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 …
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Placing Hawthorne November 3, 1966