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On Hawthorne’s Mind

What did Hawthorne believe? The author of our classic novel of religious conscience and religious suffering, and of works imbued throughout with religious concerns and religious language, boasted of not being a churchgoer. His baptism, if it occurred, left no trace on the records. His mother, who became a widowed recluse when Nathaniel was only four, did take the boy and his sisters to services at the East Meeting House in Salem, where the Hathornes (the “w” was added by our subject, after college) had had a pew for 170 years—“the old wooden meetinghouse,” Hawthorne was to write, “which used, on wintry Sabbaths, to be the frozen purgatory of my childhood.” At Bowdoin College, he jested of “Sunday sickness” and was frequently fined for missing chapel. From there he wrote his mother, “The being a Minister is of course out of the question. I shall not think that even you could desire me to choose so dull a way of life.”

During his adoring courtship of Sophia Peabody, he rather resolutely declined to accompany her to hear her favorite preacher, the Methodist Edward Thompson Taylor, called Father Taylor and immortalized as Father Mapple in Moby-Dick. Not long after the idyll of their married life together had begun, Hawthorne confided to his notebooks: “My wife went to church in the forenoon, but not so her husband.” As the United States consul in Liverpool, he did conduct family prayer services, in deference perhaps to his official position in Victorian England. But his son Jullan, in his memoir of his father, admitted, “He never discussed religion in set terms either in his writings or in his talk…. Our mother upon occasions expressed her faith and reverence in speech; our father in caverns submarine and unsounded, yet somehow apparent.”

Melville, one of the few men ever to break through Hawthorne’s reserve, held with him, in Lenox in 1850, latenight conversations that Hawthorne in his journal described as “about time and eternity, things of this world and the next, and books, and publishers, and all possible and impossible things”; but he did not record his own position on these deep matters. Five years later, when Melville showed up in Liverpool and they went walking on the nearby links, Hawthorne’ noted: “Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken…. It is strange how he persists—and has persisted in wandering to-and-fro over the deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief.”

In Concord, Hawthorne was skeptical about the Transcendental enthusiasms of Emerson and Channing; in Rome, he was attentive to, but in the end skeptical of, the manifold consolations of the Roman Catholic Church. Puritanically, he disdained dilutions. His short story “The Celestial Railroad” satirizes Unitarianism, and Church of England services he called “mummery, which seemed to me worse than papistry because it was a corruption of it.” Yet this same skeptic could write that “religious faith is the most valuable and most sacred of human possessions” and say of the evangelist John Eliot, “There is no impiety in believing that, when his long life was over, the apostle of the Indians was welcomed to the celestial abodes by the prophets of ancient days and by those earliest apostles and evangelists who had drawn their inspirations from the immediate presence of the Saviour.” True, the context of the first assertion is a campaign biography, and of the second a book of historical tales aimed at children; but in an essay on the very subject of his refusal to attend church, entitled “Sunday at Home,” he assures the reader that “doubts may flit around me, or seem to close their evil wings…never can my soul have lost the instinct of its faith…though my form be absent, my inner man goes constantly to church.”

Now, Protestantism by the beginning of the nineteenth century presented a wide grid of doctrinal emphases and shades of belief, and it would be natural for a man to move variously among them, according to his mood and time of life. Hawthorne at one point was attracted by Shakerism, and then repulsed by it; at a later juncture he was interested, though at a characteristic distance, in the Swedenborgians. Religious belief is an elusive and volatile part of a man, and our inquiry here would be impudent, as well as impossible, were it focused upon the always “submarine,” and by now profoundly sunk, question of what settled belief or unbelief Hawthorne held, that he could find curious the perpetual discomfort of Melville. Unlike Whitman, Hawthorne did not set himself up as a heretic; or, like Emerson, as a prophet. His vocabulary retained phrases of conventional piety while neither sermons nor rites enriched his personal life. In this he resembled many male citizens of the Christendom of his time. Yet the religious life within his writings does not fade but, if anything, intensifies, and the work itself invites us to search out the involuntary creed professed by his recurrent themes and artistic reflexes. A very vivid ghost of Christianity stares out at us from his prose, alarming and odd in not being evenly dead, but alive in some limbs and amputate in others, blurred in some aspects and basilisk-keen in others, even in part upside down.

Hawthorne’s creed perhaps begins with this: he feels himself as delicate, fragile, and threatened, and identifies the menace of the world with the Puritanism of his ancestors. His essay “Main Street” prays: “Let us thank God for having given us such ancestors; and let each successive generation thank Him, not less fervently, for being one step farther from them in the march of ages.” “And what hast thou to do with all these iron men, and their opinions?” Hester Prynne cries out to Dimmesdale, in a world permeated by iron grayness. In The Scarlet Letter (1850), alone of Hawthorne’s novels, we do not feel the social surround of the principal characters to be thin, for it is solidly composed of ancient Boston’s communal righteousness. And Dimmesdale, in so far as he speaks for Puritanism, is not the hero but the villain, so that we rejoice in his fall; thus D.H. Lawrence read the novel as the triumphant story of a husband and wife, Mr. and Mrs. Chillingworth, conspiring to seduce and torment an insufferably flawed agent of an iron domination.

In The House of the Seven Gables (1851), the blood of the Pyncheons descends as a curse; Hawthorne needs no Max Weber to connect Puritanism with the dark forces of material enterprise. In his fancy the dead, witch-hanging Colonel and the contemporary, greedy, pharisaical politician are twins, and in a chapter of embarrassing venom the author gloats above the corpse of Judge Pyncheon as above the body of an enemy dispatched. And in The Blithedale Romance (1852), the iron men have shrunk to a single blacksmith, the philanthropist Hollingsworth, whom Hawthorne again castigates in terms scarcely justified by the action of the novel. Another blacksmith figures in the short story “The Artist of the Beautiful”; the artist-hero protests of him, “His hard, brute force darkens and confuses the spiritual element within me.”*

From Christianity Hawthorne accepted the dualism, and made it more radical still. Orthodox doctrine bridges matter and spirit with a scandalous Incarnation, Jesus Christ. In Hawthorne, matter verges upon being evil; virtue, upon being insubstantial. His insistence on delicate, ethereal heroines goes not only against our modern grain but his own—for in The Blithedale Romance it seems clear that it is not the ectoplasmic Priscilla the narrator loves, as the last sentence proclaims in capitals, but the dark, sensual, and doomed Zenobia. Zenobia does not fit into his vision: “I know not well how to express, that the native glow of coloring in her cheeks, and even the flesh-warmth over her round arms, and what was visible of her full bust—in a word, her womanliness incarnated,—compelled me sometimes to close my eyes, as if it were not quite the privilege of modesty to gaze at her.”

The Blithedale Romance, long considered the least of his four mature romances, is yet the most actual, the most nervously alive, in its first-person voice and in its overwarm, perversely shunned heroine—“the nearest approach,” Henry James thought, “that Hawthorne has made to the complete creation of a person.” The novel in its smallest details conveys Hawthorne’s instinctive tenet that matter and spirit are inevitably at war. “The soul gets the better of the body after a wasting illness,” Miles Coverdale tells us; when he has recovered sufficiently to engage in farm work, his mind is got the better of: “The clods of earth, which we so constantly belabored and turned over and over, were never etherealized into thought. Our thoughts, on the contrary, were fast becoming cloddish.”

Where the two incompatible realms of Hawthorne’s universe impinge, something leaks through; there is a stain. A sensation of blasphemous overlapping, of some vast substance chemically betraying itself, is central to the Gothic tradition of which Hawthorne’s tales are lovely late blooms. The stain, this sinister emissary from another world, can take the form of poison, of a potion, of dreams and mirrors, of overinsistent symbols like the scarlet letter or Donatello’s presumably pointed ears. Hawthorne’s wish to saturate his imagery with the import of symbolism is itself a kind of staining, and his meditations on sculpture in The Marble Faun take an eerie tincture from his notion of the art as a potential invasion of the inanimate by the animate. Allegory, whose last earnest practitioner he was, is a kindred form of animation, in the realm of abstractions rather than of marble. An aura of supernatural puppetry, of immanent spontaneous generation, haunts his tales; we are not surprised, in “Feathertop,” when a scarecrow takes on life.

The haunted is a degenerate form of the sacred. Two sacred ideas especially precious to Calvinism, Providence and guilt, haunt his mind, but in curious form. Providence seems to be his sensation of inner delicacy projected outward upon the universe, where it is threatened by human monomania; the obsessed experimenter and philanthropist recur as ill-fated disrupters of the universal balance—men who, he writes in “The Hall of Fantasy,” “had got possession of some crystal fragment of truth the brightness of which so dazzled them that they could see nothing else in the wide universe.” Guilt, of which Hawthorne was such a connoisseur, pervades his work without any corroborating conviction of sin—for we do not feel that Dimmesdale and Hester, or Donatello and Miriam, are guilty of anything more than flashing out momentarily against, in their creator’s phrase, “the moral gloom of the world.” Yet they scrub and scrub at their stains, under a Providence too delicately balanced to offer absolution. In the masterly tale of “The Birthmark,” the stain on the heroine’s cheek is intrinsic to her life and beauty, and her husband kills her in removing it through alchemy. “Thus ever,” the moral runs, “does the gross fatality of earth exult in its invariable triumph over the immortal essence which, in this dim sphere of half development, demands the completeness of a higher state.”

The axis of Earth-flesh-blood versus Heaven-mind-spirit with a little rotation becomes that of the World versus the self. In this opposition the self fights submergence. Hawthorne’s first hero, the autobiographically reclusive Fanshawe, dies at the age of twenty of no certain disease, simply easing from “a world for which he was unfit,” leaving “the ashes of a hard student and good scholar”—an epitaph whose real model concluded, “and a great Christian.” Though not claiming that latter title, the delicate personae of Hawthorne’s novels do gather strength as they evolve. Dimmesdale perishes only after a prolonged struggle, and flaunts the world as he departs. The House of the Seven Gables has two delicate characters, Clifford and Phoebe, who survive Judge Pyncheon and inherit his wealth. Delicacy, shifted to femininity, takes on a new resilience. In The Blithedale Romance, the translucent Priscilla sees her rival into the grave and exerts a wifely mastery over the shattered Hollingsworth. The dark Puritan vein, here shrunk to one cowed man, becomes in the final romance, The Marble Faun of 1860, a mere pleasant Yankee mettle in the culminating embodiment of delicacy, Hilda, who with the pragmatic aid of a Catholic confessional, expunges the stain of having witnessed murder and accepts full-bodied happiness.

This submarine Pilgrim’s Progress is paralleled by Hawthorne’s own career; circumstances contrived to pull the fantasizing young hermit of the dozen Salem years, venturing forth only at sunset and publishing anonymously, slowly out, through public employment, respectable marriage, literary success, and political office, into a thorough international worldliness. He returned from England to his own land at a time when it was, in a struggle within itself more ghastly than Dimmesdale’s, expunging the stain of slavery; Hawthorne sickened and died, like one of his own blighted characters.

The writer who profited most from his example, Henry James, yet said, “I feel that his principle was wrong…. Imagination is out of place; only the strictest realism can be right.” Hawthorne himself coveted novels like those of Trollope—“as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case.” Yet what is reality? We do not feel material to ourselves, and matter itself is transient. “The Hall of Fantasy,” Hawthorne wrote, “is likely to endure longer than the most substantial structure that ever cumbered the earth.” He believed, with his Puritan ancestors, that man’s spirit matters; that the soul can be distorted, stained, and lost; that the impalpable exerts force against the material. Our dreams move us: this is a psychological rather than a religious truth, but in a land where, as Emerson said, “things are in the saddle,” it gives the artist his vote. The territory Hawthorne defined as that of his art, “where the Actual and the Imaginary might meet,” is the borderland where we still live.

  1. *

    A contemporary, Evert Duyckinck, wrote to his wife, “Hawthorne is a fine ghost in a case of iron.” When Hawthorne’s susceptible Sophie took up spiritualism in Rome, he was interested in the apparent evidence of seances and spirit writing, but concluded (in his English Notebooks), “I cannot consent to let Heaven and Earth, this world and the next, be beaten up together like the white and yolk of an egg.” Both quotations may be found in James R. Mellow’s recent Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times (Houghton Mifflin, 1980).

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