Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Leaps and Bounds: Hawthorne's Strategies of Poetic Economy*

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Leaps and Bounds: Hawthorne's Strategies of Poetic Economy*

Article excerpt

Nobody, I think, ought to read poetry, or look at pictures or statues, who cannot find a great deal more in them than the poet or artist has actually expressed. Their highest merit is their suggestiveness.

(Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Marble Faun, The Hawthorne Treasury 1351)

Nathaniel Hawthorne's works, especially his late romances, display an innovative form of poetic economy which engages the philosophical thought resulting from some major advances of science in his time, incorporating, not so much the discoveries themselves, as the new paths they open in interpretation.1 Hawthorne's case is particularly interesting not only because of this incorporation, but also due to the author's conscious use of them coupled with his moral resistance to them. His critical view goes indeed against the general enthusiasm with which the majority of his contemporaries welcomed the advances in fields of science deemed dubious by him, and the moral and metaphysical issues they seemed to tackle.

Hawthorne liked experimenting with the structure of his narratives.2 His works are often structured in clusters of passages or scenes overloaded with minute, even seemingly redundant, information, bordering on the superfluous, which are connected with each other in an elliptic and often abrupt way. Against this background I would like to map the stylistic strategies Hawthorne uses to bridge those gaps, in an attempt to illustrate how these connections, which at first glance seem like arbitrary leaps,3 function within the narrative, giving an interesting effect of plush economy, of profusion emanating from these elliptical connections, paradoxically achieving the effect of excess. Hawthorne's poetic economy gives a sense of overabundance of expression in a narrative in which at times - in a constant play on too much versus too little - so much has been omitted that, if closely inspected, his late romances stretch, and could even be viewed as almost defying, the definition of the genre.

A Closed Circuit: Electricity, Mesmerism, and the Romantic Aesthetics

Romantic aesthetics heavily drew on electrical science as an analogy for figuring poetical creation and aesthetic experience as both material and transcendent.4 Hawthorne thus came into an already subsisting network of thought, well established within English Romanticism and enthusiastically received in the new continent by the Transcendentalist movement. It has been observed that in Hawthorne's romances, "each event of the story is like an electrical junction, where circuits of metaphor of varying size and function are joined" (Gable xiv). This structure could be viewed as the basis for the way Hawthorne bridges the "gaps" in his narrative, using several stylistic strategies which reflect this notion of connecting things without getting them into contact, so to speak, but through a kind of immaterial but specific and systematic way which is primarily stylistic. These include, among others: a vocabulary working suggestively (either by clustering around significant semantic fields or through evoking associations of ideas); a web of connected metaphors that give a sense of coherence by implication of a hidden system; auto-referential stylistic patterns within the work itself; recurring patterns in characterization and symbolism as well as in the structure of scenes, and even at the level of the structure within sentences. The notions of secrecy and of hidden connections by means of a hidden force are strong underlying elements to many of those stylistic strategies.5

In Hawthorne's time, the electric imagery had already been appropriated not only in literature, but also in the rhetoric of a variety of discourses ranging from religious to political abolitionist visions, and even in expressing aesthetic power.6 Electric imagery runs through the Transcendentalist writings, and Emerson even links it specifically to the function of the artistic creation; in his 1844 essay "The Poet" he incites him with these words:

Doubt not, O poet, but persist: Say "It is in me, and shall out/' Stand there, balked and dumb, stuttering and stammering, hissed and hooted, stand and strive, until at last rage draw out of thee that dream-power which every night shows thee is thine own; a power transcending all limit and privacy, and by virtue of which a man is the conductor of the whole river of electricity. …

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