A Study of Hawthorne, by G. P. Lathrop

Chapter 9

England and Italy.

1853–1860.

It is very instructive to trace the contact of Hawthorne’s mind with Europe, as exhibited in his “English Note–Books” and “French and Italian Note–Books.” But in these records three things are especially observable. He goes to Europe as unperturbed, with an individual mood as easily sustained, as he would enter Boston or New York. He carries no preconception of what may be the most admirable way of looking at it. There has never been a more complete and charming presentment of a multitude of ingenuous impressions common to many travellers of widely differing endowment than here, at the same time that you have always before you the finished writer and the possible romancer, who suddenly and without warning flashes over his pages of quiet description a far, fleeting light of delicious imagination. It is as if two brothers, one a dreamer, and one a well-developed, intellectual, but slightly stoical and even shrewd American, dealing exclusively in common-sense, had gone abroad together, agreeing to write their opinions in the same book and in a style of perfect homogeneity. Sometimes one has the blank sheet to himself, sometimes the other; and occasionally they con each other’s paragraphs, and the second modifies the ideas of the first. It is interesting to note their twofold inspection of Westminster Hall, for example. The understanding twin examines it methodically, finding its length to be eighty paces, and its effect “the ideal of an immense barn.” The reasoning and imagining one interposes to this, “be it not irreverently spoken”; and also conjures up this splendid vision: “I wonder it does not occur to modern ingenuity to make a scenic representation, in this very hall, of the ancient trials for life or death, pomps, feasts, coronations, and every great historic incident . . . that has occurred here. The whole world cannot show another hall such as this, so tapestried with recollections.” But in any case it is always apparent that the thought is colored by a New World nurture. From this freshness of view there proceeded one result, the searching, unembarrassed, yet sympathetic and, as we may say, cordial criticism of England in “Our Old Home.” But it also gave rise to the second notable quality, that exquisite apprehension of the real meaning of things European, both institutions and popular manners and the varied products of art. At times, Hawthorne seems to have been born for the one end of adding this final grace of definition which he so deftly attaches to the monuments of that older civilization. He brings a perception so keen and an innate sympathy so true for everything beautiful or significant, that the mere flowing out of this fine intellectual atmosphere upon the objects before him invests them with a quality which we feel to be theirs, even while we know that it could not have become ours without his aid. A breath of New England air touches the cathedral windows of the Old World, and — I had almost said — bedims them with a film of evanescent frost-work; yet, as that lingers, we suddenly discern through the veil a charm, a legendary fascination in their deep-gemmed gorgeousness, which, although we have felt it and read of it before, we never seized till now. I speak, of course, from the American point of view; though in a great measure the effect upon foreign readers may be similar. But I fancy a special appropriateness for us in the peculiar mixture of estimation and enthusiasm which forms the medium through which Hawthorne looks at the spectacle of transatlantic life and its surroundings. He visits the British Museum, and encounters only disappointment at the mutilated sculptures of the Parthenon; but out of this confession, which is truth, slowly arises the higher truth of that airy yet profound response with which he greets the multiform mute company of marble or painted shapes that form the real population of Rome.

Even there, he has much dissent to make, still; and we may not find it at all essential or beneficial to follow each of his deviations ourselves. But however we may differ with him, it is impossible not to feel sure that within this circle of contradictions, of preference for new frames and of his friend Thompson’s pictures to all but a very few of the old masters’, somewhere within there is a perfectly trustworthy aesthetic sensibility which grasps the “unwritten rules of taste,” the inmost truth of all art. This inmost secret is, however we may turn it, a matter of paradox, and the moment it professes to be explained, that moment are the gates of the penetralia shut upon us. The evasiveness and the protest, then, with which Hawthorne discourses to himself as he wanders through the galleries of Europe, are the trembling of the needle, perfectly steadfast to the polar opposites of truth, yet quivering as with a fear that it may be unsettled by some artificial influence from its deep office of inner constancy. And as if, in this singular world, all truth must turn to paradox at the touch of an index finger, that almost faulty abstention from assuming the European tone which has made Hawthorne the traveller appear to certain readers a little crude — that very air of being the uncritical and slightly puzzled American is precisely the source of his most delightful accuracies of interpretation.

The third greatest distinction of his foreign observation is its entire freedom from specialism. Perhaps this cannot be made to appear more clearly than in the contrast presented by his “English Note–Books” and “Our Old Home” to Emerson’s “English Traits,” and Taine’s “Notes on England.” The latter writer is an acute, alert, industrious, and picturesque comparer of his own and a neighboring country, and is accompanied by a light battery of literary and pictorial criticism, detached from his heavier home armament. Emerson, on the other hand, gives us probably the most masterly and startling analysis of a people which has ever been offered in the same slight bulk, unsurpassed, too, in brilliancy and penetration of statement. But the “English Traits” is as clear, fixed, and accurate as a machinist’s plan, and perhaps a little too rigidly defined. Hawthorne’s review of England, though not comparable to Emerson’s work for analysis, has this advantage, that its outline is more flexible and leaves room for many individual discriminations to which it supplies an easily harmonized groundwork. Emerson and Taine give us their impressions of a foreign land: Hawthorne causes us to inhale its very atmosphere, and makes the country ours for the time being, rather than an alien area which we scrutinize in passing. Yet here and there he partakes of the very qualities that are dominant with Emerson and Taine. “Every Englishman runs to ‘The Times’ with his little grievance, as a child runs to his mother,” is as epigrammatic as anything in “English Traits”; [Footnote: No one, I think, has so well defined our relation to the English as Hawthorne, in a casual phrase from one of his printed letters: “We stand in the light of posterity to them, and have the privileges of posterity.” This, on London, ought to become proverbial: “London is like the grave in one respect — any man can make himself at home there; and whenever a man finds himself homeless elsewhere, he had better die, or go to London.”] and there is a tendency in his pages to present the national character in a concrete form, as the French writer gives it. But, in addition, Hawthorne is an artist and a man of humor; and renders human character with a force and fineness which give it its true value as being, after all, far weightier and dearer to us than the most important or famous of congealed results of character. Withal a wide and keen observer and a hospitable entertainer of opinions, he does not force these upon us as final. Coming and going at ease, they leave a mysterious sense of greater wisdom with us, an indefinable residue of refined truth.

It is a natural question, why did not Hawthorne write an English romance, as well, or rather than an Italian one? More than half his stay abroad was north of the Channel, and one would infer that there could have been no lack of suggestion there. “My ancestor left England,” he wrote, “in 1630. I return in 1853. I sometimes feel as if I myself had been absent these two hundred and twenty-three years, leaving England just emerging from the feudal system, and finding it, on my return, on the verge of republicanism.” Herein lay a source of romantic possibilities from which he certainly meant to derive a story. But the greater part of his four years in England was spent in Liverpool, where his consular duties suppressed fiction-making. [Footnote: And it was not till he reached the villa of Montauto at Florence that he could write:—

“It is pleasant to feel at last that I am really away from America — a satisfaction that I never enjoyed as long as I stayed in Liverpool, where it seemed to me that the quintessence of nasal and hand-shaking Yankee-dom was continually filtered and sublimated through my consulate, on the way outward and homeward. I first got acquainted with my own countrymen there. At Rome, too, it was not much better. But here in Florence, and in the summer-time, and in this secluded villa, I have escaped out of all my old tracks, and am really remote.”]

Hawthorne’s genius was extremely susceptible to every influence about it. One might liken its quality to that of a violin which owes its fine properties to the tempering of time and atmosphere, and transmits through its strings the very thrill of sunshine that has sunk into its wood. His utterances are modulated by the very changes of the air. In one of his letters from Florence he wrote:—

“Speaking of romances, I have planned two, one or both of which I could have ready for the press in a few months if I were either in England or America. But I find this Italian atmosphere not favorable to the close toil of composition, although it is a very good air to dream in. I must breathe the fogs of old England or the east-winds of Massachusetts, in order to put me into working trim.”

But though England might be his workshop for books dreamed of in Italy, yet the aspect of English life seems much more fittingly represented by his less excursively imaginative side, as in “Our Old Home,” than in a romance. Perhaps this is too ingenious a consolation; but I believe we may much better spare the possible English romance, than we could have foregone the actual Italian one.

In “The Marble Faun” Hawthorne’s genius took a more daring and impressive range than ever before, and showed conclusively — what, without this testimony, would most likely have been questioned, or even by some denied — that his previous works had given the arc of a circle which no English or American writer of prose fiction besides himself has even begun to span. It is not alone that he plucks from a prehistoric time —“a period when man’s affinity with nature was more strict, and his fellowship with every living thing more intimate and dear”— this conception of Donatello, the fresh, free, sylvan man untouched by sin or crime. Donatello must rank with a class of poetic creations which has nearly become extinct among modern writers: he belongs to the world of Caliban, Puck, and Ariel. But besides this unique creation, the book reveals regions of thought wide, ruin-scarred, and verdurously fair as the Campagna itself, winning the mind back through history to the primitive purity of man and of Christianity. I recoil from any attempt at adequate analysis of this marvellous production, for it is one of those works of art which are also works of nature, and will present to each thoughtful reader a new set of meanings, according to his individuality, insight, or experience. The most obvious part of the theme is that which is represented in the title, the study of the Faun’s nature; and this embraces the whole question of sin and crime, their origin and distinction. But it is not the case, as has been assumed, that in this study the author takes the position of advocate to a theory that sin was requisite to the development of soul in man. For, though he shows that remorse developed in Donatello “a more definite and nobler individuality,” he also reminds us that “sometimes the instruction comes without the sorrow, and oftener the sorrow teaches no lesson that abides with us”; and he illustrates this in the exquisite height of spirituality to which Hilda has attained through sinlessness. He is not, I say, the advocate of a theory: this charge has been made by self-confident critics, who saw only the one idea — that of a Beneficence which has so handled sin, that, instead of destroying man, “it has really become an instrument most effective in the education of intellect and soul.” This idea is several times urged by Miriam and Kenyon, but quickly rejected each time; first by Kenyon, and then by Hilda; so that, while it is suggested, it is also shown to be one which human nature cannot trust itself to dwell upon. But the real function of the author is that of a profound religious teacher. The “Romance of Monte Beni” is, as Miriam plainly says, the story of the fall of man repeated. It takes us with fearless originality to the source of all religious problems, affirming — as one interpreter [Footnote: See an unsigned article, “The Genius of Hawthorne,” in the Atlantic Monthly for September, 1868.] has said — “the inherent freedom of man,” and illustrating how he may choose the good or the evil. Donatello is the ideal of the childlike nature on the threshold of history who has lived without choosing either, up to the time when his love and defence of Miriam involve him in crime. Father Antonio, “the spectre of the catacombs,” and Miriam’s persecutor, is the outcome of a continual choice of evil and of utter degradation. These two extremes, more widely asunder than Prospero and Caliban, Hawthorne has linked together in his immense grasp of the inmost laws of life, and with a miraculous nicety of artistic skill. Then comes Donatello’s fall, illustrating the genesis of sin from crime, in accordance with the Biblical story of Cain; and this precipitates an examination, not only of the result upon Donatello himself, but of the degree in which others, even the most guiltless, are involved. There is first the reaction upon and inculpation of Miriam, whose glance had confirmed Donatello’s murderous intent; only a glance, yet enough to involve her in the doom of change and separation — of sin in short — which falls upon the Faun. And in Hilda’s case, it is the simple consciousness of another’s guilt, which is “almost the same as if she had participated” in it. The mutual relations of these persons, who are made to represent the whole of society, afford matter for infinite meditation, the artistic and moral abstract of which the author has given.

But with this main theme is joined a very marvellous and intricate study of the psychology of Beatrice Cenci’s story, in a new form. Miriam is a different woman placed in the same circumstances which made the Cenci tragedy. In the “French and Italian Note–Books,” Hawthorne describes the look he caught sight of in Guido’s picture — that “of a being unhumanized by some terrible fate, and gazing out of a remote and inaccessible region, where she was frightened to be alone, but where no human sympathy could reach her.” It was of this single insight that both Miriam and Hilda were born to his mind. He reproduces this description, slightly modified, in the romance (Vol. I. Chap. XXIII.): “It was the intimate consciousness of her father’s guilt that threw its shadow over her, and frightened her into” this region. Now, in the chapter called “Beatrice,” quite early in the story, he brings out between Miriam and Hilda a discussion of Beatrice and her history. It is evident, from the emphasis given by the chapter-title, that this subject is very deeply related to the theme of the romance; and no theory can explain Miriam’s passionate utterances about the copy of Guido’s portrait, except that which supposes her own situation to be that of Beatrice. This chapter is full of the strongest hints of the fact. Miriam’s sudden resemblance to the picture, at the instant when she so yearns to grasp the secret of Beatrice’s view of her own guilt or innocence; her ardent defence of Beatrice’s course, as “the best virtue possible under the circumstances,” when Hilda condemns it; her suggestion that, after all, only a woman could have painted the poor girl’s thoughts upon her face, and that she herself has “a great mind to undertake a copy,” giving it “what it lacks”; — all these things point clearly. But there is a mass of inferential evidence, besides; many veiled allusions and approaches to a revelation, as well as that very marked description of the sketches in which Miriam has portrayed in various moods a “woman acting the part of a revengeful mischief towards man,” and the hint, in the description of her portrait of herself, that “she might ripen to be what Judith was, when she vanquished Holofernes with her beauty, and slew him for too much adoring it.” There is no need to pursue the proof further: readers will easily find it on re-examining the book. But what is most interesting, is to observe how Hawthorne has imagined two women of natures so widely opposed as Hilda and Miriam under a similar pressure of questionable blood-guiltiness. With Miriam, it is a guilt which has for excuse that it was the only resort against an unnatural depravity in Father Antonio. But as if to emphasize the indelibleness of blood-stains, however justly inflicted, we have as a foil to Miriam the white sensitiveness of Hilda’s conscience, which makes her — though perfectly free from even the indirect responsibility of Miriam — believe herself actually infected. In both cases, it is the shadow of crime which weighs upon the soul; but Miriam, in exactly the position of Beatrice Cenci, is a more complex and deep-colored nature than she; and Hilda, differently affected by the same question of conscience, is a vastly spiritualized image of the historic sufferer. Miriam, after the avenging of her nameless wrong, doubts, as Beatrice must have done, whether there be any guilt in such avengement; but being of so different a temperament, and having before her eyes the effect of this murder upon the hitherto sinless Faun, the reality of her responsibility is brought home to her. The clear conscience of Hilda confirms it. Thus by taking two extremes on either side of Beatrice — one, a woman less simply and ethereally organized, and the other one who is only indirectly connected with wrong or crime — Hawthorne seems to extract from the problem of Beatrice all its most subtle significance. He does not coldly condemn Beatrice; but by re-combining the elements of her case, he succeeds in magnifying into startling distinctness the whole awful knot of crime and its consequence, which lies inextricably tangled up within it. How different from Shelley’s use of the theme! There is certainly nothing in the “Marble Faun” to equal the impassioned expression of wrong, and the piercing outcry against the shallow but awful errors of human justice, which uplift Shelley’s drama. But Shelley stops, on the one side, with this climax:—

“O plead
With famine or wind-walking pestilence,
Blind lightning or the deaf sea, not with man!”

And on the side of the moral question, he leaves us with Beatrice’s characterization of the parricide,

“Which is, or is not, what men call a crime.”

Hawthorne, on the contrary, starts from this latter doubt. “The foremost result of a broken law,” he says, “is ever an ecstatic freedom.” But instead of pausing to give this his whole weight, as Shelley does, he distinctly pronounces the murder of Miriam’s degraded father to be crime, and proceeds to inquire how Miriam and Donatello may work out their purification. So that if the first part of the romance is the Fall of Man repeated, the second part is the proem to a new Paradise Regained; and the seclusion of the sculptor and the Faun, and their journey together to Perugia, seasoned with Kenyon’s noble and pure-hearted advice, compose a sort of seven-times-refined Pilgrim’s Progress. Apt culmination of a genius whose relations to Milton and Bunyan we found to be so suggestive! The chief means which Kenyon offers for regeneration is that Miriam and the Faun shall abandon any hope of mutual joy, and consecrate themselves to the alleviation of misery in the world. Having by violence and crime thrust one evil out of life, they are now by patience and benevolence to endeavor to exorcise others. At the same time, remarking that Providence has infinitely varied ways of dealing with any deed, Hawthorne leaves a possibility of happiness for the two penitents, which may become theirs as “a wayside flower, springing along a path that leads to higher ends.” But he also shows, in Donatello’s final delivering of himself up to justice, the wisdom of some definite judgment and perhaps punishment bestowed by society. Thus, avenues of thought are opened to us on every side, which we are at liberty to follow out; but we are not forced, as a mere theorist would compel us, to pursue any particular one to the exclusion of the others. In all we may find our way to some mystic monument of eternal law, or pluck garlands from some new-budded bough of moral truth. The romance is like a portal of ebony inlaid with ivory — another gate of dreams — swinging softly open into regions of illimitable wisdom. But some pause on the threshold, unused to such large liberty; and these cry out, in the words of a well-known critic, “It begins in mystery, and ends in mist.”

Though the book was very successful, few readers grasped the profounder portions. It is a vast exemplar of the author’s consummate charm as a simple storyteller, however, that he exercised a brilliant fascination over all readers, notwithstanding the heavy burden of uncomprehended truths which they were obliged to carry with them. Some critics complain of the extent to which Roman scenery and the artistic life in Rome have been introduced; but, to my mind, there is scarcely a word wasted in the two volumes. The “vague sense of ponderous remembrances” pressing down and crowding out the present moment till “our individual affairs are but half as real here as elsewhere,” is essential to the perspective of the whole; and nothing but this rich picturesqueness and variety could avail to balance the depth of tragedy which has to be encountered; so that the nicety of art is unquestionable. It is strange, indeed, that this great modern religious romance should thus have become also the ideal representative of ruined Rome — the home of ruined religions — in its aesthetic aspects. But one instance of appreciation must be recorded here, as giving the highest pitch of that delightful literary fellowship which Hawthorne seems constantly to have enjoyed in England. His friend John Lothrop Motley, the historian, wrote thus of “The Marble Faun,” from Walton-on-Thames, March 29, 1860:—

“Everything that you have ever written, I believe, I have read many times, and I am particularly vain of having admired ‘Sights from a Steeple,’ when I first read it in the Boston ‘Token,’ several hundred years ago, when we were both younger than we are now; of having detected and cherished, at a later day, an old Apple–Dealer, whom, I believe, you have unhandsomely thrust out of your presence, now that you are grown so great. But the ‘Romance of Monte Beni’ has the additional charm for me, that it is the first book of yours that I have read since I had the privilege of making your personal acquaintance. My memory goes back at once to those walks (alas, not too frequent) we used to take along the Tiber, or in the Campagna; . . . and it is delightful to get hold of the book now, and know that it is impossible for you any longer, after waving your wand as you occasionally did then, indicating where the treasure was hidden, to sink it again beyond plummet’s sound.

“I admire the book exceedingly. . . . It is one which, for the first reading, at least, I didn’t like to hear aloud. . . . If I were composing an article for a review, of course, I should feel obliged to show cause for my admiration; but I am only obeying an impulse. Permit me to say, however, that your style seems, if possible, more perfect than ever. Where, O where is the godmother who gave you to talk pearls and diamonds? . . . Believe me, I don’t say to you half what I say behind your back; and I have said a dozen times that nobody can write English but you. With regard to the story, which has been somewhat criticised, I can only say that to me it is quite satisfactory. I like those shadowy, weird, fantastic, Hawthornesque shapes flitting through the golden gloom, which is the atmosphere of the book. I like the misty way in which the story is indicated rather than revealed; the outlines are quite definite enough from the beginning to the end to those who have imagination enough to follow you in your airy flights; and to those who complain, I suppose that nothing less than an illustrated edition, with a large gallows on the last page, with Donatello in the most pensile of attitudes — his ears revealed through a white nightcap — would be satisfactory. I beg your pardon for such profanation, but it really moves my spleen that people should wish to bring down the volatile figures of your romance to the level of an every-day romance. . . . The way in which the two victims dance through the Carnival on the last day is very striking. It is like a Greek tragedy in its effect, without being in the least Greek.”

To this Hawthorne replied from Bath (April 1, 1860); and Mr. Motley has kindly sent me a copy of the letter.

MY DEAR MOTLEY:— You are certainly that Gentle Reader for whom all my books were exclusively written. Nobody else (my wife excepted, who speaks so near me that I cannot tell her voice from my own) has ever said exactly what I loved to hear. It is most satisfactory to be hit upon the raw, to be shot straight through the heart. It is not the quantity of your praise that I care so much about (though I gather it all up most carefully, lavish as you are of it), but the kind, for you take the book precisely as I meant it; and if your note had come a few days sooner, I believe I would have printed it in a postscript which I have added to the second edition, because it explains better than I found possible to do the way in which my romance ought to be taken. . . . Now don’t suppose that I fancy the book to be a tenth part as good as you say it is. You work out my imperfect efforts, and half make the book with your warm imagination; and see what I myself saw, but could only hint at. Well, the romance is a success, even if it never finds another reader.

We spent the winter in Leamington, whither we had come from the sea-coast in October. I am sorry to say that it was another winter of sorrow and anxiety. . . . [The allusion here is to illness in the family, of which there had also been a protracted case in Rome]. I have engaged our passages for June 16th. . . . Mrs. Hawthorne and the children will probably remain in Bath till the eve of our departure; but I intend to pay one more visit of a week or two to London, and shall certainly come and see you. I wonder at your lack of recognition of my social propensities. I take so much delight in my friends, that a little intercourse goes a great way, and illuminates my life before and after. . . .

Your friend,

NATH. HAWTHORNE.

These seven years in Europe formed, outwardly, the most opulently happy part of Hawthorne’s life. Before he left America, although he had been writing — with several interruptions — for twenty-four years, he had only just reached a meagre prosperity. I have touched upon the petty clamor which his Custom–House pictures aroused, and the offensive political attacks following the Life of Pierce. These disagreeables, scattered along the way, added to the weary delay that had attended his first efforts, made the enthusiastic personal welcome with which he everywhere met in England, and the charm of highly organized society, with its powerful artistic classes centred upon great capitals there and in Italy, a very captivating contrast. Still there were drawbacks. The most serious one was the change in the consular service made during his term at Liverpool. The consulate there was considered the most lucrative post in the President’s gift, at the time of his appointment. But, to begin with, Pierce allowed the previous incumbent to resign prospectively, so that Hawthorne lost entirely the first five months of his tenure. These were very valuable months, and after the new consul came into office the dull season set in, reducing his fees materially. Business continued bad so long, that even up to 1855 little more than a living could be made in the consulate. In February of that year a bill was passed by Congress, remodelling the diplomatic and consular system, and fixing the salary of the Liverpool consul at $7,500 — less than half the amount of the best annual income from it before that time. The position was one of importance, and involved an expensive mode of life; so that even before this bill went into operation, though practising “as stern an economy,” he wrote home, “as ever I did in my life,” Hawthorne could save but little; and the effect of it would have been not only to prevent his accomplishing what he took the office for, but even to have imposed loss upon him. For, in addition to social demands, the mere necessary office expenses (including the pay of three clerks) were very large, amounting to some thousands yearly; and the needs of unfortunate fellow-citizens, to whom Hawthorne could not bring himself to be indifferent, carried off a good portion of his income. As he says, “If the government chooses to starve the consul, a good many will starve with him.” The most irritating thing about the new law was that it merely cut down the consular fees, without bringing the government anything; for the fees came from business that a notary-public could perform, and the consul would naturally decline to take it upon himself when his interest in it was removed. Fortunately, the President was given some discretion about the date of reappointment, and allowed the old commission to continue for a time. Meanwhile, Hawthorne was obliged, in anticipation of the new rule, to alter his mode of life materially. He now planned to give up the place in the autumn of 1855, and go to Italy; but this was not carried out till two years later.

Italy charmed him wholly, and he longed to make it his home. There had not been want of unjust criticism of him in America, while at Liverpool. When some shipwrecked steamer passengers were thrown upon his hands, for whom he provided extra-officially, on Mr. Buchanan’s (then minister) refusing to have anything to do with the matter, a newspaper rumor was started at home that Mr. Hawthorne would do nothing for them until ordered to by Mr. Buchanan.

“It sickens me,” he wrote at that time, “to look back to America. I am sick to death of the continual fuss and tumult and excitement and bad blood which we keep up about political topics. If it were not for my children, I should probably never return.”

And on the eve of sailing, he wrote to another friend:—

“I shall go home, I fear, with a heavy heart, not expecting to be very well contented there.”

But his sense of duty, stronger than that of many Americans under similar circumstances, was rigorously obeyed. We shall see what sort of reward this fidelity to country won from public opinion at home.

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