Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Hawthorne's Serio-Comic Muse in "My Kinsman, Major Molineux"

Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Hawthorne's Serio-Comic Muse in "My Kinsman, Major Molineux"

Article excerpt

When one thinks of Nathaniel Hawthorne's works, with their typically dark characters, somber events, and tragic themes, such as the power and influence of evil, the sins of the human heart or intellect, obsessive pride and consequent alienation, comedy is not the first thing to come to mind. When speaking of humor and comedy, it may seem the terms are synonymous, but there is a distinction. According to William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman, humor spawns laughter and "designate [s] a peculiar disposition that led to a person's readily perceiving the ridiculous, the ludicrous, and the comical and effectively giving expression to this perspective" (257); comedy, on the other hand, has as its purpose to amuse, "to provoke smiles and laughter" (106). Moreover, comedy "deal[s] with people in their human state, restrained and often made ridiculous by their limitations, faults, bodily functions, and animal nature" and often emanates from perceiving "some incongruity of speech, action, or character," one of the principal sources of which is recognizing the "discrepancy between fact and pretense" (Harmon and Holman 106). Viewed against the popular American comic genres in the 1830s and 1840s, Hawthorne's sketches and fictional tales, in particular, do not overtly feature the kinds of comical scripts and strategies commonly found in Washington Irving's widely popular and influential "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle"; in the Down East comedy of Seba Smith, whose comic mock letters from Jack Downing to the editor of Portland (Maine) Daily Courier exploited rural Yankee vernacular dialect and the simple-mindedness and common sense of a wise fool type of character; and in the tall-tale exaggeration of the frontier or backwoods humor of the Old Southwest.

Even so, elements of comedy exist in Hawthorne's works. Hawthorne's use of the comedic may be examined from a variety of angles and perspectives, including, but not limited to, reader response theory, his portrayal of a variation of the comic Yankee stereotype, the application of Thomas Hobbes's superiority theory of comedy, the comic grotesque, the tragicomic, and the Bakhtinian carnivalesque. Several of his stories, "Mr. Higginbotham's Catastrophe" (1834) and "Mrs. Bullfrog" (1837), for example, are demonstrably comical. While the former has been generally recognized for its detective story elements and being "in the tall tale tradition, that most venerated mainstream of American humor" (Inge 3), the farcical "Mrs. Bullfrog" exploits the popular mode of the comic representation of the grotesque body, the body of Mrs. Bullfrog comprised mainly of artificial parts. Depending on one's perspective of what constitutes comedy, parts of The Scarlet Letter (1850), The House of the Seven Gables (1851), The Blithedale Romance (1852), "Young Goodman Brown" (1835), "The Minister's Black Veil" (1836), "Ethan Brand" (1850), "The Birthmark"(1843), "Wakefield" (1835), and "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" (1832) have their risible moments. Even in Hawthorne's own time, several reviewers and critics perceived him as a humorist and showed an appreciation for his peculiar brand of comedy.

As early as 1845, in an unsigned essay, "American Humor," published in the Democratic Review, the writer situated Hawthorne in the company of humorous essayists Benjamin Franklin and John Wirt, noting that

Hawthorne ['s] strength lies in a combination of rich quaint sombre fancy, with a delicate melancholy coloring. The Tieck of this American literature of ours (though the gayer fancy of the German is clouded in his case by the slight tinge of the gloom of "puritanical New England, in itself one of the sources of romantic interest and in his case of the mildest tinge and softest hues) has shown gleams and streaks of humor in most of his tales, his best writings by far. (qtd. in Crowley 101)

This reviewer also observed that in his tales and sketches,

[Hawthorne] sometimes discloses a vein of genuine humor, like himself however, rather of a gentle than of a forcible character. …

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