Meet us on:
Entire Site
    Try our fun game

    Dueling book covers…may the best design win!

    Random Quote
    "We are born charming, fresh and spontaneous and must be civilized before we are fit to participate in society."

    Subscribe to Our Newsletter

    Follow us on Twitter

    Never miss a good book again! Follow Read Print on Twitter

    Ch. 3 - Early Writings

    • Rate it:
    Launch Reading Mode Next Chapter
    Chapter 3
    Previous Chapter
    The second volume of the _Twice-Told Tales_ was published in 1845, in
    Boston; and at this time a good many of the stories which were
    afterwards collected into the _Mosses from an Old Manse_ had already
    appeared, chiefly in _The Democratic Review_, a sufficiently
    flourishing periodical of that period. In mentioning these things I
    anticipate; but I touch upon the year 1845 in order to speak of the
    two collections of _Twice-Told Tales_ at once. During the same year
    Hawthorne edited an interesting volume, the _Journals of an African
    Cruiser_, by his friend Bridge, who had gone into the Navy and seen
    something of distant waters. His biographer mentions that even then
    Hawthorne's name was thought to bespeak attention for a book, and he
    insists on this fact in contradiction to the idea that his productions
    had hitherto been as little noticed as his own declaration that he
    remained "for a good many years the obscurest man of letters in
    America," might lead one, and has led many people, to suppose. "In
    this dismal chamber FAME was won," he writes in Salem in 1836. And we
    find in the Note-Books (1840), this singularly beautiful and touching

    "Here I sit in my old accustomed chamber, where I used to
    sit in days gone by.... Here I have written many tales--many
    that have been burned to ashes, many that have doubtless
    deserved the same fate. This claims to be called a haunted
    chamber, for thousands upon thousands of visions have
    appeared to me in it; and some few of them have become
    visible to the world. If ever I should have a biographer, he
    ought to make great mention of this chamber in my memoirs,
    because so much of my lonely youth was wasted here, and here
    my mind and character were formed; and here I have been glad
    and hopeful, and here I have been despondent. And here I sat
    a long, long time, waiting patiently for the world to know
    me, and sometimes wondering why it did not know me sooner,
    or whether it would ever know me at all--at least till I
    were in my grave. And sometimes it seems to me as if I were
    already in the grave, with only life enough to be chilled
    and benumbed. But oftener I was happy--at least as happy as
    I then knew how to be, or was aware of the possibility of
    being. By and by the world found me out in my lonely chamber
    and called me forth--not indeed with a loud roar of
    acclamation, but rather with a still small voice--and forth
    I went, but found nothing in the world I thought preferable
    to my solitude till now.... And now I begin to understand
    why I was imprisoned so many years in this lonely chamber,
    and why I could never break through the viewless bolts and
    bars; for if I had sooner made my escape into the world, I
    should have grown hard and rough, and been covered with
    earthly dust, and my heart might have become callous by rude
    encounters with the multitude.... But living in solitude
    till the fulness of time was come, I still kept the dew of
    my youth and the freshness of my heart.... I used to think
    that I could imagine all passions, all feelings, and states
    of the heart and mind; but how little did I know!... Indeed,
    we are but shadows; we are not endowed with real life, and
    all that seems most real about us is but the thinnest
    substance of a dream--till the heart be touched. That touch
    creates us--then we begin to be--thereby we are beings of
    reality and inheritors of eternity."

    There is something exquisite in the soft philosophy of this little
    retrospect, and it helps us to appreciate it to know that the writer
    had at this time just become engaged to be married to a charming and
    accomplished person, with whom his union, which took place two years
    later, was complete and full of happiness. But I quote it more
    particularly for the evidence it affords that, already in 1840,
    Hawthorne could speak of the world finding him out and calling him
    forth, as of an event tolerably well in the past. He had sent the
    first of the _Twice-Told_ series to his old college friend,
    Longfellow, who had already laid, solidly, the foundation of his great
    poetic reputation, and at the time of his sending it had written him a
    letter from which it will be to our purpose to quote a few lines:--

    "You tell me you have met with troubles and changes. I know
    not what these may have been; but I can assure you that
    trouble is the next best thing to enjoyment, and that there
    is no fate in the world so horrible as to have no share in
    either its joys or sorrows. For the last ten years I have
    not lived, but only dreamed of living. It may be true that
    there may have been some unsubstantial pleasures here in the
    shade, which I might have missed in the sunshine, but you
    cannot conceive how utterly devoid of satisfaction all my
    retrospects are. I have laid up no treasure of pleasant
    remembrances against old age; but there is some comfort in
    thinking that future years may be more varied, and therefore
    more tolerable, than the past. You give me more credit than
    I deserve in supposing that I have led a studious life. I
    have indeed turned over a good many books, but in so
    desultory a way that it cannot be called study, nor has it
    left me the fruits of study.... I have another great
    difficulty in the lack of materials; for I have seen so
    little of the world that I have nothing but thin air to
    concoct my stories of, and it is not easy to give a
    life-like semblance to such shadowy stuff. Sometimes,
    through a peephole, I have caught a glimpse of the real
    world, and the two or three articles in which I have
    portrayed these glimpses please me better than the others."

    It is more particularly for the sake of the concluding lines that I
    have quoted this passage; for evidently no portrait of Hawthorne at
    this period is at all exact which, fails to insist upon the constant
    struggle which must have gone on between his shyness and his desire to
    know something of life; between what may be called his evasive and his
    inquisitive tendencies. I suppose it is no injustice to Hawthorne to
    say that on the whole his shyness always prevailed; and yet,
    obviously, the struggle was constantly there. He says of his
    _Twice-Told Tales_, in the preface, "They are not the talk of a
    secluded man with his own mind and heart (had it been so they could
    hardly have failed to be more deeply and permanently valuable,) but
    his attempts, and very imperfectly successful ones, to open an
    intercourse with the world." We are speaking here of small things, it
    must be remembered--of little attempts, little sketches, a little
    world. But everything is relative, and this smallness of scale must
    not render less apparent the interesting character of Hawthorne's
    efforts. As for the _Twice-Told Tales_ themselves, they are an old
    story now; every one knows them a little, and those who admire them
    particularly have read them a great many times. The writer of this
    sketch belongs to the latter class, and he has been trying to forget
    his familiarity with them, and ask himself what impression they would
    have made upon him at the time they appeared, in the first bloom of
    their freshness, and before the particular Hawthorne-quality, as it
    may be called, had become an established, a recognised and valued,
    fact. Certainly, I am inclined to think, if one had encountered these
    delicate, dusky flowers in the blossomless garden of American
    journalism, one would have plucked them with a very tender hand; one
    would have felt that here was something essentially fresh and new;
    here, in no extraordinary force or abundance, but in a degree
    distinctly appreciable, was an original element in literature. When I
    think of it, I almost envy Hawthorne's earliest readers; the sensation
    of opening upon _The Great Carbuncle_, _The Seven Vagabonds_, or _The
    Threefold Destiny_ in an American annual of forty years ago, must have
    been highly agreeable.

    Among these shorter things (it is better to speak of the whole
    collection, including the _Snow Image_, and the _Mosses from an Old
    Manse_ at once) there are three sorts of tales, each one of which has
    an original stamp. There are, to begin with, the stories of fantasy
    and allegory--those among which the three I have just mentioned would
    be numbered, and which on the whole, are the most original. This is
    the group to which such little masterpieces as _Malvin's Burial_,
    _Rappacini's Daughter_, and _Young Goodman Brown_ also belong--these
    two last perhaps representing the highest point that Hawthorne reached
    in this direction. Then there are the little tales of New England
    history, which are scarcely less admirable, and of which _The Grey
    Champion_, _The Maypole of Merry Mount_, and the four beautiful
    _Legends of the Province House_, as they are called, are the most
    successful specimens. Lastly come the slender sketches of actual
    scenes and of the objects and manners about him, by means of which,
    more particularly, he endeavoured "to open an intercourse with the
    world," and which, in spite of their slenderness, have an infinite
    grace and charm. Among these things _A Rill from the Town Pump_, _The
    Village Uncle_, _The Toll-Gatherer's Day_, the _Chippings with a
    Chisel_, may most naturally be mentioned. As we turn over these
    volumes we feel that the pieces that spring most directly from his
    fancy, constitute, as I have said (putting his four novels aside), his
    most substantial claim to our attention. It would be a mistake to
    insist too much upon them; Hawthorne was himself the first to
    recognise that. "These fitful sketches," he says in the preface to the
    _Mosses from an Old Manse_, "with so little of external life about
    them, yet claiming no profundity of purpose--so reserved even while
    they sometimes seem so frank--often but half in earnest, and never,
    even when most so, expressing satisfactorily the thoughts which they
    profess to image--such trifles, I truly feel, afford no solid basis
    for a literary reputation." This is very becomingly uttered; but it
    may be said, partly in answer to it, and partly in confirmation, that
    the valuable element in these things was not what Hawthorne put into
    them consciously, but what passed into them without his being able to
    measure it--the element of simple genius, the quality of imagination.
    This is the real charm of Hawthorne's writing--this purity and
    spontaneity and naturalness of fancy. For the rest, it is interesting
    to see how it borrowed a particular colour from the other faculties
    that lay near it--how the imagination, in this capital son of the old
    Puritans, reflected the hue of the more purely moral part, of the
    dusky, overshadowed conscience. The conscience, by no fault of its
    own, in every genuine offshoot of that sombre lineage, lay under the
    shadow of the sense of _sin_. This darkening cloud was no essential
    part of the nature of the individual; it stood fixed in the general
    moral heaven, under which he grew up and looked at life. It projected
    from above, from outside, a black patch over his spirit, and it was
    for him to do what he could with the black patch. There were all sorts
    of possible ways of dealing with it; they depended upon the personal
    temperament. Some natures would let it lie as it fell, and contrive to
    be tolerably comfortable beneath it. Others would groan and sweat and
    suffer; but the dusky blight would remain, and their lives would be
    lives of misery. Here and there an individual, irritated beyond
    endurance, would throw it off in anger, plunging probably into what
    would be deemed deeper abysses of depravity. Hawthorne's way was the
    best, for he contrived, by an exquisite process, best known to
    himself, to transmute this heavy moral burden into the very substance
    of the imagination, to make it evaporate in the light and charming
    fumes of artistic production. But Hawthorne, of course, was
    exceptionally fortunate; he had his genius to help him. Nothing is
    more curious and interesting than this almost exclusively _imported_
    character of the sense of sin in Hawthorne's mind; it seems to exist
    there merely for an artistic or literary purpose. He had ample
    cognizance of the Puritan conscience; it was his natural heritage; it
    was reproduced in him; looking into his soul, he found it there. But
    his relation to it was only, as one may say, intellectual; it was not
    moral and theological. He played with it and used it as a pigment; he
    treated it, as the metaphysicians say, objectively. He was not
    discomposed, disturbed, haunted by it, in the manner of its usual and
    regular victims, who had not the little postern door of fancy to slip
    through, to the other side of the wall. It was, indeed, to his
    imaginative vision, the great fact of man's nature; the light element
    that had been mingled with his own composition always clung to this
    rugged prominence of moral responsibility, like the mist that hovers
    about the mountain. It was a necessary condition for a man of
    Hawthorne's stock that if his imagination should take licence to amuse
    itself, it should at least select this grim precinct of the Puritan
    morality for its play-ground. He speaks of the dark disapproval with
    which his old ancestors, in the case of their coming to life, would
    see him trifling himself away as a story-teller. But how far more
    darkly would they have frowned could they have understood that he had
    converted the very principle of their own being into one of his toys!

    It will be seen that I am far from being struck with the justice of
    that view of the author of the _Twice-Told Tales_, which is so happily
    expressed by the French critic to whom I alluded at an earlier stage
    of this essay. To speak of Hawthorne, as M. Emile Montégut does, as a
    _romancier pessimiste_, seems to me very much beside the mark. He is
    no more a pessimist than an optimist, though he is certainly not much
    of either. He does not pretend to conclude, or to have a philosophy of
    human nature; indeed, I should even say that at bottom he does not
    take human nature as hard as he may seem to do. "His bitterness," says
    M. Montégut, "is without abatement, and his bad opinion of man is
    without compensation.... His little tales have the air of confessions
    which the soul makes to itself; they are so many little slaps which
    the author applies to our face." This, it seems to me, is to
    exaggerate almost immeasurably the reach of Hawthorne's relish of
    gloomy subjects. What pleased him in such subjects was their
    picturesqueness, their rich duskiness of colour, their chiaroscuro;
    but they were not the expression of a hopeless, or even of a
    predominantly melancholy, feeling about the human soul. Such at least
    is my own impression. He is to a considerable degree ironical--this is
    part of his charm--part even, one may say, of his brightness; but he
    is neither bitter nor cynical--he is rarely even what I should call
    tragical. There have certainly been story-tellers of a gayer and
    lighter spirit; there have been observers more humorous, more
    hilarious--though on the whole Hawthorne's observation has a smile in
    it oftener than may at first appear; but there has rarely been an
    observer more serene, less agitated by what he sees and less disposed
    to call things deeply into question. As I have already intimated, his
    Note-Books are full of this simple and almost child-like serenity.
    That dusky pre-occupation with the misery of human life and the
    wickedness of the human heart which such a critic as M. Emile Montégut
    talks about, is totally absent from them; and if we may suppose a
    person to have read these Diaries before looking into the tales, we
    may be sure that such a reader would be greatly surprised to hear the
    author described as a disappointed, disdainful genius. "This marked
    love of cases of conscience," says M. Montégut, "this taciturn,
    scornful cast of mind, this habit of seeing sin everywhere and hell
    always gaping open, this dusky gaze bent always upon a damned world
    and a nature draped in mourning, these lonely conversations of the
    imagination with the conscience, this pitiless analysis resulting from
    a perpetual examination of one's self, and from the tortures of a
    heart closed before men and open to God--all these elements of the
    Puritan character have passed into Mr. Hawthorne, or to speak more
    justly, have _filtered_ into him, through a long succession of
    generations." This is a very pretty and very vivid account of
    Hawthorne, superficially considered; and it is just such a view of the
    case as would commend itself most easily and most naturally to a hasty
    critic. It is all true indeed, with a difference; Hawthorne was all
    that M. Montégut says, _minus_ the conviction. The old Puritan moral
    sense, the consciousness of sin and hell, of the fearful nature of our
    responsibilities and the savage character of our Taskmaster--these
    things had been lodged in the mind of a man of Fancy, whose fancy had
    straightway begun to take liberties and play tricks with them--to
    judge them (Heaven forgive him!) from the poetic and æsthetic point of
    view, the point of view of entertainment and irony. This absence of
    conviction makes the difference; but the difference is great.

    Hawthorne was a man of fancy, and I suppose that in speaking of him it
    is inevitable that we should feel ourselves confronted with the
    familiar problem of the difference between the fancy and the
    imagination. Of the larger and more potent faculty he certainly
    possessed a liberal share; no one can read _The House of the Seven
    Gables_ without feeling it to be a deeply imaginative work. But I am
    often struck, especially in the shorter tales, of which I am now
    chiefly speaking, with a kind of small ingenuity, a taste for
    conceits and analogies, which bears more particularly what is called
    the fanciful stamp. The finer of the shorter tales are redolent of a
    rich imagination.

    "Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only
    dreamed a wild dream of witch-meeting? Be it so, if you
    will; but, alas, it was a dream of evil omen for young
    Goodman Brown! a stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a
    distrustful, if not a desperate, man, did he become from the
    night of that fearful dream. On the Sabbath-day, when the
    congregation were singing a holy psalm, he could not listen,
    because an anthem of sin rushed loudly upon his ear and
    drowned all the blessed strain. When the minister spoke from
    the pulpit, with power and fervid eloquence, and with his
    hand on the open Bible of the sacred truth of our religion,
    and of saint-like lives and triumphant deaths, and of future
    bliss or misery unutterable, then did Goodman Brown grow
    pale, dreading lest the roof should thunder down upon the
    gray blasphemer and his hearers. Often, awaking suddenly at
    midnight, he shrank from the bosom of Faith; and at morning
    or eventide, when the family knelt down at prayer, he
    scowled and muttered to himself, and gazed sternly at his
    wife, and turned away. And when he had lived long, and was
    borne to his grave a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an
    aged woman, and children, and grandchildren, a goodly
    procession, besides neighbours not a few, they carved no
    hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was

    There is imagination in that, and in many another passage that I might
    quote; but as a general thing I should characterise the more
    metaphysical of our author's short stories as graceful and felicitous
    conceits. They seem to me to be qualified in this manner by the very
    fact that they belong to the province of allegory. Hawthorne, in his
    metaphysical moods, is nothing if not allegorical, and allegory, to my
    sense, is quite one of the lighter exercises of the imagination. Many
    excellent judges, I know, have a great stomach for it; they delight in
    symbols and correspondences, in seeing a story told as if it were
    another and a very different story. I frankly confess that I have as a
    general thing but little enjoyment of it and that it has never seemed
    to me to be, as it were, a first-rate literary form. It has produced
    assuredly some first-rate works; and Hawthorne in his younger years
    had been a great reader and devotee of Bunyan and Spenser, the great
    masters of allegory. But it is apt to spoil two good things--a story
    and a moral, a meaning and a form; and the taste for it is responsible
    for a large part of the forcible-feeble writing that has been
    inflicted upon the world. The only cases in which it is endurable is
    when it is extremely spontaneous, when the analogy presents itself
    with eager promptitude. When it shows signs of having been groped and
    fumbled for, the needful illusion is of course absent and the failure
    complete. Then the machinery alone is visible, and the end to which it
    operates becomes a matter of indifference. There was but little
    literary criticism in the United States at the time Hawthorne's
    earlier works were published; but among the reviewers Edgar Poe
    perhaps held the scales the highest. He at any rate rattled them
    loudest, and pretended, more than any one else, to conduct the
    weighing-process on scientific principles. Very remarkable was this
    process of Edgar Poe's, and very extraordinary were his principles;
    but he had the advantage of being a man of genius, and his
    intelligence was frequently great. His collection of critical sketches
    of the American writers flourishing in what M. Taine would call his
    _milieu_ and _moment_, is very curious and interesting reading, and
    it has one quality which ought to keep it from ever being completely
    forgotten. It is probably the most complete and exquisite specimen of
    _provincialism_ ever prepared for the edification of men. Poe's
    judgments are pretentious, spiteful, vulgar; but they contain a great
    deal of sense and discrimination as well, and here and there,
    sometimes at frequent intervals, we find a phrase of happy insight
    imbedded in a patch of the most fatuous pedantry. He wrote a chapter
    upon Hawthorne, and spoke of him on the whole very kindly; and his
    estimate is of sufficient value to make it noticeable that he should
    express lively disapproval of the large part allotted to allegory in
    his tales--in defence of which, he says, "however, or for whatever
    object employed, there is scarcely one respectable word to be said....
    The deepest emotion," he goes on, "aroused within us by the happiest
    allegory _as_ allegory, is a very, _very_ imperfectly satisfied sense
    of the writer's ingenuity in overcoming a difficulty we should have
    preferred his not having attempted to overcome.... One thing is clear,
    that if allegory ever establishes a fact, it is by dint of overturning
    a fiction;" and Poe has furthermore the courage to remark that the
    _Pilgrim's Progress_ is a "ludicrously overrated book." Certainly, as
    a general thing, we are struck with the ingenuity and felicity of
    Hawthorne's analogies and correspondences; the idea appears to have
    made itself at home in them easily. Nothing could be better in this
    respect than _The Snow-Image_ (a little masterpiece), or _The Great
    Carbuncle_, or _Doctor Heidegger's Experiment_, or _Rappacini's
    Daughter_. But in such things as _The Birth-Mark_ and _The
    Bosom-Serpent_, we are struck with something stiff and mechanical,
    slightly incongruous, as if the kernel had not assimilated its
    envelope. But these are matters of light impression, and there would
    be a want of tact in pretending to discriminate too closely among
    things which all, in one way or another, have a charm. The charm--the
    great charm--is that they are glimpses of a great field, of the whole
    deep mystery of man's soul and conscience. They are moral, and their
    interest is moral; they deal with something more than the mere
    accidents and conventionalities, the surface occurrences of life. The
    fine thing in Hawthorne is that he cared for the deeper psychology,
    and that, in his way, he tried to become familiar with it. This
    natural, yet fanciful familiarity with it, this air, on the author's
    part, of being a confirmed _habitué_ of a region of mysteries and
    subtleties, constitutes the originality of his tales. And then they
    have the further merit of seeming, for what they are, to spring up so
    freely and lightly. The author has all the ease, indeed, of a regular
    dweller in the moral, psychological realm; he goes to and fro in it,
    as a man who knows his way. His tread is a light and modest one, but
    he keeps the key in his pocket.

    His little historical stories all seem to me admirable; they are so
    good that you may re-read them many times. They are not numerous, and
    they are very short; but they are full of a vivid and delightful sense
    of the New England past; they have, moreover, the distinction, little
    tales of a dozen and fifteen pages as they are, of being the only
    successful attempts at historical fiction that have been made in the
    United States. Hawthorne was at home in the early New England history;
    he had thumbed its records and he had breathed its air, in whatever
    odd receptacles this somewhat pungent compound still lurked. He was
    fond of it, and he was proud of it, as any New Englander must be,
    measuring the part of that handful of half-starved fanatics who formed
    his earliest precursors, in laying the foundations of a mighty empire.
    Hungry for the picturesque as he always was, and not finding any very
    copious provision of it around him, he turned back into the two
    preceding centuries, with the earnest determination that the primitive
    annals of Massachusetts should at least _appear_ picturesque. His
    fancy, which was always alive, played a little with the somewhat
    meagre and angular facts of the colonial period and forthwith
    converted a great many of them into impressive legends and pictures.
    There is a little infusion of colour, a little vagueness about certain
    details, but it is very gracefully and discreetly done, and realities
    are kept in view sufficiently to make us feel that if we are reading
    romance, it is romance that rather supplements than contradicts
    history. The early annals of New England were not fertile in legend,
    but Hawthorne laid his hands upon everything that would serve his
    purpose, and in two or three cases his version of the story has a
    great deal of beauty. _The Grey Champion_ is a sketch of less than
    eight pages, but the little figures stand up in the tale as stoutly,
    at the least, as if they were propped up on half-a-dozen chapters by a
    dryer annalist, and the whole thing has the merit of those cabinet
    pictures in which the artist has been able to make his persons look
    the size of life. Hawthorne, to say it again, was not in the least a
    realist--he was not to my mind enough of one; but there is no genuine
    lover of the good city of Boston but will feel grateful to him for his
    courage in attempting to recount the "traditions" of Washington
    Street, the main thoroughfare of the Puritan capital. The four
    _Legends of the Province House_ are certain shadowy stories which he
    professes to have gathered in an ancient tavern lurking behind the
    modern shop-fronts of this part of the city. The Province House
    disappeared some years ago, but while it stood it was pointed to as
    the residence of the Royal Governors of Massachusetts before the
    Revolution. I have no recollection of it, but it cannot have been,
    even from Hawthorne's account of it, which is as pictorial as he
    ventures to make it, a very imposing piece of antiquity. The writer's
    charming touch, however, throws a rich brown tone over its rather
    shallow venerableness; and we are beguiled into believing, for
    instance, at the close of _Howe's Masquerade_ (a story of a strange
    occurrence at an entertainment given by Sir William Howe, the last of
    the Royal Governors, during the siege of Boston by Washington), that
    "superstition, among other legends of this mansion, repeats the
    wondrous tale that on the anniversary night of Britain's discomfiture
    the ghosts of the ancient governors of Massachusetts still glide
    through the Province House. And last of all comes a figure shrouded in
    a military cloak, tossing his clenched hands into the air and stamping
    his iron-shod boots upon the freestone steps, with a semblance of
    feverish despair, but without the sound of a foot-tramp." Hawthorne
    had, as regards the two earlier centuries of New England life, that
    faculty which is called now-a-days the historic consciousness. He
    never sought to exhibit it on a large scale; he exhibited it indeed on
    a scale so minute that we must not linger too much upon it. His vision
    of the past was filled with definite images--images none the less
    definite that they were concerned with events as shadowy as this
    dramatic passing away of the last of King George's representatives in
    his long loyal but finally alienated colony.

    I have said that Hawthorne had become engaged in about his
    thirty-fifth-year; but he was not married until 1842. Before this
    event took place he passed through two episodes which (putting his
    falling in love aside) were much the most important things that had
    yet happened to him. They interrupted the painful monotony of his
    life, and brought the affairs of men within his personal experience.
    One of these was moreover in itself a curious and interesting chapter
    of observation, and it fructified, in Hawthorne's memory, in one of
    his best productions. How urgently he needed at this time to be drawn
    within the circle of social accidents, a little anecdote related by
    Mr. Lathrop in connection with his first acquaintance with the young
    lady he was to marry, may serve as an example. This young lady became
    known to him through her sister, who had first approached him as an
    admirer of the _Twice-Told Tales_ (as to the authorship of which she
    had been so much in the dark as to have attributed it first,
    conjecturally, to one of the two Miss Hathornes); and the two Miss
    Peabodys, desiring to see more of the charming writer, caused him to
    be invited to a species of _conversazione_ at the house of one of
    their friends, at which they themselves took care to be punctual.
    Several other ladies, however, were as punctual as they, and Hawthorne
    presently arriving, and seeing a bevy of admirers where he had
    expected but three or four, fell into a state of agitation, which is
    vividly described by his biographer. He "stood perfectly motionless,
    but with the look of a sylvan creature on the point of fleeing
    away.... He was stricken with dismay; his face lost colour and took
    on a warm paleness ... his agitation was-very great; he stood by a
    table and, taking up some small object that lay upon it, he found his
    hand trembling so that he was obliged to lay it down." It was
    desirable, certainly, that something should occur to break the spell
    of a diffidence that might justly be called morbid. There is another
    little sentence dropped by Mr. Lathrop in relation to this period of
    Hawthorne's life, which appears to me worth quoting, though I am by no
    means sure that it will seem so to the reader. It has a very simple
    and innocent air, but to a person not without an impression of the
    early days of "culture" in New England, it will be pregnant with
    historic meaning. The elder Miss Peabody, who afterwards was
    Hawthorne's sister-in-law and who acquired later in life a very
    honourable American fame as a woman of benevolence, of learning, and
    of literary accomplishment, had invited the Miss Hathornes to come to
    her house for the evening, and to bring with them their brother, whom
    she wished to thank for his beautiful tales. "Entirely to her
    surprise," says Mr. Lathrop, completing thereby his picture of the
    attitude of this remarkable family toward society--"entirely to her
    surprise they came. She herself opened the door, and there, before
    her, between his sisters, stood a splendidly handsome youth, tall and
    strong, with no appearance whatever of timidity, but instead, an
    almost fierce determination making his face stern. This was his
    resource for carrying off the extreme inward tremor which he really
    felt. His hostess brought out Flaxman's designs for Dante, just
    received from Professor Felton, of Harvard, and the party made an
    evening's entertainment out of them." This last sentence is the one I
    allude to; and were it not for fear of appearing too fanciful I
    should say that these few words were, to the initiated mind, an
    unconscious expression of the lonely frigidity which characterised
    most attempts at social recreation in the New England world some forty
    years ago. There was at that time a great desire for culture, a great
    interest in knowledge, in art, in æsthetics, together with a very
    scanty supply of the materials for such pursuits. Small things were
    made to do large service; and there is something even touching in the
    solemnity of consideration that was bestowed by the emancipated New
    England conscience upon little wandering books and prints, little
    echoes and rumours of observation and experience. There flourished at
    that time in Boston a very remarkable and interesting woman, of whom
    we shall have more to say, Miss Margaret Fuller by name. This lady was
    the apostle of culture, of intellectual curiosity, and in the
    peculiarly interesting account of her life, published in 1852 by
    Emerson and two other of her friends, there are pages of her letters
    and diaries which narrate her visits to the Boston Athenæum and the
    emotions aroused in her mind by turning over portfolios of engravings.
    These emotions were ardent and passionate--could hardly have been more
    so had she been prostrate with contemplation in the Sistine Chapel or
    in one of the chambers of the Pitti Palace. The only analogy I can
    recall to this earnestness of interest in great works of art at a
    distance from them, is furnished by the great Goethe's elaborate study
    of plaster-casts and pencil-drawings at Weimar. I mention Margaret
    Fuller here because a glimpse of her state of mind--her vivacity of
    desire and poverty of knowledge--helps to define the situation. The
    situation lives for a moment in those few words of Mr. Lathrop's. The
    initiated mind, as I have ventured to call it, has a vision of a
    little unadorned parlour, with the snow-drifts of a Massachusetts
    winter piled up about its windows, and a group of sensitive and
    serious people, modest votaries of opportunity, fixing their eyes upon
    a bookful of Flaxman's attenuated outlines.

    At the beginning of the year 1839 he received, through political
    interest, an appointment as weigher and gauger in the Boston
    Custom-house. Mr. Van Buren then occupied the Presidency, and it
    appears that the Democratic party, whose successful candidate he had
    been, rather took credit for the patronage it had bestowed upon
    literary men. Hawthorne was a Democrat, and apparently a zealous one;
    even in later years, after the Whigs had vivified their principles by
    the adoption of the Republican platform, and by taking up an honest
    attitude on the question of slavery, his political faith never
    wavered. His Democratic sympathies were eminently natural, and there
    would have been an incongruity in his belonging to the other party. He
    was not only by conviction, but personally and by association, a
    Democrat. When in later years he found himself in contact with
    European civilisation, he appears to have become conscious of a good
    deal of latent radicalism in his disposition; he was oppressed with
    the burden of antiquity in Europe, and he found himself sighing for
    lightness and freshness and facility of change. But these things are
    relative to the point of view, and in his own country Hawthorne cast
    his lot with the party of conservatism, the party opposed to change
    and freshness. The people who found something musty and mouldy in his
    literary productions would have regarded this quite as a matter of
    course; but we are not obliged to use invidious epithets in describing
    his political preferences. The sentiment that attached him to the
    Democracy was a subtle and honourable one, and the author of an
    attempt to sketch a portrait of him, should be the last to complain of
    this adjustment of his sympathies. It falls much more smoothly into
    his reader's conception of him than any other would do; and if he had
    had the perversity to be a Republican, I am afraid our ingenuity would
    have been considerably taxed in devising a proper explanation of the
    circumstance. At any rate, the Democrats gave him a small post in the
    Boston Custom-house, to which an annual salary of $1,200 was attached,
    and Hawthorne appears at first to have joyously welcomed the gift. The
    duties of the office were not very congruous to the genius of a man of
    fancy; but it had the advantage that it broke the spell of his cursed
    solitude, as he called it, drew him away from Salem, and threw him,
    comparatively speaking, into the world. The first volume of the
    American Note-Books contains some extracts from letters written during
    his tenure of this modest office, which indicate sufficiently that his
    occupations cannot have been intrinsically gratifying.

    "I have been measuring coal all day," he writes, during the
    winter of 1840, "on board of a black little British
    schooner, in a dismal dock at the north end of the city.
    Most of the time I paced the deck to keep myself warm; for
    the wind (north-east, I believe) blew up through the dock as
    if it had been the pipe of a pair of bellows. The vessel
    lying deep between two wharves, there was no more delightful
    prospect, on the right hand and on the left, than the posts
    and timbers, half immersed in the water and covered with
    ice, which the rising and falling of successive tides had
    left upon them, so that they looked like immense icicles.
    Across the water, however, not more than half a mile off,
    appeared the Bunker's Hill Monument, and what interested me
    considerably more, a church-steeple, with the dial of a
    clock upon it, whereby I was enabled to measure the march of
    the weary hours. Sometimes I descended into the dirty little
    cabin of the schooner, and warmed myself by a red-hot stove,
    among biscuit-barrels, pots and kettles, sea-chests, and
    innumerable lumber of all sorts--my olfactories meanwhile
    being greatly refreshed with the odour of a pipe, which the
    captain, or some one of his crew, was smoking. But at last
    came the sunset, with delicate clouds, and a purple light
    upon the islands; and I blessed it, because it was the
    signal of my release."

    A worse man than Hawthorne would have measured coal quite as well, and
    of all the dismal tasks to which an unremunerated imagination has ever
    had to accommodate itself, I remember none more sordid than the
    business depicted in the foregoing lines. "I pray," he writes some
    weeks later, "that in one year more I may find some way of escaping
    from this unblest Custom-house; for it is a very grievous thraldom. I
    do detest all offices; all, at least, that are held on a political
    tenure, and I want nothing to do with politicians. Their hearts wither
    away and die out of their bodies. Their consciences are turned to
    india-rubber, or to some substance as black as that and which will
    stretch as much. One thing, if no more, I have gained by my
    Custom-house experience--to know a politician. It is a knowledge which
    no previous thought or power of sympathy could have taught me; because
    the animal, or the machine rather, is not in nature." A few days later
    he goes on in the same strain:--

    "I do not think it is the doom laid upon me of murdering so
    many of the brightest hours of the day at the Custom-house
    that makes such havoc with my wits, for here I am again
    trying to write worthily ... yet with a sense as if all the
    noblest part of man had been left out of my composition, or
    had decayed out of it since my nature was given to my own
    keeping.... Never comes any bird of Paradise into that
    dismal region. A salt or even a coal-ship is ten million
    times preferable; for there the sky is above me, and the
    fresh breeze around me, and my thoughts having hardly
    anything to do with my occupation, are as free as air.
    Nevertheless ... it is only once in a while that the image
    and desire of a better and happier life makes me feel the
    iron of my chain; for after all a human spirit may find no
    insufficiency of food for it, even in the Custom-house. And
    with such materials as these I do think and feel and learn
    things that are worth knowing, and which I should not know
    unless I had learned them there; so that the present
    position of my life shall not be quite left out of the sum
    of my real existence.... It is good for me, on many
    accounts, that my life has had this passage in it. I know
    much more than I did a year ago. I have a stronger sense of
    power to act as a man among men. I have gained worldly
    wisdom, and wisdom also that is not altogether of this
    world. And when I quit this earthy career where I am now
    buried, nothing will cling to me that ought to be left
    behind. Men will not perceive, I trust, by my look or the
    tenor of my thoughts and feelings, that I have been a
    Custom-house officer."

    He says, writing shortly afterwards, that "when I shall be free again,
    I will enjoy all things with the fresh simplicity of a child of five
    years old. I shall grow young again, made all over anew. I will go
    forth and stand in a summer shower, and all the worldly dust that has
    collected on me shall be washed away at once, and my heart will be
    like a bank of fresh flowers for the weary to rest upon."

    This forecast of his destiny was sufficiently exact. A year later, in
    April 1841, he went to take up his abode in the socialistic community
    of Brook Farm. Here he found himself among fields and flowers and
    other natural products--as well as among many products that could not
    very justly be called natural. He was exposed to summer showers in
    plenty; and his personal associations were as different as possible
    from, those he had encountered in fiscal circles. He made acquaintance
    with Transcendentalism and the Transcendentalists.
    Next Chapter
    Chapter 3
    Previous Chapter
    If you're writing a Henry James essay and need some advice, post your Henry James essay question on our Facebook page where fellow bookworms are always glad to help!

    Top 5 Authors

    Top 5 Books

    Book Status
    Want to read

    Are you sure you want to leave this group?