Hawthorne in Salem Search Hawthorne in Salem

Facebook Page

"Different from Himself: Hawthorne and the Masks of Masculinity" by T. Walter Herbert

Different from Himself: Hawthorne and the Masks of Masculinity

T. Walter Herbert
American Literature Association Convention
May, 2003

A former generation of Hawthorne criticism, intent upon locating the "sweet moral blossom" that The Scarlet Letter promises at its outset, seized eagerly upon the following sentence at its close: "Among the many morals that press upon us from the poor minister's experience, we put only this into a sentence: --- "Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred." Notice that this seemingly straightforward maxim reverses itself midcourse, when the logic driving its opening segment is replaced by an opposite logic. In the act of proposing the forthright self-disclosure that Dimmesdale never makes, the sentence recommends an equivocal self-disclosure that he makes again and again. Several traits --- Dimmesdale's pallor, his emotionally overwrought preaching, the convulsive grasping at his bosom --- make it easy for Chillingworth to infer the worst.

So we are ushered into what our own generation of criticism defines as a paradigmatic Hawthornian moment, where self-revelation and self-concealment unite: the moral maxim unsays what it says. Comparable examples abound. When Coverdale reveals his love for Priscilla at the conclusion of The Blithedale Romance, he simultaneously reveals that there exists a body of truth about Coverdale that the reader will never learn, all those missing elements of the narrative that would make that final disclosure make sense. As Hawthorne yields to the "autobiographical impulse" that seizes him at the outset of the Custom House introduction, he underscores the concealment that accompanies self-declaration, pointedly drawing attention to the "inmost me behind the veil."

Commenting on this persistent trait, David Leverenz notes that Hawthorne turns his readers into detectives --- that students of his work from Herman Melville to Philip Young have convinced themselves there was some "secret" in Hawthorne's life, a bit of personal information that would clear up the mysteries, if only we could figure out what it is. Was Hawthorne mortified by the incest trial of Anstiss Manning, as Young proposes? Was he gay? Was he sexually abused in boyhood by his Uncle Robert? Did he suffer lifelong from unresolved grief at the boyhood loss of his father? Unearthing further biographical information may cast light on these possibilities, or suggest others.

This paper will argue that the ambivalences proliferating around self-revelation in Hawthorne arise in part from what was commonplace in his experience, as distinct from any individual peculiarity, namely his compliance with an emerging culture of manhood whose inner contradictions haunted him. Hawthorne chronically felt different from himself as he sought to perform the masquerade of middle-class masculinity.

The gender ideology taking form in the early 19th century held that manliness is autonomous agency, that the character and career of a real man is fashioned by the man himself. "Self-made men" act with sovereign self-reliance, as Emerson proclaimed, unlike those whose bloodline advantage cripple them in the competition, and the self-enslaved at the bottom of the social scale. The gender and class privilege concealed by the ideology of self-making is now well recognized, and such systemic contradictions entailed chronic torments for men, even for those who were privileged to live out the ideal.

The publication of Twice Told Tales first established Hawthorne in the selfhood he had devoted himself to creating, that of a major American writer. His well placed male friendships, as Jane Tompkins demonstrated, helped to place him on this cultural stage. Yet the machinery of privilege did not operate smoothly in Hawthorne's behalf; its workings provide a parable of the alienation of self from self that the ideal of self-making imposed. The characters in this masculine masquerade are the successful publisher, Samuel Goodwyn Goodrich, and Hawthorne's wealthy college friend, Horatio Bridge.

Goodrich had published several of Hawthorne's tales anonymously in The Token, gaining reputation as well as profit without any public recognition going to Hawthorne. But when Hawthorne approached him with the idea of bringing out a collection, Goodrich was uncooperative. Then Bridge offered Goodrich a guarantee against losses, but insisted that the offer be kept secret, for fear Hawthorne would refuse to accept such a favor from a friend. For Goodrich to back the project, by contrast, would be acceptable: he was a professional associate, ostensibly animated by his professional judgment of Hawthorne's writing. Grateful for the apparent change of heart, Hawthorne now proposed to dedicate the volume to Goodrich.

This dismayed Horatio Bridge, who had actually shown the generosity for which Goodrich was to be rewarded, and he set about dissuading Hawthorne from the proposed dedication, still without disclosing his own role. Goodrich's own selfish interests were well served by the deal, Bridge wrote. "There is no doubt in my mind of his selfishness in regard to your work and yourself . . . when did he ever do anything for you without a quid pro quo?" (Mellow 76).

From his position as Hawthorne's secret patron, Bridge hammers home the Emersonian maxims. "The bane of your life has been self-distrust.... I wish to God that I could impart to you a little of my own brass"(NHW2: 147,149. This little comedy illuminates the pretense endemic to self-reliant masculinity. Bridge's help may serve as an emblem for the massive complex of unacknowledged assistance --- from family, friends, women and other less fortunate men, both white and black --- that is eclipsed by the ideology of self-making, and supported Hawthorne lifelong. Hawthorne could not believe in an identity he knew he had concocted. Knowing that the personhood that he put in circulation had no backing apart from his own self-asserted self-sovereignty, Hawthorne felt like counterfeit coin. He lacked "brass," said Bridge: truer would be to say that he knew his brass was brass. The commonplace term --- brass --- betokens the commonplace subliminal uneasiness of ambitious entrepreneurial men, that the self they put forward, and on which they rely to make their way among other such men, is a fiction.

Beseiged by the demoralization that this conventional dilemma entailed, Hawthorne celebrated the conventional remedy for it. "Thou only hast revealed me to myself" he wrote to Sophia Peabody (soon to be Sophia Hawthorne) "for without thy aid, my best knowledge of myself would have been merely to know my own shadow . . . and to mistake its fantasies for my own real actions." The domestic angel had a spiritual force in the life of a self-made man because she counteracted the paralysing self-distrust that is concealed behind his mask of masculinity. "We are not endowed with real life," Hawthorne explains "and all that seems most real about us is but the thinnest substance of a dream -- till the heart is touched. That touch creates us -- then we begin to be -- thereby we are beings of reality" (CE 15: 495).

The domestic angel redeems the self-made man by believing in him as he wishes to believe in himself, providing an intimate assurance that dispells the nightmare of affectation and self-ignorance. Yet Sophia's power to make Hawthorne real does not mean that he ever told her about his difficulties with Samuel Goodwyn Goodrich, and about Horatio Bridge's role in that. Sophia became his angel in part because she came to know him after he published Twice Told Tales. Sophia's first knowledge of "Nathaniel Hawthorne" was mediated through a literary reputation that he had been excruciatingly anxious should not be marred by amateurish early efforts. The spiritual force of the domestic angel thus compounds the masculine masquerade, since the reality she underwrites is his unreality, the fiction by which he wishes to be known.

Hawthorne published his first novel Fanshawe at his own expense, yet quickly determined that he wanted to disown the work, and asked his friends to return the copies he had sent them. He never came to regard this episode with indulgent humor, as a bout of youthful distress long since superseded. On the contrary, the repudiation of Fanshawe was an action essential to the life-long strategy of his self-making; Sophia learned about it only after his death, and refused at first to believe such a book had ever existed (CE 3: 308-314). Hawthorne was different from himself even with Sophia, the guarantor of his heart's reality.

The concealed self of the self-made man is not only an "inmost me" pervaded by spiritual tremors that can be allayed through the sacred intimacy of marriage. It is a matter of professional strategy and financial arrangements: Sophia was startled when Nathaniel published his campaign biography of Franklin Pierce without showing her the manuscript. And it's highly unlikely she knew anything about the kickbacks to the Democratic party that he had demanded of subordinates during his term at the Custom House. Dimmesdale's deception, likewise, follows from the requirements of his professional position, not from some inner necessity.


The chronic dilemmas of masculine self-making take center stage in the The House of the Seven Gables, where forthright self-reliant manliness and outright hypocrisy converge to become indissolubly united. Jaffrey Pyncheon is said to represent "the sin of long ago," but his acquisition of the family legacy has bankrolled a spectacular career of self-making. He has made a vast fortune on his own by investing in growth sectors of the antebellum economy, in railroads, banking, and insurance. Pyncheon enjoys an inner knowledge of the new financial systems, making it a custom to visit the Insurance Office so as to appraise the current gossip, and to drop "some deeply designed chance-word, which will be certain to become the gossip of tomorrow" (270). He creates pseudonymous bank accounts, and employs other arcane methods, "familiar enough to capitalists," (234) by which the maze of financial institutions may be used to conceal his maneuvers.

Pyncheon likewise exploits the new systems of patronage and publicity that were aimed at mobilizing mass electorates, securing voters' support for political leaders they could not know first hand. Pyncheon's political contributions have purchased the support of men "skilled to adjust those preliminary measures, which steal from the people, without its knowledge, the power of choosing its own rulers"(274). Pyncheon expects to be elected governor, but the election will be a sham, concealing the power of an economic oligarchy.

Pyncheon is likewise skilled at performing the interpersonal gestures of the masculine masquerade. He has pursued his career of ruthless self-aggrandizement by projecting a carefully crafted image of harmless benevolence and unfailing interpersonal warmth. Yet there has developed "a hidden stream of private talk" that tells the true story of his cruelty. Hawthorne declares that moral reality is to be found in "the woman's, the private and domestic view," and emphasizes the "vast discrepancy between portraits intended for engraving, and the pencil-sketches that pass from hand to hand, behind the original's back" (122).

Pheobe's aversion to Judge Pyncheon marks her as possessing the moral and religious touchstone that Hawthorne found in Sophia; without knowing any of Pyncheon's private story, she instinctively draws back from his gestures of affectionate kinship.

Yet Pyncheon himself is haunted by a partly conscious self-disgust, so that the outward rebuffs that greet him strike home to an inner misery. In describing Pyncheon's benevolent smile Hawthorne observes that it "was a good deal akin to the shine on his boots, and that each must have cost him and his boot-black, respectively, a good deal of hard labor to bring out and preserve" (117). The menial toil that goes into keeping up the smile does not counteract simple malice, which smiles without being prompted; the black smile hides displeasure and inward pain.

This blackness flows out of Pyncheon's being, "darkening forth" to fill his surroundings, and becomes the blackness of non-being as his dead face is engulfed in midnight: "The features are all gone; there is only the paleness of them left. And how looks it now?... There is no face! An infinite, inscrutable blackness has annihilated sight! Where is our universe?" (276). The desperation that enters the narrator's voice at this juncture indicates that Pyncheon dissolves into a "darkness visible" that is contagious, and the figure most susceptible to infection is his seeming opposite, Holgrave, who watches obsessively as Pyncheon sits dead in his chair.

Hawthorne makes a decisive thematic investment in Holgrave as Pyncheon's opposite number, a wholly self-reliant man who takes pride in having no advantages of wealth and family position. His life-story echoes Emerson praise for the self-sufficient lad "who in turn tries all the professions . . . teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school " (Whicher 161). Holgrave too has a record of ad hoc enterprises --- as schoolmaster, salesman, newspaper editor, pedler, and now as daguerreotypist. He "had never violated the innermost man," Hawthorne tells us, in "putting off one exterior, and snatching up another, to be soon shifted for a third" (177).

Yet the innermost man crumbles when Holgrave enters the gloom that surrounds Judge Pyncheon's demise, because the demon-ridden non-selfhood of the Judge and Holgrave's consummate self-reliance are fundamentally akin. The assertedly self-made man is perforce a confidence man, who succeeds in "self-trust" insofar as he deceives himself, and denies that his existence is conditioned by the vicissitudes and injustices of gender, class position and economic happenstance. In desperation, Holgrave turns for spiritual solace to Pheobe, exclaiming that "the presence of yonder dead man threw a great black shadow over everything; he made the universe, so far as my perception could reach, a scene of guilt, and of retribution more dreadful than the guilt'" (306). Pheobe supplies the spiritual antidote to this nightmare as the two profess their love for each other, and their intention to make a life together. "It was in this hour," Hawthorne comments, "so full of doubt and awe, that the one miracle was wrought, without which every human existence is a blank" (307).

Phoebe's profession of love for Holgrave redeems him from the masquerade of male self-sufficiency, yet also brings that masquerade to its consummation. The Holgrave that Pheobe loves is a man without consequential family background, pursuing his work as a daguerreotypist in the old Pyncheon house as just another happenstance. The prize for the confidence-game Holgrave has been playing is Judge's Pyncheon's fortune, to be obtained by marrying Phoebe. As she redeems his soul from the horrors of inner unreality, he relieves her of control over her inheritance.

Holgrave's announcement that he is a member of the Maule family resembles Coverdale's disclosure of his love for Priscilla. It reveals that we've hardly come to know this character at all; nothing we have learned means what it seems to have meant when we learned it.

Hawthorne does not indict Holgrave as a fortune-hunter, but he assembles circumstances that unmistakably frame such an indictment. In the very scene that centers on Pyncheon's dead body, Hawthorne had presented a procession of his deceased kinfolk, in which we learn that his only son is dead, so that the great estate is to devolve upon Hepzibah, Clifford, and Phoebe(280). Does one read the anxious rhetoric of Holgrave's love-making without being subliminally aware that the Judge's secret bank accounts, insurance shares, railroad holdings, and his extensive real estate are all staked on the outcome? Holgrave does not reveal to Phoebe the false pretenses under which he has courted her, nor does the redemptive bliss that "makes all things true" prompt him to show his true colors. Holgrave mentions quite casually that Phoebe will be assuming the name of Maule when they marry, explaining that he would have disclosed his identity sooner, "only that I was afraid of frightening you away" (316).

Holgrave is simply not burdened by the practical deceptions entailed by his pursuit of self-made masculinity; instead he lavishes attention on the spiritual distresses of his inner life. The fate of Pyncheon causes him to view "the universe" as "a scene of guilt" and of retribution more dreadful than the guilt," but his own culpability doesn't come into the accounting. It is handsomely rewarded rather than punished. The interior conflicts of self-made manhood arise in good measure from the systematic exploitation of women, and of other subordinate contributors to the well-being that middle-class males claim as unaided achievements.

The imaginative power of Hawthorne's work rests in good measure on his incessant probing at the interior contradictions and the emotional dilemmas generated by the ideology of self-making, but in settings that insistently (though often covertly) point outward toward the social conditions that gave this self-cancelling ideal its appearance of validity. "Be true! Be true! Be true!" never stands clear as a summary maxim; it is forever enmeshed in a set of moral failures and enigmas that make a self-made man different from himself. When Hawthorne yields to an autobiographical impulse, he perforce writes fiction.

Page citation: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/11976/

About US Privacy Policy Copyright Credits Site Map Site Help