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Ch. 2 - Early Manhood

The twelve years that followed were not the happiest or most brilliant
phase of Hawthorne's life; they strike me indeed as having had an
altogether peculiar dreariness. They had their uses; they were the
period of incubation of the admirable compositions which eventually
brought him reputation and prosperity. But of their actual aridity the
young man must have had a painful consciousness; he never lost the
impression of it. Mr. Lathrop quotes a phrase to this effect from one
of his letters, late in life. "I am disposed to thank God for the
gloom and chill of my early life, in the hope that my share of
adversity came then, when I bore it alone." And the same writer
alludes to a touching passage in the English Note-Books, which I shall
quote entire:--

"I think I have been happier this Christmas (1854) than ever
before--by my own fireside, and with my wife and children
about me--more content to enjoy what I have, less anxious
for anything beyond it, in this life. My early life was
perhaps a good preparation for the declining half of life;
it having been such a blank that any thereafter would
compare favourably with it. For a long, long while, I have
occasionally been visited with a singular dream; and I have
an impression that I have dreamed it ever since I have been
in England. It is, that I am still at college, or,
sometimes, even, at school--and there is a sense that I have
been there unconscionably long, and have quite failed to
make such progress as my contemporaries have done; and I
seem to meet some of them with a feeling of shame and
depression that broods over me as I think of it, even when
awake. This dream, recurring all through these twenty or
thirty years, must be one of the effects of that heavy
seclusion in which I shut myself up for twelve years after
leaving college, when everybody moved onward and left me
behind. How strange that it should come now, when I may call
myself famous and prosperous!--when I am happy too."

The allusion here is to a state of solitude which was the young man's
positive choice at the time--or into which he drifted at least under
the pressure of his natural shyness and reserve. He was not expansive,
he was not addicted to experiments and adventures of intercourse, he
was not, personally, in a word, what is called sociable. The general
impression of this silence-loving and shade-seeking side of his
character is doubtless exaggerated, and, in so far as it points to him
as a sombre and sinister figure, is almost ludicrously at fault. He
was silent, diffident, more inclined to hesitate, to watch and wait
and meditate, than to produce himself, and fonder, on almost any
occasion, of being absent than of being present. This quality betrays
itself in all his writings. There is in all of them something cold and
light and thin, something belonging to the imagination alone, which
indicates a man but little disposed to multiply his relations, his
points of contact, with society. If we read the six volumes of
Note-Books with an eye to the evidence of this unsocial side of his
life, we find it in sufficient abundance. But we find at the same time
that there was nothing unamiable or invidious in his shyness, and
above all that there was nothing preponderantly gloomy. The qualities
to which the Note-Books most testify are, on the whole, his serenity
and amenity of mind. They reveal these characteristics indeed in an
almost phenomenal degree. The serenity, the simplicity, seem in
certain portions almost child-like; of brilliant gaiety, of high
spirits, there is little; but the placidity and evenness of temper,
the cheerful and contented view of the things he notes, never belie
themselves. I know not what else he may have written in this copious
record, and what passages of gloom and melancholy may have been
suppressed; but as his Diaries stand, they offer in a remarkable
degree the reflection of a mind whose development was not in the
direction of sadness. A very clever French critic, whose fancy is
often more lively than his observation is deep, M. Emile Montégut,
writing in the _Revue des Deux Mondes_, in the year 1860, invents for
our author the appellation of "Un Romancier Pessimiste." Superficially
speaking, perhaps, the title is a happy one; but only superficially.
Pessimism consists in having morbid and bitter views and theories
about human nature; not in indulging in shadowy fancies and conceits.
There is nothing whatever to show that Hawthorne had any such
doctrines or convictions; certainly, the note of depression, of
despair, of the disposition to undervalue the human race, is never
sounded in his Diaries. These volumes contain the record of very few
convictions or theories of any kind; they move with curious evenness,
with a charming, graceful flow, on a level which lies above that of a
man's philosophy. They adhere with such persistence to this upper
level that they prompt the reader to believe that Hawthorne had no
appreciable philosophy at all--no general views that were, in the
least uncomfortable. They are the exhibition of an unperplexed
intellect. I said just now that the development of Hawthorne's mind
was not towards sadness; and I should be inclined to go still further,
and say that his mind proper--his mind in so far as it was a
repository of opinions and articles of faith--had no development that
it is of especial importance to look into. What had a development was
his imagination--that delicate and penetrating imagination which was
always at play, always entertaining itself, always engaged in a game
of hide and seek in the region in which it seemed to him, that the
game could best be played--among the shadows and substructions, the
dark-based pillars and supports, of our moral nature. Beneath this
movement and ripple of his imagination--as free and spontaneous as
that of the sea surface--lay directly his personal affections. These
were solid and strong, but, according to my impression, they had the
place very much to themselves.

His innocent reserve, then, and his exaggerated, but by no means
cynical, relish for solitude, imposed themselves upon him, in a great
measure, with a persistency which helped to make the time a tolerably
arid one--so arid a one indeed that we have seen that in the light of
later happiness he pronounced it a blank. But in truth, if these were
dull years, it was not all Hawthorne's fault. His situation was
intrinsically poor--poor with a poverty that one almost hesitates to
look into. When we think of what the conditions of intellectual life,
of taste, must have been in a small New England town fifty years ago;
and when we think of a young man of beautiful genius, with a love of
literature and romance, of the picturesque, of style and form and
colour, trying to make a career for himself in the midst of them,
compassion for the young man becomes our dominant sentiment, and we
see the large dry village picture in perhaps almost too hard a light.
It seems to me then that it was possibly a blessing for Hawthorne that
he was not expansive and inquisitive, that he lived much to himself
and asked but little of his _milieu_. If he had been exacting and
ambitious, if his appetite had been large and his knowledge various,
he would probably have found the bounds of Salem intolerably narrow.
But his culture had been of a simple sort--there was little of any
other sort to be obtained in America in those days, and though he was
doubtless haunted by visions of more suggestive opportunities, we may
safely assume that he was not to his own perception the object of
compassion that he appears to a critic who judges him after half a
century's civilization has filtered into the twilight of that earlier
time. If New England was socially a very small place in those days,
Salem was a still smaller one; and if the American tone at large was
intensely provincial, that of New England was not greatly helped by
having the best of it. The state of things was extremely natural, and
there could be now no greater mistake than to speak of it with a
redundancy of irony. American life had begun to constitute itself from
the foundations; it had begun to _be_, simply; it was at an
immeasurable distance from having begun to enjoy. I imagine there was
no appreciable group of people in New England at that time proposing
to itself to enjoy life; this was not an undertaking for which any
provision had been made, or to which any encouragement was offered.
Hawthorne must have vaguely entertained some such design upon destiny;
but he must have felt that his success would have to depend wholly
upon his own ingenuity. I say he must have proposed to himself to
enjoy, simply because he proposed to be an artist, and because this
enters inevitably into the artist's scheme. There are a thousand ways
of enjoying life, and that of the artist is one of the most innocent.
But for all that, it connects itself with the idea of pleasure. He
proposes to give pleasure, and to give it he must first get it. Where
he gets it will depend upon circumstances, and circumstances were not
encouraging to Hawthorne.

He was poor, he was solitary, and he undertook to devote himself to
literature in a community in which the interest in literature was as
yet of the smallest. It is not too much to say that even to the
present day it is a considerable discomfort in the United States not
to be "in business." The young man who attempts to launch himself in a
career that does not belong to the so-called practical order; the
young man who has not, in a word, an office in the business-quarter of
the town, with his name painted on the door, has but a limited place
in the social system, finds no particular bough to perch upon. He is
not looked at askance, he is not regarded as an idler; literature and
the arts have always been held in extreme honour in the American
world, and those who practise them are received on easier terms than
in other countries. If the tone of the American world is in some
respects provincial, it is in none more so than in this matter of the
exaggerated homage rendered to authorship. The gentleman or the lady
who has written a book is in many circles the object of an admiration
too indiscriminating to operate as an encouragement to good writing.
There is no reason to suppose that this was less the case fifty years
ago; but fifty years ago, greatly more than now, the literary man must
have lacked the comfort and inspiration of belonging to a class. The
best things come, as a general thing, from the talents that are
members of a group; every man works better when he has companions
working in the same line, and yielding the stimulus of suggestion,
comparison, emulation. Great things of course have been done by
solitary workers; but they have usually been done with double the
pains they would have cost if they had been produced in more genial
circumstances. The solitary worker loses the profit of example and
discussion; he is apt to make awkward experiments; he is in the nature
of the case more or less of an empiric. The empiric may, as I say, be
treated by the world as an expert; but the drawbacks and discomforts
of empiricism remain to him, and are in fact increased by the
suspicion that is mingled with his gratitude, of a want in the public
taste of a sense of the proportions of things. Poor Hawthorne,
beginning to write subtle short tales at Salem, was empirical enough;
he was one of, at most, some dozen Americans who had taken up
literature as a profession. The profession in the United States is
still very young, and of diminutive stature; but in the year 1830 its
head could hardly have been seen above ground. It strikes the observer
of to-day that Hawthorne showed great courage in entering a field in
which the honours and emoluments were so scanty as the profits of
authorship must have been at that time. I have said that in the
United States at present authorship is a pedestal, and literature is
the fashion; but Hawthorne's history is a proof that it was possible,
fifty years ago, to write a great many little masterpieces without
becoming known. He begins the preface to the _Twice-Told Tales_ by
remarking that he was "for many years the obscurest man of letters in
America." When once this work obtained recognition, the recognition
left little to be desired. Hawthorne never, I believe, made large sums
of money by his writings, and the early profits of these charming
sketches could not have been considerable; for many of them, indeed,
as they appeared in journals and magazines, he had never been paid at
all; but the honour, when once it dawned--and it dawned tolerably
early in the author's career--was never thereafter wanting.
Hawthorne's countrymen are solidly proud of him, and the tone of Mr.
Lathrop's _Study_ is in itself sufficient evidence of the manner in
which an American story-teller may in some cases look to have his
eulogy pronounced.

Hawthorne's early attempt to support himself by his pen appears to
have been deliberate; we hear nothing of those experiments in
counting-houses or lawyers' offices, of which a permanent invocation
to the Muse is often the inconsequent sequel. He began to write, and
to try and dispose of his writings; and he remained at Salem
apparently only because his family, his mother and his two sisters,
lived there. His mother had a house, of which during the twelve years
that elapsed until 1838, he appears to have been an inmate. Mr.
Lathrop learned from his surviving sister that after publishing
_Fanshawe_ he produced a group of short stories entitled _Seven Tales
of my Native Land_, and that this lady retained a very favourable
recollection of the work, which her brother had given her to read. But
it never saw the light; his attempts to get it published were
unsuccessful, and at last, in a fit of irritation and despair, the
young author burned the manuscript.

There is probably something autobiographic in the striking little tale
of _The Devil in Manuscript_. "They have been offered to seventeen
publishers," says the hero of that sketch in regard to a pile of his
own lucubrations.

"It would make you stare to read their answers.... One man
publishes nothing but school-books; another has five novels
already under examination;... another gentleman is just
giving up business, on purpose, I verily believe, to avoid
publishing my book. In short, of all the seventeen
booksellers, only one has vouchsafed even to read my tales;
and he--a literary dabbler himself, I should judge--has the
impertinence to criticise them, proposing what he calls vast
improvements, and concluding, after a general sentence of
condemnation, with the definitive assurance that he will not
be concerned on any terms.... But there does seem to be one
righteous man among these seventeen unrighteous ones, and he
tells me, fairly, that no American publisher will meddle
with an American work--seldom if by a known writer, and
never if by a new one--unless at the writer's risk."

But though the _Seven Tales_ were not printed, Hawthorne, proceeded to
write others that were; the two collections of the _Twice-Told Tales_,
and the _Snow Image_, are gathered from a series of contributions to
the local journals and the annuals of that day. To make these three
volumes, he picked out the things he thought the best. "Some very
small part," he says of what remains, "might yet be rummaged out (but
it would not be worth the trouble), among the dingy pages of fifteen
or twenty-years-old periodicals, or within the shabby morocco covers
of faded _Souvenirs_." These three volumes represent no large amount
of literary labour for so long a period, and the author admits that
there is little to show "for the thought and industry of that portion
of his life." He attributes the paucity of his productions to a "total
lack of sympathy at the age when his mind would naturally have been
most effervescent." "He had no incitement to literary effort in a
reasonable prospect of reputation or profit; nothing but the pleasure
itself of composition, an enjoyment not at all amiss in its way, and
perhaps essential to the merit of the work in hand, but which in the
long run will hardly keep the chill out of a writer's heart, or the
numbness out of his fingers." These words occur in the preface
attached in 1851 to the second edition of the _Twice-Told Tales_; _à
propos_ of which I may say that there is always a charm in Hawthorne's
prefaces which makes one grateful for a pretext to quote from them. At
this time _The Scarlet Letter_ had just made his fame, and the short
tales were certain of a large welcome; but the account he gives of the
failure of the earlier edition to produce a sensation (it had been
published in two volumes, at four years apart), may appear to
contradict my assertion that, though he was not recognised
immediately, he was recognised betimes. In 1850, when _The Scarlet
Letter_ appeared, Hawthorne was forty-six years old, and this may
certainly seem a long-delayed popularity. On the other hand, it must
be remembered that he had not appealed to the world with any great
energy. _The Twice-Told Tales_, charming as they are, do not
constitute a very massive literary pedestal. As soon as the author,
resorting to severer measures, put forth _The Scarlet Letter_, the
public ear was touched and charmed, and after that it was held to the
end. "Well it might have been!" the reader will exclaim. "But what a
grievous pity that the dulness of this same organ should have operated
so long as a deterrent, and by making Hawthorne wait till he was
nearly fifty to publish his first novel, have abbreviated by so much
his productive career!" The truth is, he cannot have been in any very
high degree ambitious; he was not an abundant producer, and there was
manifestly a strain of generous indolence in his composition. There
was a loveable want of eagerness about him. Let the encouragement
offered have been what it might, he had waited till he was lapsing
from middle-life to strike his first noticeable blow; and during the
last ten years of his career he put forth but two complete works, and
the fragment of a third.

It is very true, however, that during this early period he seems to
have been very glad to do whatever came to his hand. Certain of his
tales found their way into one of the annuals of the time, a
publication endowed with the brilliant title of _The Boston Token and
Atlantic Souvenir_. The editor of this graceful repository was S. G.
Goodrich, a gentleman who, I suppose, may be called one of the
pioneers of American periodical literature. He is better known to the
world as Mr. Peter Parley, a name under which he produced a multitude
of popular school-books, story-books, and other attempts to vulgarize
human knowledge and adapt it to the infant mind. This enterprising
purveyor of literary wares appears, incongruously enough, to have been
Hawthorne's earliest protector, if protection is the proper word for
the treatment that the young author received from him. Mr. Goodrich
induced him in 1836 to go to Boston to edit a periodical in which he
was interested, _The American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining
Knowledge_. I have never seen the work in question, but Hawthorne's
biographer gives a sorry account of it. It was managed by the
so-called Bewick Company, which "took its name from Thomas Bewick, the
English restorer of the art of wood-engraving, and the magazine was to
do his memory honour by his admirable illustrations. But in fact it
never did any one honour, nor brought any one profit. It was a penny
popular affair, containing condensed information about innumerable
subjects, no fiction, and little poetry. The woodcuts were of the
crudest and most frightful sort. It passed through the hands of
several editors and several publishers. Hawthorne was engaged at a
salary of five hundred dollars a year; but it appears that he got next
to nothing, and did not stay in the position long." Hawthorne wrote
from Boston in the winter of 1836: "I came here trusting to Goodrich's
positive promise to pay me forty-five dollars as soon as I arrived;
and he has kept promising from one day to another, till I do not see
that he means to pay at all. I have now broke off all intercourse with
him, and never think of going near him.... I don't feel at all obliged
to him about the editorship, for he is a stockholder and director in
the Bewick Company ... and I defy them to get another to do for a
thousand dollars, what I do for five hundred."--"I make nothing," he
says in another letter, "of writing a history or biography before
dinner." Goodrich proposed to him to write a _Universal History_ for
the use of schools, offering him a hundred dollars for his share in
the work. Hawthorne accepted the offer and took a hand--I know not how
large a one--in the job. His biographer has been able to identify a
single phrase as our author's. He is speaking of George IV: "Even when
he was quite a young man this King cared as much about dress as any
young coxcomb. He had a great deal of taste in such matters, and it is
a pity that he was a King, for he might otherwise have made an
excellent tailor." The _Universal History_ had a great vogue and
passed through hundreds of editions; but it does not appear that
Hawthorne ever received more than his hundred dollars. The writer of
these pages vividly remembers making its acquaintance at an early
stage of his education--a very fat, stumpy-looking book, bound in
boards covered with green paper, and having in the text very small
woodcuts, of the most primitive sort. He associates it to this day
with the names of Sesostris and Semiramis whenever he encounters them,
there having been, he supposes, some account of the conquests of these
potentates that would impress itself upon the imagination of a child.
At the end of four months, Hawthorne had received but twenty
dollars--four pounds--for his editorship of the _American Magazine_.

There is something pitiful in this episode, and something really
touching in the sight of a delicate and superior genius obliged to
concern himself with such paltry undertakings. The simple fact was
that for a man attempting at that time in America to live by his pen,
there were no larger openings; and to live at all Hawthorne had, as
the phrase is, to make himself small. This cost him less, moreover,
than it would have cost a more copious and strenuous genius, for his
modesty was evidently extreme, and I doubt whether he had any very
ardent consciousness of rare talent. He went back to Salem, and from
this tranquil standpoint, in the spring of 1837, he watched the first
volume of his _Twice-Told Tales_ come into the world. He had by this
time been living some ten years of his manhood in Salem, and an
American commentator may be excused for feeling the desire to
construct, from the very scanty material that offers itself, a slight
picture of his life there. I have quoted his own allusions to its
dulness and blankness, but I confess that these observations serve
rather to quicken than to depress my curiosity. A biographer has of
necessity a relish for detail; his business is to multiply points of
characterisation. Mr. Lathrop tells us that our author "had little
communication with even the members of his family. Frequently his
meals were brought and left at his locked door, and it was not often
that the four inmates of the old Herbert Street mansion met in family
circle. He never read his stories aloud to his mother and sisters....
It was the custom in this household for the several members to remain
very much by themselves; the three ladies were perhaps nearly as
rigorous recluses as himself, and, speaking of the isolation which
reigned among them, Hawthorne once said, 'We do not even _live_ at our
house!'" It is added that he was not in the habit of going to church.
This is not a lively picture, nor is that other sketch of his daily
habits much more exhilarating, in which Mr. Lathrop affirms that
though the statement that for several years "he never saw the sun" is
entirely an error, yet it is true that he stirred little abroad all
day and "seldom chose to walk in the town except at night." In the
dusky hours he took walks of many miles along the coast, or else
wandered about the sleeping streets of Salem. These were his pastimes,
and these were apparently his most intimate occasions of contact with
life. Life, on such occasions, was not very exuberant, as any one will
reflect who has been acquainted with the physiognomy of a small New
England town after nine o'clock in the evening. Hawthorne, however,
was an inveterate observer of small things, and he found a field for
fancy among the most trivial accidents. There could be no better
example of this happy faculty than the little paper entitled "Night
Sketches," included among the _Twice-Told Tales_. This small
dissertation is about nothing at all, and to call attention to it is
almost to overrate its importance. This fact is equally true, indeed,
of a great many of its companions, which give even the most
appreciative critic a singular feeling of his own indiscretion--almost
of his own cruelty. They are so light, so slight, so tenderly trivial,
that simply to mention them is to put them in a false position. The
author's claim for them is barely audible, even to the most acute
listener. They are things to take or to leave--to enjoy, but not to
talk about. Not to read them would be to do them an injustice (to read
them is essentially to relish them), but to bring the machinery of
criticism to bear upon them would be to do them a still greater wrong.
I must remember, however, that to carry this principle too far would
be to endanger the general validity of the present little work--a
consummation which it can only be my desire to avert. Therefore it is
that I think it permissible to remark that in Hawthorne, the whole
class of little descriptive effusions directed upon common things, to
which these just-mentioned Night Sketches belong, have a greater
charm than there is any warrant for in their substance. The charm is
made up of the spontaneity, the personal quality, of the fancy that
plays through them, its mingled simplicity and subtlety, its purity
and its _bonhomie_. The Night Sketches are simply the light, familiar
record of a walk under an umbrella, at the end of a long, dull, rainy
day, through the sloppy, ill-paved streets of a country town, where
the rare gas-lamps twinkle in the large puddles, and the blue jars in
the druggist's window shine through the vulgar drizzle. One would say
that the inspiration of such a theme could have had no great force,
and such doubtless was the case; but out of the Salem puddles,
nevertheless, springs, flower-like, a charming and natural piece of
prose.

I have said that Hawthorne was an observer of small things, and indeed
he appears to have thought nothing too trivial to be suggestive. His
Note-Books give us the measure of his perception of common and casual
things, and of his habit of converting them into _memoranda_. These
Note-Books, by the way--this seems as good a place as any other to say
it--are a very singular series of volumes; I doubt whether there is
anything exactly corresponding to them in the whole body of
literature. They were published--in six volumes, issued at
intervals--some years after Hawthorne's death, and no person
attempting to write an account of the romancer could afford to regret
that they should have been given to the world. There is a point of
view from which this may be regretted; but the attitude of the
biographer is to desire as many documents as possible. I am thankful,
then, as a biographer, for the Note-Books, but I am obliged to
confess that, though I have just re-read them carefully, I am still at
a loss to perceive how they came to be written--what was Hawthorne's
purpose in carrying on for so many years this minute and often trivial
chronicle. For a person desiring information about him at any cost, it
is valuable; it sheds a vivid light upon his character, his habits,
the nature of his mind. But we find ourselves wondering what was its
value to Hawthorne himself. It is in a very partial degree a register
of impressions, and in a still smaller sense a record of emotions.
Outward objects play much the larger part in it; opinions,
convictions, ideas pure and simple, are almost absent. He rarely takes
his Note-Book into his confidence or commits to its pages any
reflections that might be adapted for publicity; the simplest way to
describe the tone of these extremely objective journals is to say that
they read like a series of very pleasant, though rather dullish and
decidedly formal, letters, addressed to himself by a man who, having
suspicions that they might be opened in the post, should have
determined to insert nothing compromising. They contain much that is
too futile for things intended for publicity; whereas, on the other
hand, as a receptacle of private impressions and opinions, they are
curiously cold and empty. They widen, as I have said, our glimpse of
Hawthorne's mind (I do not say that they elevate our estimate of it),
but they do so by what they fail to contain, as much as by what we
find in them. Our business for the moment, however, is not with the
light that they throw upon his intellect, but with the information
they offer about his habits and his social circumstances.

I know not at what age he began to keep a diary; the first entries in
the American volumes are of the summer of 1835. There is a phrase in
the preface to his novel of _Transformation_, which must have lingered
in the minds of many Americans who have tried to write novels and to
lay the scene of them in the western world. "No author, without a
trial, can conceive of the difficulty of writing a romance about a
country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no
picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace
prosperity, in broad and simple daylight, as is happily the case with
my dear native land." The perusal of Hawthorne's American Note-Books
operates as a practical commentary upon this somewhat ominous text. It
does so at least to my own mind; it would be too much perhaps to say
that the effect would be the same for the usual English reader. An
American reads between the lines--he completes the suggestions--he
constructs a picture. I think I am not guilty of any gross injustice
in saying that the picture he constructs from Hawthorne's American
diaries, though by no means without charms of its own, is not, on the
whole, an interesting one. It is characterised by an extraordinary
blankness--a curious paleness of colour and paucity of detail.
Hawthorne, as I have said, has a large and healthy appetite for
detail, and one is therefore the more struck with the lightness of the
diet to which his observation was condemned. For myself, as I turn the
pages of his journals, I seem to see the image of the crude and simple
society in which he lived. I use these epithets, of course, not
invidiously, but descriptively; if one desire to enter as closely as
possible into Hawthorne's situation, one must endeavour to reproduce
his circumstances. We are struck with the large number of elements
that were absent from them, and the coldness, the thinness, the
blankness, to repeat my epithet, present themselves so vividly that
our foremost feeling is that of compassion for a romancer looking for
subjects in such a field. It takes so many things, as Hawthorne must
have felt later in life, when he made the acquaintance of the denser,
richer, warmer-European spectacle--it takes such an accumulation of
history and custom, such a complexity of manners and types, to form a
fund of suggestion for a novelist. If Hawthorne had been a young
Englishman, or a young Frenchman of the same degree of genius, the

same cast of mind, the same habits, his consciousness of the world
around him would have been a very different affair; however obscure,
however reserved, his own personal life, his sense of the life of his
fellow-mortals would have been almost infinitely more various. The
negative side of the spectacle on which Hawthorne looked out, in his
contemplative saunterings and reveries, might, indeed, with a little
ingenuity, be made almost ludicrous; one might enumerate the items of
high civilization, as it exists in other countries, which are absent
from the texture of American life, until it should become a wonder to
know what was left. No State, in the European sense of the word, and
indeed barely a specific national name. No sovereign, no court, no
personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no
diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor
manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages
nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman
churches; no great Universities nor public schools--no Oxford, nor
Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures,
no political society, no sporting class--no Epsom nor Ascot! Some such
list as that might be drawn up of the absent things in American
life--especially in the American life of forty years ago, the effect
of which, upon an English or a French imagination, would probably as a
general thing be appalling. The natural remark, in the almost lurid
light of such an indictment, would be that if these things are left
out, everything is left out. The American knows that a good deal
remains; what it is that remains--that is his secret, his joke, as one
may say. It would be cruel, in this terrible denudation, to deny him
the consolation of his national gift, that "American humour" of which
of late years we have heard so much.

But in helping us to measure what remains, our author's Diaries, as I
have already intimated, would give comfort rather to persons who might
have taken the alarm from the brief sketch I have just attempted of
what I have called the negative side of the American social situation,
than to those reminding themselves of its fine compensations.
Hawthorne's entries are to a great degree accounts of walks in the
country, drives in stage-coaches, people he met in taverns. The
minuteness of the things that attract his attention and that he deems
worthy of being commemorated is frequently extreme, and from this fact
we get the impression of a general vacancy in the field of vision.
"Sunday evening, going by the jail, the setting sun kindled up the
windows most cheerfully; as if there were a bright, comfortable light
within its darksome stone wall." "I went yesterday with Monsieur S----
to pick raspberries. He fell through an old log-bridge, thrown over a
hollow; looking back, only his head and shoulders appeared through the
rotten logs and among the bushes.--A shower coming on, the rapid
running of a little barefooted boy, coming up unheard, and dashing
swiftly past us, and showing us the soles of his naked feet as he ran
adown the path and up the opposite side." In another place he devotes
a page to a description of a dog whom he saw running round after its
tail; in still another he remarks, in a paragraph by itself--"The
aromatic odor of peat-smoke, in the sunny autumnal air is very
pleasant." The reader says to himself that when a man turned thirty
gives a place in his mind--and his inkstand--to such trifles as these,
it is because nothing else of superior importance demands admission.
Everything in the Notes indicates a simple, democratic,
thinly-composed society; there is no evidence of the writer finding
himself in any variety or intimacy of relations with any one or with
anything. We find a good deal of warrant for believing that if we add
that statement of Mr. Lathrop's about his meals being left at the door
of his room, to rural rambles of which an impression of the temporary
phases of the local apple-crop were the usual, and an encounter with
an organ-grinder, or an eccentric dog, the rarer, outcome, we
construct a rough image of our author's daily life during the several
years that preceded his marriage. He appears to have read a good deal,
and that he must have been familiar with the sources of good English
we see from his charming, expressive, slightly self-conscious,
cultivated, but not too cultivated, style. Yet neither in these early
volumes of his Note-Books, nor in the later, is there any mention of
his reading. There are no literary judgments or impressions--there is
almost no allusion to works or to authors. The allusions to
individuals of any kind are indeed much less numerous than one might
have expected; there is little psychology, little description of
manners. We are told by Mr. Lathrop that there existed at Salem during
the early part of Hawthorne's life "a strong circle of wealthy
families," which "maintained rigorously the distinctions of class,"
and whose "entertainments were splendid, their manners magnificent."
This is a rather pictorial way of saying that there were a number of
people in the place--the commercial and professional aristocracy, as
it were--who lived in high comfort and respectability, and who, in
their small provincial way, doubtless had pretensions to be exclusive.
Into this delectable company Mr. Lathrop intimates that his hero was
free to penetrate. It is easy to believe it, and it would be difficult
to perceive why the privilege should have been denied to a young man
of genius and culture, who was very good-looking (Hawthorne must have
been in these days, judging by his appearance later in life, a
strikingly handsome fellow), and whose American pedigree was virtually
as long as the longest they could show. But in fact Hawthorne appears
to have ignored the good society of his native place almost
completely; no echo of its conversation is to be found in his tales or
his journals. Such an echo would possibly not have been especially
melodious, and if we regret the shyness and stiffness, the reserve,
the timidity, the suspicion, or whatever it was, that kept him from
knowing what there was to be known, it is not because we have any very
definite assurance that his gains would have been great. Still, since
a beautiful writer was growing up in Salem, it is a pity that he
should not have given himself a chance to commemorate some of the
types that flourished in the richest soil of the place. Like almost
all people who possess in a strong degree the storytelling faculty,
Hawthorne had a democratic strain in his composition and a relish for
the commoner stuff of human nature. Thoroughly American in all ways,
he was in none more so than in the vagueness of his sense of social
distinctions and his readiness to forget them if a moral or
intellectual sensation were to be gained by it. He liked to fraternise
with plain people, to take them on their own terms, and put himself if
possible into their shoes. His Note-Books, and even his tales, are
full of evidence of this easy and natural feeling about all his
unconventional fellow-mortals--this imaginative interest and
contemplative curiosity--and it sometimes takes the most charming and
graceful forms. Commingled as it is with his own subtlety and
delicacy, his complete exemption from vulgarity, it is one of the
points in his character which his reader comes most to appreciate--that
reader I mean for whom he is not as for some few, a dusky and malarious
genius.

But even if he had had, personally, as many pretensions as he had few,
he must in the nature of things have been more or less of a consenting
democrat, for democracy was the very key-stone of the simple social
structure in which he played his part. The air of his journals and his
tales alike are full of the genuine democratic feeling. This feeling
has by no means passed out of New England life; it still flourishes in
perfection in the great stock of the people, especially in rural
communities; but it is probable that at the present hour a writer of
Hawthorne's general fastidiousness would not express it quite so
artlessly. "A shrewd gentlewoman, who kept a tavern in the town," he
says, in _Chippings with a Chisel_, "was anxious to obtain two or
three gravestones for the deceased members of her family, and to pay
for these solemn commodities by taking the sculptor to board." This
image of a gentlewoman keeping a tavern and looking out for boarders,
seems, from the point of view to which I allude, not at all
incongruous. It will be observed that the lady in question was shrewd;
it was probable that she was substantially educated, and of reputable
life, and it is certain that she was energetic. These qualities would
make it natural to Hawthorne to speak of her as a gentlewoman; the
natural tendency in societies where the sense of equality prevails,
being to take for granted the high level rather than the low. Perhaps
the most striking example of the democratic sentiment in all our
author's tales, however, is the figure of Uncle Venner, in _The House
of the Seven Gables_. Uncle Venner is a poor old man in a brimless hat
and patched trousers, who picks up a precarious subsistence by
rendering, for a compensation, in the houses and gardens of the good
people of Salem, those services that are know in New England as
"chores." He carries parcels, splits firewood, digs potatoes, collects
refuse for the maintenance of his pigs, and looks forward with
philosophic equanimity to the time when he shall end his days in the
almshouse. But in spite of the very modest place that he occupies in
the social scale, he is received on a footing of familiarity in the
household of the far-descended Miss Pyncheon; and when this ancient
lady and her companions take the air in the garden of a summer
evening, he steps into the estimable circle and mingles the smoke of
his pipe with their refined conversation. This obviously is rather
imaginative--Uncle Venner is a creation with a purpose. He is an
original, a natural moralist, a philosopher; and Hawthorne, who knew
perfectly what he was about in introducing him--Hawthorne always knew
perfectly what he was about--wished to give in his person an example
of humorous resignation and of a life reduced to the simplest and
homeliest elements, as opposed to the fantastic pretensions of the
antiquated heroine of the story. He wished to strike a certain
exclusively human and personal note. He knew that for this purpose he
was taking a licence; but the point is that he felt he was not
indulging in any extravagant violation of reality. Giving in a letter,
about 1830, an account of a little journey he was making in
Connecticut, he says, of the end of a seventeen miles' stage, that "in
the evening, however, I went to a Bible-class with a very polite and
agreeable gentleman, whom I afterwards discovered to be a strolling
tailor of very questionable habits."

Hawthorne appears on various occasions to have absented himself from
Salem, and to have wandered somewhat through the New England States.
But the only one of these episodes of which there is a considerable
account in the Note-Books is a visit that he paid in the summer of
1837 to his old college-mate, Horatio Bridge, who was living upon his
father's property in Maine, in company with an eccentric young
Frenchman, a teacher of his native tongue, who was looking for pupils
among the northern forests. I have said that there was less psychology
in Hawthorne's Journals than might have been looked for; but there is
nevertheless a certain amount of it, and nowhere more than in a number
of pages relating to this remarkable "Monsieur S." (Hawthorne,
intimate as he apparently became with him, always calls him
"Monsieur," just as throughout all his Diaries he invariably speaks
of all his friends, even the most familiar, as "Mr." He confers the
prefix upon the unconventional Thoreau, his fellow-woodsman at
Concord, and upon the emancipated brethren at Brook Farm.) These pages
are completely occupied with Monsieur S., who was evidently a man of
character, with the full complement of his national vivacity. There is
an elaborate effort to analyse the poor young Frenchman's disposition,
something conscientious and painstaking, respectful, explicit, almost
solemn. These passages are very curious as a reminder of the absence
of the off-hand element in the manner in which many Americans, and
many New Englanders especially, make up their minds about people whom
they meet. This, in turn, is a reminder of something that may be
called the importance of the individual in the American world; which
is a result of the newness and youthfulness of society and of the
absence of keen competition. The individual counts for more, as it
were, and, thanks to the absence of a variety of social types and of
settled heads under which he may be easily and conveniently
pigeon-holed, he is to a certain extent a wonder and a mystery. An
Englishman, a Frenchman--a Frenchman above all--judges quickly,
easily, from his own social standpoint, and makes an end of it. He has
not that rather chilly and isolated sense of moral responsibility
which is apt to visit a New Englander in such processes; and he has
the advantage that his standards are fixed by the general consent of
the society in which he lives. A Frenchman, in this respect, is
particularly happy and comfortable, happy and comfortable to a degree
which I think is hardly to be over-estimated; his standards being the
most definite in the world, the most easily and promptly appealed to,
and the most identical with what happens to be the practice of the
French genius itself. The Englishman is not-quite so well off, but he
is better off than his poor interrogative and tentative cousin beyond
the seas. He is blessed with a healthy mistrust of analysis, and
hair-splitting is the occupation he most despises. There is always a
little of the Dr. Johnson in him, and Dr. Johnson would have had
woefully little patience with that tendency to weigh moonbeams which
in Hawthorne was almost as much a quality of race as of genius; albeit
that Hawthorne has paid to Boswell's hero (in the chapter on
"Lichfield and Uttoxeter," in his volume on England), a tribute of the
finest appreciation. American intellectual standards are vague, and
Hawthorne's countrymen are apt to hold the scales with a rather
uncertain hand and a somewhat agitated conscience.

Henry James

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