A Study of Hawthorne, by G. P. Lathrop

Chapter 12

Poe, Irving, Hawthorne.

The names of Poe, Irving, and Hawthorne have been so often connected without due discrimination, that it is imperative to consider here the actual relation between the three men. Inquiry might naturally be roused by the circumstance that, although Hawthorne has freely been likened to Irving in some quarters, and in others to Poe, the latter two are never supposed to hold anything in common. Indeed, they might aptly be cited in illustration of the widely opposed tendencies already developed in our brief national literature. Two things equal to the same thing are equal to each other; and if Poe and Irving were each equal to Hawthorne, there would be some similarity between them. But it is evident that they are not like quantities; and we must conclude that they have been unconsciously used by critics, in trying to find a unit of measure to gauge the greatest of the triad with.

Undoubtedly there are resemblances in Hawthorne to both Poe and Irving. Hawthorne and Irving represent a dignity and roundedness of diction which is one of the old-fashioned merits in English writing; and because they especially, among eminent authors of the century, have stood for this quality, they have been supposed to stand close together. But Irving’s speech is not so much an organic part of his genius as a preconceived method of expression which has a considerable share in modifying his thought. It is rather a manner than a style. On the other hand, it would be hard to find a style growing so naturally and strongly out of elemental attributes as Hawthorne’s, so deftly waiting upon the slightest movement of idea, at once disclosing and lightly veiling the informing thought — like the most delicate sculptured marble drapery. The radical differences of the two men were also obscured in the beginning by the fact that Hawthorne did not for some time exhibit that massive power of hewing out individual character which afterward had full swing in his romances, and by a certain kinship of fancy in his lighter efforts, with Irving’s. “The Art of Book–Making” and “The Mutability of Literature” are not far removed from some of Hawthorne’s conceits. And “The Vision of the Fountain” and “The Village Uncle” might have issued in their soft meditativeness from Geoffrey Crayon’s own repertory, except that they are moulded with a so much more subtile art than his, and with an instinct of proportion so much more sure. But even in the earlier tales, taken all together, Hawthorne ranks higher than Irving in the heraldry of genius: he has more quarterings in his shield. Not only does he excel the other in brief essay, depending only on endogenous forces, whereas Irving is always adorning his paragraphs with that herb-o’-grace, quotation, but he also greatly surpasses him in the construction of his stories; and finally, his psychological analysis and symbolic imagination place him beyond rivalry. It is a brilliant instance of the more ideal mind asserting its commanding power, by admirable achievements in the inferior styles — so that even in those he was at once ranked with the most famous practiser of them — and then quietly reaching out and grasping a higher order of truths, which no one had even thought of competing for. I suppose it is not assumed for a moment that “Wolfert’s Roost,” the “Tales of a Traveller,” the story of “Rip Van Winkle,” the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and the picturesque but evanescent tales of “The Alhambra” can be brought into discussion on the same terms with Hawthorne’s romances, as works of art; and they assuredly cannot be as studies of character, for of this they have next to nothing. The only phases of character which Irving has any success in dealing with are those of credulity and prejudice. The legendary tendency of the two men has perhaps confused some readers. Both were lovers of association, and turned naturally to the past for materials: the New–Yorker found delightful sources of tradition or of ludicrous invention in the past of that city, where his family held a long-established and estimable footing; and the New–Englander, as we have seen, drew also through the channel of descent from the dark tarn of Puritan experience. But Irving turned his back upon everything else when he entered the tapestried chamber of the past, while Hawthorne sought that vantage-ground only to secure a more impressive view of humanity. There is one gift of Irving’s which won him an easier as well as a wider triumph than that which awaited Hawthorne; and this is his ability to take the simple story-teller’s tone, devoid of double meanings. Poe, also, had the passion for narrative in and for itself, but in him it was disturbed by a diseased mind, and resulted in a horrid fascination instead of cheerful attraction. Hawthorne, to be sure, possessed the gift of the raconteur; but in general he was at once seer and teller, and the higher exertions of his imagination were always in the peculiarly symbolic atmosphere we are wont to associate with him. Irving’s contented disposition in this regard is certainly very charming; there are often moods in which it is a great relief to turn to it; and he has in so far the advantage over the other two. He pitches for us the tone of average cultured minds in his time and locality; and in reading him we have a comfortable sense of reality, than which nothing in fiction is more reassuring. This is almost entirely absent from the spell with which Hawthorne holds us; and here, indeed, we touch the latter’s most decided limitation as a writer of fiction; for although his magnificently portrayed characters do not want reality, an atmosphere of ghostliness surrounds them, warning us that we must not look to find life there as we see it elsewhere. There is a Northern legend of a man who lay down to sleep, and a thin smoke was seen to issue from his nostrils, traverse the ground, cross a rivulet, and journey on, finally returning to the place whence it came. When he awoke, he described an imaginary excursion of his own, following exactly the course which the smoke had taken. This indirect contact might furnish a partially true type of Hawthorne’s mysterious intercourse with the world through his books.

It would be a mistake, however, to attribute this difference to the greater strength of Irving’s humor — a trait, always much lauded in him. It is without doubt a good quality. This mild, sweet radiance of an uncontaminated and well-bred spirit is not a common thing in literature. But I cannot fall in with the judgment that calls it “freer and far more joyous” than Addison’s. Both in style and in humor Irving has caught something of the grace of “The Spectator”; but as in the style he frequently falls short, writing feeble or jarring sentences, so in humor I cannot see how he is to be brought at all on a level with Addison, who is primarily a grave, stately, scholarly mind, but all the deeper on that account in the lustre of his humorous displays. Addison, too, had somewhat of the poet in him, and was capable of tragedy as well as of neat satire and compact characterization. But if we looked for a pithy embodiment of the difference between Irving and Hawthorne, we might call the former a “polite writer,” and the latter a profound poet: as, indeed, I have called him in this essay, though with no intent to confuse the term with that given to poets who speak in verse. Pathos is the great touchstone of humor, and Irving’s pathos is always a lamentable failure. Is it not very significant, that he should have made so little of the story of Rip Van Winkle? In his sketch, which has won so wide a fame and given a lasting association to the Kaatskills, there is not a suspicion of the immense pathos which the skill of an industrious playwright and the genius of that rare actor, Mr. Jefferson, have since developed from the tale. The Dame Van Winkle that we now know is the creation of Mr. Boucicault; to him it is we owe that vigorous character — a scold, a tyrant to her husband, but nevertheless full of relentful womanliness, and by the justice of her cause exciting our sympathy almost as much as Rip himself does. In the story, she wears an aspect of singular causelessness, and Rip’s devotion to the drinking-can is barely hinted: the marvellous tenderness, too, and joyful sorrow of his return after the twenty years’ sleep, are apparently not even suspected by the writer. It is the simple wonder and picturesqueness of the situation that charm him; and while in the drama we are moved to the bottom of our hearts by the humorous tragicalness it casts over the spectacle of conflicting passions, the only outcome of the written tale is a passing reflection on the woe of being henpecked. “And it is a common wish of all henpecked husbands in the neighborhood, when life hangs heavy on their hands, that they might have a quieting draught out of Rip Van Winkle’s flagon.” To be sure, there is a hidden moral here, of the folly of driving men to drunkenness; but it is so much obscured as to suggest that this was of small moment in the writer’s mind. Such a moral, in any case, must necessarily have been very delicately advanced, in order not to becloud the artistic atmosphere; but a person of searching dramatic genius would have found means to emphasize it without injury to art, just as it has been done on the stage. Imagine what divine vibrations of emotion Hawthorne would have smitten out of this theme, had he been the originator of it. Certainly we should, as the case stands, have missed the whole immortal figment, had not Irving given it to us in germ; the fact that our playwright and our master comedian have made it so much greater and more beautiful does not annul that primary service; but, looking at the matter historically, we must admit that Irving’s share in the credit is that of the first projector of a scientific improvement, and the latter sort of person always has to forego a great part of his fame in favor of the one who consummates the discovery. I am willing to believe that there was a peculiar advantage in Irving’s treatment; namely, that he secured for his story a quicker and more general acceptance than might have been granted to something more profound; but this does not alter the critical judgment that we have to pass upon it. If Irving had grasped the tragic sphere at all, he would have shone more splendidly in the comic. But the literary part of him, at least, never passed into the shade: it somehow contrived to be always on that side of the earth which was towards the sun. Observe, now, the vital office of humor in Hawthorne’s thought. It gleams out upon us from behind many of the gravest of his conceptions, like the silver side of a dark leaf turning in the wind. Wherever the concretion of guilt is most adamantine, there he lets his fine slender jet of humor play like a lambent fire, until the dark mass crumbles, and the choragos of the tragedy begins his mournful yet hopeful chant among the ruins. This may be verified in the “Seven Gables,” “Blithedale,” and “The Marble Faun”; not in “The Scarlet Letter,” for that does not present Hawthorne’s genius in its widest action. In one place he speaks of “the tragic power of laughter,”— a discrimination which involves the whole deep originality of his mind. It is not irrelevant here to remark that at the most affecting portions of the play “Rip Van Winkle,” the majority of the audience always laugh; this, though irritating to a thoughtful listener, is really an involuntary tribute to the marvellous wisdom and perfection with which Jefferson mingles pathos and humor. Again Hawthorne: “Human destinies look ominous without some perceptible intermixture of the sable or the gray.” And, elsewhere: “There is something more awful in happiness than in sorrow, the latter being earthly and finite, the former composed of the substance and texture of eternity, so that spirits still embodied may well tremble at it.” These thoughts could never have occurred to Irving with the same intensity. Now, from all this we gather inference as to the deep sources of Hawthorne’s humor. I sometimes think that Thalia was the daughter, and not the sister, of Melpomene. As to actual exhibition of humor, Hawthorne’s is made a diffusive medium to temper the rays of tragedy with, and never appears in such unmixed form as that of Irving. So that even though we must confess a smaller mental calibre in the latter, we may gladly grant him a superiority in his special mood of fun. An excellent English critic, Leslie Stephen, lately wrote: “Poe is a kind of Hawthorne and delirium tremens.” This announcement, however, betrays a singular misapprehension. When Hawthorne’s tales first appeared, they were almost invariably taken to bear an intimate and direct relation to the author’s own moods; while Poe’s were supposed to be daring flights of pure imagination, or ingenious attempts to prove theories held by the writer, but were not charged directly to his own experience. Time has shown that the converse was the case. The psychical conditions described by Hawthorne had only the remotest connection with any mood of his own; they were mainly translations, into the language of genius, of certain impressions and observations drawn from the world around him. After his death, the Note–Books caused a general rustle of surprise, revealing as they did the simple, wholesome nature of this strange imaginer; yet though he there speaks — surely without prejudice, because without the least knowledge that the world would ever hear him — of “the objectivity” of his fictions, critics have not yet wholly learned how far apart from himself these creations were. The observation of some mental habit in men, or law of intercourse between human beings, would strongly present itself to him; and in order to get a concise embodiment, his genius planned some powerful situation to illustrate it with; or, at another time it might be that a strange incident, like that of Mr. Moody, suggesting “The Minister’s Black Veil,” or a singular physiological fact like that on which “The Bosom Serpent” is based, would call out his imagination to run a race with reality and outstrip it in touching the goal of truth. But, the conception once formed, the whole fictitious fabric would become entirely removed from himself, except so far as it touched him very incidentally; and this expulsion of the idea from himself, so that it acquires a life and movement of its own, and can be contemplated by the artist from the outside, is the very distinction between deeply creative and merely inventive genius. Poe’s was of the latter sort. He possessed a wild, arbitrary imagination, that sometimes leaped frantically high; but his impressiveness is always that of a nightmare, always completely morbid. What we know of Poe’s life leads inevitably to the conclusion that this quality, if it did not spring from disease, was at least largely owing to it. For a time, it was the fashion to make a moral question of Poe’s unfortunate obliquities; but a more humane tendency reduces it to a scientific problem. Poe suffered great disaster at the hands of his unjust biographer; yet he was a worse enemy to himself than any one else could be. The fine enamel of his genius is all corroded by the deadly acid of his passions. The imperfections of his temperament have pierced his poetry and prose, shattered their structure, and blurred their beauty. Only four or five of his poems —“The Raven,” “Ligeia,” the earlier of the two addressed “To Helen,” and the sonnet to his wife — escape being flawed by some fit of haste, some ungovernable error of taste, some hopeless, unaccountable break in their beauty. In criticism, Poe initiated a fearless and agile movement; he had an acute instinct in questions of literary form, amounting to a passion, as all his instincts and perceptions did; he had also the knack of finding clever reasons, good or bad, for all his opinions. These things are essential to a critic’s equipment, and it was good service in Poe to exemplify them. Yet here, too, the undermining processes of his thoroughly unsound mind subverted the better qualities, vitiated his judgments with incredible jealousies and conflicting impulses, and withered the most that he wrote in this direction into something very like rubbish. We have seen, for example, how his attempt to dispassionately examine Hawthorne resulted. Sooner or later, too, he ran his own pen full against his rigid criteria for others. It is suggestive to find that the holder of such exacting doctrine about beauty, the man also of whom preeminently it may be said, as Baudelaire wrote of him, “Chance and the incomprehensible were his two great enemies,” should so completely fail to reach even the unmoral perfection which he assigned as the highest attainable. Professing himself the special apostle of the beautiful in art, he nevertheless forces upon us continually the most loathsome hideousness and the most debasing and unbeautiful horror. This passionate, unhelmed, errant search for beauty was in fact not so much a normal and intelligent desire, as an attempt to escape from interior discord; and it was the discord which found expression, accordingly, instead of the sense of beauty — except (as has been said) in fragments. Whatever the cause, his brain had a rift of ruin in it, from the start, and though his delicate touch often stole a new grace from classic antiquity, it was the frangibility, the quick decay, the fall of all lovely and noble things, that excited and engaged him. “I have imbibed the shadows of fallen columns,” he says in one of his tales, “at Balbec, and Tadmor, and Persepolis, until my very soul has become a ruin.” Always beauty and grace are with him most poetic in their overthrow, and it is the shadow of ruined grandeur that he receives, instead of the still living light so fair upon them, or the green growth clinging around them. Hawthorne, too, wandered much amid human ruin, but it was not with delight in the mere fact of decay; rather with grieving over it, and the hope to learn how much of life was still left in the wreck, and how future structures might be made stronger by studying the sources of failure. One of the least thoughtful remarks which I have heard touching Hawthorne was this, that his books could not live because they dealt with the “sick side” of human nature. As if great poets ever refrained from dealing with it! The tenure of fame depends on whether the writer has himself become infected with sickness. With Hawthorne this is most certainly not the case, for the morbid phases which he studied were entirely outside of himself. Poe, on the other hand, pictured his own half-maniacal moods and diseased fancies. There is absolutely no study of character in his stories, no dramatic separateness of being. He looks only for fixed and inert human quantities, with which he may juggle at will. He did not possess insight; and the analytic quality of which he was so proud was merely a sort of mathematical ingenuity of calculation, in which, however, he was extraordinarily keen. As a mere potency, dissociated from qualities, Poe must be rated almost highest among American poets, and high among prosaists; no one else offers so much pungency, such impetuous and frightful energy crowded into such small compartments. Yet it would be difficult to find a poetic fury less allied to sane human life than that which informs his tales. It is not the representation of semi-insanity that he gives: he himself is its representative. Instead of commanding it, and bringing it into some sort of healthy relation with us, he is swayed and carried away by it. His genius flourished upon him like a destructive flame, and the ashes that it left, are like a deadly powdered poison. Clifford Pyncheon in the “Seven Gables” is Poe himself, deprived of the ability to act: in both are found the same consummate fastidiousness, the same abnormal egotism. And it is worth attention that when Clifford is aroused to sudden action by Judge Pyncheon’s death, the coruscating play of his intellect is almost precisely that brilliant but defective kind of ratiocination which Poe so delights to display. It is crazy wildness, with a surface appearance of accurate and refined logic. In this fact, that Hawthorne — the calm, ardent, healthy master of imagination — is able to create the disordered type that Poe is, we shall find by how much the former is greater than the latter.

A recent writer has raised distinctly the medical question as to Poe. He calls him “the mad man of letters par excellence,” and by an ingenious investigation seems to establish it as probable that Poe was the victim of a form of epilepsy. But in demonstrating this, he attempts to make it part of a theory that all men of genius are more or less given over to this same “veiled epilepsy.” And here he goes beyond the necessities of the case, and takes up an untenable position. There is a morbid and shattering susceptibility connected with some genius; but that tremulous, constantly readjusted sensitiveness which indicates the perfect equilibrium of health in other minds must not be confounded with it. Such is the condition of the highest genius alone; of men like Shakespere and Hawthorne, who, however dissimilar their temperaments, grasp the two spheres of mind and character, the sane and the insane, and hold them perfectly reconciled by their gentle yet unsparing insight. A case like Poe’s, where actual mental decay exists in so advanced a stage and gives to his productions a sharper and more dazzling effect than would have been theirs without it, is probably more unique, but it is certainly less admirable, less original in the true sense, than an instance of healthier endowment like Hawthorne. On the side of art, it is impossible to bring Poe into any competition with Hawthorne: although we have ranked him high in poetry and prose, regarded simply as a dynamic substance, it must be confessed that his prose has nothing which can be called style, nor even a manner like Irving’s very agreeable one. His feeling for form manifests itself in various ways, yet he constantly violates proportion for the sake of getting off one of his pseudo-philosophical disquisitions; and, notwithstanding many successful hits in expression, and a specious but misleading assumption of fervid accuracy in phraseology, his language is loose, promiscuous, and altogether tiresome.

Poe, Irving, and Hawthorne have one marked literary condition in common: each shows a double side. With Poe the antithesis is between poetry and criticism; Irving, having been brought up by Fiction as a foster-mother, is eventually turned over to his rightful guardian, History; and Hawthorne rests his hand from ideal design, in elaborating quiet pictures of reality. In each case there is more or less seeming irreconcilement between the two phases found in combination; but the opposition is rather more distinct in Hawthorne, and the grasp with which it is controlled by him is stronger than that of either Poe or Irving — again a result pronouncing him the master.

There is still another issue on which comparison must be made. The question of nationality will for some time to come be an interesting one in any discussion of American authors. The American character is so relative, that it is only by a long series of contrasts, a careful study of the registering-plate of literature, that we shall come to the point of defining it. American quality in literature is not like Greek, German, French, English quality: those are each unified, and their component elements stoutly enough welded together to make what may be called a positive impression; but our distinctions are relative. The nearest and most important means that we have for measuring them is that of comparison with England; and anything strikingly original in American genius is found to be permanent in proportion as it maintains a certain relation to English literature, not quite easy to define. It is not one of hostility, for the best American minds thus far have had the sincerest kindliness toward the mother country; it involves, however, the claiming of separate standards of judgment. The primary division, both in the case of the New England Pilgrims and in that of our Revolutionary patriots, was based on clearer perceptions of certain truths on the part of the cisatlantic English; and this claiming of separate standards in literature is a continuation of that historic attitude. We are making a perpetual minority report on the rest of the world, sure that in time our voice will be an authoritative one. The attitude being a relative and not very positively predicable one, a singular integrity of judgment is required in sustaining it. Of this Poe exhibits nothing. It was a part of the ingrained rebellion in him, that he revolted against the moneyed mediocracy of this country — a position in which he deserves much sympathy — and perhaps this underlies his want of deep literary identification with the national character in general. But more probably his genius was a detonating agent which could have been convulsed into its meet activity anywhere, and had nothing to do with a soil. It is significant that he was taken up by a group of men in Paris, headed by Baudelaire and assisted by Théophile Gautier, as a sort of private demigod of art; and I believe he stands in high esteem with the Rossetti–Morris family of English poets. Irving, on the other hand, comes directly upon the ground of difference between the American and the English genius, but it is with the colors of a neutral. Irving’s position was peculiar. He went to Europe young, and ripened his genius under other suns than those that imbrowned the hills of his native Hudson. He had won success enough through “Salmagundi” and “Knickerbocker’s History” to give him the importance of an accredited literary ambassador from the Republic, in treating with a foreign audience; and he really did us excellent service abroad. This alone secures him an important place in our literary history. Particularly wise and dignified is the tone of his short chapter called “English Writers on America”; and this sentence from it might long have served in our days of fairer fame as a popular motto: “We have but to live on, and every day we live a whole volume of refutation.” His friendship with Scott, also, was a delightful addition to the amenities of literature, and shall remain a goodly and refreshing memory to us always. Yet what he accomplished in this way for American literature at large, Irving compensated for with some loss of his own dignity. It cannot be denied that the success of “The Sketch–Book” led to an overdoing of his part in “Bracebridge Hall.” “Salmagundi” was the first step in the path of palpable imitation of Addison’s “Spectator”; in “The Sketch–Book,” though taking some charming departures, the writer made a more refined attempt to produce the same order of effects so perfectly attained by the suave Queen Anne master; and in “Bracebridge Hall” the recollection of the Sir Roger de Coverley papers becomes positively annoying. It is not that the style of Addison is precisely reproduced, of course, but the general resemblance in manner is as close as it could well have been without direct and conscious copying, the memory of Addisonian methods is too apparent. Irving’s real genius, which occasionally in his other writings emits delicious flashes, does not often assert itself in this work; and though he has the knack of using the dry point of Addison’s humor, he doesn’t achieve what etchers call “the burr” that ought to result from its use. Addison, too, stings his lines in with true aquafortis precision, and Irving’s sketches are to his as pen-and-ink drawing to the real etching. But it was not only this lack of literary independence that belittled Irving’s dignity. He had become so well satisfied with his post of mediator between the writers of the two nations, that it became paramount with him to preserve the good-will he had won in England, and this appears in the cautious and almost obsequious mien of “Bracebridge.” One may trace it also, with amused pain, in his correspondence with Paulding — honest, pathetic Paulding, a rabid miso-Briton who burned to write something truly American, and couldn’t; whom Drake laughingly hails as

“The bard of the backwoods,
The poet of cabbages, log-huts, and gin.”

Irving was vexedly concerned at the violent outbreaks of his old coadjutor, directed against the British; yet, though they were foolish, they showed real pluck. But if we need other proof of the attitude which Irving was distinctly recognized to have taken up, we may turn to a page on which “The Edinburgh Review,” unusually amiable toward him at first, thus vented its tyrannical displeasure at his excessive complaisance: “He gasped for British popularity [it said]: he came, and found it. He was received, caressed, applauded, made giddy: natural politeness owed him some return, for he imitated, admired, deferred to us. . . . It was plain he thought of nothing else, and was ready to sacrifice everything to obtain a smile or a look of approbation.” In a less savage fashion we, too, may admit the not very pleasant truth here enunciated with such unjust extremeness. An interval of nearly forty years lies between the date of the “Sketch–Book” and “Bracebridge” and that of “Our Old Home”; the difference in tone fully corresponds to the lapse of time.

In the use of native material, of course, Irving was a pioneer, along with Cooper, and was in this quite different from Poe, who had no aptitude in that way. “Knickerbocker’s History of New York” is too farcical to take a high position on this score, though it undoubtedly had a beneficial effect in stirring up pride and interest in local antiquities; but “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” were valuable acquisitions so far as they went. Would that they had been wrought out with a more masterly touch; and would that Irving had penetrated further in this direction! But, though these Hudson legends will long keep his fame renewed, it will perhaps be chiefly as a historian that he will be prized. His pleasant compilation on Goldsmith, his “Mahomet,” “Columbus,” and “Conquest of Granada,” though not too profound, fill an enviable niche in popular esteem; and his mellow and stately narrative of Washington’s life is a work of enduring excellence. But these lie outside of our present discussion. Nor need we compare his achievements in native fiction with Hawthorne’s, after the review we have been making of the latter’s relation to New England.

Poe and Irving and Hawthorne have all met with acceptance in other countries, and their works have been translated into several languages. Irving has exercised no perceptible influence on literature at home or abroad; Poe has entered more or less into the workings of a school in England and a group in France. Hawthorne’s position on the Continent has perhaps not been so much one of conquest as of receiving an abstract admiration; but he has taken much stronger hold of the Anglo–Saxon mind than either of the others, and it is probable that his share in inspiring noble literature in America will — as it has already begun to show itself an important one — become vastly greater in future. It is impossible, as we have seen, to fix an absolute ratio between these writers. Irving has a more human quality than Poe, but Poe is beyond dispute the more original of the two. Each, again, has something which Hawthorne does not possess. But, if we must attempt at all to reduce so intricate a problem to exact terms, the mutual position of the three may be stated in the equation, Poe plus Irving plus an unknown quantity equals Hawthorne.

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