A Study of Hawthorne, by G. P. Lathrop

Chapter 1

Point of View.

This book was not designed as a biography, but is rather a portrait. And, to speak more carefully still, it is not so much this, as my conception of what a portrait of Hawthorne should be. For I cannot write with the authority of one who had known him and had been formally intrusted with the task of describing his life. On the other hand, I do not enter upon this attempt as a mere literary performance, but have been assisted in it by an inward impulse, a consciousness of sympathy with the subject, which I may perhaps consider a sort of inspiration. My guide has been intuition, confirmed and seldom confuted by research. Perhaps it is even a favoring fact that I should never have seen Mr. Hawthorne; a personality so elusive as his may possibly yield its traits more readily to one who can never obtrude actual intercourse between himself and the mind he is meditating upon. An honest report upon personal contact always has a value denied to the reviews of after-comers, yet the best criticism and biography is not always that of contemporaries.

Our first studies will have a biographical scope, because a certain grouping of facts is essential, to give point to the view which I am endeavoring to present; and as Hawthorne’s early life has hitherto been but little explored, much of the material used in the earlier chapters is now for the first time made public. The latter portion of the career may be treated more sketchily, being already better known; though passages will be found throughout the essay which have been developed with some fulness, in order to maintain a correct atmosphere, compensating any errors which mere opinions might lead to. Special emphasis, then, must not be held to show neglect of points which my space and scope prevent my commenting on. But the first outline requiring our attention involves a distant retrospect.

The history of Hawthorne’s genius is in some sense a summary of all New England history.

From amid a simple, practical, energetic community, remarkable for its activity in affairs of state and religion, but by no means given to dreaming, this fair flower of American genius rose up unexpectedly enough, breaking the cold New England sod for the emission of a light and fragrance as pure and pensive as that of the arbutus in our woods, in spring. The flower, however, sprang from seed that rooted in the old colonial life of the sternly imaginative pilgrims and Puritans. Thrusting itself up into view through the drift of a later day, it must not be confounded with other growths nourished only by that more recent deposit; though the surface-drift had of course its own weighty influence in the nourishment of it. The artistic results of a period of action must sometimes be looked for at a point of time long subsequent, and this was especially sure to be so in the first phases of New England civilization. The settlers in this region, in addition to the burdens and obstacles proper to pioneers, had to deal with the cares of forming a model state and of laying out for posterity a straight and solid path in which it might walk with due rectitude. All this was in itself an ample enough subject to occupy their powerful imaginations. They were enacting a kind of sacred epic, the dangers and the dignity and exaltation of which they felt most fervently. The Bible, the Bay Psalm Book, Bunyan, and Milton, the poems of George Wither, Baxter’s Saint’s Rest, and some controversial pamphlets, would suffice to appease whatever yearnings the immense experiment of their lives failed to satisfy. Gradually, of course, the native press and new-comers from England multiplied books in a community which held letters in unusual reverence. But the continuous work of subduing a new country, the dependence upon the mother-land for general literature, and finally the excitements of the Revolutionary period, deferred the opportunity for any aesthetic expression of the forces that had been at work here ever since Winthrop stepped from the Arbella on to the shore of the New World, with noble manliness and sturdy statesmanship enough in him to uphold the whole future of a great people. When Hawthorne came, therefore, his utterance was a culmination of the two preceding centuries. An entire side of the richly endowed human nature to which we owe the high qualities of New England — a nature which is often so easily disposed of as meagre, cold, narrow, and austere — this side, long suppressed and thrown into shade by the more active front, found expression at last in these pages so curiously compounded of various elements, answering to those traits of the past which Hawthorne’s genius revived. The sensuous substance of the early New England character had piously surrendered to the severe maxims which religion and prudence imposed; and so complete was its suppression, that all this part of Puritan nature missed recording itself, except by chance glimpses through the history of the times. For this voluntary oblivion it has been rarely compensated in the immortality it meets with through Hawthorne. Not that he set himself with forethought to the illustration of it; but, in studying as poet and dramatist the past from which he himself had issued, he sought, naturally, to light it up from the interior, to possess himself of the very fire which burned in men’s breasts and set their minds in movement at that epoch. In his own person and his own blood the same elements, the same capabilities still existed, however modified or differently ordered. The records of Massachusetts Bay are full of suggestive incongruities between the ideal, single-souled life which its founders hoped to lead, and the jealousies, the opposing opinions, or the intervolved passions of individuals and of parties, which sometimes unwittingly cloaked themselves in religious tenets. Placing himself in the position of these beings, then, and conscious of all the strong and various potencies of emotion which his own nature, inherited from them, held in curb, it was natural that Hawthorne should give weight to this contrast between the intense, prisoned life of shut sensibilities and the formal outward appearance to which it was moulded. This, indeed, is the source of motive in much of his writing; notably so in “The Scarlet Letter.” It is thus that his figures get their tremendous and often terrible relief. They are seen as close as we see our faces in a glass, and brought so intimately into our consciousness that the throbbing of their passions sounds like the mysterious, internal beating of our own hearts in our own ears. And even when he is not dealing directly with themes or situations closely related to that life, there may be felt in his style, I think — particularly in that of the “Twice–Told Tales,”— a union of vigorous freedom, and graceful, shy restraint, a mingling of guardedness which verges on severity with a quick and delicately thrilled sensibility for all that is rich and beautiful and generous, which is his by right of inheritance from the race of Non-conformist colonizers. How subtile and various this sympathy is, between himself and the past of his people, we shall see more clearly as we go on.

Salem was, in fact, Hawthorne’s native soil, in all senses; as intimately and perfectly so as Florence was the only soil in which Dante and Michael Angelo could have had their growth. It is endlessly suggestive, this way that historic cities have of expressing themselves for all time in the persons of one or two men. Silently and with mysterious precision, the genius comes to birth and ripens — sometimes despite all sorts of discouragement — into a full bloom which we afterward see could not have reached its maturity at any other time, and would surely have missed its most peculiar and cherished qualities if reared in any other place. The Ionian intellect of Athens culminates in Plato; Florence runs into the mould of Dante’s verse, like fluid bronze; Paris secures remembrance of her wide curiosity in Voltaire’s settled expression; and Samuel Johnson holds fast for us that London of the eighteenth century which has passed out of sight, in giving place to the capital of the Anglo–Saxon race today. In like manner the sober little New England town which has played a so much more obscure, though in its way hardly less significant part, sits quietly enshrined and preserved in Hawthorne’s singularly imperishable prose.

Of course, Salem is not to be compared with Florence otherwise than remotely or partially. Florence was naturally the City of Flowers, in a figurative sense as well as in the common meaning. Its splendid, various, and full-pulsed life found spontaneous issue in magnificent works of art, in architecture, painting, poetry, and sculpture — things in which New England was quite sterile. Salem evolved the artistic spirit indirectly, and embodied itself in Hawthorne by the force of contrast: the weariness of unadorned life which must have oppressed many a silent soul before him at last gathered force for a revolt in his person, and the very dearth which had previously reigned was made to contribute to the beauty of his achievement. The unique and delicate perfume of surprise with which his genius issued from its crevice still haunts his romances. A quality of homeliness dwells in their very strangeness and rarity which endears them to us unspeakably, and captivates the foreign sense as well; so that one of Hawthorne’s chief and most enduring charms is in a measure due to that very barrenness of his native earth which would at first seem to offer only denial to his development. It is in this direction that we catch sight of the analogy between his intellectual unfolding and that of the great Florentines. It consists in his drawing up into himself the nourishment furnished by the ground upon which he was born, and making the more and the less productive elements reach a climax of characteristic beauty. One marked difference, however, is that there was no abundant and inspiriting municipal life of his own time which could enter into his genius: it was the consciousness of the past of the place that affected him. He himself has expressed as much: “This old town of Salem — my native place, though I have dwelt much away from it, both in boyhood and maturer years — possesses, or did possess, a hold on my affections, the force of which I have never realized during my seasons of actual residence here. . . . And yet, though invariably happiest elsewhere, there is within me a feeling for old Salem, which, in lack of a better phrase, I must be content to call affection. . . . But the sentiment has likewise its moral quality. The figure of that first ancestor, invested by family tradition with a dim and dusky grandeur, was present to my boyish imagination as far back as I can remember. It still haunts me, and induces a kind of home-feeling with the past, which I scarcely claim in reference to the present phase of the town.”

It is by briefly reviewing that past, then trying to reproduce in imagination the immediate atmosphere of Hawthorne’s youth, and comparing the two, that we shall best arrive at the completion of our proposed portrait. We have first to study the dim perspective and the suggestive coloring of that historic background from which the author emerges, and then to define clearly his own individual traits as they appear in his published works and Note–Books.

The eagerness which admirers of such a genius show, to learn all permissible details of his personal history, is, when freed from the vulgar and imbecile curiosity which often mars it, a sort of homage that it is right to satisfy. It is a respect apt to be paid only to men whose winning personal qualities have reached through their writing, and touched a number of grateful and appreciative hearts. But two objections may be urged against giving such details here: one is, that Hawthorne especially disapproved the writing of a Life of himself; the other, that the history of Salem and the works of Hawthorne are easily accessible to any one, without intervention.

Of the first it may frankly be said, indeed, that Hawthorne alone could have adequately portrayed his life for us; though in the same breath it should be added that the idea of his undertaking to do it is almost preposterous. To such a spirit as his, the plan would have had an exquisite absurdity about it, that might even have savored of imposition. The mass of trivial details essential to the accurate and consecutive account of an entire life could never have gained his serious attention: his modesty would have made as little of them as of boyish slate-scribblings, full of significance, fun, and character to observers, but subjected to the sponge without a pang by their producer. There is something natural and fine in this. I confess that to me the spectacle presented by Goethe when dwelling on the minutest incidents of his childhood with senile vanity and persistence, and fashioning with avaricious care the silver shrine and crystal case in which — like a very different sort of Saint Charles Borromeo — he hopes to have the reverent ages view him, is one which increases my sense of his defective though splendid personality. And yet I cannot suppress the opposite feeling, that the man of note who lets his riches of reminiscence be buried with him inflicts a loss on the world which it is hard to take resignedly. In the Note–Books of Hawthorne this want is to a large extent made good. His shrinking sensitiveness in regard to the embalming process of biography is in these somewhat abated, so that they have been of incalculable use in assisting the popular eye to see him as he really was. Other material for illustration of his daily life is somewhat meagre; and yet, on one account, this is perhaps a cause for rejoicing. There is a halo about every man of large poetic genius which it is difficult for the world to wholly miss seeing, while he is alive. Afterward, when the biographer comes, we find the actual dimensions, the physical outline, more insisted upon. That is the biographer’s business; and it is not altogether his fault, though partly so, that the public regard is thus turned away from the peculiar but impalpable sign that floats above the poet’s actual stature. But, under this subtile influence, forgetting that old, luminous hallucination (if it be one), we suddenly feel the want of it, are dissatisfied; and, not perceiving that the cause lies largely with us, we fall to detracting from the subject. Thus it is fortunate that we have no regular biography of Shakespere authoritative enough to fade our own private conceptions of him; and it is not an unmixed ill that some degree of similar mystery should soften and give tone to the life of Hawthorne. Not that Hawthorne could ever be seriously disadvantaged by a complete record; for behind the greatness of the writer, in this case, there stands a person eminent for strength and loveliness as few men are eminent in their private lives. But it is with dead authors somewhat as it proved with those Etruscan warriors, who, seen through an eyehole lying in perfect state within their tombs, crumbled to a powder when the sepulchres were opened. The contact of life and death is too unsympathetic. Whatever stuff the writer be made of, it seems inevitable that he should suffer injury from exposure to the busy and prying light of subsequent life, after his so deep repose in death.

“Would you have me a damned author?” exclaims Oberon, in “The Devil in Manuscript,” [Footnote: See the Snow Image, and other Twice–Told Tales.] “to undergo sneers, taunts, abuse, and cold neglect, and faint praise bestowed against the giver’s conscience! . . . An outlaw from the protection of the grave — one whose ashes every careless foot might spurn, unhonored in life, and remembered scornfully in death!” This, to be sure, is a heated statement, in the mouth of a young author who is about to cast his unpublished works into the fire; but the dread expressed here is by no means unfounded. Even the publication of Hawthorne’s Note–Books has put it in the power of various writers of the day to assume an omniscience not altogether just, and far from acceptable. Why, then, should further risk of this be incurred, by issuing the present work?

It is precisely to put a limit to misconstructions, as well as to meet — however imperfectly — the desire of genuine appreciators, that it has been written. If this study for a portrait fulfils its aim, it will at least furnish an outline, fix a definite shape, within which whatever is observed by others may find its place with a truer effect and more fitting relation. The mistakes that have been made, indeed, are in no wise alarming ones; and it would be difficult to find any author who has been more carefully considered, on the whole, or with such generally fair conclusions, as Hawthorne. Still, if one sees even minor distortions current, it can do no harm to correct them. Besides, there has as yet been no thorough attempt at a consistent synthetic portraiture; and the differences of different critics’ estimates need some common ground to meet and be harmonized upon. If this can be supplied, there will be less waste of time in future studies of the same subject.

It will be seen, therefore, that my book makes no pretension to the character of a Life. The wish of Hawthorne on this point would alone be enough, to prevent that. If such a work is to be undertaken, it should be by another hand, in which the right to set aside this wish is much more certainly vested than in mine. But I have thought that an earnest sympathy with the subject might sanction the present essay. Sympathy, after all, is the talisman which may preserve even the formal biographer from giving that injury to his theme just spoken of. And if the insight which guides me has any worth, it will present whatever material has already been made public with a selection and shaping which all researchers might not have time to bestow.

Still, I am quite alive to the difficulties of my task; and I am conscious that the work may to some appear supererogatory. Stricture and praise are, it will perhaps be said, equally impertinent to a fame so well established. Neither have I any rash hope of adding a single ray to the light of Hawthorne’s high standing. But I do not fear the charge of presumption. Time, if not the present reader, will supply the right perspective and proportion.

On the ground of critical duty there is surely defence enough for such an attempt as the one now offered; the relative rank of Hawthorne, and other distinctions touching him, seem to call for a fuller discussion than has been given them. I hope to prove, however, that my aim is in no wise a partisan one. Criticism is appreciative estimation. It is inevitable that the judgments of competent and cultivated persons should flatly contradict each other, as well as those of incompetent persons; and this whether they are coeval or of different dates. At the last, it is in many respects matter of simple individual impression; and there will always be persons of high intelligence whom it will be impossible to make coincide with us entirely, touching even a single author. So that the best we can do is to set about giving rational explanation of our diverse admirations. Others will explain theirs; and in this way, everything good having a fit showing, taste finds it easier to become catholic.

Whoever reverences something has a meaning. Shall he not record it? But there are two ways in which he may express himself — through speech and through silence — both of them sacred alike. Which of these we will use on any given occasion is a question much too subtle, too surely fraught with intuitions that cannot be formulated, to admit of arbitrary prescription. In preferring, here, the form of speech, I feel that I have adopted only another kind of silence.

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