The Ghost Sense

When Nathaniel Hawthorne died in 1864, the most distinguished man of letters in New England, his neighbor in Concord, Ralph Waldo Emerson, had nothing positive to say: “I thought there was a tragic element in the event, that might be more fully rendered—in the painful solitude of the man which, I suppose, could no longer be endured, and he died of it.” How much Emerson himself contributed to that solitude he never knew, for he could not read fiction, did not understand its dramatic necessity, regularly attributed the faults of the worst novelists to the best. Whenever he condescended to say anything about the fiction of his time, he wrote about it with a stealthy insight into its weaknesses that was used to support his moralistic distaste for fiction.

Emerson, a remarkable writer of pensées, never believed in men or institutions so much as he believed in God as pure spirit, a god who dwells in us as our religious and moral imagination. Emerson believed—he allowed himself to believe—only in moral intuitions. Pure spirit was the greatest intuition, for that had become the moral law within us. Toward everything else on earth, Emerson could be smoothly ironic; so his marvelous journals became fragments of light, a wisdom literature that sometimes lost the light but never the appearance of being wise. This was what the Puritan tradition had left New England in the 1830s and 1840s, when American literature really began: a faith that literature could still be scripture. The writer was seen as an oracle, orator, and teacher who could give out the word that connected the people of God with God. Everything in nature manifested God’s presence, and every word that the gifted prophet-poet could find in his heart was a symbol of the divine truth. The Church was unnecessary, for God was everywhere, especially in the imagination of Transcendentalists. There could be no anxiety or strain as to the meaning of the creation, for all symbols found in nature easily reflected God as clear and perfect truth.

Thus Emerson was right to think that there was a painful solitude to Hawthorne, a tragic element that might be more fully rendered. For Hawthorne was a storyteller, a romancer, a fantasist in a culture still dry with religious literalism, one that had managed in literary quarters to replace the old church rigor with an insistency on its own moral certainties, born only of intuition. I have deliberately chosen archaic and approximate terms like storyteller, romancer, fantasist, in order to point up the lack of accepted terms for the profession in which Hawthorne found himself. Hawthorne, who was always calling himself a “romancer” in those prefaces to his books that were apologies for his strange calling and attempts to bridge the gap between himself and his audience, felt himself to be an oddity in choosing to be a “mere writer of tales.” As a storyteller, choosing to represent psychic situations rather than to explain them, Hawthorne found …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.