The Life and Genius of Nathaniel Hawthorne, by Frank Stearns

Chapter 9

“MOSSES PROM AN OLD MANSE”: 1845

There is no evidence in the Hawthorne documents or publications to show exactly when the first edition of “Mosses from an Old Manse” made its appearance, and copies of it are now exceedingly rare, but we find the Hawthorne family in Salem reading the book in the autumn of 1845, so that it was probably brought out at that time and helped to maintain its author during his last days at Concord.

There must have been some magical influence in the Old Manse or in its surrounding scenery, to have stimulated both Emerson’s and Hawthorne’s love of Nature to such a degree. Emerson’s eye dilates as he looks upon the sunshine gilding the trunks of the balm of Gilead trees on his avenue; and Hawthorne dwells with equal delight on the luxuriant squash vines which spread over his vegetable garden. Discoursing on this he says:

“Speaking of summer squashes, I must say a word of their beautiful and varied forms. They presented an endless diversity of urns and vases, shallow or deep, scalloped or plain, molded in patterns which a sculptor would do well to copy, since art has never invented anything more graceful.”

And again:

“A cabbage, too — especially the early Dutch cabbage, which swells to a monstrous circumference, until its ambitious heart often bursts asunder — is a matter to be proud of when we can claim a share with the earth and sky in producing it.”

It would seem as if no one before Hawthorne had rightly observed these common vegetables, whose external appearance is always before our eyes. He not only humanizes whatever attracts his attention, but he looks through a refining medium of his own personality. He has the gift of Midas to bring back the Golden Age for us. Who besides Homer has been able to describe a chariot-race, and who but Hawthorne could extract such poetry from a farmer’s garden?

If we compare this introductory chapter with such earlier sketches as “The Vision at the Fountain” and “The Toll–Gatherer’s Day,” we recognize the progress that Hawthorne has made since the first volume of “Twice Told Tales.” We are no longer reminded of the plain unpainted house on Lake Sebago. His style is not only more graceful, but has acquired greater fulness of expression, and he is evidently working in a deeper and richer vein of thought. Purity of expression is still his polar star, and his writing is nowhere overloaded, but it has a warmer tone, a deeper perspective, and an atmospheric quality which painters call chi-aroscuro. He charms with pleasing fancies, while he penetrates to the soul.

Hawthorne rarely repeats himself in details, and never in designs. Two of Dickens’s most interesting novels, “Oliver Twist” and “David Copperfield,” are constructed on the same theme, but each of the studies in this collection has a distinct individuality which appeals to the reader after a fashion of its own. Each has its moral, or rather central, idea to which all its component parts are related, and teaches a lesson of its own, so unobtrusively that we become possessed of it almost unawares. Some are intensely, even tragically, serious; others so light and airy that they seem as if woven out of gossamer.

There are a few, however, that do not harmonize with the general tone and character of the rest — especially “Mrs. Bull–Frog,” which Hawthorne himself confessed to having been an experiment, and which strangely enough is much more in the style of his son Julian. “Monsieur du Miroir” and “Sketches from Memory” are relics of his earlier writings; perhaps also “Feather–Top” and “The Procession of Life.” It would have been better perhaps if “Young Goodman Brown” had been used to light a fire at the Old Manse.

“Monsieur du Miroir” is chiefly interesting as an example of Hawthorne’s faculty for elaborating the most simple subject until every possible phase of it has been exhausted. It may also throw some light scientifically on the origin of consciousness. We see ourselves reflected not only in the mirror, but on the blade of a knife, or a puddle in the road; and, if we look sharply enough, in the eyes of other men — even in the expression of their faces. In such manner does Nature force upon us a recognition of our various personalities — the nucleus of self-knowledge, and self-respect.

Whittier once spoke of “Young Goodman Brown” as indicating a mental peculiarity in Hawthorne, which like the cuttle-fish rarely rises to the surface. The plot is cynical, and largely enigmatical. The very name of it (in the way Hawthorne develops the story) is a fearful satire on human nature. He may have intended this for an exposure of the inconsistency, and consequent hypocrisy, of Puritanism; but the name of Goodman Brown’s wife is Faith, and this suggests that Brown may have been himself intended for an incarnation of doubt, or disbelief carried to a logical extreme. Whatever may have been Hawthorne’s design, the effect is decidedly unpleasant.

Emerson talked in proverbs, and Hawthorne in parables. The finest sketches in this collection are parables. “The Birth Mark,” “Rappacini’s Daughter,” “A Select Party,” “Egotism,” and “The Artist of the Beautiful.” “The Celestial Railroad” is an allegory, a variation on “Pilgrim’s Progress.”

“The Birth Mark” and “Rappacini’s Daughter” are like divergent lines, which originate at an single point; and that point is the radical viciousness of trying experiments on human beings. It is bad enough, although excusable, to vivisect dogs and rabbits; but why should we attempt the same course of procedure with those that are nearest and dearest to us? Such parables were not required in the time of Tiberius Cæsar and men and women grew up in a natural, vigorous manner; but now we have become so scientific that we continually attempt to improve on Nature — like the artist who left the rainbow out of his picture of Niagara because its colors did not harmonize with the background.

The line of divergence in “The Birth Mark” is indicated by its name. We all have our birth-marks — traits of character, which may be temporarily suppressed, or relegated to the background, but which cannot be eradicated and are certain to reappear at unguarded moments, or on exceptional occasions. Education and culture can do much to soften and temper the disposition, but the original material remains the same. The father who attempts to force his son into a mode of life for which Nature did not intend him, or the mother who quarrels with her daughter’s friends, commits an error similar to that of Hawthorne’s alchemist, who endeavors to remove the birthmark from the otherwise beautiful face of his wife, but only succeeds in effecting this together with her death. The tragical termination of the alchemist’s experiments, the pathetic yielding up of life by his sweet “Clytie,” is described with an impressive tenderness. She sinks to her last sleep without a murmur of reproach.

“Rappacini’s Daughter” might serve as a protest against bringing up children in an exceptional and abnormal manner. I once knew an excellent lady, who, with the best possible intentions, brought up her daughter to be different from all other girls. As a consequence, she was different — could not assimilate herself to others. She had no admirers, or young friends of her own sex, for there were few points of contact between herself and general society. Her mother was her only friend. She aged rapidly and died early. Similarly, a boy brought up in a secluded condition of purity and ignorance, finally developed into one of the most vicious of men.

Hawthorne has prefigured this by a bright colored flower which sparkles like a gem, very attractive at a distance, but exhaling a deadly perfume. He may not have been aware that the opium poppy has so brilliant a flower that it can be seen at a distance from which all other flowers are invisible. The scene of his story is placed in Italy — the land of beauty, but also the country of poisoners. Rappacini, an old botanist and necromancer, has trained up his daughter in the solitary companionship of this flower, from which she has acquired its peculiar properties. A handsome young student is induced to enter the garden, partly from curiosity and partly through the legerdemain of Rappacini. The student soon falls under the daughter’s influence and finds himself being gradually poisoned. A watchful apothecary, who has penetrated the necromancer’s secret, provides the young man with an antidote which saves him, but deprives the maiden of life. She crosses the barrier which separated her from a healthy existence, and the poison reacts upon her system and kills her. The old apothecary looks out from his window, and cries, “O Rappacini! Is this the consummation of your experiment?”

The underlying agreement between this story and “The Birth Mark” becomes apparent when we observe that the termination of one is simply a variation upon the last scene of the other. In one instance a beautiful daughter is sacrificed by her father, and in the other a lovely wife is victimized by her husband. There have been thousands, if not millions, of such cases.

There is no other writer but Shakespeare who has portrayed the absolute devotion of a woman’s love with such delicacy of feeling and depth of sympathy as Hawthorne. In the two stories we have just considered, and also in “The Bosom Serpent,” this element serves, like the refrain of a Greek chorus, to give a sweet, penetrating undertone which reconciles us to much that would otherwise seem intolerable. The heroines in these pieces have such a close spiritual relationship that one suspects them of having been studied from the same model, and who could this have been so likely as Hawthorne’s own wife. 70

The theme of “The Bosom Serpent” is a husband’s jealousy; and it is the self-forgetful devotion of his wife that finally cures his malady and relieves him of his unpleasant companion. The tale ends with one of those mystifying passages which Hawthorne weaves so skilfully, so that it is difficult to determine from the text whether there was a real serpent secreted under the man’s clothing, or only an imaginary one — although we presume the latter. Francis of Verulam says, “the best fortune for a husband is for his wife to consider him wise, which she will never do if she find him jealous”; and with good reason, for if he is unreasonably jealous, it shows a lack of confidence in her; but mutal confidence is the well-spring from which love flows, and if the well dries up, there is an end of it.

“The Select Party” is quite a relief, after this tragical trilogy. It is easy to believe that Hawthorne imagined this dream of a summer evening, while watching the great cumulus clouds, tinted with rose and lavender like aerial snow-mountains, floating toward the horizon. Here were true castles in the air, which he could people with shapes according to his fancy; but he chose the most common abstract conceptions, such as, the Clerk of the Weather, the Beau Ideal, Mr. So-they-say, the Coming Man, and other ubiquitous personages, whom we continually hear of, but never see. The Man of Fancy invites these and many others to a banquet in his cloud-castle, where they all converse and behave according to their special characters. A ripple of delicate humor, like the ripple made by a light summer breeze upon the calm surface of a lake, runs through the piece from the first sentence to the last; and the scene is brought to a close by the approach of a thunder-storm, which spreads consternation among these unsubstantial guests, much like that which takes place at a picnic under similar circumstances; and Hawthorne, with his customary mystification, leaves us in doubt as to whether they ever reached terra firma again.

There is one proverbial character, however, whom Hawthorne has omitted from this account; namely, Mr. Everybody. “What Everybody says, must be true;” but unfortunately Everybody’s information is none of the best, and his judgment does not rise above his information. His self-confidence, however, is enormous. He understands law better than the lawyer, and medicine better than the physicians. He is never tired of settling the affairs of the country, and of proposing constitutional amendments. Is it not perfectly natural that Everybody should understand Everybody’s business as well as or better than his own? He is continually predicting future events, and if they fail to take place he predicts them again. He is omnipresent, but if you seek him he is nowhere to be found — which we may presume to be the reason why he did not appear at the entertainment given by the Man of Fancy.

That which gives the elevated character to Raphael’s faces — as in the “Sistine Madonna” and other paintings — is not their drawing, though that is always refined, but the expression of the eyes, which are truly the windows of the soul. It was the same in Hawthorne’s face, and may be observed in all good portraits of him. An immutable calmness overspread his features, but in and about his eyes there was a spring-like mirthfulness; while down in the shadowy depth of those luminous orbs was concealed the pathos that formed the undercurrent of his life. So it is that high comedy, as Plato long ago observed, lies very close to tragedy.

A well-known French writer compares English humor, in a general way, to beer-drinking, and this is more particularly applicable to Dickens’s characters. The very name of Mark Tapley suggests ale bottles. Thackeray’s humor is of a more refined quality, but a trifle sharp and satirical. It is, however, pure and healthful and might be compared to Rhine-wine. Hawthorne’s humor at its best is more refined than Thackeray’s, as well as of a more amiable quality, and reminds one (on Taine’s principle) of those delicate Italian wines which have very little body, but a delightful bouquet. As a humorist, however, Hawthorne varies in different times and places more than in any other respect. He adapts himself to his subject; is light and playful in “The Select Party”; takes on a more serious vein in “The Celestial Railroad”; in his resuscitation of Byron, in the letter from a lunatic called “P’s Correspondence” he is simply sardonic; and “The Virtuoso’s Collection” has all the effect, although he does not anywhere descend to low comedy, of a roaring farce. In “Mrs. Bull–Frog,” as the title intimates, he approaches closely to the grotesque.

In “The Virtuoso’s Collection” we have the humor of impossibility. Nothing is more common than this, but Hawthorne gives it a peculiar value of his own. A procession of mythological objects, strange historical relics, and the odd creations of fiction passes before our eyes. The abruptness of their juxtaposition excites continuous laughter in us. It would be an extremely phlegmatic person who could read it with a serious face. Don Quixote’s Rosinante, Doctor Johnson’s cat, Shelley’s skylark, a live phœnix, Prospero’s magic wand, the hard-ridden Pegasus, the dove which brought the olive branch, and many others appear in such rapid succession that the reader has no time to take breath, or to consider what will turn up next. Like an accomplished showman, Hawthorne enlivens the performance here and there with original reflections on life, which are perfectly dignified, but become humorous from contrast with their surroundings. In spite of its comical effect, the piece has a very genteel air, for its material is taken from that general stock of information that passes current in cultivated families. The young man of fashion who had never heard of Elijah, or of Poe’s “Raven,” would not have understood it.

In “The Hall of Fantasy,” we catch some glimpses of Hawthorne’s favorite authors:

“The grand old countenance of Homer, the shrunken and decrepit form, but vivid face, of Æsop, the dark presence of Dante, the wild Ariosto, Rabelais’s smile of deep-wrought mirth, the profound, pathetic humor of Cervantes, the all glorious Shakespeare, Spenser, meet guest for an allegoric structure, the severe divinity of Milton and Bunyan, molded of the homeliest clay, but instinct with celestial fire — were those that chiefly attracted my eye. Fielding, Richardson, and Scott occupied conspicuous pedestals.”

He also adds Goethe and Swedenborg, and remarks of them:

“Were ever two men of transcendent imagination more unlike?”

It is evident that Byron was not a favorite with Hawthorne. In addition to his severe treatment of that poet, in “P’s Correspondence,” he says in “Earth’s Holocaust,” where he imagines the works of various authors to be consumed in a bonfire:

“Speaking of the properties of flame, me-thought Shelley’s poetry emitted a purer light than almost any other productions of his day, contrasting beautifully with the fitful and lurid gleams and gushes of black vapor that flashed and eddied from the volumes of Lord Byron.”

This seems like rather puritanical treatment. If there are false lines in Byron, there are quite as many weak lines in Shelley. If sincerity were to give out a pure flame, Byron would stand that test equal to any. His real fault is to be found in his somewhat glaring diction, like the voix blanc in singing, and in an occasional stroke of persiflage. This increases his attractiveness to youthful minds, but to a nature like Hawthorne’s anything of an exhibitory character must always be unpleasant.

Emerson and Hawthorne only knew Goethe through the translations of Dwight, Carlyle and Margaret Fuller, and yet his poetry made a deeper impression on them than on Lowell and Longfellow, who read it in the original. Hawthorne appears to have taken lessons in German while at Brook Farm, for we find him studying a German book at the Old Manse, with a grammar and lexicon; but, as he confesses in his diary, without making satisfactory progress.

“The Artist of the Beautiful” is a Dantean allegory, and a poetic gem. A young watchmaker, imbued with a spirit above his calling, neglects the profits of his business in order to construct an artificial butterfly — at once the type of useless beauty and the symbol of immortality, and he perseveres in spite of the difficulties of the undertaking and the contemptuous opposition of his acquaintances. He finally succeeds in making one which seems to be almost endowed with life, but only to be informed that it is no better than a toy, and that he has wasted his time on a thing which has no practical value. A child (who represents the thoughtlessness of the great world) crushes the exquisite piece of workmanship in his little hand; but the watch-maker does not repine at this, for he realizes that after having achieved the beautiful, in his own spirit, the outward symbol of it has comparatively little value. The Artist of the Beautiful is Hawthorne himself; and in this exquisite fable he has not only unfolded the secret of all high art, but his own life-secret as well.

Hawthorne and Transcendentalism

The French and English scepticism of the eighteenth century, produced a reaction in the more contemplative German nature, which took the form of a strong assertion of spirit or mind as an entity in itself, and distinct from matter. This movement was more like a national impulse than the proselytism of a sect, but the individual in whom this spiritual impulse of the German people manifested itself at that time was Immanuel Kant. Without discrediting the revelations of Hebrew tradition, he taught the doctrine that instead of looking for evidence of a Supreme Being in the external world, we should seek him in our own hearts; that every man could find a revelation in his own conscience — in the consciousness of good and evil, by which man improves his condition on earth; that the ideas of a Supreme Being, or of immortality and freedom of will, are inherent in the human mind, and are not to be acquired from experience; but that, as the finite mind cannot comprehend the infinite, we cannot know God in the same sense that we know our own earthly fathers, or as Goethe afterwards expressed it — —

“Who can say I know Him;
Who can say, I know Him not;”

70 Notice also the similar character of Sophia in J. Hawthorne’s “Bressant.”

and that it is in this aspiration for the unattainable, in this reverence for absolute purity, wisdom and love, that the spirit of true religion consists.

The new philosophy was named “Transcendentalism” by Kant’s followers, because it included ideas which were beyond the range of experience. It became popular in Germany, as Platonism, to which it is closely related, became popular in ancient Greece. It has never been accepted in France, where scepticism still predominates, though we hear of it in Taine and a few other writers; but in Great Britain, although the English universities repudiated it, Transcendentalism became so influential that Gladstone has spoken of it, in his Romanes lecture, as the dominant philosophy of the nineteenth century. Every notable English writer of that period, with the exception of Macaulay, Mill, and Spencer, became largely imbued with it. In America its influence did not extend much beyond New England, but in that section at least its proselytes were numbered by thousands, and it effected an intellectual revolution which has since influenced the whole country.

The Concord group of transcendentalists did not accept the teaching of Kant in its original purity; but mixed with it a number of other imported products, that in no way appertain to it. Thoreau was an American sansculotte, a believer in the natural man; Ripley was mainly a socialist; Margaret Fuller was one of the earliest leaders in woman’s rights; Alcott was a Neo–Platonist, a vegetarian, and a non-resistant; while Emerson sympathized largely with Thoreau, and from his poetic exaltation of Nature was looked upon as a pantheist by those who were not accustomed to nice discriminations. Thus it happened that Transcendentalism came to be associated in the public mind with any exceptional mode or theory of life. Its best representatives in America, like Professor Hedge of Harvard, Reverend David A. Wasson and Doctor William T. Harris (so long Chief of the National Bureau of Education), were much abler men than Emerson’s followers, but did not attract so much attention, simply because they lived according to the customs of good society.

Sleepy Hollow, before it was converted into a cemetery, was one of the most attractive sylvan resorts in the environs of Concord. It was a sort of natural amphitheatre, a small oval plane, more than half surrounded by a low wooded ridge; a sheltered and sequestered spot, cool in summer, but also warm and sunny in spring, where the wild flowers bloomed and the birds sang earlier than in other places.

There, on August 22, 1842, a notable meeting took place, between Hawthorne, Emerson, and Margaret Fuller, who came that afternoon to enjoy the inspiration of the place, without preconcerted agreement. Margaret Fuller was first on the ground, and Hawthorne found her seated on the hill-side — his gravestone now overlooks the spot — reading a book with a peculiar name, which he “did not understand, and could not afterward recollect.” Such a description could only apply to Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason,” the original fountain-head and gospel of Transcendentalism.

It does not appear that Nathaniel Hawthorne ever studied “The Critique of Pure Reason.” His mind was wholly of the artistic order — the most perfect type of an artist, one might say, living at that time — and a scientific analysis of the mental faculties would have been as distasteful to him as the dissection of a human body. History, biography, fiction, did not appear to him as a logical chain of cause and effect, but as a succession of pictures illustrating an ideal determination of the human race. He could not even look at a group of turkeys without seeing a dramatic situation in them. In addition to this, as a true artist, he was possessed of a strong dislike for everything eccentric and abnormal; he wished for symmetry in all things, and above all in human actions; and those restless, unbalanced spirits, who attached themselves to the transcendental movement and the anti-slavery cause, were particularly objectionable to him. It has been rightly affirmed that no revolutionary movement could be carried through without the support of that ill-regulated class of persons who are always seeking they know not what, and they have their value in the community, like the rest of us; but Hawthorne was not a revolutionary character, and to his mind they appeared like so many obstacles to the peaceable enjoyment of life. His motto was, “Live and let live.” There are passages in his Concord diary in which he refers to the itinerant transcendentalist in no very sympathetic manner.

His experience at Brook Farm may have helped to deepen this feeling. There is no necessary connection between such an idyllic-socialistic experiment and a belief in the direct perception of a great First Clause; but Brook Farm was popularly supposed at that time to be an emanation of Transcendentalism, and is still largely so considered. He was wearied at Brook Farm by the philosophical discussions of George Ripley and his friends, and took to walking in the country lanes, where he could contemplate and philosophize in his own fashion — which after all proved to be more fruitful than theirs. Having exchanged his interest in the West Roxbury Association for the Old Manse at Concord (truly a poetic bargain), he wrote the most keenly humorous of his shorter sketches, his “The Celestial Railroad,” and in it represented the dismal cavern where Bunyan located the two great enemies of true religion, the Pope and the Pagan, as now occupied by a German giant, the Transcendentalist, who “makes it his business to seize upon honest travellers and fat them for his table with plentiful meals of smoke, mist, moonshine, raw potatoes, and sawdust.”

That Transcendentalism was largely associated in Hawthorne’s mind with the unnecessary discomforts and hardships of his West Roxbury life is evident from a remark which he lets fall in “The Virtuoso’s Collection.” The Virtuoso calls his attention to the seven-league boots of childhood mythology, and Hawthorne replies, “I could show you quite as curious a pair of cowhide boots at the transcendental community of Brook Farm.” Yet there could have been no malice in his satire, for Mrs. Hawthorne’s two sisters, Mrs. Mann and Miss Peabody, were both transcendentalists; and so was Horace Mann himself, so far as we know definitely in regard to his metaphysical creed. Do not we all feel at times that the search for abstract truth is like a diet of sawdust or Scotch mist — a “chimera buzzing in a vacuum”?

James Russell Lowell similarly attacked Emerson in his Class Day poem, and afterward became converted to Emerson’s views through the influence of Maria White. It is possible that a similar change took place in Hawthorne’s consciousness; although his consciousness was so profound and his nature so reticent that what happened in the depths of it was never indicated by more than a few bubbles at the surface. He was emphatically an idealist, as every truly great artist must be, and Transcendentalism was the local costume which ideality wore in Hawthorne’s time. He was a philosopher after a way of his own, and his reflections on life and manners often have the highest value. It was inevitable that he should feel and assimilate something from the wave of German thought which was sweeping over England and America, and if he did this unconsciously it was so much the better for the quality of his art.

There are evidences of this even among his earliest sketches. In his account of “Sunday at Home” he says: “Time — where a man lives not — what is it but Eternity?” Does he not recognize in this condensed statement Kant’s theorem that time is a mental condition, which only exists in man, and for man, and has no place in the external world? In fact, it only exists by divisions of time, and it is man who makes the divisions. The rising of the sun does not constitute time; for the sun is always rising — somewhere. The positivists and Herbert Spencer deny this, and argue to prove that time is an external entity — independent of man — like electricity; but Hawthorne did not agree with them. He evidently trusted the validity of his consciousness. In that exquisite pastoral, “The Vision at the Fountain,” he says:

“We were aware of each other’s presence, not by sight or sound or touch, but by an inward consciousness. Would it not be so among the dead?”

You have probably heard of the German who attempted to evolve a camel out of his inner consciousness. That and similar jibes are common among those persons of whom the Scriptures tell us that they are in the habit of straining at gnats; but Hawthorne believed consciousness to be a trustworthy guide. Why should he not? It was the consciousness of self that raised man above the level of the brute. This was the rock from which Moses struck forth the fountain of everlasting life.

Again, in “Fancy’s Show–Box” we meet with the following:

“Or, while none but crimes perpetrated are cognizable before an earthly tribunal, will guilty thoughts — of which guilty deeds are no more than shadows — will these draw down the full weight of a condemning sentence in the supreme court of eternity?”

Is this not an induction from or corollary to the preceding? If it is not Kantian philosophy, it is certainly Goethean. Margaret Fuller was the first American critic, if not the first of all critics, to point out that Goethe in writing “Elective Affinities” designed to show that an evil thought may have consequences as serious and irremediable as an evil action — in addition to the well-known homily that evil thoughts lead to evil actions. In his “Hall of Fantasy” Hawthorne mentions Goethe and Swedenborg as two literary idols of the present time who may be expected to endure through all time. Emerson makes the same prediction in one of his poems.

In “Rappacini’s Daughter” Hawthorne says: “There is something truer and more real than what we can see with the eyes and touch with the finger.”

And in “The Select Party” he remarks: “To such beholders it was unreal because they lacked the imaginative faith. Had they been worthy to pass within its portals, they would have recognized the truth that the dominions which the spirit conquers for itself among unrealities become a thousand times more real than the earth whereon they stamp their feet, saying, ‘This is solid and substantial! This may be called a fact!’”

The essence of Transcendentalism is the assertion of the indestructibility of spirit, that mind is more real than matter, and the unseen than the seen. “The visible has value only,” says Carlyle, “when it is based on the invisible.” No writer of the nineteenth century affirms this more persistently than Hawthorne, and in none of his romances is the principle so conspicuous as in “The House of the Seven Gables.” It is a sister’s love which, like a cord stronger than steel, binds together the various incidents of the story, while the avaricious Judge Pyncheon, “with his landed estate, public honors, offices of trust and other solid unrealities,” has after all only succeeded in building a card castle for himself, which may be dissipated by a single breath. Holgrave, the daguerreotypist, who serves as a contrast to the factitious judge, is a genuine character, and may stand for a type of the young New England liberal of 1850: a freethinker, and so much of a transcendentalist that we suspect Hawthorne’s model for him to have been one of the younger associates of the Brook Farm experiment. He is evidently studied from life, and Hawthorne says of him:

“Altogether, in his culture and want of culture, in his crude, wild, and misty philosophy, and the practical experience that counteracted some of its tendencies; in his magnanimous zeal for man’s welfare, and his recklessness of whatever the ages had established in man’s behalf; in his faith, and in his infidelity; in what he had, and in what he lacked, the artist might fitly enough stand forth as the representative of many compeers in his native land.”

This is a fairly sympathetic portrait, and it largely represents the class of young men who went to hear Emerson and supported Charles Sumner. In the story, Holgrave achieves the reward of a veracious nature by winning the heart of the purest and loveliest young woman in American fiction.

If Hawthorne were still living he might object to the foregoing argument as a misrepresentation; nor could he be blamed for this, for Ripley, Thoreau, Alcott and other like visionary spirits have so vitiated the significance of Transcendentalism that it ought now to be classed among words of doubtful and uncertain meaning.

Students of German philosophy are now chiefly known as Kantists or Hegelians, and outside of the universities they are commonly classed as Emersonians.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hawthorne/nathaniel/stearns/chapter9.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38