Citizens of Somewhere Else: Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James

By Dan McCall | Go to book overview

Chapter Three Hawthorne's "Familiar Kind of Preface"

While Hawthorne's prefaces have been widely remarked upon and anthologized, they are too often taken simply as elaborate definitions of a genre specializing in mellowed light. Their real subject is not aesthetic theory; rather, it is Hawthorne's attempt to borrow a commonplace of literary theory in the mid-nineteenth century, the distinction between Romance and Novel, in order to mitigate his sense of failing his materials and the best in his own talent. We must maintain a double awareness of the fight going on in him and in his writing between what Poe called "the obvious" and "the insinuated." If we do not hear the man's voice while he makes his definitions, if we do not realize what went into the prefaces, then we cannot claim to understand what they are and why Hawthorne was compelled to write them.

He was never quite sure what to think about his own work. In "Fragments From The Journal Of A Solitary Man" he confessed, in the person of his tubercular young artist, that "I have never yet discovered the real secret of my powers." And in spite of his many prefatory essays on what he was trying to do, Hawthorne failed to make a statement that satisfied him; he lived in uneasy contradictions. His son, Julian, once said: "My father was two men." Hawthorne does often present himself as two men, intently scrutinizing each other, each daring the other to cross the line. His "Inmost Me" and his "iron reserve" engage in constant disruptive com

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