Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Pragmatic Politics and the Dream of Heroism: Hawthorne's Life of Pierce and Tanglewood Tales

Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Pragmatic Politics and the Dream of Heroism: Hawthorne's Life of Pierce and Tanglewood Tales

Article excerpt

"I never did anything else so well as these old baby-stories," Nathaniel Hawthorne professed in March 1853 after completing The Tanglewood Tales, the sequel to his well-received 1851 publication, A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys. (1) Just four months later, Hawthorne would set sail for Europe to assume the U.S. Consulship in Liverpool, a handsomely-paid political appointment awarded to him by the newly elected Democratic president, Franklin Pierce. Appearing thus at the apex of his publishing career--it would be seven years before he would publish again--this last of Hawthorne's works for children presents six retellings of ancient Greek quest narratives featuring noble heroes who confront and slay fantastical wicked foes, including monsters, dragons, and giants. (2) By revamping the tales in a modern "romantic guise" Hawthorne sought to make them accessible to contemporary American children who, with their "unestimated sensibility to whatever is deep or high, in imagination or feeling," were the audience he regarded as uniquely suited to apprehend the beauty of these "immortal fables" (7:4, 7:3). To his friend Richard Henry Stoddard, Hawthorne claimed that The Tanglewood Tales had been "done up in excellent style, purified from all moral stains," a remark that further signals the unusual degree of pride that the work occasioned him (16 March 1853 16:649).

The high esteem that Hawthorne held for this project, with its violent, good-versus-evil narratives, poses something of a mystery, however, given the skepticism for Manichean idealism that pervades his writing for adults, nowhere more directly than in the work that he completed immediately preceding The Tanglewood Tales, namely the Life of Franklin Pierce, the campaign biography he published in 1852 during the run-up to the presidential election. When Franklin Pierce, a fellow Bowdoin College alumnus, was nominated as the Democratic dark-horse candidate in that year, Hawthorne had marshaled both his fame and his authorial skills to seeing his friend gain the White House. The campaign biography hails Pierce's devotion to the Union while also promoting compromise and tolerance, self-discipline and pacifism, and largely desisting from the militant rhetoric that increasingly pervaded American political and social discourse in the early 1850s, an age when even Hawthorne's Transcendentalist neighbors in Concord perceived slavery as a cause justifying violent resistance. (3) Increasingly alone among New England literati in the 1850s, Hawthorne held onto his doubts over moralistic reform movements, particularly for their tendencies to perceive the world in binary absolutes of good and evil. (4) While New England advanced closer to accepting warfare as an ethical response to the South's unbending agenda to maintain and spread the practice of slavery in the United States, Hawthorne's fiction for adults persisted in casting moral crusades as inherently flawed and futile; as he puts it in Blithedale, "little as we know of our life to come, we may be very sure, for one thing, that the good we aim at will not be attained" (3:75). The Life of Pierce adopts a similarly doubtful outlook on the premise of interventionism and altogether rejects decisive action on the matter of slavery. In return for this skepticism, Hawthorne was treated to widespread censure, such as that offered by the New York Times in its 1852 review of the Life of Pierce, which pronounced Hawthorne an "indiscriminate panegyrist and electioneering trickster." More recent scholars have continued the denunciation of Hawthorne's politics, often perceived as little more than a "strategy of denial and avoidance," and a "deplorable quietism" that furnishes "an excuse for doing nothing about anything." (5)

Remarkably, having endured both public and private derision for his refusal to align himself with the anti-slavery movement, Hawthorne next turned, with The Tanglewood Tales, to the mythical-quest genre, a literary mode that would seem to epitomize the very romanticization of crusades that he had repudiated in both the fiction and the campaign biography. …

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