The Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne’s Psychological Themes
Hawthorne: A Collection of Critical Essays
One cannot speak of Hawthorne these days without observing that of all the classic American writers he is perhaps the one least understood by the academic scholarship and criticism of our time. It is to be hoped, therefore, that Mr. Crews’s book, with its unabashedly and relentlessly Freudian analysis of what really goes on beneath the didactic surface of his fiction, will induce serious misgivings in the circle of Hawthorne specialists and lead to a significant revision of the genteel orthodoxies they now find so serviceable. But somehow I doubt it.
The academic mind, particularly when it comes into possession of some small speciality, has its own way of absorbing insights it finds disagreeable and in the long run rendering them harmless; and the psychoanalytic method, having been so frequently and grossly abused by popularizers and sensation-mongers among both laymen and analysts, is peculiarly open to the charge of being academically disreputable. Hence I expect that for some years to come Hawthorne will continue to be presented in the classrooms as a kind of “religious tutor to posterity,” a Christ-like figure no less, or else, in a more secular version, as a diligent and accurate student of American history. This second approach is almost as bad as the first: It depersonalizes Hawthorne’s tales and romances, turning them into documentary source-material readily annexed by that proliferously ambitious, empire-building new academic “discipline” called American Studies.
Mr. Crews—an academic himself, though of an uncommon kind—applies Freudian techniques to his literary subject-matter in an acute and highly sophisticated fashion; and in the process he easily controverts both approaches, with the religious-didactic one, which is the more influential in Hawthorne studies, receiving most of his polemical thrusts. Unfortunately, but not at all unexpectedly, it is exactly these approaches that are copiously exemplified in the collection of essays designed as collateral reading for students that A. N. Kaul has edited for the critical series advertised as “Twentieth Century Views.” I don’t believe that students will get much out of it. Only a few entries in it deserve our esteem, such as, notably, Yvor Winters’s chapter on Hawthorne taken from his book, Maule’s Curse. Even if Mr. Winters never gets anywhere near considering Hawthorne as an individual writer with a temperament and personal background specifically his own, and not just as the focus of New England’s theological bias and allegoric bent, still his essay traces with precision the impact of the dogmas and habits of mind of the Puritans and their successors on the literary imagination of New England; and his critical estimate of Hawthorne is far from inflationary.
NOT SO Q. D. LEAVIS, who, I am bound to say, prodigiously inflates his achievement in her essay, “Hawthorne as Poet.” She sees him as “the critic and interpreter of American cultural history” (why the definite article?), compares him, entirely to his advantage, with Milton, and commits herself to the view, wholly unacceptable in my opinion, that “the just comparison with The Scarlet Letter is not The Pilgrim’s Progress but Anna Karenina, which in theme and technique it seems to me astonishingly to resemble.” It is hard to conceive of a more inapt comparison. What, after all, do these two books have in common? The subject of adultery (and in the language of criticism subject is by no means the equivalent of theme), which they share with any number of novels. Moreover, as is well known, in matters of art the subject is a more or less neutral element; what counts primarily is treatment, and in this respect the two novels are obviously poles apart. So what are we left with? The idea of sin presumably. Yet The Scarlet Letter is not in fact the novelistic representation of a sin (if we can call it that, for its author’s ambivalence, as the text shows, forced him repeatedly to voice his doubts even about that) but only of its aftermath. It goes without saying, of course, that nothing whatever in Tolstoy’s novel reminds us in any sense of the two strains that mingle in Hawthorne’s literary nature: the spectral strain of the Gothic tale and the pietistic strain of Christian allegory, both of which contribute to his estrangement from the actual. But it is of the actual above all that Tolstoy is in secure possession. No doubt The Scarlet Letter is in its way a masterpiece, though only if measured on a strictly national if not provincial scale, whereas Anna Karenina is one of the four or five great novels of the world, incomparably superior, in its total vision as in its creative resources, to anything that Hawthorne, with his fear of life induced by narrow circumstances and his morbid memories of the past, could possibly have produced. How Mrs. Leavis, richly endowed as she is with a sense of literary history, could insist on a “just comparison” here, is beyond me.
So much for twentieth-century views! What the essays in Mr. Kaul’s collection mainly attest to is that “process of canonization” which Mr. Crews rightly deplores as having contributed to the fact that Hawthorne, like all saints, “has ascended to dullness.” But Hawthorne is in essence far from being a dull writer; it is only necessary to learn how to read him, how not to confuse the manifest with the latent content of his work. And it is in this regard, precisely, that the theologically-minded critics are at fault, having failed to apply the resources of modern intelligence to his fiction. They have refused to see that Hawthorne’s religiosity was of the surface only, not a matter of the deepest personal feeling but a traditional rhetoric he adopted as a protective screen for his fantasies. The most that can be said is that though the faith of his forefathers had lost its rational appeal to him, it still, in part, ruled and confined him psychologically. Hence the inherited beliefs appear in his work as specters rather than convictions. “How plausible is it,” writes Mr. Crews,
to make a saintly allegorist of a man who almost never went to church, who described his masterpiece’ as a “hell-fired story,” and who confessed to his journal, “We certainly do need a new revelation—a new system—for there seems to be no life in the old one”…. And indeed, once we have ceased trying to make him into a source of oracular wisdom, we perceive that Hawthorne’s keynote was neither piety nor impiety, but ambivalence…. In short, Hawthorne was emotionally engaged in his fiction, and -the emotions he displays are those of a self-divided, self-tormented man.
IN THE NOT SO REMOTE PAST, however, some very good things were written about him, though hardly at all from a rigorously psychological point of view—by Henry James, for instance, by Paul Elmer More in his penetrating essay, “Hawthorne, Looking Before and After,” by Van Wyck Brooks in a few pages of his book, America’s Coming-of-Age, and of course by D. H. Lawrence. The James volume of 1879 in the “English Men of Letters” series exerts a perennial charm and is of lasting interest to students of the native culture; but James was scarcely in a position to expand his analysis of his chief predecessor beyond calling attention to his care “for the deeper psychology,” and to the glimpses his work offers “of the whole deep mystery of man’s soul and conscience.” He also carefully explained why he thought Hawthorne’s allegorizing a weakness, even if an inevitable one under the circumstances, for allegory “was apt to spoil two good things—a story and a moral, a meaning and a form.” In 1915 Van Wyck Brooks wrote some pages on Hawthorne that set the tone for the moderately candid biographies of him that appeared during the Twenties. According to Brooks,
this being who passed twelve years of his youth in a solitary, close-curtained room, walking abroad only in the twilight…was himself a phantom in a phantom-world.
Not long afterwards, D. H. Lawrence remarked on “the duplicity of that blue-eyed Wunkerkind of a Nathaniel,” accurately noting the split in him between outward conformity and “the impeccable truth of his art-speech.” This was a valuable hint, ignored, to be sure, by the Hawthorne specialists, who in the past two decades or so have transmogrified the “haunted” Hawthorne, a phantom-like being, into a figure of nearly Goethean repose, a wide-awake American culture-hero, at once a didactic writer and a symbolist in the version of symbolism cooked up by the New Critics. What happened to the allegorizing that James took exception to? It was somehow metabolized into myth and symbol. By 1950 this distorted evaluation of Hawthorne had gained so much ground in the academy that Professor Hyatt H. Waggoner, one of the principal specialists, was able to claim in his Introduction to the Rinehart edition of his Selected Tales and Sketches, a text widely used in the schools, that “Hawthorne’s views were those of democratic Christian humanism, and the key word here is Christian…. Hawthorne’s sensibility was primarily Christian, and his instinct was for the central catholic tradition of Christian humanism.” Now this is nothing more than a bland fiction, designed to adapt Hawthorne to the demands of the Zeitgeist, a compound, at that time, of the triple alliance of the New Conservatism, the Revival of Religion, and the New Criticism. It is literally impossible to understand what our scholars and critics were then saying about Hawthorne (and numerous other writers) without accounting for it by the prevailing Zeitgeist.
GIVEN THE BACKWARDNESS of Hawthorne studies, that is, the determined refusal of the specialists to examine his work realistically, one cannot but welcome Mr. Crews’s psychoanalytical investigation, which succeeds, to my mind, in uncovering what is beneath “the layers of euphemism and rationalization” we find in this classic American writer. There is nothing new, of course, in the psychoanalytic approach; it is a modern platitude, but in the case of Hawthorne, so protected by genteel academic prejudice and sheer timorousness, the approach Mr. Crews has chosen is something of a daring novelty. He concentrates not so much on his subject’s biography as on his psychological themes and patterns; nor is he primarily writing literary criticism, though his study contains a good deal of it. If criticism is, among other things, the evaluation of literature, then it is plain that psychoanalytic statements about literature are not in themselves criticism. What they are is a form of research, precisely in the same sense that historical or formal analysis is a mode of research. But research, all types of it, constitutes the indispensable material on the basis of which the critic forms his judgment, his evaluation of a work of literature. And in Hawthorne’s case we have long missed the kind of research that Mr. Crews has undertaken: therein lies its value.
He clearly establishes that the emphasis in Hawthorne is “on buried motives which are absolutely binding” because of their unavailability to consciousness. With his “sense of guilt rooted in the twin themes of incest and patricide,” he exhibits “a definable, indeed classic, conflict of wishes at the heart of his ambivalence that provides the innermost configuration of his plots”; and in his writings he nonetheless succeeds in “simultaneously analyzing and indulging” his psychological excess. It should be stressed that Mr. Crews nowhere contends that Hawthorne is ingeniously concealing his meanings or playing any games. The point is, rather, that though as anxious as anyone to view his protagonists superficially, he could not help but “represent their motives” in fictional terms. The inescapable conclusion is that “sexual obsession is the governing force” of his work.
Mr. Crews’s thorough reading of Hawthorne takes us through all his writings, from the early “Alice Doane’s Appeal,” in which the ostensible interest in the historical past is “nothing other than the sense of family conflict writ large,” the four novels, his better short stories, and finally the four aborted romances with which he wrestled towards the end of his life but could never finish. They remain mere fragments, inconsistent as imaginative works, for what is clearly apparent in them is “the return of the repressed” in a form so powerful that it could no longer be controlled; we find in them “an unceasing flow of repressed fantasy which is counteracted by unceasing denial and distortion.” It is characteristic of the Hawthorne specialists that they usually make very little of the unfinished romances, dismissing them for the most part as the products of weariness or the senility of old age. But Hawthorne was only sixty years old when he died. So what is ordinarily said to explain the incoherence of these late works is mere evasion; it is only in Mr. Crews’s analysis of them that they become relevant, showing that his “creative breakdown” occurred when “he surrendered to a neurotic despair whose origins he did not quite dare to understand.”
LIMITATIONS OF SPACE do not permit me to reproduce in a review Mr. Crew’s closely reasoned argument or the wealth of evidence he cites from Hawthorne’s texts. I have indicated only his conclusions, which to our present psychological sense cannot appear startling. For given the time and place in which Hawthorne lived, and taking into account the fact that he was a writer not of vaporous “transcendental” essays or apotheoses of “nature” but of imaginative prose, his neurosis was indeed exemplary—exemplary as private penalty and as expiation of “the sins of the fathers,” his brutal and bigoted ancestors who burned witches and persecuted Quakers. Therefore it comes as no great surprise to learn that the classic Hawthorne of the schoolbooks was indeed a classic “Freudian” case. The social environment and culture in which he grew up was intensely repressive of the more intimate emotions: no wonder he was as irresistibly drawn to sexuality as he was repelled by it. In his work he depicted a persistent character-image (Hester, Zenobia, Miriam, and Beatrice—“the dark lady of Salem,” as I once named her) who is as beautiful and voluptuous as she is “inexpressibly terrible,” a temptress offering the ascetic sons of the Puritans “the treasure-trove of a great sin.” The very juxtaposition in one phrase of two such words as “treasuretrove” and “sin” is deeply expressive of the conflict that at once fired his imagination and depressed his life. His constant plaint was: “I have not lived but only dreamed of living.”
As Mr. Crews sees it, his outward conformity, his conspicuous respectability as a father and public official, do not erase the sense of “melancholy isolation” he gives us,
any more than his professed love of Dutch painting, of Trollope, of factual journalism can erase the fact that his own art was based on fantasy. Only an indifference to mental suffering can make us grateful for the emotional starvation that perversely nourished Hawthorne’s art; we must admire the art and separately regret the life. And yet it is a fact that the two are inextricable. As Freud remarked in a moment of self-dramatization…. “No one who, like me, conjures up the most evil of those half-tamed demons that inhabit the human breast, can expect to come through the struggle unscathed.” Let that be our epitaph for a writer whose anguished brooding has given us an urgent, a subtle, and an emotionally profound fiction.
The author of this fiction is, needless to say, quite unknown to the Hawthorne specialists. So much the worse for them.
Placing Hawthorne November 3, 1966