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Feathertop: Smoke and Mirrors

Feathertop: Smoke and Mirrors

David Donavel, Masconomet Regional High School

Mr. David Donavel, Chairman of the Department of English,Masconomet Regional High School, Topsfield, MA
Mr. David Donavel, Chairman of the Department of English,Masconomet Regional High School, Topsfield, MA (photography by Lou Procopio)
In "The Custom House" Hawthorne represents himself as "poking and burrowing into the heaped-up rubbish in the corner" among documents and old papers, "glancing at such matters with the saddened, weary, half-reluctant interest which we bestow on the corpse of dead activity,--and exerting my fancy, sluggish with little use, to raise up from these dry bones an image of the old town's brighter aspect . . .." In this he says he is largely unsuccessful and observes that "it was sorrowful to think how many days, and weeks, and months, and years of toil, had been wasted on these musty papers, which were now only an encumbrance on earth, and were hidden away in this forgotten corner, never more to be glanced at by human eyes." The one item of interest, the famous scarlet letter and history of Hester Prynne left behind by Surveyor Pue remains for Hawthorne inscrutable not because the story fails to spark his curiosity, but because his "imagination was a tarnished mirror. It would not reflect, or only with miserable dimness, the figures with which I did my best to people it." This creative malady, he claims, is due to the fact that he has dimmed his "power . . .over the tribe of unrealities" with the dull work of the Custom House and imagines one of the characters he finds in that "tarnished mirror," reproaching him thus: "You have bartered it [his power] for a pittance of the public gold."

The figure of imagination as a mirror is an odd one and it appears that the strangeness of it is not lost on Hawthorne. Lamenting the intellectual "torpor" brought on by his role at bureaucrat, he notes that his "imaginative faculty" refuses to act even in a room illuminated with midnight moonlight and goes on to describe why such a setting ought to prompt stories in him. In this same passage, he retrieves the looking glass image:

Glancing at the looking-glass, we behold--deep within its haunted verge--the smouldering glow of the half-extinguished anthracite, the white moonbeams on the floor, and a repetition of all the gleam and shadow of the picture, with one remove farther from the actual, and nearer to the imaginative. Then, at such an hour, and with this scene before him, if a man, sitting all alone, cannot dream strange things, and make them look like truth, he need never try to write romances.

He observes that the "removed" world that appears within the frame of the looking glass is particularly excellent material for the creation of romance and one catches a sense in this passage that he almost despairs of ever bringing to the page anything worthwhile.

At the beginning of "The Custom House" Hawthorne is somewhat apologetic about writing in an autobiographical vein and reminds the reader that he has done so only on one previous occasion, in "Mosses from an Old Manse." It is of some interest that in this other autobiographical sketch, he also represents himself as hunting through old and abandoned written matter, mostly religious, also in an attic:

The rain pattered upon the roof and the sky gloomed through the dusty garret windows while I burrowed among these venerable books in search of any living thought which should burn like a coal of fire or glow like an inextinguishable gem beneath the dead trumpery that had long hidden it. But I found no such treasure-all was dead alike; and I could not but muse deeply and wonderingly upon the humiliating fact that the works of man's intellect decay like those of his hands. Thought grows moldy.

He goes on to make some characteristically disparaging remarks about religious writing and claims that "of this whole dusty heap of literature, I tossed aside all the sacred part, and felt myself none the less a Christian for eschewing it." Still burrowing, he discovers that nothing, strange to say, retained any sap, except what had been written for the passing day and year, without the remotest pretension of an idea of permanence. There were a few old newspapers, and still older almanacs which reproduced, to my mental eye, the epochs when they had issued from the press with a distinctness that was altogether unaccountable.

And then, significantly, he goes on to employ the image of a looking glass or mirror to describe how these ephemera worked on his imagination. "It was as if I had found bits of magic looking glass among the books, with the images of a vanished century in them." These bits of glass, unblemished by the work of the world, are like tiny windows. They are avenues to the living past much as Surveyor Pue's document turns out to be once Hawthorne clears his imagination of the "tarnish" with which Custom House work has clouded it.

Later in "Mosses" Hawthorne writes about boating with Ellery Channing on the perfectly flat Concord River and, in a description that closely resembles the moonlit looking glass passage from "The Custom House" observes that of all this scene, the slumbering river has a dream-picture in its bosom. Which, after all, was the most real--the picture, or the original?--the objects palpable to our grosser senses, or their apotheosis in the stream beneath? Surely, the disembodied images stand in closer relation to the soul.

And in "The Haunted Mind" he invites us to revisit those midnight moments when, between sleeping and waking, we gain glimpses into the truths of our lives. Once again, mirror imagery is central:

In the depths of every heart, there is a tomb and a dungeon, though the lights, the music, and revelry above may cause us to forget their existence, and the buried ones, or prisoners whom they hide. But sometimes, and oftenest at midnight, those dark receptacles are flung wide open. In an hour like this, when the mind has a passive sensibility, but no active strength; when the imagination is a mirror, imparting vividness to all ideas, without the power of selecting or controlling them; then pray that your griefs may slumber, and the brotherhood of remorse not break their chain.

The looking glass or mirror provides, it appears, a way for Hawthorne to articulate a sense of something like a "parallel reality" in which truths are revealed that are otherwise hidden. This "through the looking glass world" is closely allied to the created or imagined reality of romance, a reality that distorts our everyday sunlit experience in order to show us significance otherwise unavailable. When Hawthorne's characters look in the mirror, they or we see truth about them just as the truth of the "vanished century" appears in the "bits of magic looking glass" Hawthorne discovers in the garret of the old manse and just as he knows the truth of Hester's story lies behind the "tarnish" that clouds his imagination when he struggles to see into Surveyor Pue's legacy.

Hawthorne's use of mirrors as windows on the soul recurs with sufficient frequency to form a convincing pattern. Reverend Hooper of "The Minister's Black Veil," catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror, experiences the same terrified revulsion that so disturbs his parishioners. Young Giovanni's terrible egotism in "Rappaccini's Daughter" is revealed, if not to him, then to the reader during the moments he studies himself in a mirror. That the ghosts of his deceased patients haunt the looking glass in the studio of the arrogant physician of "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" illuminates his dark relationship with both his four old friends and Sylvia Ward, his long dead fiancée. The portraits in "The Prophetic Pictures" serve as mirrors in that they reveal the alarming truth about the relationship between Walter and Elinor, the young couple painted. Indeed, Hawthorne is at pains to compare the famous artist's paintings to mirrors as if to underscore the magic quality of the portraits. Similarly, in The House of the Seven Gables it is in a looking glass that Pyncheon discovers Maule's menacing intent with respect to Alice and the reader understands that his failure to prevent Maule harming Alice further is the true measure of Pyncheon's greed. In "Old Esther Dudley" a mirror dominates Esther's imagination revealing to the reader that even while her physical existence may be in the here and now, her real being resides in a time long past. When Hester visits the Governor to argue for custody of Pearl in The Scarlet Letter, she comes close to polished armor which reflects her A in an exaggerated way that shows both Hester and the reader that her sin has, in the eyes of many, effaced her. In the same novel, Arthur Dimmesdale sits before a mirror in the solitude of his despair and sees in it not his physical reflection but images representing the psychological misery he has brought upon himself. Over and over the looking glasses in Hawthorne's work give back images that serve as a kind of shorthand by which the reader learns the real story on the character reflected. The notable and obvious exception to this pattern is his sketch "Monsieur du Miroir" in which Hawthorne writes about his own mirror image. Here he coyly avoids any revelations and finishes with the idea that the man in the mirror must forever remain a mystery which "Divine Intelligence" reveals only insofar as is "needful to our guidance." That Hawthorne would evade anything like a personal revelation is not surprising given his observation in "The Custom House" that under certain intimate conditions "we may prate of the circumstances that lie around us, and even of ourself, but still keep the inmost Me behind its veil."

The climactic moment in "Feathertop" occurs when the naïve and foolish Polly Gookin, half in love with the pumpkin head sent to her by the vengeful Old Mother Rigby, happens to glance into a full length looking-glass, "one of the truest plates in the world and incapable of flattery," in her father's parlor, where she discovers Feathertop's true nature. She faints dead away and when Feathertop takes a look himself, he, too sees himself for what he is: a contraption made of sticks, vegetables, shabby clothes and smoke. The story moves instantly to Mother Rigby's kitchen where we witness Feathertop proclaim, "I've seen myself, mother!--I've seen myself for the wretched, ragged, empty thing I am!" Feathertop throws his life-giving pipe against the chimney and collapses upon the floor and when Mother Rigby muses upon him,

My poor, dear, pretty Feathertop! There are thousands upon thousands of coxcombs and charlatans in the world, made up of just such a jumble of worn-out, forgotten, and good-for-nothing trash as he was! Yet they live in fair repute, and never see themselves for what they are. And why should my poor puppet be the only one to know himself, and perish for it? one cannot help but recall Arthur Dimmesdale's similar masquerade.

"Feathertop," of course, is whimsy and so the moral lesson trumpeted at the conclusion of The Scarlet Letter, "Be True! Be True! Be True!" is not as readily apparent here. Nevertheless, were we to envision Feathertop reading that novel, it is hard to imagine that he would not see close similarities between himself and Arthur. The difference would be, of course, that the pumpkin head tops the minister with respect to courage and wisdom and that may explain why Hawthorne identifies the tale as "A Moralized Legend."

However, to pursue a moral idea in "Feathertop," despite the invitation to that task implicit in Hawthorne's seductive identifying tag, is to miss the main thrust of the tale. The image Feathertop sees in the looking glass is occasion for him to reflect upon his real nature and so reach the despairing conclusion he comes to when he bursts into Mother Rigby's kitchen. It is also an invitation for the reader to reflect or remember that the title character is really a fabrication. Indeed, the bulk of the humor lies in watching the ease with which Feathertop's mere manner-penetrated only by a child and a dog-so thoroughly deceives Polly and the townspeople. Because he's polished, they don't see him for what he is: a bundle of sticks. We do and can laugh at them for their blindness.

The humor is increased by the recognition on the readers' part that our clear view of Feathertop is due in large measure to our being present at his creation. Were we not privy to this special knowledge, we might make the same errors as those who see in the scarecrow European nobility. We share with Hawthorne a kind of insider's joke which is both on the townsfolk and, more obliquely, on ourselves.

But Hawthorne goes farther with the tale. Of all the titles he might have chosen-and it's easy work to imagine many-he's decided to give the story the same name as the scarecrow. And as we reflect on this, we soon see that as we're present for the construction of the scarecrow, we are equally present for the construction of the story.

The tale opens with the single word "Dickon," the name, apparently, of some invisible demon or spirit obliged to light Old Mother Rigby's pipe, the pipe that both "dulcifies" her spirits and provides animation for the scarecrow, once he's constructed. The pipe smoke serves as a very real inspiration for Feathertop. It is, literally, the breath of life for once he stops smoking he returns to his shoddy elements. The same smoke may also serve as a creative inspiration for Old Mother Rigby and if that's the case, Dickon is a kind of muse the witch invokes before she sets about making Feathertop.

Her initial intention is the construction of a simple scarecrow, one designed to frighten birds and not the whole world. Speaking to herself, she muses:

I don't want to set up a hobgoblin in my own corn-patch, and almost at my own door-step," said Mother Rigby to herself, puffing out a whiff of smoke; "I could do it if I pleased, but I'm tired of doing marvellous things, and so I'll keep within the bounds of every-day business just for variety's sake. Besides, there is no use in scaring the little children for a mile roundabout, though 'tis true I'm a witch.

But once the creature has been put together, the creative spirit will not leave her alone. She admires her creation, deciding he's "too good a piece of work to stand all summer in a corn-patch, frightening away the crows and blackbirds. He's capable of better things." She decides to bring him to life and send him into the world and places the life-giving pipe in the "crevice" which represented the creature's mouth and urges him to puff.

It is at this point where, one might say, the creative spirit will not leave Hawthorne alone either and it seems to take the same playful tack with him as with the old witch. As broomstick, stockings and pumpkin become Feathertop when those elements are placed together in a way that allows us to see them as a "he," Hawthorne's "moralized legend" becomes "Feathertop" as we come to somehow see or believe that it is, at least in the world of romance, possible for a scarecrow to become animate. And if we're allowed to witness the construction of the scarecrow as scarecrow, so are we allowed to witness the construction of scarecrow as the living breathing Feathertop. Immediately after Old Mother Rigby prompts the pile of sticks to puff, Hawthorne steps into the tale offering the reader some help:

This was a strange exhortation, undoubtedly, to be addressed to a mere thing of sticks, straw, and old clothes, with nothing better than a shrivelled pumpkin for a head; as we know to have been the scarecrow's case. Nevertheless, as we must carefully hold in remembrance, Mother Rigby was a witch of singular power and dexterity; and, keeping this fact duly before our minds, we shall see nothing beyond credibility in the remarkable incidents of our story. Indeed, the great difficulty will be at once got over, if we can only bring ourselves to believe that, as soon as the old dame bade him puff, there came a whiff of smoke from the scarecrow's mouth.

This is both audacious and very funny. Here the author is telling us that if we could only believe this preposterous tale, we'd have no trouble finding it credible. Hawthorne is letting us see, it would appear, the mere "sticks" that make up the story. The pile of rubbish, he says, comes to life because I tell you it does. There's a kind of sorcery here, a witchcraft of language that he is able to reveal to us without having it lose its power. It's as if we see precisely how the magician performs his tricks, see that the rabbit does not really come from the hat, but persist in the illusion anyway.

The scarecrow puffs and as he does a "human likeness" begins to shift across its features. And then Hawthorne enters again with, "The whole figure, in like manner, assumed a show of life, such as we impart to ill-defined shapes among the clouds, and half-deceive ourselves with the pastime of our own fancy." If we believe the scarecrow comes to life, he as good as says, it's because we've deceived ourselves, allowed our fancy to rule. In the next paragraph, Hawthorne observes:

If we must needs pry closely into the matter, it may be doubted whether there was any real change, after all, in the sordid, worn-out, worthless, and ill-joined substance of the scarecrow; but merely a spectral illusion, and a cunning effect of light and shade, so colored and contrived as to delude the eyes of most men. The miracles of witchcraft seem always to have had a very shallow subtlety; and, at least, if the above explanation do not hit the truth of the process, I can suggest no better.

If we were to substitute "story writing" for "witchcraft" it appears that at this point we would be discussing the same thing.

As the animation of Feathertop progresses, Hawthorne's authorial intrusions become more and more amusing and audacious. He says next, "upon my word, if the legend were not one which I heard on my grandmother's knee, and which had established its place among things credible before my childish judgment could analyze its probability, I question whether I should have the face to tell it now!" Once the "the stiff, ricketty, incongruous, faded, tattered, good-for-nothing patchwork" finally stands up like a man, Hawthorne's audacity reaches a kind of climax:

Shall I confess the truth? At its present point of vivification, the scarecrow reminds me of some of the lukewarm and abortive characters, composed of heterogeneous materials, used for the thousandth time, and never worth using, with which romance-writers (and myself, no doubt, among the rest) have so over-peopled the world of fiction.

Feathertop and "Feathertop" are equally "ricketty and incongruous" fabrications and if they are both constructed by a kind of magic, by something mysterious and invisible that happens after the creator invokes Dickon, the intangible fiery inspirational spirit, then it may well be that for Hawthorne the business of writing stories has a kinship with the sorts of magic attributed to witches. If that is so, it complicates the explanations of the unease he expresses with his ancestors, especially John Hathorne, the stern witch trial judge of 1692 and adds a resonance that is deeper than irony to their imagined judgment of him that he expresses in "The Custom House": "What is he?" murmurs one gray shadow of my forefathers to the other. "A writer of story-books! What kind of a business in life,--what mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in his day and generation,--may that be? Why, the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler!"

Hawthorne's famous reclusiveness, his intermittent unease with being a "writer of story-books," his sympathy with the witches and Quakers and others harassed by those in power, may well be reflected in the sense he humorously expresses in "Feathertop" that there's something of the witch and outcast about him. Unlike most of the men around him, he appears to have mitigated his own alienation through his art, the very activity that separates him from the crowd. And, unlike most men around him, he appears to have been deeply self-conscious, a quality he finds expression for in his fondness for the looking glass.

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