Variations on Nature
From the Old Manse to the White Whale
Nathaniel Hawthorne, another distinguished resident of Concord in the early 1840s, rarely if ever claims a place in surveys of American nature writers. This chapter begins, however, with a look at one of Hawthorne's personal essays that offers a thoughtful assessment of human interactions with the green world. The greenery in question is not the pristine wilderness of “first nature” but a garden refuge beside the Concord River displaying apple orchards and winter squash. Hawthorne's essay thus describes a nature consistent with that represented in women's nineteenth-century garden literature. The environmental rhetoric of “The Old Manse” preface also has a religious undertone. It reflects an incarnational theology of God's Creation grounded in Hawthorne's gratitude for the grace made manifest in vegetative life.
Written in an expansive mood of contentment, “The Old Manse” preface first centers our attention on the venerable house where Hawthorne wrote his second major collection of tales between 1842 and 1845. The manse holds the accumulated experience of several clerical generations who inhabited it before him. Its garret contains heaps of old books and newspapers. So in one sense the house walls mark the outer boundary of Culture, as opposed to the local forms of Nature with which it is “environed.”1 But as the essay unfolds, in the meandering style of a personal meditation, the house's integral connection to its surroundings becomes clearer. In the author's creative mind, the house becomes more nearly a portal, inviting free entry to nature's green space, than a wall against it. The Old Manse serves, in fact, as Hawthorne's window on the green