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Hawthorne as Early Icon: The Mystery of Silence

by Samuel Coale, Wheaton College, Norton, MA

Dr. Samuel Coale, Wheaton College, Norton, Massachusetts
Dr. Samuel Coale, Wheaton College, Norton, Massachusetts

Ambiguities haunt everything about and by Nathaniel Hawthorne except his reputation and place in the American canon. Jane Tompkins tried to topple him, exposing his position as the result of a Dead White Male cabal, even though had there been such a conscious thing, we'd be giving papers today on James Russell Lowell, John Greenleaf Whittier and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Many have tried to discredit him because of his wishy-washy, status-quo political positions. One feminist critic, Louise DeSalvo, even suggested that he literally supported the murdering of women once and for all. And we could go on.

But The Scarlet Letter, for good or ill, refuses to vanish or go out of print and remains in the "Top Ten" in American high schools across the country. Hawthorne was enshrined early on in the American literary pantheon--some suggest by the 1840s--and stayed there unlike Melville, Whitman, Dickinson, Poe, Thoreau and Emerson. "The reputation of Mr. Hawthorne is sufficiently established and widely known, to procure for any stories of his production a large and eager circle of readers," proclaimed "Notices of New Books in the United States Magazine and Democratic Review (where several of Hawthorne's sketches and tales had been published) in May, 1851. "He occupies the first rank among the imaginative writers of his day, and his productions are not excelled here or elsewhere."

How did this happen? How and why did critics generally applaud him so early? What did they see in him? Can we isolate that early Hawthorne in the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s? Have the seeds of future critical approaches been sewn within that early critical approval? Or can we find only a repetitious and dated critical vocabulary that incarcerated the fellow altogether?

Recently after slogging through reviews, articles and commentaries on Hawthorne from the 1840s into the 1860s, I stumbled upon James Russell Lowell's review of The Marble Faun in the Atlantic Monthly of April, 1860. I was astonished, since the review is the perfect summation of the critical vocabulary and perspectives used by critics about Hawthorne in the preceding years. For instance Lowell praises Hawthorne's "genius and originality." The word "genius" was used so many times in previous pieces that it becomes the catch-all description of Hawthorne, the man and writer, seemingly a hangover from the romantic era that singled out and celebrated solitary, anguished souls. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody in 1838 and Henry T. Tuckerman in June, 1851, used the word six times in their articles; Poe used it five times in May, 1842; Evert A. Duyckinck employed it three times in May, 1841. The noun became a brand name, more touted than analyzed.

And original. Again and again, over and over, along with Lowell's mention of Hawthorne's power "of peculiarity" with "his morbid tendency." Poe found him original and then just peculiar. Caleb Foote and Edward Percy Whipple in 1850 linked the peculiar with the morbid and the weird. So by 1860 we have a proclaimed peculiar, original, weird and morbid genius, a romantic stock character, a creature caged.

Lowell goes on in his review to mention Hawthorne's "world of moral realities [and] a certain remoteness in his writings," which a British critic in 1868 described as "the withdrawal of the whole scene [in fiction] from the atmosphere of actual life." What to do with this, how to contextualize or normalize it a bit? Well, saith Lowell, Hawthorne's undoubtedly a "son of New England and the Puritans," a more cultural perspective recognized by Melville with his "touch of Puritan gloom," by Duyckinck--"It has the mystic element, the weird forest influences of the old Puritan discipline and era"--and Richard Holt Hutton in 1864: "He was really the ghost of New England [with] a mind steeped in the metaphysical and moral lore of New England endowed with much of the cold simplicity of the Puritan nature." So the weird and the peculiar, in which the genius Hawthorne is steeped, is really part of our cultural, regional and national heritage of Calvinism that haunts "the weird forest" of lost eras.

Of course in nineteenth-century criticism, man and artist are one and the same; it takes a weird man to write a weird tale, however legitimated and authenticated by his Calvinist genes. In Hawthorne we discover, therefore, Henry Fothergill Chorley's "retired and timid man" (1845), a kind of taciturn mystery and silent soul in which much can be read by the discerning eye. And thus, after his peculiar originality and remote, Puritan gloom, we find a shy, sensitive, brooding, anguished, gracious fellow, a tabula rasa, on which can be written the visions of an era.

Elizabeth Peabody found Hawthorne embalmed in "a life of extraordinary seclusion." When he returned to Salem from Bowdoin, Elizabeth Hawthorne noted that he "began to withdraw into himself." I wonder if that's what writers generally must do in any case. Rebecca Harding Davis described him as "Banquo's Ghost." "There was never a more intense Hathorne than the father of Nathaniel Hawthorne," explained George B. Loring in 1880, "the silent, somber sailor." And yet many viewed this silence not as some dark strategy but in a positive light. "You felt, when with him, that you did all the talking and had had a delightful conversation," Franklin B. Sanborn remembered in 1880. At Bowdoin insisted John S. C. Abbott, he was "universally popular . . . He never seemed melancholy . . . there was nothing in his demeanor to repel the friendly advances by one." He was "always meeting one with a pleasant smile, always ready to exchange a few affable words." "Fantastic romancer as he was," declaims Henry James in reviewing the French and Italian Notebooks in 1872, "he here refutes conclusively the common charge that he was either a melancholy or morbid genius." Morbid genius: the epithet had long stuck to the legend of the man. And Horatio Bridge declared that "He was neither morose nor sentimental; and, though taciturn, was invariably cheerful with his chosen friends; and there was much more of fun and frolic in his disposition than his published writings indicate."

We can watch the gloomier image, the Byronic, troubled, solitary shroud descend on the author. In 1853, as Ronald A. Bosco and Jillmarie Murphy point out, George William Curtis discovered "an absolute recluse," a hermit in Salem, a ghost in the Old Manse, "as much a phantom and a fable" and as silent as a shadow. Think of the damage Rufus Griswold did to Poe's reputation after Poe's death. By 1864 Hutton sees Hawthorne "as though he were stricken by some spell which half-paralyzed him from communicating with the life around him . . . His spirit haunted rather than ruled his body; his body hampered his spirit." In 1894 Sarah Ann Clarke remembered him appearing "shrouded in a cloak, Byronic and very handsome . . . gloomy, or perhaps only shy." Hawthorne becomes the standardized gloomy romantic icon: shyness becomes the shadow of a spell, of a haunting, of a doomed spirit.

How to "Americanize" that image in some way? Well, there's Puritan New England. Hawthorne found, according to Oliver Wendell Holmes in July, 1864, "such wealth of poetry to our New England home, and invested the stern outlines of Puritan character with the colors of romance." By the time of Alfred Kazin's article in the Atlantic Monthly in December, 1966, Hawthorne has become irrelevant, musty and dusty and of minimal use to anyone: "He had become 'New England' . . . [He] was writing myths for New England to remember itself by." One of my reasons for writing In Hawthorne's Shadow in the 1980s was to refute such a cavalier dismissal.

The nineteenth century was mesmerized by gloom in an America that was proclaiming its Manifest Destiny, and so that gloom was always suspicious, vaguely un-American, unsettling. Proclaimed Curtis in 1853, "It is because the imagination of our author treads the almost imperceptible line between the natural and the supernatural . . . But we avoid it. We recoil and hurry away, nor dare to glance over our shoulders lest we should see phantoms." No "No, in Thunder" for this writer; the headless horseman rides too closely, or as Emerson aphorized: "Hawthorne rides his horse of the night." Even Whipple, one of Hawthorne's strongest admirers, viewed him as "a shy recluse . . . Shakespeare calls moonlight sick; and it is in some such moonlight of the mind that the genius of Hawthorne found its first expression . . . an unpleasant something . . . the morbid vitality of a despondent mood." For Eugene Benson in 1868, Hawthorne "lures you on and on into the depressing labyrinth of human motives." Cheer up, and all will be well.

"Hawthorne is not a gloomy writer," insisted Duyckinck in May, 1841. "His melancholy is fanciful, capricious." And thus was launched the genteel Hawthorne, the kindly homebody, the loving father and husband, the observer of tollgates, drunkards, the Erie Canal and stagecoach passengers. James T. Fields will spin amiable anecdotes about the man in 187l. George Lathrop will reveal the every-day and ordinary minutiae of the notebooks. Henry James will find him the creator of what Claudia Stokes has called, "bloodless, if charming and skillful, romances."

Morbid, maybe, but so were the Puritans. Melancholy, a touch but not as a man. A genius? Of course! Byronic outcast or at least a tortured ghost condemned to solitude? Yes, but . . . Genteel gentleman who loved kids and cats? Certainly, although . . .

There are at least two other major categories that early critics used to get hold of this slippery soul, one as a creator or founder (almost singlehandedly) of a national American literature--prefigured perhaps by Irving and Cooper and maybe Brown but risen to genius in the elegantly refined and moral-minded Hawthorne--the other as an individual somehow occupying the shadowed crossroads between the feminine and the masculine, a hermaphrodite of horrors, an ambivalent actor on an elusive stage.

In November, 1828, Sarah Josepha Hale pronounced, among a chorus of others, "The time has arrived when our American authors should have something besides empty praise from their countrymen . . . [They should not pursue] the vapid and worn-out descriptions of European manners, fashions and vices." "Let America first praise mediocrity even," trumpeted Melville in 1850. We should back our artists "against all Europe . . . we must turn bullies, else the day is lost." "If we do not assert the claims of our own Literature," bemoaned Charles Wilkins Webber in 1846, "who will do it for us?"

Not a question to go unanswered by the indefatigable Elizabeth Peabody: "The greatest artist will be the greatest benefactor of our country. Art is the highest interest of our state . . . then, we shall have a country; for then, and not till then, there will be a national character." And her brother-in-law? "He sits at the fountain-head of national character." Quoth Orestes Augustus Brownson, not a great lover of The Scarlet Letter: I "regard Mr. Hawthorne as fitted to stand at the head of American Literature." Hawthorne's tales "are national in their character," declaimed the ever-supportive Longfellow.

Claudia Stokes describes the era of 1875-1910 as one full of nostalgia and a lust for origins, a time when the popularity of literary histories became a national fad, complete with the fashioning of a canon, the periodization of our literature, and a new attention to literary craft as opposed to mere popularity. The time was ripe to establish a New England tradition once and for all, as Lowell in 1860 had declared that Hawthorne's work was destined to spread out "from a small circle of refined admirers and critics [to] the whole community of readers." The industrial era at full throttle with its factories and immigrants added to those who desired refinement and who could only locate it in the recent past. The Chosen People--or those who identified with them--in their City on a Hill, a sacred space besieged by modernity, craved origins, however morbid and peculiar. Not so, Loring insisted in 1880. Hawthorne's "pictures are not the fruits of a diseased imagination . . . gloomy but they are always true to nature [whose?], and the gloom is only the shadow falling upon the landscape to perfect its beauty."

And again, the man himself? As the nineteenth century congealed into rigid gender roles and performances, where could the elusive Hawthorne be found? "He is so gentle and mild that you feel as if speaking to a girl," acknowledged Henry Bright in 1852. Explained G. S. Hillard in the Atlantic Monthly of September, 1870, "No man had more of the feminine element than he--in his quick perceptions, his fine insight, his sensibility to beauty, his delicate reserve, his purity of feeling." Longfellow would agree: "His genius [there's that brand-name again], too, is characterized by a large proportion of feminine elements, depth and tenderness of feeling, exceeding purity of mind, and a certain airy grace and arch vivacity." Damn! And I've been striving to achieve an "arch vivacity" all my life! James Russell Lowell in 1848 summarizes it all:

When nature was shaping him, clay was not granted
For making so full-sized a man as she wanted,
So, to fill out her model, a little she spared
From some finer-grained stuff for a woman prepared,
And she could not have hit a more excellent plan
For making him fully and perfect a man.

What we find in much of this attempt to pin Hawthorne, the man and writer down, is a series of polarities that operate along gender, racial, philosophical, cultural and metaphysical lines. This logic (either this or that) operates in western language with a vengeance, but perhaps the nineteenth-century approach was even more calcified or calcifying. Peculiar Original: Puritan prophet. Gloomy outlook; shadows to bring out the sunlight. Male/Female. Regional/National. Melancholy/Cheerful. American/European. Anguished/shy. Part of this approach may have been generated by the nineteenth century's own polarized position, a perilous equilibrium that placed it somewhere between soul and mind, theology and psychology, sentiment and sex. Were we at the mercy of various magnetic forces, and if so could the soul be reduced to some aspect of an elusive primordial force? Is that one of the reasons why Hawthorne celebrated as much as he feared mesmerism? Wailed Orestes Brownson against The Scarlet Letter: "Men are not for us mere psychological phenomena, to be studied, classed, and labeled. They are moral and accountable beings, and we look only to the moral and religious effects of their works." But where exactly could we find the forces that underlie or generate those religious effects? Did Hawthorne recognize, as Edward S. Reed suggests, that "introspection reveals the results of a 'play of forces' and is thus both indispensable and inadequate: indispensable, because the mental forces can nowhere else be observed; inadequate, because it is introspection that makes us wonder what gives rise to the play of forces in the first place." Is this part of the reason why introspection for Hawthorne seemed to be the real shadowy grove and corpse-ridden tomb he contemplated but was often afraid to enter, lest he lose his way?

Hawthorne as silent icon became a treasure trove for ghost hunters. As his reputation grew, aided and abetted by his friends and critics, so did they come to recognize the mystery of him as a man and writer. In their critiques and remembrances, were they consciously and calculatedly trying to create an aura of mystery that the word "genius" inspires? Once the genius label took, did conjuring up a sense of mystery necessarily follow? At his 50th Reunion at Bowdoin, John S. C. Abbott remembered "an indescribable something in the silent presence" of Hawthorne. "No author of our own country," wrote George Bailey Loring as early as 1850, "and scarcely any author of our times, manages to keep himself clothed in such a cloak of mystery as Nathaniel Hawthorne." Ah, but where did that cloak come from? The North British Review in 1868 alleged that "His pages are replete with mystery, hintings of an eerie presence, tokens of a power preternatural yet strangely in affinity with human life . . . But this mystery is never revealed; it is a presence without a form, an inarticulate voice, an impalpable agency." In 1901, again in the Atlantic Monthly, Paul Elmore More could identify "the daemonic force of the man himself, the everlasting mystery of genius inhabiting his brain."

The mystery remains intact. The silence of the man is eternal. He seems a handsome presence and an elusive absence, as tantalizing to biographers as perhaps he was to himself, if not downright disturbing. When he confronts the notion of an autonomous self, it becomes a black hole, an absence, a dark unconscious depth that he makes sacred by his fear of violation and submission to stronger wills. "The working of his mind was so sacred and mysterious to him," Loring suggests, and I would agree, if not "beyond his control or direction." "He seems endowed with a sort of intellectual polarity," suggested the North British Review in 1868, and his penchant for allegory certainly reveals those metaphysical longitudes and latitudes. But the key may lie at the crossroads of those polarities, at some slippery center that can never be named nor rigidly defined.

Loring tries to break the grip of polarities on the American imagination: "There is a sweeping belief that vice stands at one pole and virtue at the other, which the deep trials of life may eradicate" (Sept. 1850). Certainly Hawthorne's characters undergo their separate trials. "We are kept in a most titillating condition of uncertainty," Charles Wilkins Webber declared (Sept, 1846), praising "the singular skill with which our sympathy is kept 'halting between two opinions." The North British Review would agree: "His forte rather is to delineate the most opposing and contradictory sides of a man, in all their contrasting struggling action and reaction. . . an embodiment of the operation and results of strange, involved, and conflicting combinations of moral and spiritual data."

Himself a silent icon to others, he reproduces "a graphic representation of visible objects, and connect[s] those objects with thoughts, images and sentiments appropriate to each," Horatio Bridge maintains. Elizabeth Peabody admired "the quietness--the apparent leisure, with which he lingers around the smallest point of fact, and unfolds therefrom a world of thought." Even as early as 1838 Andrew Preston Peabody recognized Hawthorne's "associations and feelings, which always cluster around an object, however humble, which has been familiar to the eye from infancy . . . not of weaving a material plot, but of gathering a group of spirit phantoms around some scene or moment in itself utterly uneventful."

Wordsworth in The Prelude wrote that "places have we all within ourselves/Where all stand single." Hawthorne, I think, recognized that essential aloneness, complicated by the more social aspects and facets of loneliness that compelled his characters to either seek isolation or reach out for some kind of ever elusive intimate connection. Peculiar? Maybe. A Puritan? You could call him that, but carefully, warily. A Byronic recluse? Hardly. A shrewd Yankee and literary dreamer? Perhaps. Feminine? Masculine? Neither? Both? Racist? Probably. And all these early critics wrestled with such categories, as we are wrestling still. But it's probably that aura of mystery that leads us on, the half-felt desire to move beyond the very polarities that shaped his intellectual and aesthetic makeup. Can we seek new momentary stays against confusion, or must we still grapple with elusive designs--if design govern at all?

And as for James Russell Lowell? We may still perceive "a moral pointing skywards always, but inscribed with hieroglyphics mysteriously suggestive, whose incitement to conjecture, while they baffle it, we prefer to any prosaic solution."

June 7, 2008

Thanks to John Idol's and Buford Jones' CONTEMPORARY REVIEWS. From Soul to Mind: The Emergence of Psychology from Erasmus Darwin to William James by Edward S. Reed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997, p. 85.

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