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Hawthorne in the Berkshires: “The World Must Be Made To Mean”

By Sam Coale
Wheaton College
Norton, Massachuetts

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

On Tuesday, July 29, 1851, Hawthorne exclaimed and displayed a typical New Englander’s querulous frustration: “This is a horrible, most hor-ri-ble climate; one knows not, for ten minutes together, whether he is too cool or too warm; but he is always one or the other; and the constant result is a miserable disturbance of the system. I detest it! I detest it!! I detest it!!! I hate Berkshire with my whole soul, and would joyfully see its mountains laid flat” (439).

Hawthorne’s relationship to landscape has always assumed to have been matter-of-fact as recorded, for example, in his American Notebooks. These reveal his momentary epiphanies, his close observation of light and shadow, his quick glimpses and long gazes. This process did not change all that much from walking by Walden Pond on October 6, 1843: “I felt as if spirits were there--or as if these shrubs had a spiritual life—in short, the impression was undefinable . . .” (396) to his day spent in Sleepy Hollow on July 27, 1844: “how strange is the gradual process with which we detect objects that are right before our eyes . . . how narrow, scanty, and meager, is this record of observation” (247, 250). This outlook seems to culminate on August 16, 1851, with Julian in the Berkshires: “ . . . you seem to catch Nature at unawares . . . The effect lasts but for a single instant, and passes away almost as soon as you are conscious of it; but it is real, for that moment . . . a glimpse of a face unveiled, which veils itself from every willful glance. The mystery is revealed . . .” (486). These isolated moments trail off into a sense of an undefinable mystery. To will your glance only restores the veil.

Hawthorne was always suspicious of the precariousness of consciousness and language. Consciousness could be as unreliable, equivocal and self-blinding as the words he used to grapple with it. Nature caught unawares is really a sharpened sudden stab of consciousness and its powers to project itself into the life of things. It cannot be willed. Will in league with consciousness might only curdle and corrupt it. Perhaps this is why he celebrated the reflections of things in water, ice and mirrors, since reflection seems both to copy what it reflects and at the same time suggests reflecting upon something one step removed from the natural world.

Against the Berkshires he would rail about the weather and the mountains, which “stamp and stereotype themselves into the brain, and thus grow wearisome with the same strong impression, repeated day after day.” He approved of fields and meadows as opposed to mountains because of their “peculiar, quiet charm . . . and gentle eminences” (Auster xx). They did not threaten. They left room for silence and reflection. One had to be always wary of nature’s power to overwhelm and paralyze consciousness.

A sense of mystery and his own anxious restlessness was partly responsible for his living at Tanglewood for only eighteen months—and may be a carry-over not only from his way of looking at nature but also from the prescribed mixture “of marble and mud” that haunted him in The House of the Seven Gables. After all “in this sphere of mingled elements . . . beauty and majesty . . . are compelled to assume a garb so sordid” (Norton 41).

Because of his background, Hawthorne’s compulsion drove him to claim the assumption that “the world must be made to mean,” that it was always the subject of a constructed human reality, turning Lacan’s brute matter into language, narrative, interpretation and text. Like Jonathan Culler he believed that “all meaning is a problem, not a given” (Thomas 14) and that, akin to Derrida, “meaning is always the appearance of the disappearance of natural presence” (Thomas 64). Hence his fascination with reflections of and on, his present epiphanies in his novels that contradicted one another and never added up to some over-arching allegorical structure. To be conscious was to project himself onto and into the world before it did the same to him, to make, to animate, to keep perceptions always in motion, fluid, shifting no matter the momentary close focus of his region’s allegorical outlook. We demand some kind of response from the natural world around us. It can’t be all there is, just surface, just the physically visible. Consciousness won’t allow it. We seek a hidden order, recognizing that it cannot be willed and kept permanent but at the same time fearful of the proliferation of meanings and possibilities. As Brenda Wineapple suggests, “his best prose derives from the tension between regulation and psychological—even ontological—pandemonium” (228).

Hawthorne chastised his male characters who allegorized their lives and world, forcing both to be “made to mean,” a process inherent in language itself. He wanted to keep things elusive, mysterious, undefinable, no matter how sharp-eyed his particular glances in nature were. Even in his notebooks and in the Berkshires, he often kept the meaning of his natural observations concrete and ultimately elusive. Gables widened that gap, and his conversations with Melville, his days with the ever-babbling Julian, his detestation of the Shaker community in Hancock with their rigid and gendered segregation, his delight in the dark ride home with its glimpses of a deep, dark chasm: all added to mystery’s continued presence in his notebook entries and fictions.

He complained several times of being unable to capture, for instance, the light and colors of autumn but never when it came to darker landscapes that included in his visit to North Adams in 1838 “old and stern trees . . . dark foliage . . . the almost black pines . . . [and] the old decayed trunks . . . The sunshine, falling capriciously on here and there a branch, considerably within the forest verge, while it leaves nearer trees in shadow, leads the imagination into the depths. But it soon becomes bewildered there. Rocks strewn about, half hidden, in the fallen leaves. Must not be overlooked” (August 23, 1838, 126). Or again: “Between the mountains there were gorges and defiles, that led the imagination away into new scenes of wildness . . . and though it was a broad sunny day, the mountains diversified the scene with sunshine and shadow, and glory, and gloom” (August 31, 1838, 132). Notice the typical passive expression: the imagination is led into the depths or away as if impossible to avoid the mesmeric pull—as in the opening paragraph of The House of the Seven Gables: “I seldom failed [as opposed to the pro-active I “often succeeded”] to turn down Pyncheon Street . . . passing through the shadow of . . . the great elm tree . . .” (5).

Let’s look back at that dark chasm Hawthorne wrote about after his visit to the Shaker community on August 8, 1851: “ . . . we mistook the road, and went up hill and down, through unknown regions . . . It was by far the most picturesque ride that I ever had in Berkshire . . . the road ran along the verge of a deep gulf—deep, deep, deep . . . If I could find the way, I should like to go back to this scene on foot; for I had no idea that there was such a region within a few miles of us . . . the lake (by some witchcraft that I cannot possibly explain to myself) had utterly vanished” (466).

Hawthorne had finished The House of the Seven Gables in April, 1851, which Catharine Sedgwick described as “an affliction. It affects one like a passage through the wards of an insane asylum” (Wineapple 232). The book thrives on his usual use of contrasts in terms of physical appearances and moral meanings, often allegorically connected and then contradicted or undermined in the next instance. Of course the most insidiously dark passages surround the judge’s corpse, one of Hawthorne’s most nihilistic ruminations in his fiction: “There is no window! There is no face! An infinite, inscrutable blackness has annihilated sight! Where is our universe? All crumbled away from us; and we, adrift in chaos . . . “ (276).

Critics will continue to try and identify Hawthorne’s subjects and why they are treated the way they are, often overturning common sense, the conventional concepts of his era, and language itself: the weight of the past, the incestuous relationship of his family to its past, the Puritan shroud of allegory and dark realism, the reticent and often hermetic personality, the power relations between women and men, the way, as Calvin Thomas suggests, “the real precedes, exceeds and yet never ceases to invade human reality” (Thomas 31).

Thus whether it be the Berkshires, Salem, Rome, forests, Boston or wherever, the pattern persists: the seduction of darkness and depths and the momentary stays against confusion to make the world mean. As Nietzsche suggested, “Only by forgetting that he himself is an artistically creating subject, does man live with any repose, security, and consistency” (Thomas 203). To be conscious is to desire to animate, speculate and project. As Thomas explains, “Desire taken literally is always desire for something else because meaning always lacks being . . .” (189). Hawthorne recognized that “the innermost, intimate core of a person’s psychological being is, at root, an alien, foreign thing” (Thomas 31). Thus the dark depths that attracted him externally reflected that inner uncertain darkness. The world must somehow mean. There must be, as Thomas suggests, “a certain something that is not simply empirically real but is so constitutively ‘constructed’ or ‘fabricated’ as to require constant and complex mapping and re-mapping” (239). That something for Hawthorne remained undefinable but constant as he mapped the landscapes of his soul and the world within and beyond it.


  • Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The American Notebooks: The Centenary Edition, ed. by Claude M. Simpson. (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1932, 1960, 1972). The Auster edition of Julian and Bunny.

  • _________________________. The House of the Seven Gables (New York: Norton, 1967 + New York: Bantam, 1988).

  • Thomas, Calvin. Ten Lessons in Theory: An Introduction to Theoretical Writing (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013).

  • Turner, Arlin. Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980).

  • Wineapple, Brenda. Hawthorne: A Life (New York: Knopf, 2003).

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