Citizens of Somewhere Else: Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James

By Dan McCall | Go to book overview

Chapter One Henry James on Nathaniel Hawthorne

Henry James Hawthorne ( 1879) is an essential text in American cultural history. James wrote the book for the English Men of Letters series; he was the only American contributor, Hawthorne the only American subject. Edmund Wilson was not altogether accurate when he famously claimed in The Shock of Recognition ( 1943) that Hawthorne was "the first extended study ever made of an American writer." Before it there had been several "extended studies" of Edgar Allan Poe both in America and France, valuable "appreciations" of Walt Whitman starting as early as the 1860s, and William Gilmore Simms's critical assessments of James Fenimore Cooper. But Wilson was surely right to rank Hawthorne as "still one of the best."

Among other achievements James correctly placed The Scarlet Letter for us as "the finest piece of imaginative writing yet put forth in the country," and asserted that "something might at last be sent to Europe as exquisite in quality as anything that had been received, and the best of it was that the thing was absolutely American; it belonged to the soil, to the air; it came out of the very heart of New England." But what James so graciously gave with one hand he swiftly took away with the other. In The Scarlet Letter, he says, "there is a great deal of symbolism; there is, I think, too much. It is overdone at times, and becomes mechanical; it ceases to be impressive, and grazes triviality. We feel that he goes too far, and is in dan-

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