by Edgar Allan Poe
Graham's Magazine, April, 1842
[as reprinted in pages 568-9 of Edgar Allan Poe: Essays and Reviews, The Library of America, 1984]
BY NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE. TWO VOLUMES. JAMES MUNROE & CO.: BOSTON
We have always regarded the Tale (using this word in its popular acceptation) as affording the best prose opportunity for display of the highest talent. It has peculiar advantages which the novel does not admit. It is, of course, a far finer field than the essay. It has even points of superiority over the poem. An accident has deprived us, this month, of our customary space for review; and thus nipped in the bud a design long cherished of treating this subject in detail; taking Mr. Hawthorne's volumes as a text. In May we shall endeavor to carry out our intention. At present we are forced to be brief.
With rare exception--in the case of Mr. Irving's "Tales of a Traveller" and a few other works of a like cast--we have had no American tales of high merit. We have had no skilful compositions--nothing which could bear examination as works of art. Of twattle called tale-writing we have had, perhaps, more than enough. We have had a superabundance of the Rosa-Matilda effusions--gilt-edged paper all couleur de rose: a full allowance of cut-and-thrust blue-blazing melodramaticisms; a nauseating surfeit of low miniature copying of low life, much in the manner, and with about half the merit, of the Dutch herrings and decayed cheeses of Van Tuyssel--of all this, eheu jam satis!
Mr. Hawthorne's volumes appear to us misnamed in two respects. In the first place they should not have been called "Twice-Told Tales"--for this is a title which will not bear repetition. If in the first collected edition they were twice-told, of course now they are thrice-told.--May we live to hear them told a hundred times! In the second place, these compositions are by no means all "Tales." The most of them are essays properly so called. It would have been wise in their author to have modified his title, so as to have had reference to all included. This point could have been easily arranged.
But under whatever titular blunders we receive this book, it is most cordially welcome. We have seen no prose composition by any American which can compare with some of these
articles in the higher merits, or indeed in the lower; while there is not a single piece which would do dishonor to the best of the British essayists.
"The Rill from the Town Pump" which, through the ad captandum nature of its title, has attracted more of public notice than any one other of Mr. Hawthorne's compositions, is perhaps, the least meritorious. Among his best, we may briefly mention "The Hollow of the Three Hills;" "The Minister's Black Veil;" "Wakefield;" "Mr. Higginbotham's Catastrophe," "Fancy's Show-Box;" "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment;" "David Swan;" "The Wedding Knell;" and "The White Old Maid." It is remarkable that all these, with one exception, are from the first volume.
The style of Mr. Hawthorne is purity itself. His tone is singularly effective--wild, plaintive, thoughtful, and in full accordance with his themes. We have only to object that there is insufficient diversity in these themes themselves, or rather in their character. His originality both of incident and of reflection is very remarkable; and this trait alone would ensure him at least our warmest regard and commendation. We speak here chiefly of the tales; the essays are not so markedly novel. 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. As such, it will be our delight to do him honor; and lest, in these undigested and cursory remarks, without proof and without explanation, we should appear to do him more honor than is his due, we postpone all farther comment until a more favorable opportunity.