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Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1804-1864

Emerson and Hawthorne

From a review by Henry James of A Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson, by James Elliot Cabot, 2 vols. London, 1887.

Macmillan's Magazine,,
December, 1887,
reprinted as "Emerson",
Partial Portraits, 1888.

[Editor's note: James is writing about why Emerson apparently failed to appreciate Shelley, Dickens, Dante, and Jane Austen.]

. . . .The truth was that, sparely constructed as he [Ralph Waldo Emerson] was and formed not wastefully, not with material left over, as it were, for a special function, there were certain chords in Emerson that did not vibrate at all. I well remember my impression of this on walking with him in the autumn of 1872 through the galleries of the Louvre and, later that winter, through those of the Vatican: his perception of the objects contained in these collections was of the most general order. I was struck with the anomaly of a man so refined and intelligent being so little spoken to by works of art. It would be more exact to say that certain chords were wholly absent; the tune was played, the tune of life and literature, altogether on those that remained. They had every wish to be equal to their office, but one feels that the number was short--that some notes could not be given. Mr. Cabot makes use of a singular phrase when he says, in speaking of Hawthorne, for several years our author's neighbour at Concord and a little--a very little we gather--his companion, that Emerson was unable to read his novels--he thought them "not worthy of him." This is a judgment odd almost to fascination--we circle round it and turn it over and over; it contains so elusive an ambiguity. How highly he must have esteemed the man of whose genius The House of the Seven Gables and The Scarlet Letter gave imperfectly the measure, and how strange that he should not have been eager to read almost anything that such a gifted being might have let fall! It was a rare accident that made them live almost side by side so long in the same small New England town, each a fruit of a long Puritan stem, yet with such a difference of taste. Hawthorne's vision was all for the evil and sin of the world; a side of life as to which Emerson's eyes were thickly bandaged. There were points as to which the latter's conception of right could be violated, but he had no great sense of wrong--a strangely limited one, indeed, for a moralist--no sense of the dark, the foul, the base. There were certain complications in life which he never suspected. One asks one's self whether that is why he did not care for Dante and Shelley and Aristophanes and Dickens, their works containing a considerable reflection of human perversity. But that still leaves the indifference to Cervantes and Miss Austen unaccounted for.

It has not, however, been the ambition of these remarks to account for everything;. . . .

[From The Story of Concord, edited by Josephine Latham Swayne, Boston: E. F. Worcester Press, 1906, pp. 143-4, footnote 5: ]

Dr. Emerson [Waldo's son] in a letter to Moncure Conway (Life of Hawthorne by Moncure D. Conway), writes of Hawthorne,

"When the [Hawthorne] family returned to Concord after their European sojourn, and we had renewed our acquaintance with the children, one Sunday evening at about half past eight, the door-bell rang, and to our [the Emerson children's] astonishment Mr. Hawthorne was shown in. Father was away and mother was not well, and Edith [Mrs. Forbes, the younger daughter of Emerson] and I sat alone in the parlor. Mr. Hawthorne explained that his call was upon Miss Ellen (of whose virtues he had much from his wife and Una). Ellen [Emerson's oldest daughter], as was her custom, had gone to bed at eight, so there was nothing for it but for Mr. Hawthorne to make the best of it with us. He was, as I always remember him, kindly, but shy as a wild thing from the woods; and to conceal his embarrassment even with us, children of thirteen and fifteen, took up the stereoscope we had on the table and began looking at the views. He presently asked us of what places they were taken. They represented the Concord Common, the Court House and Town House, and the Milldam, as we call the centre of the town where the stores and post-office are. He evidently asked in good faith and though he walked through these places on his visits to the post-office and railway station, knew as little about them as the fox that might burrow in his hillside did."


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