and the Re-Creation of the Artist
Orley K. Marron
on a paper presented in the June 2010 Conference
Hawthorne in Concord:
Eden and Beyond
Hawthorne's complex and ambivalent attitude to art and to artists
has been noted by many critics, and explained in diverse ways.
However, close consideration of the characters in the narratives,
and specifically the animated art objects with which they interact,
show that his outlook actually evolved over time and became more
accepting and sympathetic towards creators. The change is most
marked when texts from two broad periods are compared: those
written in the years 1828 – 1837, and the narratives created
in the years beyond, 1838 – 1860. This change may reflect the
confidence, and the perspective, that Hawthorne gained from his
supportive artist wife Sophia.
Hawthorne's private diaries and published stories bear witness to
his relentless search for the ultimately effective expressive
medium: the perfect form through which the artist can accurately
convey human truths and experiences. Fascinated by visual art such
as painting and sculpting as well as photography, Hawthorne wondered
whether visual artists can give clear and truthful renderings of the
people, objects and scenes they observe.
European diaries reveal a critical and exhaustive exploration of
visual art in museums and galleries, and his conviction that visual
art cannot on its own depict the full truth.
In his diaries and letters Hawthorne also articulates his
frustration with written
as an incomplete medium of expression, divorced from tone of voice
or visual cues. "I wish there was something in the
intellectual world analogous to the Daguerrotype … in the
visible," writes Hawthorne in a love letter (December 1839) to
his wife-to-be Sophia Peabody, "something which should print
our deepest, and subtlest, and delicatest thoughts and feelings, as
minutely and accurately as the above-mentioned instrument paints the
various aspects of nature."
search for a literary
a tool that would accurately and delicately reveal the inner psyche
of people through words, remained an alluring but unattainable ideal
throughout his life. While it led him to develop, among other
devices, the human-like
animated art object, a
vivid and effective fictional tool in the form of portrait paintings
and sculptures that “come to life”, Hawthorne could
never reconcile the ideal expressive art in his imagination with the
physical, embodied outcome of artistic work. His narratives time
and again describe the unsuccessful attempts of storytellers and
other creators to convey vital ideas to their audiences. This
insurmountable gap between the desired and the realized may
elucidate in part Hawthorne’s ambivalent approach to art and
artists, evident throughout his writing career.
in the earlier years of writing, Hawthorne’s frustrated
aesthetic aspirations were coupled with an unsupportive, even
hostile environment and great financial difficulties, leading him to
cast art and creativity in a particularly negative light. Between
the years 1828 and 1837, lacking public recognition and financial
rewards, and contending with criticism from his pragmatic Manning
relatives, Hawthorne's life-choice to be an author, a creative
artist, seemed almost unjustifiable to himself. Rita Gollin suggests
that his ambition was inherently “unrealistic in mercantile
America - since most books were imported from England or pirated,
and most magazine fiction was low-paid and published anonymously,”
but the young author, aware of these problems, nonetheless hoped to
succeed in an artistic career. Living in the New England society
that viewed poverty as shameful (unlike the European acceptance of
the poor bohemian creator), he suffered a deep sense of inadequacy
and contended with financial concerns that continued to haunt him
even in later years. Gloria Erlich points out that his sense of
material and social inadequacy was especially apparent when he lived
among the wealthier Concord intellectuals, renting the Emersons’
Manse. Hawthorne and his family had to remove from this Edenic
location because they could not afford to pay the rent. Erlich
suggests that Hawthorne's Manning family, and especially his
pragmatic and business-oriented uncle Robert Manning, engendered a
deep (perhaps crippling) ambivalence in Hawthorne as to the validity
and worthiness of being an writer, transmitting their emphasis on
money and diligence to the young artist: "The full flowering
of his artistic powers was delayed by a sense of triviality, a
conviction that serious masculinity was reserved for the ‘man
of affairs’ ".
Hawthorne reached near-solvency only at the age of forty-eight, and
had to rely on the aid of friends for support, suffering the "common
American shame of pecuniary failure when, after his expulsion from
the Salem Custom House, he had had to accept a fund raised for him
by friends" (Millicent Bell).
Hawthorne himself discussed his lack of success as matter of
that “ill-success in life is really and justly a matter of
shame… The fault of a failure is attributable – in a
great degree at least – to the man who fails”.
Alongside the sense of shame was the paralyzing conviction that the
public was indifferent to his artistic efforts, numbing his fingers
and his inspiration.
my writings had made any decided impression, I should have been
stimulated to greater exertions; but there has been no warmth of
approbation, so that I have always written with benumbed fingers."
these difficult years, Hawthorne wrote a series of tales that deal
in different ways with art and artists, some of which were published
anonymously or pseudonymously in the Token
Among them are "Fanshawe”
(1828), “The Village Uncle” (1835), “The Devil
in Manuscript” (1835), “Fragments from the Journal of a
Solitary Man” (1837) and “The Prophetic Pictures”
(1837). These warn
young men against choosing art as a profession: It is "a
dangerous resolution, anywhere in the world" says the narrator
of "The Story Teller," "it was fatal, in New
England," (Mosses 322). The tales convey a sense of futility
and even danger in creative activity, advising readers to abstain
from it, and to find more profitable occupations instead (such as
fishing) as well as conventional domestic happiness (for instance a
kindly simple blond wife as an effective antidote to their artistic
truly wise, after all their speculations, will be led into the
common path, and, in homage to the human nature that pervades them,
will gather gold, and till the earth, and set out trees, and build a
house. (JSM 314).”
these narratives, the creative impulse is depicted as dangerously
seductive and uncontrollable, and its consequences are
unpredictable: artists submitting to it may become possessed,
reclusive or mad, breaching ethical conventions Hawthorne apparently
held as important,
and they may produce subversive art objects that become animate,
show agency and provoke audiences to sinful ideas and dreadful
actions. Hawthorne’s artists lie on different ends of the
“creative power” scale: Oberon, the mediocre and
reclusive artist in "The Devil in Manuscript” (1835), is
possessed by the devil of art, but rejected thoroughly by publishers
and audiences, to his shame and anguish. He produces demonic stories
that lead him to lose control (and his home). In contrast to
Oberon, the fanatically dedicated artist in "The Prophetic
Pictures" is extremely successful and well respected. However,
he too produces dangerous art, painting a set of portraits of a
young couple that eventually awaken their subject's latent insanity,
provoking Walter the husband to attempt murder on his wife Elinor.
Thus, the characters who make the mistake of becoming artists,
regardless of how successful or unsuccessful they are, irresponsibly
produce and interact with their seditious art objects.
work undergoes a curious change around the time he meets Sophia, his
artist lover, and the changes become more and more apparent as his
domestic life and family experience develop: the animate
depicted in the narratives start evolving into objects of affection
and even beauty, rather than horror and devilment. The artists
creating them are no longer detached sinners, but vulnerable human
beings who relish creation and treat their art with affection. They
are depicted sympathetically and empathetically. And the creative
impulse, rather than a demonic possession, is described in terms of
the material process of art making,
the remarkable and transformative relationship between the artist
and his materials. Hawthorne's approach to art and artists begins
an evolution that culminates in The
where a work of art serves as a path to redemption. It may be that
the change in approach reflects Hawthorne's growing confidence in
himself as an artist and a man, as well as his developing
understanding of plastic art, both of which might be attributed to
his relationship with his supportive and artistic wife.
can trace the changes in Hawthorne's approach to art by observing
in the texts, from domesticating women to audience reception and
monetary evaluation of art. In the following paragraphs, a before
/after comparison will focus on three aspects: the artist, the
animated art object,
and the creative process that connects them. The artist figure, in
the examples below, does not
include other intellectuals and seekers of knowledge. Creative
artists, in Hawthorne's stories, seem to affect their audiences
almost in spite of themselves, through the magic of their
and they do not set out to intentionally manipulate their subjects
(as do scientist-type characters like Dr. Rappacini in “Rappacini’s
Daughter” or Aylmer in “The Birth Mark”). The
second element of comparison, the animated art object, is a literary
device that became for Hawthorne a unique visual language, a type of
This device can be used to investigate Hawthorne’s changing
attitude to art and himself (as well as to explore his narrative
early texts present not only a negative depiction of the artist and
his work, but a “vocal” argument against the creative
"The Village Uncle" (1835)
a mediocre would-be poet, a "scribbler of trash," is on
the verge of losing himself in his reclusive, icy art. He is
rescued by a freckled fair maiden, and domesticated into a fisherman
and family man, giving up his ambitious dreams.
In other tales, traveling story tellers waste their time on the
road, viewed as vagabonds rather than respectable bards. Other
authors, like the mediocre and reclusive Oberon in "The Devil
in Manuscript”, (1835),
are not only useless but dangerous, becoming detached from reality
and reaching near madness. Oberon becomes “singularly averse
to social intercourse” as a result of his writing, existing in
some “strange sort of solitude in the midst of men, where
nobody wishes for what I do, nor thinks nor feels as I do”
(172). Oberon finds the desire to write an irresistible, devilish
possession that produces demonic
and he depicts the creative devil's claw hooking into its writer
victim, who cannot even pray for deliverance and hope to escape
(171). The creative process is described in Romantic terms as a
and his brain becomes an incubator
for horrors that don material existence, like Frankenstein's
monster, in the form of manuscripts. These
art objects start exhibiting autonomous agency and demonic powers,
and Oberon, in a fit of anger, burns them with vengeance,
anticipating "a wild enjoyment in seeing them in the blaze"
such as he should "feel in taking vengeance on an enemy, or
destroying something noxious" (173). The consequence of
behaving so brutally towards his art is a raging fire that burns
down his own house and casts him into the street (perhaps this is
the manuscripts' revenge!).
Oberon's manuscripts affect only his own fevered brain, the
portraits of Walter and Elinor, created by the painter in "The
Prophetic Pictures" (1837), intensely engage, and even corrupt,
their audience, becoming catalysts for murder. Somehow these images
capture a vision of Walter's propensity for violence, and become
agents in fulfilling a prophesy of brutality. The painter who
produces such potent art belongs at the extreme end of the mastery
scale, a veritable Faustian magician: powerful, scholarly and
immensely skilled, with a penetrating eye that exposes his subjects'
hidden secrets and faults, and a hand capable of recording them on
canvas. He is capable of the type expression of that Hawthorne
sought through language, and sees himself as art’s prophet,
whose sole purpose in life is to create, to record reality onto
canvas. However, by giving in so fully to his creative impulses the
painter irresponsibly produces uncontrollable and apparently
Although the artist had no conscious desire to control the young
couple, (he was actually very sympathetic to Elinor, and was rather
surprised at the consequences), he could not deny his agency and
power over them.
similarly animated and alarming art object is the dark and demonic
painting in "Edward Randolph's Portrait," (1838).
Neither the artist nor the creative process is described, but the
image itself acquires the status of a terrible icon: irremovable,
forever watching, forever reminding its audience of wrongdoings and
bloodshed. Although its function is ultimately positive – it
serves as a reminder to leaders of their civic responsibility –
its mode of action requires fear and invocations of terrible images
from the netherworld.
1842 Hawthorne married Sophia, his beloved “dove,” the
supportive and vivacious artist and illustrator. Around this time, a
change comes about in his depiction of artist characters and the art
they produce. The mad, magical or destructive artists give way to
new creative characters, warmer and more affectionate people who are
depicted sympathetically and empathetically. The art is often
three-dimensional, capable of far greater animation and interaction
with the characters, and it does not exude the evil influence
previous objects did. Instead of a feverish and uncontrolled
creative process, the tales describe in detail the actual
– that is, constructing beautiful new forms from raw
materials, and they explore the interactions between the artist and
his piece. It may be that observing Sophia at work gave Hawthorne a
much better understanding of how the visual artist works with
materials and ideas, and gave the process value in its own right.
1844, the same year that Una was born, Hawthorne wrote "The
Artist of the Beautiful," in which a master craftsman creates a
marvelously beautiful three-dimensional mechanical butterfly. This
tale seems to be transitional in terms of approach to art, but
already shows a different approach to the artist and the creative
process, placing a value on
in itself. That year Hawthorne also wrote "Drowne's
in which he focuses on the reciprocal effect of materials and the
artist handling them, and explores the theme of the inspiring power
of love. As the simple carver Drowne transforms a base piece of
wood into a beautiful sculpture of a woman, he himself metamorphoses
from a dull craftsman to a truly inspired and perceptive artist. The
process of art-making becomes transformative
Neither the artist nor the art object harbor evil: Drowne desires no
power or control, nor monetary reward; his labor is a gift of love.
And the lovely figurehead, although
considered devilish by hostile Puritan audiences, is greatly admired
and appreciated by the positive artist character Copley
and the lively Captain who commissioned her.
The sculpture is animated in one instance of the story, responding
or resonating in some strange way with the beautiful woman model,
and then it is given to its new owner, the Captain. When the
sculpture – and the model – leave the town, Drowne's
inspiration also disappears. Gone is the image of the evil artist
bent on destruction, and gone is the notion of a treacherous art
object. What is left is the empathetic rendering of an artist and
step in the evolution of Hawthorne's approach is "The
Childish Miracle”, 1850.
This tale represents
a marked change in Hawthorne's discourse of the artistic process: in
it, the making of a snow-girl by two innocent children reflects the
marvel of divine creation. Aided by heavenly angels, the children
sculpt a snowy "sister" that they animate with a kiss.
There are no associations between creation and devilish
manipulation, and the process of shaping
the sculpture from raw materials transforms the little artists,
making them more and more perceptive and sensitive to the different
types of materials and techniques. They choose the right types of
snow for the right effects, and handle the material with the right
touch: the whitest snow for the girl's pure heart and bosom, the
fragile curls from the branches become her hair. Even the sunlight,
Hawthorne’s symbol of purity and divine presence, takes part
in the creative process. Once the children bring the art object to
life, she becomes part of the natural world around her –
dancing with the wind and decorated with snowbirds. Hawthorne’s
son, Julian, explains that he and his sister Una were the models for
the story – a fact that could explain the fondness with which
the little artists are described (Hawthorne
and His Circle
Eventually, however, the snow child encounters a hostile audience –
the pragmatic father, who drags her inside and causes her to melt,
her demise conveying the destructive power of dull and unsympathetic
final example in the evolution of Hawthorne’s approach is the
tale of the scarecrow "Feathertop" (1852), Hawthorne’s
most animated and vulnerable art object. The story explores the
complex relationship of parent/ creator to his child, and the
responsibility creators hold towards their created objects.
Specifically in this narrative, Hawthorne strikes a metafictional
note, and openly discusses with the reader the process of writing,
finding similarity in Feathertop's half formed, immobile form to his
own evolving fictional characters.
While the artist in the story is a witch
well acquainted with different types of artistic media, Mother Rigby
is also a humorous, motherly character who doesn't want to frighten
children. Step by step, she constructs a scarecrow from an eclectic
collection of materials (objet trouvé), and when it is
complete she is so delighted with its lovely form that she decides
to animate it and send it into the human world to seek its fortune.
Expected to perform beyond his natural capacity, perhaps like Adam
and Eve, Feathertop forgets his lowly origins and becomes vulnerable
to human dreams, daring to wish for love and intimacy. At the end of
the tale, upon realizing what he really is and how futile his dreams
are, the sensitive creation commits suicide, becoming a tragic
figure, and an allegory for the frailty of humans created from mud
by their God. Feathertop embodies the idea expressed by Kenneth
Gross that a living statue might be “a parable about our
responsibility to humanly created objects, a sense that there is a
life in them that demands our care".
Through Feathertop, Hawthorne also investigates the tri-partite
relationship between the maker, the liberated art object, and the
audience engaging with both.
Feathertop, both artist and art object are rendered sympathetically
(and humorously), with Feathertop becoming a symbol for humankind's
dreams of impossible things. The artistic witch– while having
originally animated Feathertop to poke fun at human follies –
sensitively regrets pushing him beyond his limitations. When she
realizes his sorrow, she takes responsibility and leaves him to a
calm and untroubled existence as a scarecrow.
approach to art and the creative process clearly changed over his
years of authorship, and the transition is most noticeable after he
married Sophia. It may be that watching her at work as an artist
affected his perspective of art-making, or perhaps her complete
support and respect for his work (and masculinity) improved his
confidence, liberating his creative faculties. This transition can
be viewed as a type of Eden: Hawthorne found a world where creation
and art are respectable and where art objects do not need to be
judged by pragmatic standards. He discovered that the interaction
of artists with their materials is a remarkable and transformative
process, of value on its own. Most importantly, he realized that
artists do not need to live in bitter solitude, but may create and
flourish within the intimacy of the family. Love and support, like
the materials of art, liberate the creator’s “frozen
fingers” and transform ice to inspiration.
Date First Published
Fanshawe (1828) FS
The Seven Vagabonds
from a Relinquished Work
The Story Teller
Alice Doane's Appeal
The Devil in Manuscript
Village Uncle (The Little
Mermaid) (1835) VU
Journal of a Solitary Man
The Prophetic Pictures
Edward Randolph's Portrait
Nathaniel Hawthorne and
Sophia Peabody become secretly engaged
Hawthorne marries Sophia
Peabody, & they move into the Old Manse
The Artist of the
Beautiful (1844) AB
Drowne's Wooden Image
The Scarlet Letter
Ethan Brand (1850) EB
Snow-Image (1850) SI
The Great Stone Face
The House of Seven Gables
(1851) (Portrait & Daguerreotypes) HSG
The Blithedale Romance
The Marble Faun
Information on “The Artist of the Beautiful”
1844, the same year that Una was born, Hawthorne wrote "The
Artist of the Beautiful," in which Owen the master craftsman
creates a marvelously beautiful 3-dimensional mechanical butterfly.
This tale seems to be transitional in terms of approach to art: the
artist is somewhat detached from people, but he does yearns for the
companionship and appreciation of a woman, and the narrator can
envision for Owen a wife who might have inspired him to even greater
achievements. While he is sometimes depicted as ineffectual, small
and unimpressive, he manages to accomplish a remarkable
technological feat, a work of art. And although certain pragmatic
and insensitive characters regard the art object as witchcraft (as
eighteenth century people often regarded automata),
the narrator's descriptive language places it at a higher sphere,
crossing, as Newberry suggests, from the artisanal into the realm of
The tale places a positive value on the actual experience of
describing/couching it in transcendental terms, and allows an
abstract and unprofitable goal such as beauty to justify art-making.
When his material art object is destroyed, Owen, unlike Oberon, does
not wallow in regret, because nothing can erase his intense memory
of the aesthetic/ transcendental creative experience.
and Letters of Nathaniel Hawthorne
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Love Letters
of Nathaniel Hawthorne 1839-1841. 1907. Washington
DC: NCR Microcard
English Notebooks. 1868-71. Ed. Randall Stewart. New York:
Russell and Russell Inc, 1962.
---.. The American Notebooks.
Charvat et al, Centenary Edition Vol. 8.
Books and Collections by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The
Blithedale Romance. New York: Modern Library, 2001.
---. The Centenary Edition of the
Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Eds. William Charvat, Roy
Claude M. Simpson. 16 vols. Columbus: Ohio State UP 1962 - 85
---. "The Custom-House." The
Scarlet Letter & The House of Seven Gables. Ed. Michael P.
---. Mosses from an Old Manse. New
York: The Modern Library, 2003.
---. Our Old Home: A series of
English Sketches. Charvat, Centenary Edition Vol. 5.
---. Selected Tales and Sketches.
Ed. Michael J. Colacurcio. New York:
Penguin Books, 1987.
---. The Snow-Image and Uncollected
Tales. Charvat, Centenary Edition Vol. 11.
---. Twice Told Tales. New
York: Modern Library, 2001.
---. A Wonder-Book and Tanglewood
Tales. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1951.
Stories within Collections
---. "The Artist of the
Beautiful." Hawthorne, Mosses 354-76.
---. "The Devil in Manuscript."
Charvat The Snow-Image and Uncollected Tales 170-78.
---. "Drowne's Wooden Image."
Hawthorne, Mosses 243 - 54.
---. "Edward Randolph's
Portrait." Hawthorne, Twice Told Tales 198-209.
Hawthorne, Mosses 174-92.
---."Journal of a Solitary Man."
Charvat, et al. The Snow-Image and Uncollected Tales
---. "The Old Manse."
Hawthorne, Mosses 3-27.
---. "Passages from a
Relinquished work." Hawthorne, Mosses 321-24.
---. "The Prophetic Pictures."
Hawthorne, Twice Told Tales 126-38.
---."Snow-Image." Charvat et
al, The Snow-Image and Uncollected Tales 7-48.
---. "Village Uncle."
Hawthorne, Twice Told Tales 241-51.