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Ch. 3 - Early Writings

The second volume of the _Twice-Told Tales_ was published in 1845, in
Boston; and at this time a good many of the stories which were
afterwards collected into the _Mosses from an Old Manse_ had already
appeared, chiefly in _The Democratic Review_, a sufficiently
flourishing periodical of that period. In mentioning these things I
anticipate; but I touch upon the year 1845 in order to speak of the
two collections of _Twice-Told Tales_ at once. During the same year
Hawthorne edited an interesting volume, the _Journals of an African
Cruiser_, by his friend Bridge, who had gone into the Navy and seen
something of distant waters. His biographer mentions that even then
Hawthorne's name was thought to bespeak attention for a book, and he
insists on this fact in contradiction to the idea that his productions
had hitherto been as little noticed as his own declaration that he
remained "for a good many years the obscurest man of letters in
America," might lead one, and has led many people, to suppose. "In
this dismal chamber FAME was won," he writes in Salem in 1836. And we
find in the Note-Books (1840), this singularly beautiful and touching

"Here I sit in my old accustomed chamber, where I used to
sit in days gone by.... Here I have written many tales--many
that have been burned to ashes, many that have doubtless
deserved the same fate. This claims to be called a haunted
chamber, for thousands upon thousands of visions have
appeared to me in it; and some few of them have become
visible to the world. If ever I should have a biographer, he
ought to make great mention of this chamber in my memoirs,
because so much of my lonely youth was wasted here, and here
my mind and character were formed; and here I have been glad
and hopeful, and here I have been despondent. And here I sat
a long, long time, waiting patiently for the world to know
me, and sometimes wondering why it did not know me sooner,
or whether it would ever know me at all--at least till I
were in my grave. And sometimes it seems to me as if I were
already in the grave, with only life enough to be chilled
and benumbed. But oftener I was happy--at least as happy as
I then knew how to be, or was aware of the possibility of
being. By and by the world found me out in my lonely chamber
and called me forth--not indeed with a loud roar of
acclamation, but rather with a still small voice--and forth
I went, but found nothing in the world I thought preferable
to my solitude till now.... And now I begin to understand
why I was imprisoned so many years in this lonely chamber,
and why I could never break through the viewless bolts and
bars; for if I had sooner made my escape into the world, I
should have grown hard and rough, and been covered with
earthly dust, and my heart might have become callous by rude
encounters with the multitude.... But living in solitude
till the fulness of time was come, I still kept the dew of
my youth and the freshness of my heart.... I used to think
that I could imagine all passions, all feelings, and states
of the heart and mind; but how little did I know!... Indeed,
we are but shadows; we are not endowed with real life, and
all that seems most real about us is but the thinnest
substance of a dream--till the heart be touched. That touch
creates us--then we begin to be--thereby we are beings of
reality and inheritors of eternity."

There is something exquisite in the soft philosophy of this little
retrospect, and it helps us to appreciate it to know that the writer
had at this time just become engaged to be married to a charming and
accomplished person, with whom his union, which took place two years
later, was complete and full of happiness. But I quote it more
particularly for the evidence it affords that, already in 1840,
Hawthorne could speak of the world finding him out and calling him
forth, as of an event tolerably well in the past. He had sent the
first of the _Twice-Told_ series to his old college friend,
Longfellow, who had already laid, solidly, the foundation of his great
poetic reputation, and at the time of his sending it had written him a
letter from which it will be to our purpose to quote a few lines:--

"You tell me you have met with troubles and changes. I know
not what these may have been; but I can assure you that
trouble is the next best thing to enjoyment, and that there
is no fate in the world so horrible as to have no share in
either its joys or sorrows. For the last ten years I have
not lived, but only dreamed of living. It may be true that
there may have been some unsubstantial pleasures here in the
shade, which I might have missed in the sunshine, but you
cannot conceive how utterly devoid of satisfaction all my
retrospects are. I have laid up no treasure of pleasant
remembrances against old age; but there is some comfort in
thinking that future years may be more varied, and therefore
more tolerable, than the past. You give me more credit than
I deserve in supposing that I have led a studious life. I
have indeed turned over a good many books, but in so
desultory a way that it cannot be called study, nor has it
left me the fruits of study.... I have another great
difficulty in the lack of materials; for I have seen so
little of the world that I have nothing but thin air to
concoct my stories of, and it is not easy to give a
life-like semblance to such shadowy stuff. Sometimes,
through a peephole, I have caught a glimpse of the real
world, and the two or three articles in which I have
portrayed these glimpses please me better than the others."

It is more particularly for the sake of the concluding lines that I
have quoted this passage; for evidently no portrait of Hawthorne at
this period is at all exact which, fails to insist upon the constant
struggle which must have gone on between his shyness and his desire to
know something of life; between what may be called his evasive and his
inquisitive tendencies. I suppose it is no injustice to Hawthorne to
say that on the whole his shyness always prevailed; and yet,
obviously, the struggle was constantly there. He says of his
_Twice-Told Tales_, in the preface, "They are not the talk of a
secluded man with his own mind and heart (had it been so they could
hardly have failed to be more deeply and permanently valuable,) but
his attempts, and very imperfectly successful ones, to open an
intercourse with the world." We are speaking here of small things, it
must be remembered--of little attempts, little sketches, a little
world. But everything is relative, and this smallness of scale must
not render less apparent the interesting character of Hawthorne's
efforts. As for the _Twice-Told Tales_ themselves, they are an old
story now; every one knows them a little, and those who admire them
particularly have read them a great many times. The writer of this
sketch belongs to the latter class, and he has been trying to forget
his familiarity with them, and ask himself what impression they would
have made upon him at the time they appeared, in the first bloom of
their freshness, and before the particular Hawthorne-quality, as it
may be called, had become an established, a recognised and valued,
fact. Certainly, I am inclined to think, if one had encountered these
delicate, dusky flowers in the blossomless garden of American
journalism, one would have plucked them with a very tender hand; one
would have felt that here was something essentially fresh and new;
here, in no extraordinary force or abundance, but in a degree
distinctly appreciable, was an original element in literature. When I
think of it, I almost envy Hawthorne's earliest readers; the sensation
of opening upon _The Great Carbuncle_, _The Seven Vagabonds_, or _The
Threefold Destiny_ in an American annual of forty years ago, must have
been highly agreeable.

Among these shorter things (it is better to speak of the whole
collection, including the _Snow Image_, and the _Mosses from an Old
Manse_ at once) there are three sorts of tales, each one of which has
an original stamp. There are, to begin with, the stories of fantasy
and allegory--those among which the three I have just mentioned would
be numbered, and which on the whole, are the most original. This is
the group to which such little masterpieces as _Malvin's Burial_,
_Rappacini's Daughter_, and _Young Goodman Brown_ also belong--these
two last perhaps representing the highest point that Hawthorne reached
in this direction. Then there are the little tales of New England
history, which are scarcely less admirable, and of which _The Grey
Champion_, _The Maypole of Merry Mount_, and the four beautiful
_Legends of the Province House_, as they are called, are the most
successful specimens. Lastly come the slender sketches of actual
scenes and of the objects and manners about him, by means of which,
more particularly, he endeavoured "to open an intercourse with the
world," and which, in spite of their slenderness, have an infinite
grace and charm. Among these things _A Rill from the Town Pump_, _The
Village Uncle_, _The Toll-Gatherer's Day_, the _Chippings with a
Chisel_, may most naturally be mentioned. As we turn over these
volumes we feel that the pieces that spring most directly from his
fancy, constitute, as I have said (putting his four novels aside), his
most substantial claim to our attention. It would be a mistake to
insist too much upon them; Hawthorne was himself the first to
recognise that. "These fitful sketches," he says in the preface to the
_Mosses from an Old Manse_, "with so little of external life about
them, yet claiming no profundity of purpose--so reserved even while
they sometimes seem so frank--often but half in earnest, and never,
even when most so, expressing satisfactorily the thoughts which they
profess to image--such trifles, I truly feel, afford no solid basis
for a literary reputation." This is very becomingly uttered; but it
may be said, partly in answer to it, and partly in confirmation, that
the valuable element in these things was not what Hawthorne put into
them consciously, but what passed into them without his being able to
measure it--the element of simple genius, the quality of imagination.
This is the real charm of Hawthorne's writing--this purity and
spontaneity and naturalness of fancy. For the rest, it is interesting
to see how it borrowed a particular colour from the other faculties
that lay near it--how the imagination, in this capital son of the old
Puritans, reflected the hue of the more purely moral part, of the
dusky, overshadowed conscience. The conscience, by no fault of its
own, in every genuine offshoot of that sombre lineage, lay under the
shadow of the sense of _sin_. This darkening cloud was no essential
part of the nature of the individual; it stood fixed in the general
moral heaven, under which he grew up and looked at life. It projected
from above, from outside, a black patch over his spirit, and it was
for him to do what he could with the black patch. There were all sorts
of possible ways of dealing with it; they depended upon the personal
temperament. Some natures would let it lie as it fell, and contrive to
be tolerably comfortable beneath it. Others would groan and sweat and
suffer; but the dusky blight would remain, and their lives would be
lives of misery. Here and there an individual, irritated beyond
endurance, would throw it off in anger, plunging probably into what
would be deemed deeper abysses of depravity. Hawthorne's way was the
best, for he contrived, by an exquisite process, best known to
himself, to transmute this heavy moral burden into the very substance
of the imagination, to make it evaporate in the light and charming
fumes of artistic production. But Hawthorne, of course, was
exceptionally fortunate; he had his genius to help him. Nothing is
more curious and interesting than this almost exclusively _imported_
character of the sense of sin in Hawthorne's mind; it seems to exist
there merely for an artistic or literary purpose. He had ample
cognizance of the Puritan conscience; it was his natural heritage; it
was reproduced in him; looking into his soul, he found it there. But
his relation to it was only, as one may say, intellectual; it was not
moral and theological. He played with it and used it as a pigment; he
treated it, as the metaphysicians say, objectively. He was not
discomposed, disturbed, haunted by it, in the manner of its usual and
regular victims, who had not the little postern door of fancy to slip
through, to the other side of the wall. It was, indeed, to his
imaginative vision, the great fact of man's nature; the light element
that had been mingled with his own composition always clung to this
rugged prominence of moral responsibility, like the mist that hovers
about the mountain. It was a necessary condition for a man of
Hawthorne's stock that if his imagination should take licence to amuse
itself, it should at least select this grim precinct of the Puritan
morality for its play-ground. He speaks of the dark disapproval with
which his old ancestors, in the case of their coming to life, would
see him trifling himself away as a story-teller. But how far more
darkly would they have frowned could they have understood that he had
converted the very principle of their own being into one of his toys!

It will be seen that I am far from being struck with the justice of
that view of the author of the _Twice-Told Tales_, which is so happily
expressed by the French critic to whom I alluded at an earlier stage
of this essay. To speak of Hawthorne, as M. Emile Montégut does, as a
_romancier pessimiste_, seems to me very much beside the mark. He is
no more a pessimist than an optimist, though he is certainly not much
of either. He does not pretend to conclude, or to have a philosophy of
human nature; indeed, I should even say that at bottom he does not
take human nature as hard as he may seem to do. "His bitterness," says
M. Montégut, "is without abatement, and his bad opinion of man is
without compensation.... His little tales have the air of confessions
which the soul makes to itself; they are so many little slaps which
the author applies to our face." This, it seems to me, is to
exaggerate almost immeasurably the reach of Hawthorne's relish of
gloomy subjects. What pleased him in such subjects was their
picturesqueness, their rich duskiness of colour, their chiaroscuro;
but they were not the expression of a hopeless, or even of a
predominantly melancholy, feeling about the human soul. Such at least
is my own impression. He is to a considerable degree ironical--this is
part of his charm--part even, one may say, of his brightness; but he
is neither bitter nor cynical--he is rarely even what I should call
tragical. There have certainly been story-tellers of a gayer and
lighter spirit; there have been observers more humorous, more
hilarious--though on the whole Hawthorne's observation has a smile in
it oftener than may at first appear; but there has rarely been an
observer more serene, less agitated by what he sees and less disposed
to call things deeply into question. As I have already intimated, his
Note-Books are full of this simple and almost child-like serenity.
That dusky pre-occupation with the misery of human life and the
wickedness of the human heart which such a critic as M. Emile Montégut
talks about, is totally absent from them; and if we may suppose a
person to have read these Diaries before looking into the tales, we
may be sure that such a reader would be greatly surprised to hear the
author described as a disappointed, disdainful genius. "This marked
love of cases of conscience," says M. Montégut, "this taciturn,
scornful cast of mind, this habit of seeing sin everywhere and hell
always gaping open, this dusky gaze bent always upon a damned world
and a nature draped in mourning, these lonely conversations of the
imagination with the conscience, this pitiless analysis resulting from
a perpetual examination of one's self, and from the tortures of a
heart closed before men and open to God--all these elements of the
Puritan character have passed into Mr. Hawthorne, or to speak more
justly, have _filtered_ into him, through a long succession of
generations." This is a very pretty and very vivid account of
Hawthorne, superficially considered; and it is just such a view of the
case as would commend itself most easily and most naturally to a hasty
critic. It is all true indeed, with a difference; Hawthorne was all
that M. Montégut says, _minus_ the conviction. The old Puritan moral
sense, the consciousness of sin and hell, of the fearful nature of our
responsibilities and the savage character of our Taskmaster--these
things had been lodged in the mind of a man of Fancy, whose fancy had
straightway begun to take liberties and play tricks with them--to
judge them (Heaven forgive him!) from the poetic and æsthetic point of
view, the point of view of entertainment and irony. This absence of
conviction makes the difference; but the difference is great.

Hawthorne was a man of fancy, and I suppose that in speaking of him it
is inevitable that we should feel ourselves confronted with the
familiar problem of the difference between the fancy and the
imagination. Of the larger and more potent faculty he certainly
possessed a liberal share; no one can read _The House of the Seven
Gables_ without feeling it to be a deeply imaginative work. But I am
often struck, especially in the shorter tales, of which I am now
chiefly speaking, with a kind of small ingenuity, a taste for
conceits and analogies, which bears more particularly what is called
the fanciful stamp. The finer of the shorter tales are redolent of a
rich imagination.

"Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only
dreamed a wild dream of witch-meeting? Be it so, if you
will; but, alas, it was a dream of evil omen for young
Goodman Brown! a stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a
distrustful, if not a desperate, man, did he become from the
night of that fearful dream. On the Sabbath-day, when the
congregation were singing a holy psalm, he could not listen,
because an anthem of sin rushed loudly upon his ear and
drowned all the blessed strain. When the minister spoke from
the pulpit, with power and fervid eloquence, and with his
hand on the open Bible of the sacred truth of our religion,
and of saint-like lives and triumphant deaths, and of future
bliss or misery unutterable, then did Goodman Brown grow
pale, dreading lest the roof should thunder down upon the
gray blasphemer and his hearers. Often, awaking suddenly at
midnight, he shrank from the bosom of Faith; and at morning
or eventide, when the family knelt down at prayer, he
scowled and muttered to himself, and gazed sternly at his
wife, and turned away. And when he had lived long, and was
borne to his grave a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an
aged woman, and children, and grandchildren, a goodly
procession, besides neighbours not a few, they carved no
hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was

There is imagination in that, and in many another passage that I might
quote; but as a general thing I should characterise the more
metaphysical of our author's short stories as graceful and felicitous
conceits. They seem to me to be qualified in this manner by the very
fact that they belong to the province of allegory. Hawthorne, in his
metaphysical moods, is nothing if not allegorical, and allegory, to my
sense, is quite one of the lighter exercises of the imagination. Many
excellent judges, I know, have a great stomach for it; they delight in
symbols and correspondences, in seeing a story told as if it were
another and a very different story. I frankly confess that I have as a
general thing but little enjoyment of it and that it has never seemed
to me to be, as it were, a first-rate literary form. It has produced
assuredly some first-rate works; and Hawthorne in his younger years
had been a great reader and devotee of Bunyan and Spenser, the great
masters of allegory. But it is apt to spoil two good things--a story
and a moral, a meaning and a form; and the taste for it is responsible
for a large part of the forcible-feeble writing that has been
inflicted upon the world. The only cases in which it is endurable is
when it is extremely spontaneous, when the analogy presents itself
with eager promptitude. When it shows signs of having been groped and
fumbled for, the needful illusion is of course absent and the failure
complete. Then the machinery alone is visible, and the end to which it
operates becomes a matter of indifference. There was but little
literary criticism in the United States at the time Hawthorne's
earlier works were published; but among the reviewers Edgar Poe
perhaps held the scales the highest. He at any rate rattled them
loudest, and pretended, more than any one else, to conduct the
weighing-process on scientific principles. Very remarkable was this
process of Edgar Poe's, and very extraordinary were his principles;
but he had the advantage of being a man of genius, and his
intelligence was frequently great. His collection of critical sketches
of the American writers flourishing in what M. Taine would call his
_milieu_ and _moment_, is very curious and interesting reading, and
it has one quality which ought to keep it from ever being completely
forgotten. It is probably the most complete and exquisite specimen of
_provincialism_ ever prepared for the edification of men. Poe's
judgments are pretentious, spiteful, vulgar; but they contain a great
deal of sense and discrimination as well, and here and there,
sometimes at frequent intervals, we find a phrase of happy insight
imbedded in a patch of the most fatuous pedantry. He wrote a chapter
upon Hawthorne, and spoke of him on the whole very kindly; and his
estimate is of sufficient value to make it noticeable that he should
express lively disapproval of the large part allotted to allegory in
his tales--in defence of which, he says, "however, or for whatever
object employed, there is scarcely one respectable word to be said....
The deepest emotion," he goes on, "aroused within us by the happiest
allegory _as_ allegory, is a very, _very_ imperfectly satisfied sense
of the writer's ingenuity in overcoming a difficulty we should have
preferred his not having attempted to overcome.... One thing is clear,
that if allegory ever establishes a fact, it is by dint of overturning
a fiction;" and Poe has furthermore the courage to remark that the
_Pilgrim's Progress_ is a "ludicrously overrated book." Certainly, as
a general thing, we are struck with the ingenuity and felicity of
Hawthorne's analogies and correspondences; the idea appears to have
made itself at home in them easily. Nothing could be better in this
respect than _The Snow-Image_ (a little masterpiece), or _The Great
Carbuncle_, or _Doctor Heidegger's Experiment_, or _Rappacini's
Daughter_. But in such things as _The Birth-Mark_ and _The
Bosom-Serpent_, we are struck with something stiff and mechanical,
slightly incongruous, as if the kernel had not assimilated its
envelope. But these are matters of light impression, and there would
be a want of tact in pretending to discriminate too closely among
things which all, in one way or another, have a charm. The charm--the
great charm--is that they are glimpses of a great field, of the whole
deep mystery of man's soul and conscience. They are moral, and their
interest is moral; they deal with something more than the mere
accidents and conventionalities, the surface occurrences of life. The
fine thing in Hawthorne is that he cared for the deeper psychology,
and that, in his way, he tried to become familiar with it. This
natural, yet fanciful familiarity with it, this air, on the author's
part, of being a confirmed _habitué_ of a region of mysteries and
subtleties, constitutes the originality of his tales. And then they
have the further merit of seeming, for what they are, to spring up so
freely and lightly. The author has all the ease, indeed, of a regular
dweller in the moral, psychological realm; he goes to and fro in it,
as a man who knows his way. His tread is a light and modest one, but
he keeps the key in his pocket.

His little historical stories all seem to me admirable; they are so
good that you may re-read them many times. They are not numerous, and
they are very short; but they are full of a vivid and delightful sense
of the New England past; they have, moreover, the distinction, little
tales of a dozen and fifteen pages as they are, of being the only
successful attempts at historical fiction that have been made in the
United States. Hawthorne was at home in the early New England history;
he had thumbed its records and he had breathed its air, in whatever
odd receptacles this somewhat pungent compound still lurked. He was
fond of it, and he was proud of it, as any New Englander must be,
measuring the part of that handful of half-starved fanatics who formed
his earliest precursors, in laying the foundations of a mighty empire.
Hungry for the picturesque as he always was, and not finding any very
copious provision of it around him, he turned back into the two
preceding centuries, with the earnest determination that the primitive
annals of Massachusetts should at least _appear_ picturesque. His
fancy, which was always alive, played a little with the somewhat
meagre and angular facts of the colonial period and forthwith
converted a great many of them into impressive legends and pictures.
There is a little infusion of colour, a little vagueness about certain
details, but it is very gracefully and discreetly done, and realities
are kept in view sufficiently to make us feel that if we are reading
romance, it is romance that rather supplements than contradicts
history. The early annals of New England were not fertile in legend,
but Hawthorne laid his hands upon everything that would serve his
purpose, and in two or three cases his version of the story has a
great deal of beauty. _The Grey Champion_ is a sketch of less than
eight pages, but the little figures stand up in the tale as stoutly,
at the least, as if they were propped up on half-a-dozen chapters by a
dryer annalist, and the whole thing has the merit of those cabinet
pictures in which the artist has been able to make his persons look
the size of life. Hawthorne, to say it again, was not in the least a
realist--he was not to my mind enough of one; but there is no genuine
lover of the good city of Boston but will feel grateful to him for his
courage in attempting to recount the "traditions" of Washington
Street, the main thoroughfare of the Puritan capital. The four
_Legends of the Province House_ are certain shadowy stories which he
professes to have gathered in an ancient tavern lurking behind the
modern shop-fronts of this part of the city. The Province House
disappeared some years ago, but while it stood it was pointed to as
the residence of the Royal Governors of Massachusetts before the
Revolution. I have no recollection of it, but it cannot have been,
even from Hawthorne's account of it, which is as pictorial as he
ventures to make it, a very imposing piece of antiquity. The writer's
charming touch, however, throws a rich brown tone over its rather
shallow venerableness; and we are beguiled into believing, for
instance, at the close of _Howe's Masquerade_ (a story of a strange
occurrence at an entertainment given by Sir William Howe, the last of
the Royal Governors, during the siege of Boston by Washington), that
"superstition, among other legends of this mansion, repeats the
wondrous tale that on the anniversary night of Britain's discomfiture
the ghosts of the ancient governors of Massachusetts still glide
through the Province House. And last of all comes a figure shrouded in
a military cloak, tossing his clenched hands into the air and stamping
his iron-shod boots upon the freestone steps, with a semblance of
feverish despair, but without the sound of a foot-tramp." Hawthorne
had, as regards the two earlier centuries of New England life, that
faculty which is called now-a-days the historic consciousness. He
never sought to exhibit it on a large scale; he exhibited it indeed on
a scale so minute that we must not linger too much upon it. His vision
of the past was filled with definite images--images none the less
definite that they were concerned with events as shadowy as this
dramatic passing away of the last of King George's representatives in
his long loyal but finally alienated colony.

I have said that Hawthorne had become engaged in about his
thirty-fifth-year; but he was not married until 1842. Before this
event took place he passed through two episodes which (putting his
falling in love aside) were much the most important things that had
yet happened to him. They interrupted the painful monotony of his
life, and brought the affairs of men within his personal experience.
One of these was moreover in itself a curious and interesting chapter
of observation, and it fructified, in Hawthorne's memory, in one of
his best productions. How urgently he needed at this time to be drawn
within the circle of social accidents, a little anecdote related by
Mr. Lathrop in connection with his first acquaintance with the young
lady he was to marry, may serve as an example. This young lady became
known to him through her sister, who had first approached him as an
admirer of the _Twice-Told Tales_ (as to the authorship of which she
had been so much in the dark as to have attributed it first,
conjecturally, to one of the two Miss Hathornes); and the two Miss
Peabodys, desiring to see more of the charming writer, caused him to
be invited to a species of _conversazione_ at the house of one of
their friends, at which they themselves took care to be punctual.
Several other ladies, however, were as punctual as they, and Hawthorne
presently arriving, and seeing a bevy of admirers where he had
expected but three or four, fell into a state of agitation, which is
vividly described by his biographer. He "stood perfectly motionless,
but with the look of a sylvan creature on the point of fleeing
away.... He was stricken with dismay; his face lost colour and took
on a warm paleness ... his agitation was-very great; he stood by a
table and, taking up some small object that lay upon it, he found his
hand trembling so that he was obliged to lay it down." It was
desirable, certainly, that something should occur to break the spell
of a diffidence that might justly be called morbid. There is another
little sentence dropped by Mr. Lathrop in relation to this period of
Hawthorne's life, which appears to me worth quoting, though I am by no
means sure that it will seem so to the reader. It has a very simple
and innocent air, but to a person not without an impression of the
early days of "culture" in New England, it will be pregnant with
historic meaning. The elder Miss Peabody, who afterwards was
Hawthorne's sister-in-law and who acquired later in life a very
honourable American fame as a woman of benevolence, of learning, and
of literary accomplishment, had invited the Miss Hathornes to come to
her house for the evening, and to bring with them their brother, whom
she wished to thank for his beautiful tales. "Entirely to her
surprise," says Mr. Lathrop, completing thereby his picture of the
attitude of this remarkable family toward society--"entirely to her
surprise they came. She herself opened the door, and there, before
her, between his sisters, stood a splendidly handsome youth, tall and
strong, with no appearance whatever of timidity, but instead, an
almost fierce determination making his face stern. This was his
resource for carrying off the extreme inward tremor which he really
felt. His hostess brought out Flaxman's designs for Dante, just
received from Professor Felton, of Harvard, and the party made an
evening's entertainment out of them." This last sentence is the one I
allude to; and were it not for fear of appearing too fanciful I
should say that these few words were, to the initiated mind, an
unconscious expression of the lonely frigidity which characterised
most attempts at social recreation in the New England world some forty
years ago. There was at that time a great desire for culture, a great
interest in knowledge, in art, in æsthetics, together with a very
scanty supply of the materials for such pursuits. Small things were
made to do large service; and there is something even touching in the
solemnity of consideration that was bestowed by the emancipated New
England conscience upon little wandering books and prints, little
echoes and rumours of observation and experience. There flourished at
that time in Boston a very remarkable and interesting woman, of whom
we shall have more to say, Miss Margaret Fuller by name. This lady was
the apostle of culture, of intellectual curiosity, and in the
peculiarly interesting account of her life, published in 1852 by
Emerson and two other of her friends, there are pages of her letters
and diaries which narrate her visits to the Boston Athenæum and the
emotions aroused in her mind by turning over portfolios of engravings.
These emotions were ardent and passionate--could hardly have been more
so had she been prostrate with contemplation in the Sistine Chapel or
in one of the chambers of the Pitti Palace. The only analogy I can
recall to this earnestness of interest in great works of art at a
distance from them, is furnished by the great Goethe's elaborate study
of plaster-casts and pencil-drawings at Weimar. I mention Margaret
Fuller here because a glimpse of her state of mind--her vivacity of
desire and poverty of knowledge--helps to define the situation. The
situation lives for a moment in those few words of Mr. Lathrop's. The
initiated mind, as I have ventured to call it, has a vision of a
little unadorned parlour, with the snow-drifts of a Massachusetts
winter piled up about its windows, and a group of sensitive and
serious people, modest votaries of opportunity, fixing their eyes upon
a bookful of Flaxman's attenuated outlines.

At the beginning of the year 1839 he received, through political
interest, an appointment as weigher and gauger in the Boston
Custom-house. Mr. Van Buren then occupied the Presidency, and it
appears that the Democratic party, whose successful candidate he had
been, rather took credit for the patronage it had bestowed upon
literary men. Hawthorne was a Democrat, and apparently a zealous one;
even in later years, after the Whigs had vivified their principles by
the adoption of the Republican platform, and by taking up an honest
attitude on the question of slavery, his political faith never
wavered. His Democratic sympathies were eminently natural, and there
would have been an incongruity in his belonging to the other party. He
was not only by conviction, but personally and by association, a
Democrat. When in later years he found himself in contact with
European civilisation, he appears to have become conscious of a good
deal of latent radicalism in his disposition; he was oppressed with
the burden of antiquity in Europe, and he found himself sighing for
lightness and freshness and facility of change. But these things are
relative to the point of view, and in his own country Hawthorne cast
his lot with the party of conservatism, the party opposed to change
and freshness. The people who found something musty and mouldy in his
literary productions would have regarded this quite as a matter of
course; but we are not obliged to use invidious epithets in describing
his political preferences. The sentiment that attached him to the
Democracy was a subtle and honourable one, and the author of an
attempt to sketch a portrait of him, should be the last to complain of
this adjustment of his sympathies. It falls much more smoothly into
his reader's conception of him than any other would do; and if he had
had the perversity to be a Republican, I am afraid our ingenuity would
have been considerably taxed in devising a proper explanation of the
circumstance. At any rate, the Democrats gave him a small post in the
Boston Custom-house, to which an annual salary of $1,200 was attached,
and Hawthorne appears at first to have joyously welcomed the gift. The
duties of the office were not very congruous to the genius of a man of
fancy; but it had the advantage that it broke the spell of his cursed
solitude, as he called it, drew him away from Salem, and threw him,
comparatively speaking, into the world. The first volume of the
American Note-Books contains some extracts from letters written during
his tenure of this modest office, which indicate sufficiently that his
occupations cannot have been intrinsically gratifying.

"I have been measuring coal all day," he writes, during the
winter of 1840, "on board of a black little British
schooner, in a dismal dock at the north end of the city.
Most of the time I paced the deck to keep myself warm; for
the wind (north-east, I believe) blew up through the dock as
if it had been the pipe of a pair of bellows. The vessel
lying deep between two wharves, there was no more delightful
prospect, on the right hand and on the left, than the posts
and timbers, half immersed in the water and covered with
ice, which the rising and falling of successive tides had
left upon them, so that they looked like immense icicles.
Across the water, however, not more than half a mile off,
appeared the Bunker's Hill Monument, and what interested me
considerably more, a church-steeple, with the dial of a
clock upon it, whereby I was enabled to measure the march of
the weary hours. Sometimes I descended into the dirty little
cabin of the schooner, and warmed myself by a red-hot stove,
among biscuit-barrels, pots and kettles, sea-chests, and
innumerable lumber of all sorts--my olfactories meanwhile
being greatly refreshed with the odour of a pipe, which the
captain, or some one of his crew, was smoking. But at last
came the sunset, with delicate clouds, and a purple light
upon the islands; and I blessed it, because it was the
signal of my release."

A worse man than Hawthorne would have measured coal quite as well, and
of all the dismal tasks to which an unremunerated imagination has ever
had to accommodate itself, I remember none more sordid than the
business depicted in the foregoing lines. "I pray," he writes some
weeks later, "that in one year more I may find some way of escaping
from this unblest Custom-house; for it is a very grievous thraldom. I
do detest all offices; all, at least, that are held on a political
tenure, and I want nothing to do with politicians. Their hearts wither
away and die out of their bodies. Their consciences are turned to
india-rubber, or to some substance as black as that and which will
stretch as much. One thing, if no more, I have gained by my
Custom-house experience--to know a politician. It is a knowledge which
no previous thought or power of sympathy could have taught me; because
the animal, or the machine rather, is not in nature." A few days later
he goes on in the same strain:--

"I do not think it is the doom laid upon me of murdering so
many of the brightest hours of the day at the Custom-house
that makes such havoc with my wits, for here I am again
trying to write worthily ... yet with a sense as if all the
noblest part of man had been left out of my composition, or
had decayed out of it since my nature was given to my own
keeping.... Never comes any bird of Paradise into that
dismal region. A salt or even a coal-ship is ten million
times preferable; for there the sky is above me, and the
fresh breeze around me, and my thoughts having hardly
anything to do with my occupation, are as free as air.
Nevertheless ... it is only once in a while that the image
and desire of a better and happier life makes me feel the
iron of my chain; for after all a human spirit may find no
insufficiency of food for it, even in the Custom-house. And
with such materials as these I do think and feel and learn
things that are worth knowing, and which I should not know
unless I had learned them there; so that the present
position of my life shall not be quite left out of the sum
of my real existence.... It is good for me, on many
accounts, that my life has had this passage in it. I know
much more than I did a year ago. I have a stronger sense of
power to act as a man among men. I have gained worldly
wisdom, and wisdom also that is not altogether of this
world. And when I quit this earthy career where I am now
buried, nothing will cling to me that ought to be left
behind. Men will not perceive, I trust, by my look or the
tenor of my thoughts and feelings, that I have been a
Custom-house officer."

He says, writing shortly afterwards, that "when I shall be free again,
I will enjoy all things with the fresh simplicity of a child of five
years old. I shall grow young again, made all over anew. I will go
forth and stand in a summer shower, and all the worldly dust that has
collected on me shall be washed away at once, and my heart will be
like a bank of fresh flowers for the weary to rest upon."

This forecast of his destiny was sufficiently exact. A year later, in
April 1841, he went to take up his abode in the socialistic community
of Brook Farm. Here he found himself among fields and flowers and
other natural products--as well as among many products that could not
very justly be called natural. He was exposed to summer showers in
plenty; and his personal associations were as different as possible
from, those he had encountered in fiscal circles. He made acquaintance
with Transcendentalism and the Transcendentalists.

Henry James

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