kind of privately conducted (writer's) workshop for the production of an alternative masculinity, a masculinity not felt to be in some simple contrast to the toughness called for in the public sphere but expressing an equally authentic aspect of masculine personality. In a number of ways, it makes sense to call this alternative masculinity 'imaginary femininity': under the tutelage and subject to the judgment of the beloved, men, particularly in their letters, were called upon to perform, as a sign of their readiness for marriage, a subjectivity constructed in opposition to marketplace masculinity-a subjectivity built upon emotional self-scrutiny and disclosure, upon a concept of selfhood as most fully realized when shared or merged, upon an espousal of the private, the 'domestic' as life's most authentic locale: a subjectivity, in short, understood (and explicitly identified by many male letter-writers) as-at once-vicariously female and (at least potentially) authentically male.

What, then, might be the meaning of the apparent affinity between these two figures of himself--the lover, the author--Hawthorne writes into being? How might this apparent connection between courtship and authorship help us with the puzzle I have proposed. First, Hawthorne's 'imaginary femininit'--the 'feminine' qualities that Longfellow celebrates and Hawthorne performs--emerges not as personal idiosyncrasy, nor mere marketing strategy, but as a version--perhaps an exemplary instance--of a cultural role that's at the center of the meaning--strategies of the antebellum middle class. Hawthorne can construct a professional identity out of the materials of courtship because writing and romance alike locate meaning in a heightened privacy they help call into being, and they alike depend upon-indeed, they construe meaningfulness as--the vicarious achievement, within that ostensibly private place, of a differently configured masculinity.

What about my second conundrum, the surprising 'feminism' of much of Hawthorne's fiction? I think that the analogy to courtship also helps us see the formal shape of Hawthorne's narrative in a useful way. If the gender-blurring Prefaces mark our entry into writing's private space, what characteristically happens there--the rigorous criticism of the blighted psychology of careerist male characters, or, in 'sketches' like 'Little Annie's Ramble,' the performance of a domestic sensibility--seems to resemble courtship's construction of an anti- or counter-masculinity. Both courtship and Hawthorne's fiction, I am suggesting, draw their content from and implicitly identify their work as the vicarious achievement, within an ostensibly private place, of a differently configured masculinity-to be vicariously possessed by the male reader and, perhaps, to be imaginatively acknowledged and authorized by the female one. No one would imagine that this is all that Hawthorne's fiction does, or courtship does, but both courtship and reading seem to emerge as cultural "interiors" engaged in the construction of a newly emphatic and celebrated interiority. And both of these activities, courting and reading, emerge as definitively self-defining forms of cultural exchange among the very class of people who were forming literature's burgeoning audience.

Finally, and at last: if the positing of a male role that I've been calling 'imaginary femininity' helps us understand, in a way that takes us past idiosyncrasy, Hawthorne's acts of writerly self-presentation, and if the social geography of courtship helps us find a cultural meaning for the formal shape of Hawthorne's male-bashing narratives, what help-however speculative-do I get with my last question: Why do the analyses, identifications, and commitments of the fiction fail to bear fruit in the life? The best answers we have to such a question have been grounded in the complex way private actions or inactions might express culturally produced or historically local conflicts or anxieties. But perhaps the analysis I have been pursuing here can suggest a social origin for the difficulty of crossing the gap between the actual and the imaginary.

First, it may help us see that 'imaginary femininity' is, at bottom, a male role--even, for Hawthorne, a professional role--and that, as a form of cultural expression, it may have more to do with renegotiating masculinity than recognizing an actual femininity. Or, more deeply, and to me, more convincingly: Hawthorne's failures of recognition or application may express more than a personal limitation. They may represent, at least in part, the very nature of the meaning strategy--typical of the new forms of sequestered significance that come to characterize middle-class life-that I've been calling 'imaginary femininity': intensely private and essentially vicarious, both courtship and reading may construct meanings that exhaust themselves in the beautiful interiors they call into being."

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