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 himself suggesting uncertainties where there had always been God’s truth, drawing shadows and hinting at abysses where there had always been clarity, straining to find images of the imponderable, the blackness and the vagueness, even the terror that waits in what he called “the dim region beyond the daylight of our perfect consciousness.”
HAWTHORNE is the most interesting artist in fiction whom New England has produced—he is the only New England artist in fiction whose works constitute a profound imaginative world of their own, the only one who represents more than some phase of New England history. The passage that he achieved, from literature as scripture to literature as fiction, may seem ordinary and unastonishing when we think about it in bulk, as cultural history. But when we concentrate on it as the achievement of a single artist, one who had to claim as his subject the very ordeal by religion from which he emancipated himself as an artist, we can see why Henry James said: “The fine thing in Hawthorne is that he cared for the deeper psychology and that, in his own way, he tried to become familiar with it.” T.S. Eliot said that Hawthorne had “the ghost sense.” It is always the sense of another world; it is a peculiar saturation in something present to the human mind but not visible.
Everyone recognizes that whatever is most profound in American literature is somehow bound up with Puritanism. In Hawthorne we see an artist’s natural emancipation from it but also a turning back to it as the materials of legend, as an allegory of the human heart. The incessant moralizing of the New England mind, the sententiousness of its intellectual manner, the consciousness of being God’s elect, above all the overcharged and often mystical symbolism which so many Puritans attached to their experiences in primitive New England—these were turned into fanciful, elusive, symbolic elements of human nature. Hawthorne, surrounded by so many moralists who thought they commanded the reality principle, created more memorably than he did anything else a sense of the unreality of existence, of its doubleness, its dreaminess, its unrealizability by anything less profound than the symbolic tale. It was this that made a remarkable writer, who thought of himself as archaic, so haunting to the James of the last unfinished works like The Sense of the Past; to the Eliot who in 1916, when James died, could best define James’s achievement as a sense of the past like Hawthorne’s; to Robert Lowell, who in his play The Old Glory dramatized some of Hawthorne’s best stories, especially “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” as if these episodes had all been dreamed in common by Hawthorne’s readers. Of all the great American writers, Hawthorne is still the standard for those readers who think that a piece of writing should have the mysterious authenticity and the selfsufficient form of a dream.
It is an odd fact—to those who do not know America from within—that this extraordinarily powerful, seemingly wholly modern society, should have produced as its sweetest, rarest, profoundest literary artists, writers most concerned with the inner life, with many strange symbols for mental consciousness. Although our best writers have naturally found their subject in society, the operating force on them has been the struggle with ancestral symbols. Many ghosts have always haunted the American mind precisely because it has been so open to every secular experience. Hawthorne became a kind of virtuoso in fiction of the inner life—the only novelist from New England as subtle as its poets—because he was able to show as a human style the extraordinary burden on the New England mind of the past, of its moral introspection, its unending selfconfrontation and selfexamination.
IT IS THIS SIDE of Hawthorne’s fiction, in all its modest provincialism, that often makes the same impression on us as do Joyce’s stories and Kafka’s parables—the restrictiveness of the setting has forced the characters into a wholly mental existence. In Hawthorne people talk more to themselves than they do to other people, they talk to others only to report on what they have already told themselves, they talk to others as if they were talking to themselves. This is of course not what novelists between 1890 and 1920 were to develop as the stream of consciousness; it is not unconscious imagery and unformulated speech, but literally a communing of the self with the self in a world where the individual is more real to himself than anything else is. The “public” speech of Hawthorne’s characters resembles the operatic monologues of characters in Balzac and Stendhal; it is intensely formal, as indeed everything pertaining to style is in Hawthorne. But what makes American fiction different in this period from English and continental fiction is that, with the Americans, there is so little public world—so few institutions, especially the English kind that young Henry James missed in Hawthorne and thought essential to the modern social novel. New England put the greatest possible strain on the individual, for by the Puritan scheme of things he was convinced of the total depravity of mankind, yet had to find some tiny chink in this darkness, some outlet to salvation, in the report of worthiness that his own heart gave back to itself. This self-communing remained the dramatic center of Hawthorne’s work forcing the individual to pursue a shadowy existence in pursuit of himself. The old Henry James, struggling to finish The Sense of the Past, was to find an ancestral ghost of his own in Hawthorne. James did all he could with the realistic novel, and then found himself in old age back in a world like Hawthorne’s, where the human mind must pursue itself as the external world gets more and more unstuck.
THIS is the situation portrayed over and again in Hawthorne’s fiction—as it is in so many stories out of Catholic Ireland and in so many European Jewish writers brought up to find their material in orthodoxy. All perceptions have become troubling. Where everything was once confidently an image of God’s omnipresence, commonplace things show the rule of strangeness. Hawthorne’s use of masks and veils, of emblems, shadows, ruins, blackness, his need of fiction machinery involving a lost inheritance, the missing will, the bloody footprint left on the stair of the rotting house, the scaffold, the pillory, the forest, show how instinctively he thought in terms of obstructions to be cleared, of disguises and secrets, of claims upon the past that could never be satisfied. Past generations, said Marx, lie like an incubus upon the living. Hawthorne, a strikingly uncooperative imagination in a “new” country, thought that men could never discharge ancestors from their minds, for the past contained the one secret they were always looking for.
HAWTHORNE’S NEW ENGLAND is as black as Joyce’s old Dublin and Kafka’s old Prague, his haunting, creepily echolalic stories, collected under demure titles like Twice Told Tales, Mosses From An Old Manse, affect us like music box tunes that slide into dissonance. A minister walks about with a black veil over his face, never to have it off even in his coffin. Young Goodman Brown, newly married, leaves his bride, Faith, to consort with the Devil and friends in the forest. The Devil looks like his father, the blasphemy of the communion service is attended by the most respectable people in town. ” ‘Welcome, my children,’ said the dark figure, ‘to the communion of your race. You have found thus your nature and your destiny. By the sympathy of your human hearts for sin ye shall scent out all the places…. Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness.’ ” Goodman Brown is dazzled by the enthusiasm with which the villagers throw off their moral pretensions; he can never trust himself or anyone else after he has returned to his bride. In “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” a mad Italian botanist who breeds poisonous flowers has so trained his daughter to serve his arrogant will that his pride destroys her. In “The Birthmark” an eminent medical scientist, made equally destructive by his terrible pride, involuntarily kills his wife when he endeavors to remove a faint birthmark that is the only blemish on her beauty.
The figure of the insanely proud and thus destructive genius, which recurs in “Doctor Heidegger’s Experiment” and as Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letter, is of course a type of the perilous selfsufficiency that Hawthorne saw as the tragic element in our isolated human nature. But to summarize Hawthorne’s fictions is to conventionalize them, to make them seem more moralistic than they are. As in the case of his most famous book, The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne tended to draw his situations from historic legend, or to work them up from explicitly symbolic episodes doggedly reported in his notebooks. He was deceptively obvious in announcing his themes. But what makes the charm and elusive suggestiveness of his fictions is the atmosphere he creates. He was a symbolist, an extraordinarily delicate colorist, for whom the human fancy made all necessary connections. In “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” where the most prominent character is really the poison garden itself, it is the extraordinary touch that Hawthorne can give his materials, not the “meaning” of the tale but the tale turning on its enigmatic surface, that brings home Hawthorne’s originality of vision. He was above all else a painter in words, a Piranesi of the oddly picturesque ruins that New England presented to his imaginative eye, a Georges de la Tour of light playing on the human face as it studies itself in the mirror—a situation that recurs in the stories and in The Scarlet Letter. What one takes away most from “Rappaccini’s Daughter” is the treacherous beauty of the over-colored flowers; from “Young Goodman Brown,” the black shadows in the forest and then the horridly burning brand lighting up the Devil’s face as he welcomes the villagers to the “communion of their race”; from “The Minister’s Black Veil,” the blackness covering the minister’s face; from “The Maypole of Merry Mount,” the would-be pagans in New England masquerading as stags, wolves, he-goats, bears; from “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” the extraordinary darkness of the approach to Boston as the young boy crosses the river; from The Blithedale Romance, the flower in Zenobia’s hair.
Hawthorne fastened on color and on light; he lived in dim, bleak, crabbed New England; was an artist starved for Europe, for the great world, for sensuous possibility. But his recourse to graphic detail, to painters as characters and to portraits as emblems, was basically rooted in his need to describe every human scene in and for itself alone, to create a picture: make of it what you will. This passion to contract unsayable moral meanings into pictures was to become a ruling motive with Henry James and his disciple Joseph Conrad, both of whom rested the highest claims of their fiction on their ability to make the reader see. But until he went to Europe in 1853, Hawthorne could have seen few pictures—certainly few interesting ones. His imagination had already cast the New England scene into a deeper historical perspective than any other American novelist would know. What Hawthorne had to do was not merely to see the literally “dark” past with his own eyes, but to create a picture that would on many planes and in many shades reveal the tension between freedom and law, the living struggle in the soul between the truth of private feeling and the institutionalized dogmas that represented moral certainty.
IT IS Hawthorne’s ability to create moral tension in the form of surface picture that from the opening lines of The Scarlet Letter introduces us to the plastic imagination behind the book. It opens at the prison door where Hester Prynne is soon to appear wearing the scarlet letter embroidered on her dress. “A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments, and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods and others bare-headed, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.” This wooden jail is already marked with weatherstains and other indications of age which gave yet a deeper aspect to its beetle-browed and gloomy front. There is rust on the ponderous iron-work of the oaken door, and everything in this new world is harsh, crude, unnaturally old; yet on one side of the portal is a wild rose-bush flaming in the June sunlight. And when Hester appears at the prison door with her infant in her arms, the elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes with which she has worked the letter A into the breast of her gown immediately suggests the luxurious and sensuous woman in Puritan dress who holds our imagination in a blaze of scarlet. The tension that is sex, the tension that sets up the moral drama of sex in the restrictive world, the tension that is the inner life struggling against the cage of the visible world, the tension that is the predicament of human knowledge trying to realize itself in the world—this, which in our time fiction has only just consciously begun to contend with as the problem of knowledge—this tension is what is so vibrantly realized in Hawthorne’s constant visual contrast of dark and light, of heights and depths, of the pillory and the street, of the mirror and the lamp. It is this that gives such an achieved, finished, truly made quality to The Scarlet Letter, a book that conceals many enigmas in the perfection of its surface.
Hawthorne was never able to capture this formal perfection again, although each of his other three completed novels, The House of the Seven Gables, The Blithedale Romance, The Marble Faun, is full of his marvelously delicate suggestion that the strange essences of which the human heart is composed become externalized forces that play about our lives. Indeed, all three books, and the several unfinished “romances” he left at the end of his life, show how increasingly hard he struggled to find the dramatic machinery by which to convey the impact of hidden human nature. In The Scarlet Letter the necessary means lay in the starkness of the scene and the harshness of the Puritan nature. Both of these, we feel as we read his book, he did not have to invent, but indeed recollected from memory as if they were the ancestral forces that made him up.
Hawthorne told his publisher that “The Scarlet Letter being all in one tone, I had only to get my pitch, and could then go on interminably.” The book was delivered wholly from within, all in one piece; this is why it is fascinatingly enigmatic, like an art object. It exists like a stained glass window that is different every hour, like a sculpture that changes as you move around it. Hawthorne said with surprise that the book was “positively a hell-fired story, into which it is almost impossible to throw any light.” Hawthorne had to show the incalculable effect of a single lovemaking on his three protagonists; he had to show the tragedy inseparable from moral choice. He had to show the passion that was Puritanism and the passion that protested it; he had to present the ritual of punishment and worship, the ceremony at the scaffold and in the church into which the emotional life of the people is gathered up.
The three chief actors, the beautiful young wife, the too-saintly minister who was her lover, the old husband who with fiendish psychological intelligence now seeks to exact his revenge, are all locked up between the sea and the forest as each is locked in by feelings that he cannot explain to the others. In thought they confront one another, for they are chained by the “dark necessity” which their theology attributes to all human actions. Everything is woven so tight in the book, scene follows scene with such logic, that people’s obsessions become as real as their faces. As the old husband, the pernicious doctor seeking revenge, says in wonder of his own failure—“We dream in our waking moments, and walk in our sleep.”
This is our experience as we read The Scarlet Letter. The book is one of the few novels which, like great dramatic poetry, successfully express the inmost mind in its encounter with external society. No novelist was ever less consciously an innovator than Hawthorne was. But by trying to give dramatic form and dignity to the trauma of Puritanism, by emphasizing the uncertainty and ambiguity that are attached to human relations, he incorporated into his fictions the strangeness, the ultimate causelessness, which we attribute to human nature as the subject of literature.
October 24, 1968