Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Early Hawthorne Forgotten

Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Early Hawthorne Forgotten

Article excerpt

We think we know him. As Hyatt Waggoner memorably put it, he's "our Hawthorne." But do we really know him? Or his work? I think our presumed familiarity outstrips our knowledge. Perhaps we cling to an image of the Hawthorne that needs occasional revision. For several decades and increasingly in the 1990s, he was a favorite whipping boy of Americanist criticism. Biographical exposes, only faintly disguised through the legerdermain of psychoanalysis, feminist studies, and racial politics, interpreted a repeated number of Hawthorne's works not so much to illuminate the writings but the man who composed them. And so we have Hawthorne the man who lacks confidence in himself as a writer; Hawthorne who doubts his manhood; Hawthorne who harbors unacknowledged homoerotic desires; Hawthorne who reveals a lifelong attraction to and repulsion from homosexual experience initiated by a Manning uncle; Hawthorne who has an erotic fascination for Herman Melville or Maragret Fuller; and Hawthorne who, in addition to feeling dubious about the efficacy of civic reform movements generally, was a racist.

Whether or not we affirm any of these views, the only "our Hawthorne" that we might agree upon is that he was a fairly dark, brooding sort of fellow, that he was rather shy or private, not given to conviviality, that he was obsessed with matters of guilt and quite severe in his moral judgments, that he inherited his gloom and solitariness and severity from the Puritan tradition of New England, and that, partly owing to all of these traits and influences, he really didn't have much regard for what he frequently termed his "idle" stories.

Some evidence supports this composite image, particularly if we restrict the focus to the fiction upon which commentators have largely devoted their attention. For the most part, unrelieved darkness and pessimism seem to dominate virtually all of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century historical tales, as well as The Scarlet Letter and The Marble Faun, and considerably The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance. Shy, hesitant, or self-doubting male characters appear often enough as in Tobias Pearson in "The Gentle Boy" and the title character in "Young Goodman Brown," or, more famously, in Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter. Isolation or estrangement takes center stage in "The Man of Adamant," "Wakefield," "Ethan Brand," and The Blithedale Romance. Guilt predominates in "Roger Malvin's Burial," The Scarlet Letter, Seven Gables, and The Marble Faun. Seemingly weak artist figures or nervous male characters acquire prominence in "The Artist of the Beautiful," The Scarlet Letter, and The Blithedale Romance.

Accordingly, Hawthorne would not appear to have been a very happy guy. Yet we tend to forget, even those of us who read him whole, that Hawthorne wrote a lot of tales and sketches, by my count just over one hundred. Of these, only 18 can be considered more or less historical. Of the remaining 80 or so, only a few have normally been anthologized, such as "Wakefield," "Rappaccini's Daughter," and "Ethan Brand." As a result, roughly 75 works are generally unfamiliar to most readers, and I would guess that at least half of these cannot be recalled by title, let alone content, even by scholars who devote much of their professional attention to Hawthorne. For example, the following titles rarely ring a bell--"A Bell's Biography"--"My Visit to Niagara"--"The Village Uncle"--"Graves and Goblins"--"A Visit to the Clerk of the Weather"--"David Swan"--"Edward Fane's Rosebud"--"Peter Goldthwaite's Treasure"--"Chippings with a Chisel"--"Foot-prints on the Sea-shore"--"Snow-flakes"--"The Lily's Quest"--"An Antique Ring"--"The Old Apple-Dealer."

Taken together, these obscure tales and sketches present a Hawthorne more diverse in temperament and authorial enterprise than we can easily perceive in the stories and the novels commonly reprinted. To be sure, some of these non-canonical works reflect the infamously known Hawthorne, but many reflect a jovial, jesting, and even child-like but certainly optimistic side of his temperament, quite unlike what we have been nudged to expect from criticism. …

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