In his 1840 review of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales, Edgar Allan Poe imposed a distinction between tales and essays which has haunted Hawthorne scholarship for more than a century and a hale Now we rarely discuss Hawthorne's "essays," and one of the reasons that we don't is Poe's emphasis on "their discrepancy with that marked precision and finish by which the body of [Twice-Told Tales] is distinguished" (133).
In the essays ... [Poe continues] the absence of effort is too
obvious to be mistaken, and a strong under-current of suggestion
runs continuously beneath the upper stream of the tranquil thesis.
In short, these effusions of Mr. Hawthorne are the product of a
truly imaginative intellect, restrained, and in some measure
repressed by fastidiousness of taste, by constitutional melancholy,
and by indolence" (134).
For Poe the "strong under-current of suggestion" that escapes repression is like the pathetic remnants of what could have been a tale if only Hawthorne wasn't so lazy. But I feel that the strong undercurrent of suggestion that escapes repression is the essence of Hawthorne's art, and I'd like to suggest that Poe is making three mistakes here. First, he doesn't seem to appreciate how important suggestion is to art. Hawthorne does--or at least Hilda in The Marble Faun does. "Nobody [she says] ought to read [poems] who cannot find in them a great deal more than the artist has expressed. Their highest merit is suggestiveness" (4:379). Not only is Poe unable to appreciate the merit of suggestiveness, he is also unable to appreciate the distance between Hawthorne and Hawthorne's narrators. It's not Hawthorne who restrains and represses; it's Hawthorne's narrators. And that's why Poe's wrong again when he suggests that repression restricts Hawthorne's art. "Little Annie's Ramble," for example, is not the "pure essay" that Poe dismisses it as; it's a complexly crafted psychological tale of narrative repression and suggestion--neither an essay nor pure.
Nor studied. The few critics who haven't shied away from such an "imprecise" work, still end up sounding too much like Poe. Mary M. Van Tassel's "Hawthorne, His Narrator, and His Readers, in 'Little Annie's Ramble,'" the only detailed study of Hawthorne's tale, is paradigmatic. Even though Van Tassel is well aware of Hawthorne's narrators, she still, like Poe, doesn't realize their capacity for suppression: "Hawthorne's suppression of visual detail [she says] throws the weight of his sketches onto the narrative persona" (169). But in "Little Annie's Ramble," the very sketch Van Tassel focuses on, the visual detail which is suppressed is suppressed by the narrative persona so that he can assume the weight of his tale. Van Tassel also seems appreciative of the tale's suggestions: she advocates "close reading" (170), and she herself looks closely at Hawthorne's imagery, concluding, for example, that "[f]ood is the object of an almost sexual fantasy--the pastry shop displays 'sweet' little circlets, sweetly named kisses [...]' "(174). But Van Tassel still misses many of Hawthorne's suggestions, especially those of a deeper darkness. We will soon see that since Annie herself is frequently called little and sweet, and since the narrator goes out of his way to introduce Little Red Riding Hood's wolf, "sweet little circlets, sweetly called kisses" makes suggestions much darker than "food is the object of an almost sexual fantasy." But first we must note that while Van Tassel laments the lack of psychological insight in "Little Annie's Ramble,"--"whereas we admire the psychological insight of 'Roger Malvin's Burial,' we deplore the moral prosings of 'Little Annie's Ramble'" (168)--, it is her own focus on morality and the brighter realms of allegory which keep her from the dark psychological insights of "Little Annie's Ramble." Even when she touches on the horror, she retreats to--and reduces Hawthorne's tale to--an allegory depicting the frustrations of the creative writer. …