Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Hawthorne's Kantian Turn in "My Visit to Niagara" and Captain Hall's Travels in North America

Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Hawthorne's Kantian Turn in "My Visit to Niagara" and Captain Hall's Travels in North America

Article excerpt

During the summer of 1832, while preparing for a sightseeing tour through New England and northern New York, Nathaniel Hawthorne revealed his motivation in a letter to Franklin Pierce: "I am very desirous of making this journey on account of a book by which I intend to acquire an (undoubtedly) immense literary reputation" (15:224). Hawthorne's ironically inflated expression of ambition underscores his limited success to that point, particularly when compared to the early political victories of Pierce, his college friend. The young Hawthorne's first short story collection, Twice-Told Tales, would not appear for another five years, and his first novel, Fanshawe (1828), had been issued anonymously and would remain unacknowledged. Two other early projects, "Seven Tales of My Native Land" and "Provincial Tales," yielded only excerpts placed in periodicals. (1) But those excerpts, along with other early pieces, display features Hawthorne's readers would find appealing throughout his career, such as gothic stylistic qualities and the use of historical topics. Thus, for example, "The Wives of the Dead," "Roger Malvin's Burial," and "My Kinsman, Major Molineux," which are among the dozen or so short stories predating his 1832 travels, offer foreboding treatments of colonial-era events, subject matter an obscure fiction writer might have hoped would generate a broader readership and the attention of literary nationalists. If, as Nina Baym has maintained, early nineteenth-century literary nationalists understood their mission to be the expression of "the special virtues of the American mind in literary form" (18), then Hawthorne's attempt in 1832 to expand his range with domestic travel narratives makes sense in light of his ambition.

Evidence of Hawthorne's journey is scant: aside from the anticipatory letter to Pierce, there is one to his mother from Vermont as well as a certificate attesting to his having "passed behind the Great Falling Sheet of Water to Termination Rock" at Niagara Falls on September 28, 1832 (Mellow 51). Although the fear of cholera likely delayed his departure and altered his itinerary--1832 was an epidemic year--Hawthorne traveled more or less as planned. He wrote sketches based on these travels, and he composed a manuscript that interspersed the sketches with tales. This manuscript, which he called "The Story Teller," was never published intact and has not survived. Readers therefore can only speculate regarding the sequence of the works comprising the intended volume as well as its precise contents. (2) Nevertheless, we know that the travel sketches culminate with "My Visit to Niagara," which appeared in the February 1835 issue of New-England Magazine and was never republished while Hawthorne was alive. The sketch warrants scholarly attention for two interrelated reasons. The first is its representation of the sublime: it marks a departure from earlier responses to nature in "The Story Teller," and, in terms of Hawthorne's development, it dramatizes the encounter with the sublime as a basis for pervasive uncertainty. Until this time, intellectual or perceptual uncertainty accompanied by emotional anxiety had appeared only as a stylistic device in some of his more gothic tales. Uncertainty would evolve, however, into a key component of Hawthorne's aesthetics, psychology, and ethics. The second noteworthy feature is the textual source of Hawthorne's approach to the sublime in "My Visit to Niagara," for the sketch derives language, imagery, dramatic structure, and ideas from Basil Hall's Travels in North America, a three-volume narrative by the former British sea captain first published in 1829.

Hawthorne could have forgotten to include "My Visit to Niagara" in collections of tales and sketches published during his lifetime, but his indebtedness to Hall's Travels may well have mattered to him. Given Hawthorne's willingness to suppress knowledge of his authorship of Fanshawe, one cannot assume he simply did not recall that the sketch existed. …

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