The Cambridge History of American Literature/Book II/Chapter XI

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The Cambridge History of American Literature by John Erskine
Book II, Chapter XI: Hawthorne

§ 1. Hawthorne and Puritanism.[edit]

THE romances of Hawthorne can hardly be understood apart from the current of Transcendentalism in which his genius was formed. Most foreigners and many of his countrymen have thought of him as an affectionate student of the New England past, in a small way comparable to Scott with his love of Border history, and especially they have thought of him as a kind of portrait painter, who magically resharpened for us the already fading lineaments of Puritanism. Reflection might suggest, however, that the portrait he restored bears an unlucky resemblance in its sombreness and its unloveliness to the portrait of Edward Randolph in the Twice Told Tales, and a little further thought would perhaps convince us that Hawthorne usually treats Puritanism, not as the central theme in his canvas, but as a dark background for the ideas and for the experiences which more deeply concern him. Those ideas and experiences have little to do with Puritanism except by contrast; they were partly furnished to his imagination by the enthusiastic but uncritical thinkers among his acquaintance who kindled rapturously at Alcott’s conversations or basked in the indefiniteness of Emerson’s lectures, and partly they were furnished by his own contact with Alcott and Emerson and with their writings. Like them, he was less a Puritan than a lover of the present, and if he seemed often to deal with things long past, it was only because he had the faculty, more than other men, of recognizing in the present whatever had served its purpose or was worn out or dead.

§ 2. His Relations with the Transcendentalists.[edit]

But if as a Transcendentalist he stood aloof from Puritanism, his temperament forced him to stand aloof also from the other Transcendentalists. Although their philosophy, as they liked to say, was a “questioning” of life, he differed from them all in being a true skeptic. To be quite precise, let us say that he drew the inspiration of his romances not so much from their ideas as from the neglected but inevitable conclusions of their ideas. Alcott and Emerson uttered between them a set of doctrines so full of apparent contradictions as to seem almost double-faced. They preached the sacredness of fact as against the authority of tradition; they made much of physical heredity, of evolution, of fate; they pointed out the inadequacy of any moral scheme to comprehend all the surprises of nature; yet being inveterate optimists, both of them, and both at certain moments curiously mystical, and both enjoying an outward orthodoxy of manners and culture, they soothed their hearers and seemed less dangerous than they were. Their sincerity, of course, was unquestionable, but they obscured even to themselves the startling conclusions of their own surmises, and having shaken their moral world to its foundation, they allowed the structure to settle again, and all this in such a glamour of temperamental cheerfulness that those who felt only the eloquence of their mood could depart conscious of spiritual uplift, and none but the few who attended to the implications of their specific ideas went away troubled. How few these critics were is attested by the lonely position in which their spokesman, Hawthorne, seems to stand. He was no mystic; what attracted him in Transcendentalism was its free inquiry, its radicalism, its contact with actual life. In his stories, therefore, he was a philosophical experimenter, in whose method was no room for optimism nor for prepossessions of any kind; he had recourse to life in order to try out the efficacy or the consequences of Transcendental ideas, and if the result was hardly what he expected, he still pursued the hypothesis to the bitter end. He was really the questioner, the detached observer, that other Transcendentalists thought they were. The soul, Emerson had said, “accepts whatever befalls, as part of its lesson. It is a watcher more than a doer, and it is a doer only that it may the better watch.” The description is truer of Hawthorne’s soul than of Emerson’s. In accepting whatever befalls, Emerson was convinced, as he says in the essay on Circles, that there is a saccharine principle in all things; small wonder that Hawthorne seems an alien among such cheerful sages. When Emerson says that either love or crime leads all souls to the good, that there is no straight line in nature, that evil in the end will bless, Hawthorne examines the doctrine somewhat dubiously in Hepzibah and Clifford Pyncheon and in Donatello; and when the cheerful philosopher tells us to trust ourselves, to follow our own nature, to live from the Devil if we are the Devil’s children, Hawthorne projects the advice experimentally in The Scarlet Letter and in The Blithedale Romance.

Those who classify Hawthorne in a loose way as the romancer of Puritanism sometimes speak of him also as a psychologist. The term needs defining. To him, as to other Transcendentalists, the fortune of a human soul was the most critical of experiences; comparatively negligible were the doings of society as a whole or the outward panorama of events and scenes. If to be thus interested in the soul is to be a psychologist, then Hawthorne was one, as to some extent are all who write of human nature. But if the term denotes attention to motives and to fine mental processes, to the anatomy, as it were, of character, then Hawthorne was no such psychologist as, let us say, Henry James or George Meredith. It is important to realize how broad and general his ideas and his art were, how completely he avoided the special and the minute. He studied no subtle character, nor any character subtly. He was a moralist rather than a psychologist. Were it not sufficiently evident in the stories themselves, the notes preserved in his journals would show that his imagination was engaged first by a moral idea, which he afterwards incorporated in plot and in persons. When he is most successful the plot seems actually to occur, and the persons really live; when his imagination fails him, the incidents seem allegorical and the figures become shadowy; but in either case the abstract idea from which he started is likely to be clear enough, and his own personality will probably be felt as standing outside the story, looking on. Since he is neither novelist nor preacher, but only an investigator of moral ideas, it is equally beside the mark to expect of him Balzac’s sense of the social panorama, or Bunyan’s certitude of faith.

§ 3. The Facts of his Life.[edit]

A writer who pictures life chiefly in order to project abstract ideas is not likely to reveal in his art more of himself than his general disposition. Hawthorne’s biography makes rich and human reading, for he was an admirable man in all ways and his private life was in the best sense fortunate; if at first he endured poverty, he earned success later, and even in the obscure years he had the admiration of loyal friends. But only in a few instances does his biography aid directly in the understanding of his works, and then for the most part by explaining his contact with Transcendental ideas. Of the nonliterary events in his life it is enough to say that he was born in Salem, Massachusetts, 4 July, 1804, of an old New England family; that after his father’s death he was educated by his mother’s brothers, and in 1825 he was graduated from Bowdoin College; that among his classmates he made three lifelong friends—Longfellow, the poet, Franklin Pierce, later President of the United States, and Horatio Bridge, who first appreciated his genius; that chiefly through Bridge’s thoughtfulness he was made weigher and gauger at the Boston Custom House, 1839–1841, and surveyor at the Salem Custom House, 1846–1850; that President Pierce appointed him to the consulship of Liverpool, 1853–1857; that he lived in Italy for two years, 1857–1859, and that while travelling for his health, attended by Pierce, he died at Plymouth, New Hampshire, 18 May, 1864.

§ 4. Early Stories.[edit]

The facts of his literary record are hardly more numerous, but they invite more comment. His college letters to his mother and his sisters show how early he mastered his superb style. Indeed, they are much better written than his first published story, Fanshawe (1828), which was probably composed, in part at least, during his college days. From 1825 to 1837 he lived at home in Salem, laboriously perfecting his short stories and sketches, and publishing them anonymously or under assumed names, chiefly in Goodrich’s annual, The Token, and in The New England Magazine. He gives an idealized account of this period in his sketches The Devil in Manuscript and The Journal of a Solitary Man. In 1837, again through Bridge’s good offices, a publisher was found for the Twice Told Tales (enlarged edition in two volumes, 1842). With this practical beginning of his reputation coincided his first acquaintance with the Peabody family. In all the biographies his love for Sophia Peabody has naturally filled a large place, but no sufficient estimate has perhaps been made of the intellectual enrichment his love brought him. It was through the Peabodys that he became really alive to the philosophical currents of his time. Transcendentalism had, of course, enfolded him, as it had the average New Englander, in its general atmosphere, and its temper is felt in some of his earliest writings, but it can hardly be said to have possessed his thought as it did later, and he had been in personal contact with none of the leaders. The Peabodys, however, were on intimate terms with Emerson, the young rhapsodist of Nature, whose recent triumph in The American Scholar had more recently been rendered equivocal by his Divinity School Address; and Alcott, Emerson’s inspirer, they knew still better, for Elizabeth and to some extent Sophia had assisted at his Temple school in Boston, and Elizabeth had published in her Records of a School (1835) verbatim reports of Alcott’s conversations with his pupils. When The Dial was founded in 1840, Elizabeth Peabody, who by that time had organized a remarkable book store, became its publisher. It was not extraordinary, therefore, that Hawthorne was drawn, though with some mental qualms, into the full tide of Transcendentalism, nor that upon the termination of his service in the Boston Custom House, in 1841, he joined the Brook Farm venture,[1] in the hope of establishing a home there. His note-books tell us the most interesting aspects of this passage in his life. At the end of a year and a half, completely disillusioned with the community experiment, he married and settled at Concord, in the Old Manse, where for neighbours he had Emerson, Alcott, and Thoreau, all busy with The Dial, and where Thoreau was shortly to undertake his Walden solitude. In Concord most of the stories were written which Hawthorne published in 1846 as Mosses from an Old Manse. A still later collection, The Snow Image (1852), gathered up practically all of the remaining sketches which he cared to preserve.

§ 5. Later Romances.[edit]

His longer romances show a tendency to rework or develop this earlier material, or to draw upon actual scenes and events for their narrative fabric; the controlling problems, however, which the romances deal with are more obviously than in the shorter stories suggested by Transcendental ideas. The Scarlet Letter (1850) is developed from a brief description in Endicott and the Red Cross, one of the Twice Told Tales. In The House of the Seven Gables (1851), Hawthorne makes use of such a curse as was pronounced on his own ancestor, John Hawthorne, or Hathorne, a severe magistrate in witchcraft times. In The Blithedale Romance (1852) it is hard not to identify Hawthorne’s Brook Farm experience, though he warned us against the temptation. The outward details of The Marble Faun (1860) are clearly the observations of his two years in Italy.

Besides the short stories and the romances, Hawthorne wrote several important books for children—the series called Grandfather’s Chair (1841–1842) and the two Wonderbooks (1852–1853). He also edited his friend Bridge’s Journal of an African Cruiser (1845), wrote a campaign life of his friend Pierce (1852), and published some of his notes on England under the title of Our Old Home (1863).

§ 6. His Close Observation of Life.[edit]

If it is just to see in the early writings a picture of his native temper before he was consciously engaged with Transcendental doctrines, it is also true that from the first his mind was of another order than Alcott’s or Emerson’s, and that though he might be interested in the same ideas, he would treat them very differently. Most philosophers can be classed roughly among those who conceive of the ideal ends of life as already existing in heaven, in some order or pattern which may be imitated on earth, or among those who think of the ideal as of something which does not yet exist, but which is implicit in the universe, and toward which the universe evolves. A philosopher of the first or Platonic type, if he notices facts at all, is likely to be disconcerted by them, since they rarely conform to his ideal or serve to authorize it; his comfort is in rising superior to actual life—that is, in ignoring it. Alcott was an almost pure example of this type. The other kind of philosopher is likely to entertain a respect amounting almost to reverence for any concrete existing condition, because as two points determine a straight line, so a recent moment observed against the past gives indication of the order to come. Emerson was partly, like Alcott, a Platonist, but he had also a profound and inconsistent disposition toward this other way of thought; having two points of view at once, therefore, he is not only perplexing at times, but really contradictory, and it is not strange that he should have proved in one aspect of his genius inspiring to Maeterlinck and in the other aspect acceptable to Nietzsche. Hawthorne belonged altogether to the second type of thinker. Concerned primarily with the actual world before him, he found a natural use for the past in the explanation it might give of the present, but the present was to him just as naturally the more important moment, and most interesting of all was the occasional hint or prophecy of that to which time through its past and present changes might be tending. He was a radical, therefore, but he saw clearly that this particular present will soon be no more sacred than any other moment of the past, and that to devote oneself to any cause as though it were a final remedy of circumstances, promising rest thereafter, is merely to postpone stagnation for a while. With this insight he could not readily give his faith to any reform or reformer; even the crusade for abolition and the war for the Union left him cold, for he wisely doubted whether measures conceived in the root-and-branch spirit might not raise more evils in the state than they were intended to cure. True reform, the only kind that could enlist his sympathy, must work hand in hand with nature’s slowly evolving but inevitable order, and so long as that order can be but partially or infrequently discerned, it is best to do nothing violent, nothing headlong. Even when we discern the order, from time to time, we should become humble, observing how little it resembles our own morality, our own dreams of perfection.

It needs no fine perception to discover these principles or attitudes in Hawthorne, for they are displayed quite simply on the surface of his early stories. The significance he attached to the present world, whatever it might be, can be seen in the important group of essay sketches such as A Rill from the Town Pump, David Swan, Sights from a Steeple, and Main Street. Some resemblance has been found between this department of his work and the essays of Addison and of Irving, and certainly Addison’s cheerfulness is here, and often something more than Irving’s fancy. But neither The Spectator nor The Sketch Book would suggest that Addison or Irving was in the habit of keeping a diary; whereas Hawthorne’s simple studies, of the group just referred to, are in form nothing more than episodes in a journal. The fact is of some consequence in understanding his genius. When the American and European notebooks were finally included in the complete editions of his writings, they took their place, not as an appendix or illustration of more perfect things, but on equal terms with his other works; for the journal manner was suited to his realistic, unprejudiced search into the world about him, and his lifelong preoccupation with his diary was not, as with most novelists, for the sake of books to be written later, but was itself the satisfaction of a primary literary interest. Like the journals, the essay sketches take the scene as they find it, extract from it all that observation can, and then discard it, having proved no point and exhibited no characters in continuous interplay, but having uncovered possibilities, hints, causes, coincidences. In the simpler essays Hawthorne observed these possibilities and coincidences in a kind of stationary cross-section, and left them undeveloped; but in more elaborate stories he played with the ironic contrasts between the order which we foresee in life and the order which time brings to pass. Emerson often came out of his mysticism and contemplated the “beautiful necessity,” the inevitable consequence of things, to which man must submit himself before he has either happiness or power. Hawthorne was inclined to stress rather man’s inability to submit himself to this necessity, since he seldom guesses correctly what it would be. Mr. Higginbotham's Catastrophe is a lighter treatment of this theme of consequences; Edward Fane's Rosebud and The Wives of the Dead are in a darker tone. Or sometimes Hawthorne would turn the irony in another direction, by emphasizing the incredible swiftness with which the present becomes the past, and the insidiousness with which antiquity begins to show its symptoms even in what seems youthful and emancipated. The May-pole of Merry Mount brings this idea home, less in the overthrow of the maskers at Merry Mount than in the expressed faith of the stern Puritan leader that the troubles of life come soon and unexpectedly—a confession which somehow brings a chill over his own righteous success. A still better illustration is Endicott and the Red Cross, which shows the Puritans, who crossed the ocean for freedom of conscience and who in the moment of the story proclaim themselves champions of religious liberty, as having nevertheless instituted already the pillory and the stocks for those who disagree with them.

§ 7. Transcendental Doctrines in Hawthorne: Self-Reliance; Compensation; Circles.[edit]

The Transcendental ideas which chiefly occupied Hawthorne’s thought in the long romances were the doctrines of self-reliance, of compensation, and of what Emerson expressed in his essay on Circles. The ideal of self-reliance was that a man should live according to his own nature, by listening to the dictates of the over-soul as revealed in his impulses; to this end he should keep himself free of the imprisoning past, and of conventional society, which embodies the past. To Alcott or to Emerson this doctrine was so obviously sound that they stated it with every emphasis of rhetoric and with no qualifications. “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.” Hawthorne doubtless felt the truth of the doctrine as keenly as any one, but he was alive also to the unsocial results which might follow a narrow practice of it. A man consciously and entirely free of the past and on his guard against it might indeed possess his soul, but he might also miss the essence of culture, and having renounced the finer instruments of the art of life, he might so isolate himself from his fellows as to become ineffective in his noblest virtues. Since nature is unfolding a necessary order in and around us, an order which we apprehend with difficulty, the great danger of asserting ourselves is that we may thereby place ourselves outside of our true development, and never return to it. This danger of stepping out of the order, of doing violence to our proper destiny, gave Hawthorne the theme of such stories as Wakefield, The Prophetic Pictures, and Rappaccini's Daughter. The doctrine of compensation, in one form or another, was peculiarly dear to Transcendental optimism. Every action carries its reward or punishment with it. The thief is punished, though the police never find him, for the price of theft is loss of innocence, fear of arrest, suspicion of other men. What compensation is destined for the victim of the thief, optimistic Transcendentalism preferred not to investigate, but it was into just such a neglected area of morals that Hawthorne liked to push his inquiry. His observations brought him into a certain agreement with the doctrine; because a natural order constantly unfolds in the world, he believed in the efficacy of mere time to break down conventions and to reveal a nobler law, and in his historical scenes—Howe's Masquerade, for example, or The Gray Champion—he liked to show a fossilized past at the moment when it is shattered. He could believe that life does so far make restitution, but in daily life he could find no compensation for the injuries suffered by the innocent, nor could he persuade himself that a noble bearing of wrongs will necessarily lead to spiritual profit. Indeed, though Emerson’s sunny temperament had spread its glamour over his discussion of this theory, to Hawthorne the theory seemed, so far as it was true, one of the darkest and most perplexing. Still less could he agree with Emerson’s exaggeration of the same doctrine in Circles. Optimism here, taking the bit in its teeth, contended that as there is in experience no such thing as a straight line, so there is practically no such thing as evil—a prophetic application, it would seem, of Riemannian geometry to morals; that what seems hopelessly bad will in the end be found to contain the good principle; and, quite illogically, that what seems to be good will actually prove to be so.

In vain produced, all rays return;
Evil will bless and ice will burn.

In a famous passage in Circles, Emerson acknowledges the awkwardness of this position, and explains that his temperament dictates it. Hawthorne could not undertake any such cheerfulness, but he was profoundly concerned with the moral phenomena by which Emerson may have justified his faith. Here springs that paradox of experience, that mystery of sin, the question as to what sin is, which threw its shadow over three at least of the four romances. Since we rarely discern our true destiny, the human being who steps out of what seems the moral order may really have chanced upon a sounder morality; through what appears to be sin, therefore, may sometimes come the regeneration of a soul—not through repentance, be it observed, but through sincere adherence to the sin. Conversely, though a man should devote himself to the highest ideal he is aware of, if that ideal does not lie in the true order of nature, his devotion may bring him to an evil end. These possibilities, together with the implications of self-reliance and compensation, furnish the moral problems of Hawthorne’s romances.

Hester Prynne, for example, in The Scarlet Letter, illustrates self-reliance in a way that some Emersonians may have found not altogether comfortable. Since her love for Dimmesdale was the one sincere passion of her life, she obeyed it utterly, though a conventional judgment would have said that she was stepping out of the moral order. There is nothing in the story to suggest condemnation of her or of the minister in their sin; the only blame attaches to Dimmesdale’s cowardice, his lack of self-reliance, his unreadiness to make public acknowledgment of his love. The passion itself, as the two lovers still agree at the close of their hard experience, was sacred, and never caused them repentance. The doctrine of compensation is illustrated in Chillingworth, who, having determined on a fiendish revenge, becomes himself a fiend. There is a kind of comment on Emerson’s cheerful doctrine in the fact that this gloomy soul, marked for perdition, is a firm believer in compensation; he wronged Hester’s youth by marrying her, and therefore he bears her no ill will for wronging him, but he argues that since the minister had never received a justifying harm at his hands, the secret lover should therefore be punished by the injured husband. As Chillingworth discusses the matter with Hester, compensation seems to be at one moment sheer fatalism, at another moment a primitive exacting of an eye for an eye, but never does it come to a happy issue. The optimistic turn in the doctrine is illustrated by Hester—or perhaps it is better to say that she illustrates the optimism of Circles. She has sinned, but the sin leads her straightway to a larger life. Like Adam and Eve driven out of Paradise, she finds she has a career at last. Social ostracism first gives her leisure for meditation and a just angle from which to attack social problems, and then it permits her to enter upon a life of mercy and good works which would have been closed to a conventional woman. Hawthorne had described the original wearer of the scarlet letter in Endicott and the Red Cross as a woman who braved her shame by embroidering the guilty “A” into an elaborate and beautiful emblem; so in the romance he lets the sin elaborate itself, so far as Hester’s nature is concerned, into nothing but beauty. She becomes more loving, more sympathetic, more tender; and intellectually she becomes emancipated from the narrowness of her age, so that even now she seems prophetic of what the noblest women may be. Thoughts were her companions which, says Hawthorne, would have been held more dangerous than the sin of the scarlet letter, had they been seen knocking at her door. She saw how completely the social scheme must be altered before woman can enjoy a true equality with man, and she suspected the losses in the best of manhood and womanhood which might be the incidental or temporary price of the belated justice.

The greatness of The Scarlet Letter, on repeated readings, seems to lie in this social interest, this inexorable study of the world as it is, which distinguishes Hawthorne from other Transcendentalists. The Puritan environment is represented as already dying, young as it was in the new world; at the outset of the story Hawthorne shows us that these courageous founders of religious liberty in the wilderness felt the necessity at once of building a prison and of setting up a pillory. The ideals which a little while before were an inner light for the community, carrying inevitable conviction, were now stiffened into convention and leaned upon force. In making the point that Hawthorne was no special admirer of Puritanism, we must add that neither was he a special critic of it; he used the Puritan moment in our history merely to illustrate the truth of all moments, that society conventionalizes its ideals and becomes cruel, and that time, which annihilates one set of conventions, substitutes another. But some specific criticism of Puritan New England, of New England in his own day, may be discerned in the fortunes of Hester, and may be still more clearly felt in Zenobia and in Miriam, the later heroines; these are all represented as physically beautiful, and as in some way estranged from life, and we wonder whether it was not their beauty rather than their conduct that alienated them from their environment. What career has a beautiful woman in New England?—Hawthorne seems to ask, and he seems to imply that if she is conventional she may live down the handicap of beauty, but meantime she is dangerous to others and to herself. The danger to herself is indicated by the fact that Hester, Zenobia, and probably Miriam, were all married for their beauty, when they were very young, to men who could not appreciate their greatness of soul, and whom therefore they were forced to divorce or to desert.

The House of the Seven Gables is so quiet a story that Hawthorne’s characteristic criticism of self-reliance or of compensation is not at first disturbing, but in none of his books does he take more essential issue with Alcott and Emerson. On the surface of the romance lies the theme of long-delayed retribution—the curse of old Maule falling on each generation of the usurping Pyncheons. But what punishment does after all overtake the thoroughly bad man who allows his innocent cousin to rest in jail for years? He dies of apoplexy, as he would have died had he been the innocent cousin. And what happens to his victims? It is easy to guess how Emerson might have treated Clifford and Hepzibah; the innocence of the imprisoned brother would somehow have been its own reward, and the loyalty of the devoted sister, waiting for his release, would have ennobled her character. But confinement in prison is not likely to sweeten even innocence; Hawthorne shows Clifford on his return to the old house a broken man, irritable and unappreciative. Hepzibah’s long waiting proved for her a solitude almost as complete as prison confinement; Hawthorne shows her as a shrivelled old maid, angular and grim, with hardly a grace remaining. He had no more wish than Emerson would have had to decry the ethical beauty of her patient loyalty, but he could not help seeing that she, like Clifford, was the victim of gross wrong, and that it is disastrous to be even an innocent victim. Similarly he insists on a precise account of self-reliance in Holgrave, the descendant of old Maule. Emerson himself could not have portrayed a more thorough-going critic of the past.

“Shall we never, never get rid of this Past?” asks Holgrave. “It lies upon the Present like a giant’s dead body. In fact, the case is just as if a young giant were compelled to waste all his strength in carrying about the corpse of the old giant, his grandfather, who died a long while ago, and only needs to be decently buried…. A dead man, if he happen to have made a will, disposes of wealth no longer his own; or, if he die intestate, it is distributed in accordance with the notions of men much longer dead than he. A dead man sits on all our judgment-seats; and living judges do but search out and repeat his decisions. We read in dead men’s books! We laugh at dead men’s jokes, and cry at dead men’s pathos! We are sick of dead men’s diseases, physical and moral, and die of the same remedies with which dead doctors killed their patients! We worship the living Deity according to dead men’s forms and creeds. Whatever we seek to do, of our own free motion, a dead man’s icy hand obstructs us! Turn our eyes to what point we may, a dead man’s white, immitigable face encounters them, and freezes our very heart! And we must be dead ourselves before we can begin to have our proper influence on our own world, which will then be no longer our world, but the world of another generation, with which we shall have no shadow of a right to interfere.”

How far Hawthorne agrees with Holgrave we cannot tell, but there is no doubt what sort of character he thought would result from a sincere practice of such philosophy. Holgrave is free of the past, and thereby he is practically free of the present too; his honesty and his emancipation attract the reader, yet he has little or no influence. Few men really wish to detach themselves so far. Even Phœbe, the young girl whom he marries, who has the natural freshness of innocence, seems curiously social in comparison with this conscientious rover whose one dread is that he may take root somewhere.

Hawthorne showed an increasing disposition to discuss these philosophical questions in frank comment outside the plot of his romances. Hollingsworth, in The Blithedale Romance, illustrates his fear of tampering with the natural order of things, especially by organized reform; and Zenobia illustrates his reflections on self-reliance, especially where woman is concerned. Hollingsworth was a determined social reformer; he wished to reform criminals through an appeal to their higher instincts. Hawthorne observed that such philanthropy, admirable in its intention, often proceeded on slight knowledge of the facts. “He ought to have commenced his investigation of the subject by perpetrating some huge sin in his proper person, and examining the condition of his higher instincts afterwards.” As a matter of fact, Hollingsworth does ruin two lives, Zenobia’s and Priscilla’s, in the selfish pursuit of his philanthropic ideal, and, if he had chosen, might well have furnished the state of his own heart for examination. Hawthorne comments again, making his familiar point that a good ideal brings a man to a good end only if it does not lead him out of the natural sympathies of life:

The moral which presents itself to my reflections, as drawn from Hollingsworth’s character and errors, is simply this—that, admitting what is called philanthropy, when adopted as a profession, to be often useful by its energetic impulse to society at large, it is perilous to the individual whose ruling passion, in one exclusive channel, it thus becomes. It ruins, or is fearfully apt to ruin, the heart, the rich juices of which God never meant should be pressed violently out and distilled into alcoholic liquor by an unnatural process, but should render life sweet, bland, and gently beneficent, and insensibly influence other hearts and other lives to the same blessed end.

Zenobia is a modern and conscious Hester—or rather, her experience is the reverse of Hester’s, for she is a woman naturally emancipated who is ruined by disappointed love. It is this difference in their problems that makes her seem less noble than Hester, less tragic than pitiful. But in portraying her, Hawthorne raises more especially the question he had suggested in The Scarlet Letter: is not such a woman, so beautiful and so intellectual, an exotic creature in our society? Here is the modern woman whom Hester dreamed of, but the old misfortune still overtakes her; like Hester, she has married one who could not appreciate her, but she has never found the lover who should have been her mate, and she has no true companionship with other women. She seems to be a foreigner, and in the New England thought of Hawthorne’s time foreigners had the right to be, like Zenobia, physically beautiful.

The Marble Faun repeats in Miriam the problem of Hester and of Zenobia, and in Hilda, the simple Puritan girl who finds peace in the Roman Catholic confessional, the story illustrates beautifully Hawthorne’s faith that some of our most unconventional impulses lead us to a practical morality. But the philosophy of the book centres in Donatello, that wonderful creature who begins life with the animal-like innocence which radical thought seems often to desire for man, and who develops an immortal soul by committing an impulsive murder. The doctrine of Circles has its most elaborate illustration here; here is the evolution of good out of sin—not out of repentance for sin. But if the doctrine is sound, our theology needs thorough revision, and Hawthorne suggests the logical change in our conception of sin:

Is sin then—which we deem such a dreadful blackness in the universe—is it, like sorrow, merely an element of human education, through which we struggle to a higher and purer state than we could otherwise have attained? Did Adam fall that we might ultimately rise to a far higher Paradise than his?

These problems, suggested by the Transcendental philosophy, occupied Hawthorne to the last. It was not in his disposition to suggest answers to them. His distinction in American literature is the extent to which he projected them experimentally into life, and the sincerity with which he modified them to conform to stubborn and perplexing facts.

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^  See Book II, Chap. VIII.