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Dark Romantics: Hawthorne and Poe

by Rob Velella
Independent Scholar
Waltham, MA

Portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood, 1840
Portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood, 1840 (courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA, Gift of Professor Richard C. Manning, Acc#121459)
 
Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar A. Poe never met face-to-face.1 They never shook hands or even sat in the same room together. They did, however, maintain a casual occasional correspondence and commented on one another’s work. More importantly, however, the two writers are inseparably linked because of the style of their works. Both Hawthorne and Poe wrote about the human condition and human nature in a way that few other writers of the time period did. To both Hawthorne and Poe, humanity was an evil creature, perpetually plagued with sin, guilt, and morbidity. As Hawthorne wrote in “Young Goodman Brown”: “Evil is the nature of mankind.” This is the dark side of the Romantic movement in literature; I will argue that Hawthorne and Poe are the Dark Romantics.

The first time we can prove that one author was aware of the other was fairly late in both of their careers.2 The April 1842 issue of Philadelphia’s Graham’s Magazine included a teaser of sorts: Poe offered a few sentences of review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, with a promise that more was to come. Coincidentally, that same issue of Graham’s included the first publication of Poe’s story “Life in Death” – later renamed “The Oval Portrait”3 – but, more on that later.

The book Poe was reviewing collected several of Hawthorne’s short stories – Hawthorne hadn’t yet written his major novels. 4 That was a good thing to Poe. His preliminary review begins, “We have always regarded the Tale… as affording the best prose opportunity for display of the highest talent.”5 It helped, of course, that Poe was a tale-writer himself. That is significant, of course: few of the other contemporary American writers who survive into collective memory in modern times were known for their short prose; most everyone else is remembered as poets, essayists, and novelists. Later, Poe would write an important essay expounding his theory that there was no such thing as a “good” long work like a novel because it was impossible to sustain what he called the “unity of effect.”6

As for Hawthorne, Poe writes: “We have seen no prose composition by any American which can compare with some of these articles… while there is not a single piece which would do dishonor to the best of British essayists.” Gushing praise from Poe is almost entirely unheard of, especially for a New England-based writer, but he approaches just that. He goes on: “The style of Mr. Hawthorne is purity itself. His tone is singularly effective – wild, plaintive, thoughtful, and in full accordance with his themes… Upon the whole we look upon him as one of the few men of indisputable genius to whom our country has as yet given birth.”7

That was just Poe’s preliminary review. The next month, the May 1842 issue of Graham’s Magazine included Poe’s full review of Hawthorne – nearly 3,000 words (though he still apologized it was too brief). The article is a mix of review and a personal essay on literary theory. Though it is not all laudatory, the article has plenty of praise for Hawthorne. “Of Mr. Hawthorne’s Tales,” Poe writes, “we would say, emphatically, that they belong to the highest region of Art – an Art subservient to genius of a very lofty order.” He notes that Hawthorne’s work pulls him outside the typical “cliques” of American writing and he sums up: “As Americans, we feel proud of the book.” He notes in particular a fondness for works like “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” “The Minister’s Black Veil,” and especially “Wakefield” – which Poe notes is powerful because of its focus on “the analysis of the motives” of the character.8 What makes the character do what he does? Poe explored similar questions about motivations in his own works, including “The Imp of the Perverse” and, in a different way, “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Poe also comments that Hawthorne is not being paid what he’s worth. He writes in August 1845: “Hawthorne, it appears to us, has fulfilled all the conditions which should secure success, and yet he has reaped but a scanty harvest.”9 It is, of course, easy for Poe to sympathize because he was also struggling to be financially successful as a writer. Hawthorne, by the way, never owned a home until after Poe’s death, when he purchased The Wayside in 1852.

Poe even planned to use Hawthorne as a regular contributor for his dream project, a monthly journal to be named The Stylus. Hawthorne was asked to write for its first issue, in fact.10 For Poe, this is a big deal: his ultimate goal in life was to start a brand new literary journal with extremely high standards to elevate the quality and standing of American writing. Despite planning this project for years, it never came to be. It was a good thing for Hawthorne too; as his deadline approached for his first contribution, he was unable to write, complaining at the time he had “no more brains than a cabbage.”11

So far, the interaction between Hawthorne and Poe has been in print and through intermediaries like James Russell Lowell. It doesn’t appear that Hawthorne and Poe interacted directly until 1846, when Hawthorne wrote a letter to Poe from Salem. His collection Mosses from an Old Manse had been published and he alerted Poe in anticipation of a review. Hawthorne acknowledged, “I have read your occasional notices of my productions with great interest – not so much because your judgment was, upon the whole, favorable, as because it seemed to be given in earnest. I care for nothing but the truth; and shall always much more readily accept a harsh truth, in regard to my writings, than a sugared falsehood.”12Yet, Hawthorne admitted: “I confess, however, that I admire you rather as a writer of tales than as a critic upon them. I might often – and often do – dissent from your opinions in the latter capacity, but could never fail to recognize your force and originality, in the former.”13

Hawthorne made sure to get a review copy of Mosses from an Old Manse to Poe, and Poe responded – somewhat surprisingly. Though mingled with praise, much of Poe’s review is a negative one. He wrote: “[Hawthorne] is peculiar and not original.”14 Why the sudden change? One major factor is Hawthorne’s fault. He made the mistake of moving, of all places, to Concord.

Poe clearly disapproves. Hawthorne was living in the Old Manse, the former home of Ralph Waldo Emerson, in the tow known as the center of the Transcendental movement. Poe concludes his review of Mosses from an Old Manse: “Let [Hawthorne] mend his pen, get a bottle of visible ink, come out from the Old Manse, cut Mr. Alcott, [and] hang (if possible) the editor of ‘The Dial.’”15

Of course Poe disapproved of Transcendentalism and, by association, the town of Concord – and that disapproval was the source of much animosity between the Transcendentalists and Poe. He ridiculed their writings in particular by calling them “metaphor-run,” and for lapsing into “obscurity for obscurity's sake.” 16 He said that Emerson specifically was even purposely incomprehensible, writing “Emerson belongs to a class of gentlemen… with whom we have no patience whatever – the mystics for mysticism's sake.”17 Of the Transcendental poet Ellery Channing, Poe wrote: “It may be said in his favor that nobody has heard of him. Like an honest woman, he has always succeeded in keeping himself from being made the subject of gossip.”18 One of Poe’s short stories, “Never Bet the Devil Your Head,” includes a clear attack on transcendentalism, which the narrator calls a “disease.” The story specifically mentions the movement and its flagship journal The Dial, though Poe denied that he had any specific targets.19 The main character, Tobey Dammit, is a Transcendentalist. He does not believe in the presence of evil, even as the devil stands before him, and dies because of it. His friend sends the bill for his funeral expenses to the Transcendentalists, though the “scoundrels” refuse to pay it. Instead Tobey Dammit’s body is ground into dog meat – implying, of course, that a Transcendentalist is as valuable as dog meat.

Poe, of course, would not have known that even Hawthorne had a problem with the Transcendentalists too. Though he had a brief tenure at the Transcendental community at Brook Farm,20 Hawthorne wasn’t entirely sold on their values. In fact, years later, his novel The Blithedale Romance would serve as a thinly-veiled satire of his experience on the Farm, specifically criticizing the idealism of a simple, egalitarian society based on generosity and concern for one’s fellow man.21 Poe, by the way, admitted a “sincere respect” for Brook Farmers and noted they “meant no harm – and… perhaps, could do no less.”22 Hawthorne also satirized Transcendentalism in his tale “The Celestial Rail-road,” mocking the idea that there is a fast-track for mankind to reach his spiritual goals.

Both Poe and Hawthorne disagreed with the reform mentality of the Transcendental movement. Hawthorne believed reforms were ineffective and the reformers dangerous. One of his narrators asks reformers “cease to look through pictured windows.”23 When his sister-in-law Elizabeth Palmer Peabody sent him an anti-slavery pamphlet she had written, Hawthorne didn’t read very far into it. “To tell you the truth,” he wrote, “I have read only the first line or two.” When he finally read further, he admitted, “It is not very good,” and he was not convinced.24 When Hawthorne’s close friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published a book of anti-slavery poetry, Poe made it clear what he thought of it. He was a Southern writer, after all, raised in Virginia with family in Baltimore. He said the book was (quote) “intended for the especial use of those negrophilic old ladies of the north.”25 In response to Longfellow’s poem “The Slave’s Dream,” Poe wrote that it was “a very commendable and comfortable thing, in Professor [Longfellow], to sit at ease in his library chair, and write verses instructing the southerners how to give up their all with a good grace, and abusing them if they will not”.26 In other words, neither Hawthorne nor Poe was part of the abolitionist movement which the Transcendentalists embraced.

As an aside, I’ll mention that this criticism of Transcendentalism was ironic for both men: Hawthorne’s wife Sophia certainly had Transcendental tendencies27 and Poe’s one-time fiancée Sarah Helen Whitman was certainly a Transcendentalist. She was a friend of Margaret Fuller, had attended lectures by Emerson in Boston and in Providence, Rhode Island and published an article on him where she referred to herself as “a Disciple.”28

I would suggest, in fact, that the literary viewpoints of Hawthorne and Poe were in direct opposition to the ideals of Transcendentalism. The Transcendentalists were at one end of the spectrum in the Romantic movement, based on a natural progression of the Romantic notions of individuality and personal experience. The British Romantics like Coleridge and Wordsworth inspired the minds of Concord particularly because of their focus on the individual mind and the connection to nature.29 It’s this idea that led to Emerson having a profound moment with a humble bee; the same idea which sent Thoreau to a cabin in the woods for two years; and the same idea that had Bronson Alcott create the 19th-century version of a hippie commune at Fruitlands shortly before moving his family to this home: Individualism, a connection to nature, natural beauty, and a positive outlook on life.

The opposite side – the dark side – is what was represented by Poe and Hawthorne. Poe and Hawthorne were unofficial allies in a very small literary movement known as Dark Romanticism, the antithesis of the Romantic ideals that reached their ultimate form in Transcendentalism. Like the Romantics, Hawthorne and Poe emphasized the individualism and imagination of the writers based on their passions, intuition, and emotions. Poe and Hawthorne, however, did not come up with the same optimism, nor did they find the beauty of nature or of humanity. Instead, they saw the negative side and created literary worlds plagued by guilt, fear, sin, and morbidity. When Hawthorne looks to human nature, he sees “Young Goodman Brown” and a journey through temptation which leads him to learn all mankind is evil. The Scarlet Letter does not depict Romantic optimism and instead shows a world of secrets and revenge. Revenge is also the main motivator in Poe’s “Hop-Frog” and “The Cask of Amontillado.” Reading their works will not depict Transcendental ideas of a positive outlook of humanity – at least, not without irony or satire.

I’d like to focus on two specific works, stories which fictionalize that pursuit of individual perfection that the Transcendentalists promoted. In 1842, Poe published “The Oval Portrait” and about a year later, Hawthorne published “The Birth-Mark.” The two stories are often compared because of their thematic similarities.30 Poe’s story, “The Oval Portrait,” reveals the story of a man who recognizes the perfect beauty of his young wife and wants to capture it in a painting. His focus on the painting causes him to neglect his wife and, as he finishes the life-like portrait, the main character realizes his wife is dead. Hawthorne’s story, “The Birth-Mark,” depicts a man who wants to correct the minor blemish in his otherwise perfectly-beautiful young wife. Using his deep knowledge of science, the main character uses a potion which removes the titular birthmark, though it kills her in the process.

To sum up: In their pursuit of perfection, both men ultimately destroy the love of their life. Aylmer in “The Birth-Mark” is, basically, a reformer – like the Transcendentalists. Like Hawthorne predicts, his reforms are ultimately dangerous and ill-fated.31 He’s a scientist, which means he uses his education and intellect to achieve perfection, much like the well-educated Transcendentalist scholars like Emerson. It’s interesting to note that in Hawthorne’s story, the male character is a scientist who is attempting to play God. As a false creator, he is doomed to failure, proving that individual perfection is just not possible, despite Transcendental optimism or idealism. On the other hand, the creator character in Poe’s story is an artist, not a scientist. Rather than playing God, he equates perfection as a work of Art. In trying to capture and preserve his wife’s perfect beauty, he does not realize he is actually killing her. Both men are also obsessive. The male in Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark” is consumed by this obsession,32 as is the male in Poe’s “The Oval Portrait” – and their obsession allows their wives to die. In both stories, then, the male is clearly responsible for what could be considered murder. This is certainly not the idealist view of human nature which Emerson or Alcott saw in mankind.

This is what Herman Melville, a later member of the Dark Romantics, recognized in Hawthorne when he wrote of Hawthorne’s “great power of blackness” derived from “Innate Depravity and Original Sin.”33 Hawthorne, of course, was often critical of the seemingly pious Puritan tradition and was himself plagued by ancestral guilt due to his family’s involvement in the Salem Witch Trials and the persecution of Quakers – all in the name of religious right.

Poe’s focus on darkness may not have a connection to personal guilt or religion but darkness is an obvious trait of his writing. His characters certainly experience guilt – represented by the beating of a hideous heart exposing the murder in “The Tell-Tale Heart” or Roderick Usher’s conscious premature burial of his sister Madeline, whose return from the grave leads to the literal “Fall of the House of Usher.” The major difference between Poe’s tales and Hawthorne’s is that it’s hard for a reader to learn anything from, say, “The Cask of Amontillado.” There is no condemnation of revenge there; instead, the narrator clearly gets away with murder. If Hawthorne had written it, the reader would have been over the head with some kind of moral lesson. Poe doesn’t bother – and that’s not to say that Poe is immoral but that he doesn’t use his writing to present a lesson on morality. “The Oval Portrait” portrays not a scientist like Hawthorne’s story but an artist – significant because Poe was a champion of “Art for Art’s sake” before the phrase was invented. Poe believed that writing, like art, should stand on its own, without the need to have a grander purpose beyond eliciting some kind of emotional response in readers.

Going back to the comparisons between “The Oval Portrait” and “The Birth-Mark”: It may also be worth noting that both stories, in some respect, feature abusive male-female relationships. Aylmer in “The Birth-Mark” and the unnamed artist in “The Oval Portrait” both wear down their female counterparts by forcing them into their science or art. From a feminist perspective, both authors appear somewhat misogynistic. However, Georgiana in “The Birth-Mark” has the last laugh by clearly placing Aylmer as the villain of the story. She clearly places ample guilt on his conscience in her final remarks to him, reminding him that he is about to lose his almost-perfect woman because of his search for perfection. As for Poe, I have argued elsewhere that, though he is always killing off his woman characters, that fact that he also brings them back from the dead is a sign of female empowerment. One woman in particular, the title character of “Ligeia,” has evoked much discussion of feminine power.34

Though both of the major Dark Romantic writers are willing to portray these evil sides of mankind – the murderous, the abusive, the guilt-ridden, the sinful, the ambitious – their approaches are markedly different, such that many readers may miss their similarities for their differences. Hawthorne strived to teach in his writing, often spelling out the morals of his story quite transparently. The Reverend Hooper in “The Minister’s Black Veil,” for example, makes sure the readers do not miss the point of the story when he announces that all men wear a symbolic black veil. Poe’s take on morality is much the opposite. Like the artist of “The Oval Portrait,” Poe places Art is his ultimate goal – and such Art is easily tainted by in-your-face morality. A posthumous essay complained about the “heresy of The Didactic” – sacrificing Art in order to teach a lesson.35 Poe was one of the first to believe that literature should stand on its own as a thing of beauty (like Georgiana in “The Birth-Mark”); that uniqueness in fundamental literary theory should be considered the biggest reason for Poe’s shifting thoughts on Hawthorne. It also explains his friction with most other major American writers in his lifetime, including Hawthorne’s friend and classmate Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, for whom Poe saved his sharpest barbs. Of the works of Longfellow, Poe complained about the “moral taint”.36 As Poe wrote in a review, “His didactics are all out of place37 – or, as Poe said, “a didactic moral might be happily made the under-current of a poetical theme… but is invariably an ill effect when obtruding beyond the upper current of the thesis itself”.38 No doubt Hawthorne’s didactic morals were the upper current of many of his stories. The best example possibly comes from “The Minister’s Black Veil,” a story about a minister who hides his face behind a veil as a symbol of some secret sin. As he is dying, he shouts out:

Why do you tremble at me alone?” cried he, turning his veiled face round the circle of pale spectators. “Tremble also at each other! Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil? What, but the mystery which it obscurely typifies, has made this piece of crape so awful? When the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend; the lover to his best beloved; when man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin; then deem me a monster, for the symbol beneath which I have lived, and die! I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a black veil!

Here’s the moral: Hawthorne is saying that all men hide behind a black veil, a symbol of sin. There aren’t very many examples of moral messages in Poe’s work – and certainly none as explicit as “The Minister’s Black Veil” and other Poe works but the closest is in Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” published in the same issue of Graham’s Magazine in which his initial preview of Twice-Told Tales was published. In “The Masque of the Red Death,” a rich prince hides from a plague outside his castle, only to die from the exact disease he was trying to avoid. The message here is that death comes to everyone, no matter what precautions are taken. The story concludes: “And darkness, and decay, and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”

Any movement is really about reacting against another movement, and the Dark Romantics were no exception. At a time when Transcendentalists (and Romantics in general) were preaching individuality, asking humanity to look to nature for answers, and seeking societal reform, people like Hawthorne and Poe were looking inward and finding that we had no reason to be optimistic about human nature. The works of both writers are timeless because of it. In today’s climate, American readers don’t have much reason to be optimistic. Whether it is the economy, international war, financiers ripping off investors, or even politicians with their infidelity, it’s easy to see why Hawthorne and Poe noticed the bad side of human nature first.

Endnotes

1 Sova, 105

2 Thomas & Jackson, 363

3 Sova, 178

4 For the purpose of this paper, I will examine Hawthorne’s work only up to 1849, the year that Poe died. Any influence from Poe on Hawthorne’s later career will not be explored. Chronologically, this limitation forces an exclusion of Hawthorne’s major novels.

5 “Review of New Books,” Graham’s Magazine, Vol. XX, No. 4 (April 1842): 254.

6 See “The Philosophy of Composition” (1845)

7 Graham’s (April 1842): 254

8 “Review of New Books,” Graham’s Magazine, Vol. XX, No. 5 (May 1842): 299.

9 From The Broadway Journal, August 23, 1845. Quoted by Thomas & Jackson, 564

10 Thomas & Jackson, 311-312

11 Silverman, 195

12 Letter dated June 17, 1846. Quoted by Thomas & Jackson, 646-647

13 Meyers, 133 (emphasis added)

14 Silverman, 317

15 Silverman, 317

16 Ljundquist, 15

17 Meyers, 180

18 Sova, 47

19 Sova, 170

20 McFarland, 82-84

21 Packer, 137

22 Sova, 35

23 Yellin, 148

24 Yellin, 149

25 Hutchisson, 100

26 Hutchisson, 100

27 Marshall, 223

28 Silverman, 347-348

29 Packer, 27

30 Quinn, 331

31 Yellin, 148

32 Miller, 250

33 Miller, 314

34 Her motto, and that of the story, suggests that death only comes to those who are weak-willed. Her return from death clearly shows a will stronger than her husband’s. As a side note, despite mainstream readers’ assumption that Poe “always” wrote about opium, only “Ligeia” and “The Oval Portrait” make mention of the drug, and then only to allow the reader to question the reliability of the narrator.

35 See “The Poetic Principle” by Edgar A. Poe, published in Sartain’s Union Magazine, October 1850

36 Silverman, 235 (Poe’s emphasis)

37 Bittner, 174

38 Hutchisson, 87

Bibliography

  • Bittner, William. Poe: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1962.
  • Hutchisson, James M. Poe. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.
  • Ljunquist, Kent. “The poet as critic” collected in The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe, Kevin J. Hayes, ed. Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • Marshall, Megan. The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism. Houghton-Mifflin, 2005.
  • McFarland, Philip. Hawthorne in Concord. New York: Grove Press, 2004.
  • Miller, Edwin Haviland. Salem is My Dwelling Pace: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991.
  • Myers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. New York: Cooper Square Press, 1992.
  • Packer, Barbara. The Transcendentalists. The University of Georgia Press, 2007.
  • Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998 (reprint edition).
  • Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.
  • Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. New York: Checkmark Books, 2001.
  • Thomas, Dwight and David K. Jackson. The Poe Log: A Documentary Life of Edgar Allan Poe, 1809-1849. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1987.
  • Yellin, Jean Fagan. “Hawthorne and the Slavery Question” collected in A Historical Guide to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Larry J. Reynolds, ed. Oxford University Press, 2001.



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