Upon first reading Nathaniel Hawthorne, my Cornell students usually like least about him what I love most--his prose style. For them his archaic manner is too heavy-going (all that symbolism!); it's stuffy, boring, ancient history. For me the style is powerful, supple, thoroughly original--an invention so utterly his own that you can no more mistake a Hawthorne paragraph for somebody else's than you can misattribute a Van Gogh painting.
To coax the class out of their Castle Dismal, I show them what a rich source Hawthorne was for two poets, Robert Lowell and Emily Dickinson. Lowell's poem is from something Hawthorne wrote very late in life, and Dickinson's takes off from a dark sketch Hawthorne wrote very early, probably in college.
Returning to America after his years of consulship in Liverpool and his anxious, terrible months in Italy (his daughter Una had almost died of "Roman fever"), Hawthorne worked on four different "Romances." He was unable to complete any one of them. He still has power, terrific power, in these abortive adventures, but in each book he flirts with a subject, stops momentarily to throw intense light on a problem, and then wanders away in search of bloody footprints and magic potions. Nowhere does he seem to see the real significance of his symbols, what they repre-