Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Hawthorne's Illusive Garment of Visibility in "Monsieur Du Miroir"

Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Hawthorne's Illusive Garment of Visibility in "Monsieur Du Miroir"

Article excerpt

The perennial problem in Hawthorne scholarship has always been how best to define the "real Hawthorne." (1) As Michael Colacurcio cogently frames this debate in The Province of Piety (1984), the "Hawthorne Problem" is basically reducible to a Jamesian/Melvillean difference of opinion on the subject of original sin. According to Henry James, Hawthorne imported the Puritan sense of sin as an aesthetic tool for his creative artistry; "his relation to it was only, as one may say, intellectual; it was not moral and theological" (54). Herman Melville, on the contrary, marveled at Hawthorne's "great power of blackness" and said its force was derived "from its appeals to that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free" (107). Given the special prominence of the "Hawthorne Problem" in the secondary literature, it is curious that "Monsieur du Miroir" (1837) has not figured importantly in this discussion, especially since the author's explicitly stated intention in this sketch is to present a few of his more salient features before his estranged audience. An extended evaluation of this story is likewise sorely lacking from all developmental studies of the author to date. Whenever mention is made of this tale, it usually takes the form of a dismissive remark or a hastily improvised misprision. (2) Not surprisingly, James' early monograph set the tone for much of the criticism to follow. He observed that Hawthorne's sketches "are so light, so slight, so tenderly trivial, that simply to mention them is to put them in a false position. The author's claim for them is barely audible, even to the most acute listener. They are things to take or to leave--to enjoy, but not to talk about" (40). (3) Melville apparently heard something that was inaudible to James, however, for he remarked of this sketch, "to a reader at all capable of fully fathoming it, what ... can possess more mystical depth of meaning?" (107). (4) James emerges a little worse for the wear in this case, for despite its deceptively playful surfaces, "Monsieur du Miroir" is an in-depth study of the radical finitude of the human condition in all its vicissitudes, whether conceived as the limitation of the mind, the mortality of the body, or the impurity of the will. The following exposition will provide a close examination of "Monsieur du Miroir" coupled with a brief history of the author's reading habits at the time he composed this sketch. Far from being an irrelevant fancy or a failed composition, this much maligned meditation upon body and soul pits the claims of idealism against skepticism, specifically on the topic of the redemptive power of reflection, a subject that was brought to the fore for Hawthorne by Coleridge's transcendentalist contribution to the debate between philosophy and religion.

Although the Jamesian/Melvillean difference on original sin has been treated as the privileged site of the Hawthorne debate, the contemporary split over the author's alleged transcendentalism actually dates back to another early and influential literary litigant, Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote three reviews of Hawthorne between 1842 and 1847. (5) Poe was the first to declare that many of Hawthorne's prose compositions read more like essays than tales. He had British essayists like "Lamb or Hunt or Hazlitt" (570) in mind, but given Hawthorne's early appetite for Montaigne, Voltaire, and Rousseau, the Frenchphilosophes undoubtedly played a larger part in shaping the stylistic contours of his literary effusions at the time. According to his transcription records from the Salem Athenaeum Library, Hawthorne read close to fifty volumes of Voltaire's Oeuvres Completes between 1829 and 1831, turned to Montaigne's Essais between September and November of 1831, and borrowed several volumes of Rousseau's Oeuvres Completes at this time as well. (6) He first recorded his idea for "Monsieur du Miroir" in a notebook entry for October 17, 1835, when he wrote: "To make one's own reflection in a mirror the subject of a story" (15). …

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