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Excerpts from Gloria Erlich's Family Themes and Hawthorne's Fiction: The Tenacious Web (courtesy of Rutgers University Press, 1986).

On the Theme and Conflict in "The Seven Vagabonds," From the Chapter "The Access of Power"

Although Hawthorne respected the motives of his Uncle Robert, he often longed to be free of his tyranny and his values. For such a dreamy boy, an uncle who was always keeping him to the grindstone must have seemed very puritanical indeed. Young Hawthorne felt more kinship with his renegade Uncle Samuel, much closer to his own age, who liked taverns, story swapping, the irregular life of the road. In fact, the Manning family plotted regularly to bring Samuel into line. They tried in vain to keep him employed in Uncle Richard's general store in Maine in the hope that he would settle down. (13)

Often accompanying Samuel on his horse-buying trips, young Nathaniel formed a strong bond with [his uncle] against the strict Manning code of hard work, sobriety, and religion. The dream of being a vagabond storyteller derives from this happy association, which terminated with Samuel's early death. Samuel was never tamed by Manning values and did not live to pay the price of living outside them. Internalized as a joyful figure of vagabond irresponsibility, this uncle remained part of his nephew's psyche as an impulse toward rootlessness. Continually changing residences, Hawthorne called the only home he ever owned "The Wayside" and was eventually to die in a wayside hotel. "The Story Teller" dramatizes the influence of both uncles in the form of joyous digressions from the bourgeois ideal shadowed by figures representing the puritan conscience. (13-14)

Also a part of "The Story Teller" sequence, "The Seven Vagabonds" depicts another version of the same polarity. The narrator is a young man "in the spring of [his] life and the summer of the year" at a crossroad in three directions. He is drawn toward a caravan, a house on wheels, operated by a traveling showman and an iterant bookseller, and shortly thereafter joined by a con man, a fiddler, operators of a showbox, all of them aspects of the artist. Attracted by their gay, spontaneous way of life, and by the notion of a home on wheels, he wishes to join this carefree band. The old showman questions his fitness for the role of roving entertainer; he finds the narrator merely a "strolling gentleman" in contrast with respectable vagabonds who get their "bread in some creditable way. Every honest man should have his livelihood." On the spot, the wanderer invents the vocation of traveling storyteller in order to establish respectability with this motley crew. Only with the aid of an advocate among them is he accepted by the band headed for a camp meeting. Joyful at having joined a society of outsiders, the narrator feels at one with their world until he spies a horseman approaching from the direction of the camp meeting. A Methodist minister sitting his horse with "rigid perpendicularity, a tall thin figure in rusty black," this priestly spoilsport brings word that the camp meeting has broken up. The merry group disbands, blasted by the Methodist's grim visage. (14)

Even among vagabonds, the Story Teller feels trivial and suspect. He lacks a "creditable" livelihood and seems not entirely one of them. The youth choosing a direction in the spring of his life reminds one of another divided artist figure, Thomas Mann's Tonio Kroger, whose honesty is suspected even on a visit to his home town, and who is always associated with a gypsy in a green wagon. Neither others nor he himself can quite believe in his respectability. This divided artist is rejected by both communities, the bourgeois and the bohemian. (14)

[Thomas] Mann attributed his own and his protagonists' guilty identities as artists to the split inherited from burghers fathers and bohemian mothers. In Hawthorne, a similar mentality obtained, but in the case of this fatherless boy, it is more likely derived from the influence of two important uncles - the carefree Samuel and the eminently respectable Robert. If Uncle Samuel fostered the rootless vagabond tendency, Uncle Robert, with the values of the whole Manning clan behind him, could well have been transformed into the censoring puritanical figures who, under various guises, often ministerial, make the impecunious artist feel like an idler, a mere "fiddler," a lightweight, and a man of uncertain masculinity. (14-15)

 



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