By Henry James, 1904
The Proceedings in Commemoration of the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Birth of Nathaniel Hawthorne
Salem, Mass.: Essex Institute, 1904.
LETTER TO THE HON. ROBERT S. RANTOUL
RYE, SUSSEX, ENGLAND.
June 10, 1904.
I much regret my being able to participate only in that spirit of sympathy that makes light of distance--that defies difference of latitude and hemisphere--in the honours you are paying, at his birthplace, to the beautiful genius to whom Salem owes the most precious gift perhaps that an honest city may receive from one of her sons--the gift of a literary association high enough in character to emerge thus brilliantly from the test of Time. How happily it has lasted for you, and why it has lasted--this flower of romantic art, never to become a mere desiccated specimen, that Hawthorne interwove with your sturdy annals,--I shall attempt, by your leave, briefly to say; but your civic pride is at any rate fortunate in being able to found your claim to have contributed to the things of the mind on a case and a career so eminent and so interesting. The spirit of such occasions is always, on the spot communicative and irresistible; full of the amenity of each man's--and I suppose still more of each woman's--scarce distinguishing, in the general friendliness, between the loan of enthusiasm and the gift, between the sound that starts the echo and the echo that comes back from the sound. But being present by projection of the mind, present afar off and under another sky, that has its advantages too--for other distinctions, for lucidity of vision and a sense of the reasons of things. The career commemorated may perhaps so be looked at, over a firm rest, as through the telescope that fixes it, even to intensity, and helps it to become, as we say, objective-and objective not strictly to cold criticism, but to admiration and wonder themselves, and even, in a degree, to a certain tenderness of envy. The earlier scene, now smothered in flowers and eloquence and music, possibly hangs before one rather more, under this perspective, in all its parts-- with its relation, unconscious at the time, to the rare mind that had been planted in it as in a parent soil, and with the relation of that mind to its own preoccupied state, to the scene itself as enveloping and suggesting medium: a relation, this latter, to come to consciousness always so much sooner, so much more nervously, so much more expressively, than the other! By which I mean that there is, unfortunately for the prospective celebrity, no short cut possible, on the part of his fellow-townsmen. to the expensive holiday they are keeping in reserve for his name. It is there, all the while--somewhere in the air at least, even while he lives; but they cannot get at it till the Fates have forced, one by one, all the locks of all the doors and crooked passages that shut it off; and the celebrity meantime, by good luck, can have little idea what is mising.
I at all events almost venture to say that, save for the pleasure of your company, save for that community of demonstration which is certainly a joy in itself, I could not wish to be better placed than at this distance for a vision of the lonely young man that Hawthorne then was, and that he was in fact pretty well always to remain, dreaming his dreams, nursing his imagination, feeling his way, leading his life, intellectual, personal, economic, in the place that Salem then was, and becoming, unwittingly and unsuspectedly, with an absence of calculation fairly precious for the final effect, the pretext for the kind of recognition you greet him with to-day. It is the addition of all the limitations and depressions and difficulties of genius that makes always--with the factor of Time thrown in--the sum total of posthumous glory. We see, at the end of the backward vista, the restless unclassified artist pursue the immediate, the pressing need of the hour, the question he is not to come home to his possibly uninspiring hearth-stone without having met--we see him chase it, none too confidently, through quite familiar, too familiar streets, round well-worn corners that don't trip it up for him, or into dull doorways that fail to catch and hold it; and then we see, at the other end of the century, these same streets and corners and doorways, these quiet familiarities, the stones he trod, the objects he touched, the air he breathed, positively and all impatiently waiting to bestow their reward, to measure him out success, in the great, in the almost superfluous, abundance of the eventual! This general quest that Hawthorne comes back to us out of the old sunny and shady Salem, the blissfully homogeneous community of the forties and fifties, as urged to by his particular, and very individual, sense of life, is that of man's relation to his environment seen on the side that we call, for our best convenience, the romantic side: a term that we half the time, nowadays, comfortably escape the challenge to define precisely because "The Scarlet Letter" and "The House of the Seven Gables" have made that possible to us under cover of mere triumphant reference to them. That is why, to my sense, our author's Salem years and Salem impressions are so interesting a part of his development. It was while they lasted, it was to all appearance under their suggestion, that the romantic spirit in him learned to expand with that right and beautiful felicity that was to make him one of its rarest representatives. Salem had the good- fortune to assist him, betimes, to this charming discrimination--that of looking for romance near at hand, and where it grows thick and true, rather than on the other side of the globe and in the Dictionary of Dates. We see it, nowadays, more and more, inquired and bargained for in places and times that arc strange and indigestible to us; and for the most part, I think, we see those who deal in it on these terms come back from their harvest with their hands smelling, under their brave leather gauntlets, or royal rings, or whatever, of the plain domestic blackberry, the homeliest growth of our actual dusty waysides. These adventurers bring home, in general, simply what they have taken with them, the mechanical, at best the pedantic, view of the list of romantic properties. The country of romance has been for them but a particular spot on the map, coloured blue or red or yellow--they have to take it from the map; or has been this, that or the other particular set of complications, machinations, coincidences or escapes, this, that or the other fashion of fire-arm or cutlass, cock of hat, frizzle of wig, violence of scuffle or sound of expletive: mere accidents and outward patches, all, of the engaging mystery--no more of its essence than the brass band at a restaurant is of the essence of the dinner. What was admirable and instinctive in Hawthorne was that he saw the quaintness or the weirdness, the interest behind the interest, of things, as continuous with the very life we are leading, or that we were Icading--you, at Salem, certainly were leading--round about him and under his eyes; saw it as something deeply within us, not as something infinitely disconnected from us; saw it in short in the very application of the spectator's, the poet's mood, in the kind of reflection the things we know best and see oftenest may make in our minds. So it is that such things as "The Seven Gables," "The Blithedale Romance," "The Marble Faun," are singularly fruitfu1 examples of the real as distinguished from the artificial romantic note. Here "the light that never was on land or sea" keeps all the intimacy and vet adds all the wonder. In the first two of the books I have named, especially, the author has read the romantic effect into the usual and contemporary things--arriving by it at a success that, in the Seven Gables perhaps supremely, is a marvel of the free- playing, yet ever unerring, never falsifying instinct. We have an ancient gentlewoman reduced to keep a shop; a young photographer modestly invoking fortune; a full-fed, wine-flushed "prominent citizen" asleep in his chair; a weak-minded bachelor spending his life under the shadow of an early fault that has not been in the least heroic; a fresh New England girl of the happy complexion of thousands of others--we have, thrown together, but these gently-persuasive challenges to mystification, yet with the result that they transport us to a world in which, as in that of Tennyson's Lotus-Eaters, it seems always afternoon. And somehow this very freedom of the spell remains all the while truth to the objects observed--truth to the very Salem in which the vision was born. Blithedale is scarcely less fine a case of distinction tio conferred, the curiosity and anxiety dear to the reader pur- chased, not by a shower of counterfeit notes, simulating mu- nificence, but by that artistic economy which understand values and uses them. The book takes up the parti-coloured angular, audible, traceable Real, the New England earnest, aspiring, reforming Real, scattered in a few frame-houses over a few stony fields, and so invests and colours it, makes it rich and strange--and simply by finding a felicitous tone for it--that its characters and images remain for us curious winged creatures preserved in the purest amber of the imagination. All of which leads me back to what I said, to begin with, about our romancer's having borne the test of Time. I mentioned that there is a reason, in particular, why he has borne it so well, and I think you will recognize with me, in the light of what I have tried to say, that he has done so by very simply, quietly, slowly and steadily, becoming for us a Classic. If we look at the real meaning of our celebration to-day, ask ourselves what is at the back of our heads or in the bottom of our hearts about it, we become conscious of that interesting process and eloquent plea of the years on Hawthorne's behalf--of that great benefit, that effect of benevolence, for him, from so many of the things the years have brought. We are in the presence thus of one of the happiest opportunities to see how a Classic comes into being, how three such things as the Scarlet Letter, the Gables and Blithedale--to choose only a few names where I might choose many--acquire their final value. They acquire it, in a large measure, by the manner in which later developments have worked in respect to them--and, it is scarce too much to say, acquire it in spite of themselves and by the action of better machinery than their authors could have set in motion, stronger (as well as longer!) wires than their authors could have pulled. Later developments, I think, have worked in respect to them by contrast--that is the point--so much more either than by a generous emulation or by a still more generous originality. They have operated to make the beauty--the other beauty--delicate and noble, to throw the distinction into relief. The scene has changed and everything with it--the pitch, and the tone, and the quantity, and the quality, above all; reverberations are gained, but proportions are lost; the distracted Muse herself stops her ears and shuts her eyes: the brazen trumpet has so done its best to deafen us to the fiddle-string. But to the fiddle-string we nevertheless return; it sounds, for our sense, with the slightest lull of the general noise--such a lull as, for reflection, for taste, a little even for criticism, much, certainly, for a legitimate complacency, our present occasion beneficiently makes. Then it is that such a mystery as that of the genius we commemorate may appear a perfect example of the truth that the state of being a classic is a comparative state-considerably, generously, even when blindly, brought about, for the author on whom the crown alights, by the generations, the multitudes worshipping other gods, that have followed him. He must obviously have been in himself exquisite and right, but it is not to that only, to being in himself exquisite and right, that any man ever was so fortunate as to owe the supreme distinction. He owes it more or less, at the best, to the relief in which some happy, some charming combination of accidents has placed his intrinsic value. This combination, in our own time, has been the contagion of the form that we may, for convenience, and perhaps, as regards much of it, even for compliment, call the journalistic--so pervasive, so ubiquitous, so unprecedentedly prosperous, so wonderful for outward agility, but so unfavourable, even so fatal, to development from within. Hawthorne saw it--and it saw him--but in its infancy, before these days of huge and easy and immediate success, before the universal, the overwhelming triumph of the monster. He had developed from within--as to feeling, as to form, as to sincerity and character. So it is, as I say, that he enjoys his relief, and that we are thrown back, by the sense of difference, on his free possession of himself. He lent himself; of course, to his dignity--by the way the serious, in him, flowered into the grace of art; but our need of him, almost quite alone as he stands, in one tray of the scales of Justice, would add, if this were necessary, to the earnestness of our wish to see that he be undisturbed there. Vigilance, in the matter, however, assuredly, is happily not necessary! The grand sign of being classic is that when you have "passed," as they say at examinations, you have passed; you have become one once for all you have taken your degree and may be left to the light and the ages.