Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Scenes of Embodiment: Interpretation and Community in Hawthorne's Biographical Stories

Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Scenes of Embodiment: Interpretation and Community in Hawthorne's Biographical Stories

Article excerpt

Nathaniel Hawthorne's Biographical Stories for Children, first published in 1842, is one of his more neglected books. While Hawthorne's writings for children have undergone "something of a renaissance in the last few years," as Derek Pacheco has argued ("Vanished Scenes" 188), Biographical Stories remains relatively overlooked and, when mentioned at all, is often dismissed for its perceived structural flaws and unfocused content. (2) While Nina Baym is often (rightly) credited with returning Hawthorne's writings for children to scholarly consideration with her landmark The Shape of Hawthorne's Career, we can also find such judgments in her text. In contrast to the "genuine literary achievement" that she sees in The Whole History of Grandfather's Chair, she argues that Biographical Stories is "much inferior" (86, 96). The faults she finds are primarily technical: "Hawthorne attempts a variation on the same framing formula" employed in The Whole History "but handles it much more mechanically" (96). Laura Laffrado's reading of Biographical Stories in Hawthorne's Literature for Children, while comprehensive, adds a biographical critique to Baym's technical one. Laffrado argues that Hawthorne is both distracted by his labors at Brook Farm during the composition of the work (a claim substantiated by Hawthorne's letters to Sophia) and generally disappointed with the text, rendering him unable to complete it (presumably as a trilogy like The Whole History). (3) He is apparently so discouraged that he does not take up a longer work of children's literature again until after the relative success of The Scarlet Letter. (4) Such criticism has contributed to preventing us from reading the text as we find it. (5)

Biographical Stories is a frame narrative in which Mr. Temple presents tales featuring "eminent personage[s]" of history in his or her youth to entertain his despondent son Edward, who has recently been diagnosed with an affliction rendering him blind. As with The Whole History, Biographical Stories is at its core pedagogical: each story aims to engage its young audience in historical narrative for the purposes of cultivating a knowledge of history and introducing notions of civic responsibility. Hawthorne's methodology, though, is quite different in Biographical Stories. Rather than indicating a technical failure, or the influence of external forces on Hawthorne as writer, I argue that the paucity of the frame (compared to that of the Whole History) represents a conscious shift towards increasing expectations placed upon readers to read, that is, to interpret. (6)

While readers since Baym have rehabilitated The Whole History's place in the Hawthorne canon by valorizing the children's competing interpretations in the book's frame narrative, this form can foreclose the interpretation of its component tales. The dramatization of the children's different interpretive approaches, and the cultivation and guidance of those readings by Grandfather, do not necessarily initiate the free play of child readers, but show the predetermined play of reading by others. (7) However, in minimizing the role of the frame in Biographical Stories and deemphasizing responses by Mr. Temple's auditors, Hawthorne creates freedom of interpretation for his readers or listeners.

Whereas the historical content of The Whole History is primary in that text, the "eminent personages" about whom Biographical Stories is nominally concerned are secondary to the interpretive work that the text invites young readers to perform. In this sense, Biographical Stories is a more consciously literary text than The Whole History. (8) This interpretive space is not limited to the book's tales, but works within the frame itself: Edward's affliction and its relation to Mr. Temple's six tales are left unresolved. While many readers struggle to find a coherent organizational principle to the book, blindness and the effects of embodiment on social life are central to the unfolding of the text, including both the frame and the tales. …

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