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"Death Possesses a Good Deal of Real Estate": References to Gravestones and Burial Grounds in Nathaniel Hawthorne's American Notebooks and Selected Fictional Works

By Meyer, Richard E. | Studies in the Literary Imagination, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

"Death Possesses a Good Deal of Real Estate": References to Gravestones and Burial Grounds in Nathaniel Hawthorne's American Notebooks and Selected Fictional Works


Meyer, Richard E., Studies in the Literary Imagination


INTRODUCTION

Were one to ask the average reader which classic American writer most frequently employed references to gravestones and burial grounds, the answer most probably would be Edgar Allan Poe. This is perhaps natural, given the several celebrated instances of mortuary symbolism and setting found in Poe's work as well as his general reputation as an author of the macabre. It is not Poe, however, but rather his literary contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne whose work is most heavily steeped in such references. This tendency to employ headstones and graveyards--often real ones, or at the very least clearly derived from and closely modeled upon actual sources--as focal elements in imagery, symbolism, setting, and plot structure is present throughout Hawthorne's literary career from his earliest juvenile efforts to his last unpublished novels. And paralleling the fictional instances are the vast number of references found in the author's American Notebooks, which cover the years 1835-1853. The reasons for Hawthorne's fascination--some might choose to call it obsession--with such matters are several, the chief of which most probably stems from the early impressions on his imagination fostered by his birthplace and hometown of Salem, Massachusetts. Beyond this, however, it seems clear that something within him resonated with these burial sites and artifacts in a manner surpassing even that of his average contemporaries, who, one might note, as a whole were considerably more comfortable with the physical trappings of death than are most persons in our own time. And, though his own life span was relatively brief--he died just short of his sixtieth birthday--Nathaniel Hawthorne would witness firsthand, and to a certain degree incorporate within his works, what was without doubt the most important historical shift ever to occur in American material commemoration.

Amongst the first extant literary efforts by the young Nathaniel Hawthorne are a number of rather awkwardly phrased poems such as the following, written at around the age of 15 or 16:

   Go to the grave where friends are laid,
   And learn how quickly mortals fade,
   Learn how the fairest flower must droop,
   Learn how the strongest form must stoop,
   Learn that we are but dust and clay,
   The short-liv'd creatures of a day. (Poems 9)

Graveyard settings frame a surprising number of these examples of juvenilia, and they display the influence not only of the British pre-Romantic "graveyard school" of poetry but also, even more tellingly, of an Americanized Puritan mind-set all too well-known to Hawthorne even at this early age. Indeed, they are most strongly reminiscent of the sixteenth--and seventeenth-century memento mori gravestone epitaphs found throughout New England, the most famous of which, found in countless variants, speaks directly to its readers (George and Nelson 85). The lesson is clearly spelled out: profit by the example set before you:

   Behold my friends as you pass by
   As you are now so once was I
   As I am now, so you must be
   Prepare for Death and follow me (Wallis 85)

This memento mori theme, which, as David Watters has noted, "is endemic to the Puritan mind," is quite intentionally instructive in nature (22). From their earliest formalized exposure to the Puritan worldview in the verses of the New England Primer to the visual emblems and written inscriptions they read upon the tombstones in every village graveyard, members of this culture were continuously encouraged not only to anticipate death but to see everywhere in the world about them the visible reminders of its imminence (Benes 33).

Growing up as he did in Salem, a place with which he maintained a lifelong love-hate relationship, the young author was constantly surrounded by the material reminders of the town's Puritan past and of his own family's connection to that heritage (Moore 1-2; Miller xiii-xiv).

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