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Excerpt from The Province of Piety: Moral History in Hawthorne's Early Tales by Michael J. Colacurcio (courtesy of Harvard University Press, 1984), used with author's permission

Commentary related to the conflict and theme of "The Seven Vagabonds":
The best evidence of Hawthorne's own perception of his (precarious) status as artist-in-the-world may yet be derived, cautiously and indirectly, from the design of his "Story Teller" project, so far as we are indeed able (imperfectly) to reconstruct it. . . . (496)

Accordingly, the altogether ironic spectacle of the provincial writer's splendidly determined but disastrously misdefined literary self-launching--and the cautious consideration of what might follow from that--remains full of sober if oblique instruction. An aspiring author goes forth to meet the world: to experience it; to subdue it, in some manner, by imaginative transformation; but above all, perhaps, to address it, in terms of its own recognition and value. And yet something is painfully wrong from the outset. An emergent persona is trapped in a self-definition which his creator understands as hopelessly reductive. Whether we consider his situation as defined by "The Seven Vagabonds" or (somewhat later) by the various segments of the "Passages from a Relinquished Work," the problem is pretty much the same: despite his references to the noble ancestry of authorship, our "out-setting bard" has clearly introjected, from the provincial world he would address, an entirely debased notion of the social (and even the religious) significance of story-telling. . . .

In his first incarnation our author is merely a "strolling gentleman," eager to convince a motley tribe of "Vagabonds". . . that he is up to their own level of vocation; that a carefree lad of eighteen, aspiring to become an "itinerant novelist," has as much right as anyone to help divert an anxious populace about to be dismissed from a Methodist camp meeting. . . . [Yet] he still must endure the "sly wink" of the vagrant fortune teller in the group, whom he half-humorously identifies as the Devil, freshly arrived in New England from his jaded career of "wandering up and down upon the earth.". . . But the attentive critic scarcely needs to read backwards: somebody is having "theological" scruples about the literary career.

. . . No wonder the old fortune teller repeats his "peculiar wink" at our fledgling Story Teller, or that he takes leave of the general company "chuckling within himself as he took the Stamford road." Much work remains, apparently, among the Methodists released from their meeting; but the pact with this particular youth can be considered well concluded. Idleness has been redefined as the literary workshop, and the Devil has a new disciple.

Just less drastic--and potentially more sobering, therefore--is the moment just before this general breakup and leave-taking, itself so abrupt as to have confused the Story Teller's original (and otherwise very able) bibliographer. What disperses the whole traveling tribe, by obvious and structural design, is not any external change of literary plans but the single devastating sentence delivered by the itinerant Methodist preacher, heading "westward" from the Stamford revival: "Good people, . . . the camp meeting is broke up." Deprived of the available audience, now, as well as of any purpose plausibly held in common, these more mirthful itinerants are themselves quite "broke up"; and each must take his separate way as before. Nor is that fact without obvious interpretative significance: story-telling may or may not be the Devil's own confidence game, but without a more or less earnest world to address, it utterly loses its reason for being. (497-98)

But what stings the narrator most, apparently, and what may leave the most lasting impression on our critical memory, is the image reflected back on himself from the solitary Methodist on horseback. As that worthy looks down on this "singular" collection of drifters, the narrator may easily feel a certain condescension in the formal charity of his "good people." Though the preacher smiles, the would-be Story Teller cannot fail to notice the re- proving force of "the iron gravity" about the mouth of this intensely committed man; so that we almost expect the entire retinue to vanish in an instant, like so much "fantastic foolery." . . . And it is not without sad self-insight that our aspiring author feels himself absorbed--equally with the rest, though only in the projection of his own imagination--"under the general head of Vagabond." Neither he nor the minister may be quite mindful of the classic place in Genesis (where Cain is doomed to be a "fugitive and a vagabond upon the earth"), but clearly someone here is feeling that this altogether improbable yet somehow heroic eighth itinerant has chosen the only true way of wandering; that this doubtlessly untutored and evidently ungrammatical circuit-rider personally embodies and theologically exhausts the one legitimate possibility of living off the Word. . . . What's a writer to do?

A tight spot, surely, but also a nice moment--in an underinterpreted story that makes its own way and deserves to be more widely read than it is. Evidently the secular artist is going to have real problems in a world where a single, sacred text has ousted all others; and where the only appropriate commentary on or extension of that text is taken to be "evangelical." . . . For how can the mere Story Teller open intercourse with such a world? And if the tale succeeds in raising more questions than it quite answers, still this seems only proper for a highly dramatized introduction to the problem of literary origins. (498-99)


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