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Illustrations of The House of the Seven Gables:

"Hawthorne's Repudiation of His Autobiographical Self in Our Old Home"

James Bense, Department of English
Minnesota State University Moorhead, Moorhead, MN 56563

Dr. James Bense, Department of English, Minnesota State University, Moorhead, MN (photo by Nichole Aksamit)
Dr. James Bense, Department of English, Minnesota State University, Moorhead, MN (photo by Nichole Aksamit)

As a way of establishing this repudiation, I'll begin with Hawthorne's concluding remarks in "Consular Experiences," a title that refers to Hawthorne's appointment from 1853 to 1857 as American Consul at Liverpool, and to the first chapter of Our Old Home, which Hawthorne composed as an introduction to the collection of his English travel sketches, most of which had been published in the Atlantic Monthly. At the close of "Consular Experiences," Hawthorne insists that the reader must not regard the preceding sketch of himself and the visitors he received at the consulate as piece of autobiography. Hawthorne recalls that once his appointment had ended "the retrospect began to look unreal. I could scarcely believe that it was I, that figure whom they called a Consul, but a sort of Double Ganger, who had been permitted to assume my aspect." At present, he reiterates: "The same sense of illusion still pursues me. . . . I have been writing about another man's consular experiences. . ." (C, V: 38). To emphasize his point, Hawthorne refers to the visitors already described in his consular sketch in order to ask: "But were they more than shadows? Surely," he says, "I think not. Nor are these present pages a bit of intrusive autobiography. Let not the reader wrong me by supposing it. I should never have written with half such unreserve had it been a portion of this life congenial with my nature, which I am living now, instead of a series of incidents and characters entirely apart from my own concerns, and on which the qualities personally proper to me could have had no bearing" C, V: 39). Hawthorne's admonishment makes his dissociation from the preceding account of his consular experience, and (by extension) from the material of the sketches to follow in Our Old Home, unequivocally emphatic.

With Hawthorne's remarks above in mind, I will argue that Hawthorne's integrity and indeed his operation as an artist, even while re-presenting firsthand (or autobiographical) experience, requires a boundary relationship between Hawthorne (as he writes) and the subject that he writes about. This necessary disconnection from his autobiographical self, as Hawthorne indicates above, brings about his self-authorization as a truth sayer, no less when he turns to autobiographical experience, than when he fictionalizes other material while writing a tale or romance. From Hawthorne's various statements about his literary art, I gather that the implicit boundary concept that comes into play and thus enables him as an artist bears at least some comparison with Immanuel Kant's conceptual distinction between a "boundary" and a "limit." In his Prolegomena Kant explains that "Experience, which contains all that belongs to the sensible world, does not bound itself" (100). In other words, human experience is surrounded by boundaries that offer something more to our awareness in the way of perspective than would be the case with a mere limit. As Kant puts it, "the setting of a boundary to the field of experience . . . is still a cognition which belongs to [reason] . . . and by which it is neither confined within the sensible nor strays beyond the sensible. . ." (101). Hawthorne's detachment from his autobiographical identity merely draws our attention to a boundary perspective that we take more readily for granted when he describes "a neutral territory [or boundary setting], somewhere between the real world and fairy-land" (Norton 1325) that he found necessary for the writing of romance. Thomas R. Moore has argued this point similarly and insightfully (116-117). Terence Martin's careful consideration of Hawthorne's prefatory remarks in connection with all four of his romances makes it apparent that Hawthorne's "neutral ground" (NH 29-30) may be somewhere historically removed, but need not be. As a matter of fact, of course, except for The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne's romances are set in the present day.

Thus, when we encounter Hawthorne's strange apology in the "Custom House" for attempting to "fling [himself] back into another age," when "The wiser effort would have been, to diffuse thought and imagination through the opaque substance of to-day, and thus to make it a bright transparency" (Norton 1326), we should notice, as Arnold Goldman has, that "Here [in the Custom House passage] is the projected fruit of an active participation in 'the Present, the Immediate, the Actual'" (Goldman 151), as Hawthorne later phrases it in his introduction to Our Old Home. Moreover, we should also wonder, as Goldman does, whether, "when [Hawthorne's attempts at] the English Romance had to be abandoned, 'these poor sketches,'" as he calls them, "could take on the burden of the Actual . . . and whether Our Old Home is less a romance-substitute than that 'wiser effort'" (Goldman 152). Judy Schaaf Anhorn expresses a similar perspective in her assessment of Our Old Home (155). In line with this possibility, it may be worth remarking another parallel with Hawthorne's contemplation of a "wiser effort": "A better book," he says, "than I shall ever write was there; leaf after leaf presenting itself to me, just as it was written out by the reality of the flitting hour, and vanishing as fast as written, only because my brain wanted the insight and my hand the cunning to transcribe it" (Norton 1326). The hyperbole here should not lead us to discount the alignment of this fleeting vision with the claims or aspirations of Transcendentalist writing. In the context of "Hawthorne's Romantic Aesthetics," Millicent Bell observes "elements in Hawthorne's view of the artistic function which must be frankly labeled 'transcendental,'" along with "the presence in his fiction of a major criticism of these same elements" (33). With this antithesis in mind, she goes on to say "that Hawthorne gave conscious assent to the transcendental view of art: a presentation of that ideal of which the visible world is but an imperfect expression" (34). In view of the complexity of Hawthorne's artistic consciousness, his depreciation of his achievement in Our Old Home should not be a road block to a more positive assessment, unless we are prepared to argue that when he apologizes for The Scarlet Letter, he doesn't really mean it, but when he does so for his English sketches, this time, we know, he really means it.

Hawthorne's claim that only by drawing a boundary between his autobiographical and authorial selves can he exercise the freedom necessary for truthful expression can be further examined when we notice a particularly interesting discrepancy between Hawthorne's English Notebooks and a passage in Our Old Home where Hawthorne's own experience of being approached by a sickly child in an institution for the homeless is given instead as happening to a "gentleman" in his "party." As we learn from Hawthorne's notebook account, he was repelled by the sight and apparent suffering of this child as it approached him for attention and affection: "It was as if God had promised the child this favor on my behalf, (but I wish He had not!) and that I must needs fulfil the contract. I held my undesirable burthen a little while; and after setting the child down, it still followed me, holding two of my fingers (luckily the glove was on) and playing with them, just as if (God save us!) it were a child of my own" (EN 275). Hawthorne in his notebook privately speculates "If it were within the limits of possibility?-if I had ever done such wickedness as could have produced this child?-I should certainly have set down its affection to the score of blood-recognition. . . . I wish I had not touched the imp; and yet I never should have forgiven myself if I had repelled its advances" (EN 276).

Hawthorne's revised account in Our Old Home presents a coherent moral reflection, and remains faithful to the original facts, except for Hawthorne's veiled appearance as a "member of our party" (C, V: 300). He writes: "No doubt, the child's mission in reference to our friend was to remind him that he was responsible, in his degree, for all the sufferings and misdemeanors of the world in which he lived, and was not entitled to look upon a particle of its dark calamity as if it were none of his concern; the offspring of a brother's iniquity being his own blood-relation, and the guilt, likewise, a burthen on him, unless he expiated it by better deeds" (C, V: 301).

Lawrence Buell observes how "internalized self-constraints" of autobiographical "writing of the American Renaissance" reduce "the scope of its autobiographical achievement" (52) by subsuming the personal self under a "normalizing impulse" or "imperative" that tends to invalidate personal idiosyncracies while turning "particular actions" (as Buell observes in the case of Thoreau) "into exempla" (52, 53). In the passage just examined, Hawthorne's relationship between his narrative consciousness and his fictive subject effectively evades the blurring of this boundary that would otherwise result from a first-person account of his painful trial. On the other hand, Hawthorne draws suspicion toward himself as he relates of his fictive gentleman how he "watched the struggle in his mind with a good deal of interest," and adds with a straight face his serious opinion that "he did an heroic act, and effected more than he dreamed of towards his own salvation" by picking up the child. This moral exemplum follows a passage that saliently describes Hawthorne's own personal traits: "it could be no easy thing for him to do, he being a person burthened with more than an Englishman's customary reserve, shy of actual contact with human beings, afflicted with a peculiar distaste for whatever was ugly, and, furthermore, accustomed to that habit of observation from an insulated stand-point which is said (but, I hope, erroneously) to have the tendency of putting ice into the blood" (C, V: 300-01). 2

In view of Hawthorne's disavowal of an autobiographical identity, the rest of my presentation will elaborate on Hawthorne's historical awareness of travel writing and the aesthetic principles that he thought necessary for truthful expression in his English sketches.3 In Hawthorne's dedicatory address to Franklin Pierce, he claims that his essays in Our Old Home "have very little to say about the deeper traits of national character. In their humble way, they belong entirely to aesthetic literature, and can achieve no higher success than to represent to the American reader a few of the external aspects of English scenery and life. . . ." (C, V: 3). We know from Marion L. Kesselring's published account of Hawthorne's reading, and from her introductory essay, that Hawthorne's knowledge of travel writing was extensive (9). Hawthorne, in "Fragments from the Journal of a Solitary Man," writes: "The time has been when I meant to visit every region of the earth, except the Poles and central Africa. I had a strange longing to see the Pyramids. To Persia and Arabia, and all that gorgeous East, I owed a pilgrimage for the sake of their magic tales. And England, the land of my ancestors!" (C, XI: 315). It is clear as well that Hawthorne knew how travel literature had evolved from the 18th to the 19th century. As he explicitly indicates to the reader of Our Old Home, often with a playful or reflective justification, the fact that such traveler destinations as Shakespeare's birthplace and grave have already been described by earlier writers means that Hawthorne, as a later traveler, has to offer fresh impressions of these familiar subjects. In a study of . . . Eighteenth-Century Travel Literature, Charles L. Batten observes that by the end of the 18th century, there began to emerge a "distinction between two kinds of travel accounts": on the one hand, "'something like a regular course of historical inquiry,'" on the other, a "'Tour'" offering "'sprightly detail of anecdotes and memoirs'" (77-78). In a study focusing on . . . Americans in Italy 1800-1860, Paul R. Baker identifies a succession of three kinds of American travelers with which Hawthorne's readers would have been familiar by 1860, the time at which his English sketches began to appear in the Atlantic Monthly: the "Discoverer," the "Explorer," and the "Romanticizer" (Baker "Introduction"). As part of an "An Edition" of Hawthorne's American Travel Sketches, Beth L. Lueck examines Hawthorne's "ironic" appropriation, early in his career, of the "picturesque tour," an aesthetic travel writing which searches for "picturesque" or "landscape beauty." "It originated in England" in the 1790s, and gained popularity in the US "by the 1820s and 1830s" (153, 154). Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey (though published 1768) is another notable influence on later travel writing, with its hilarious catagorizing of various types of travelers and humorous subversion of straight travel narratives. In the context of 18th-century English novels, J.M.S. Tompkins remarks that "Sterne's great revelation to his age was the significance of the small and of the fleeting" (Tompkins 52). Notwithstanding the excoriation Hawthorne's English sketches elicited generally from British reviewers, some American and British reviewers alike noted Hawthorne's remarkable power with the handling of evocative details and impressions; Henry James, one supposes for similar reasons, judged Our Old Home "of all his productions . . . to be the best written" (118). 4

We can gain some insight into Hawthorne's approach to writing travel sketches from a letter twenty years prior to the publication of Our Old Home, in which Hawthorne instructs his friend Horatio Bridge about how to write down impressions for a travel book (later published as Journal of an African Cruiser [1845]). "I would advise you," he instructs Bridge, "not to stick too accurately to the bare fact, either in your descriptions or your narrative"

. . . the result will be a want of freedom that will deprive you of a higher truth than that which you strive to attain. Allow your fancy pretty free license, and omit no heightening touches because they did not chance to happen before your eyes. If they did not happen, they at least ought, which is all that concerns you. This is the secret of all entertaining travellers. If you meet with any distinguished characters, give personal sketches of them. Begin to write always before the impression of novelty has worn off . . . else you will be apt to think that the peculiarities which at first attracted you are not worth recording; yet those slight peculiarities are the very things that make the most vivid impression upon the reader. Think nothing too trifling to write down, so it be in the smallest degree characteristic. You will be surprised to find on re-perusing your journal what an importance and graphic power these little particulars assume. (Hawthorne to Bridge 3 May 1843; qtd. in Bridge 92-93)

Hawthorne's recommendations to Bridge are clearly applicable to his own creative process in Our Old Home. This is particularly the case as Hawthorne offers an extended comment on his writing purpose, the challenges he's mindful of, before taking the reader on a tour of Westminster Abbey--another famous place already described by earlier travelers. When Hawthorne, in his dedication, refers to his abandoned English romance as an ambitious project that would have communicated "more of various modes of truth than I could have grasped by a direct effort" (C, V: 4), readers are likely to take this statement as a kind definitive contrast between Hawthorne's fiction and nonfiction. As Hawthorne shares a glimpse of his method of producing sketches to the reader of Our Old Home, however, we realize that his artistic process remains complex.5 "Correct outlines, he says, "avail little or nothing. . . ."

Impressions, however, states of mind produced by interesting and remarkable objects, these, if truthfully and vividly recorded, may work a genuine effect, and, though but the result of what we see, go further towards representing the actual scene than any direct effort to paint it. Give the emotions that cluster about it, and, without being able to analyze the spell by which it is summoned up, you get something like a simulacrum of the object in the midst of them. (C, V: 259)
Thomas R. Moore aptly observes of this passage that "both the essayest and the romance writer insist on a distancing from the actual" (116). But I would emphasize that these positive remarks are ironically embedded in a longer passage where Hawthorne problematizes the possibility of communicating "any creative truth" to readers who have not already visited "the original scenes," so much so that he pats himself on the back at last by "draw[ing] the comfortable inference" that the "better known a thing . . . the more eligible . . . as the subject of a descriptive sketch" (C, V: 258-59).6

In closing, I should mention that I have not addressed some relevant autobiographical questions in relation to Hawthorne's creative process, regarding his respect for privacy or his view of English culture in his notebooks, in comparison with what is re-presented in the published sketches.7 I will simply say that when comparing Our Old Home with the relevant notebook passages, that Hawthorne's published text is more lucid in terms of focus and context, and more expressive of opinions, speculations, and the fresh impressions of a mind in motion.8 In addition to these salient qualities, one also senses that Hawthorne enjoys his reflective process in these essays, that he is masterly both as observer--for example, of poverty in Liverpool--and as tour guide at famous places such as Blenheim palace. The aesthetic focus of 19th-century travel writing made it a natural genre for Hawthorne's creative freedom as an artist.9

Works Cited

Anhorn, Judy Schaaf.
"Literary Reputation and the Essays of Our Old Home." Studies in the Novel 23 (1991): 152-66.
Baker, Paul R.
The Fortunate Pilgrims: Americans in Italy, 1800-1860. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1964.
Batten, Charles L.
Pleasurable Instruction: Form and Convention in Eighteenth-Century Travel Literature. Berkeley: U of California P, 1978.
Baym, Nina.
The Shape of Hawthorne's Career. Ithica: Cornell UP, 1976.
Bell, Michael Davitt.
The Development of American Romance: The Sacrifice of Relation. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980.
Bell, Millicent.
Hawthorne's View of the Artist. New York: State U of New York, 1962.
Bridge, Horatio.
Personal Recollections of Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1893.
Brodhead, Richard H.
The School of Hawthorne. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.
Buell, Lawrence.
"Autobiography in the American Renaissance." Autobiography: Retrospect and Prospect. Ed. Paul John Eakin. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1991. 47-69.
Davidson, Edward H.
Hawthorne's Last Phase. New Haven: Yale UP, 1949.
Gilpin, William.
"Essay II. On Picturesque Travel." From Three Essays on Picturesque Beauty. 2nd. Ed. 1794. 7 pgs. www.ualberta.ca/~dmiall/Travel/gilpine2.htm
Goldman, Arnold.
"Hawthorne's Old Home." Nathaniel Hawthorne: New Critical Essays. Ed. A. Robert Lee. London and Totowa, N.J.: Vision and Barnes & Noble, 1982. 148-70.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel.
The English Notebooks. Ed. Randall Stewart. New York: Russell & Russell, 1962.
The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Ed. William Charvat et al. 20 vols. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1962-88.
"The Custom House." Vol 1 of The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Ed. Ed. Nina Baym et al. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1998.
James, Henry.
Hawthorne (1879). Ithica, N.Y: Cornell UP, 1966.
Lueck, Beth L.
" ." In Hawthorne's American Travel Sketches. Ed. Alfred Weber et al. Hanover and London: UP of New England, 1989. 153-80.
Kant, Immanuel.
Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. Trans. Paul Carus. Rev. James W. Ellington. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co., 1977.
Kesselring, Marion L.
Hawthorne's Reading, 1828-1850: A Transcription and Identification of Titles Recorded in the Charge-Books of the Salem Athenaem. New York: New York Public Library, 1949.
Martin, Terence.
Nathaniel Hawthorne. Rev. Ed. Boston: Twayne Pub, 1983.
Miller, Edwin Haviland.
Salem Is My Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1991.
Moore, Thomas R.
A Thick and Darksome Veil: The Rhetoric of Hawthorne's Sketches, Prefaces, and Essays. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1994.
Newberry, Frederick.
Hawthorne's Divided Loyalties: England and America in His Works. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated UP, Inc., 1987.
Shamir, Milette.
"Hawthorne's Romance and the Right to Privacy." American Quarterly 49 (1997): 746-79.
Tompkins, J.M.S.
The Popular Novel in England: 1770-1800 (1932). Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1961.
Turner, Arlin.
"Hawthorne as Self-Critic." South Atlantic Quarterly 37 (1938): 132-38.
Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Biography. New York: Oxford UP, 1980.


  1. Cf. Moore 123-24; Turner, Nathaniel Hawthorne 291.
  2. Another aspect of Hawthorne's artistic liberation entails the responsibility of respecting the right of personal privacy. In his notebook account of visiting a church where Robert Burns had worshipped, Hawthorne indicates that he was accompanied by his wife and that she and his son Julian went to church on Sunday morning (EN 502, 503). In the published version of these same activities, Hawthorne refers to a male "companion" and "friend" (C,V: 199, 200). A delightful example of Hawthorne having it both ways occurs through a playful pun--at once revealing while purporting to conceal the identity of Henry Bright, an English friend who visited his office: "It would gratify my cherished remembrance of this dear friend," he says, "if I could manage, without offending him, or letting the public know it, to introduce his name upon my page. Bright was the illumination of my dusky little apartment, as often as he made his appearance there!" (C, V: 39). Shamir develops a complex analysis of the concept of privacy as related to Hawthorne's fiction and the rise of a democratic middle class.
  3. Commentators on Our Old Home routinely take Hawthorne at his own word, quoting from his dedication "To a Friend," or what he wrote to James Fields: "It is not a good nor a weighty book. . . ." (C, XVIII: 603). See for instance Miller (503), Michael Bell (172), Brodhead (69), and James (118). The later dismissive criticism begins notably with Davidson's book-length assessment of Hawthorne's "last phase" (1949). On the other hand, Martin and Turner both note Hawthorne's habit of unjustly disparaging his writing (Martin 1; Turner "Hawthorne as Self-Critic" 132).
  4. Among English reviews, see for example, Anon., Athenaeum, No. 1875 (3 Oct. 1863): 428-30; Anon., Christian Remembrancer 47 (1864): 165-88; Anon., "Mr. Hawthorne on England." Spectator, A Weekly Review of Politics, Literature, Theology, and Art 36 (1863): 2578-80; American reviews, see for example, Anon., Albion 41 (1863): 489; Anon., Continental Monthly 4 (1863): 595; Anon. North American Review 97 (1863): 588-89.
  5. Cf. Moore 116-17.
  6. Hawthorne's reflections here are similar to those of William Gilpin, an authority on picturesque travel writing, as he distinguishes the traveler's original "enjoyment" of a scene from the "secondary pleasure" of "recollecting" it in a sketch (5). My thanks to Susan Clair Imbarrato for bringing Gilpin's essay to my attention.
  7. See Stewart, introduction ENB and Newberry.
  8. One notices, as Nina Baym has observed, that "to each essay Hawthorne adds a running layer of general reflection and commentary that the notebooks did not have" (252). (This and Baym's other remarks show agreement with those of Centenary Edition editor Claude M. Simpson [C, V: xxxviii-xli]).
  9. Note: My first thoughts about this paper were based on parts of my dissertation (completed in 1989) that discuss Hawthorne's remarks about autobiography and his creative process in his English sketches. These comments by Hawthorne and some relevant research in my earlier work were valuable for this paper, so I have used them here as parts of an independently developed argument with new insight based on subsequent investigation and reflection.

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