Hawthorne's Somber Puritan Romances

( Originally Published 1916 )


Two of the foremost American critics, William Dean Howells and Professor William Lyon Phelps, unite in declaring that Hawthorne was the greatest literary artist this country has known, and that his Scarlet Letter is the finest novel in American literature. Yet it is safe to say that those who follow eagerly the best sellers of Chambers and McCutcheon have never read any of Hawthorne's exquisite tales of Puritan New England.

Of all American authors, Hawthorne has been my favorite for many years, since as a boy of sixteen I discovered his Mosses From an Old Manse, and read again and again those tales of Puritan New England until something of their beauty and their elusive charm passed into my mind. In my estimation no other author who has used the English language possesses a style that will compare with Hawthorne's, or has any other his power of investing ordinary life with the mingled terror and charm of the supernatural. In sheer force of imagination he surpasses all his contemporaries, and when one compares his tales of witchcraft with the work of Hoffman and other German apostles of mysticism, his stories make theirs appear thin and amateurish.

Endowed with one of the vivid creative minds, Hawthorne's rare gifts have failed to impress many critics, who, like Henry James, in that unhappy sketch in which he revealed his own limitations, bewailed the fad that the author of The Scarlet Letter had no real historical background for his tales. Fine literary artificer as he is, I would give all of Henry James' work for one of Hawthorne's tales like Roger Malvin's Burial or Young Goodman Brown.

No one has written any adequate estimate of Hawthorne, because very few critics have any idea of the service to American literature rendered by this shy man of genius, who at the same time was a pretty hard headed, sensible man of affairs.

Although his Scarlet Letter has been widely read, much of Hawthorne's best work has been neglected because few people appreciate the peculiar charm of his tales and sketches. His imagination is so fine, his humor so quiet, his cast of mind so unusual that unless one has a strong taste for solitude and for the study of the spiritual, it is difficult to get into close touch with Hawthorne and to feel the singular power and lawlessness of his genius. In all literature no one, in my judgment, has approached him in the uncanny power of moving with ease and - sureness in that spiritual world that seems to lie so close to reality and yet which the average author cannot make us see clearly.

In this intangible world, Hawthorne seems to move as though he were an actual resident. He passes in a moment from the hard, practi- cal New England life to that borderland of witchcraft which terrified the souls of the superstitious and led to the unspeakable horrors of the Salem trials that hysteria of morbid minds which was as cruel and vile as the cold savagery of the French women who knitted in the shadow of the Paris guillotine and waited every day for the thrill that tingled through their overwrought nerves when one more head dropped into the bloody basket. The historian's account of the Salem witchcraft trials is poor and colorless compared with Hawthorne's. awful picture of the young New England man who stepped from his warm fireside into the devilish riot of the foul-minded witches who cackled obscene jests and blasphemed all holy things from pure lust of wickedness.

Hawthorne's work cannot be appreciated without some knowledge of his curious early life and its strange environment that forced a shy, scholarly boy into the habits of a recluse. The novelist inherited his stalwart frame and his whole-some common sense from his seafaring ancestors; his glorious imagination and all his morbid traits came straight from his mother. When the boy was four years old he lost his father, while his mother, smarting under the loss of her husband, became a bitter recluse.

Upon sound and wholesome children the influence of a mother who never took her meals with her children, and who sometimes spent days of solitude in her chamber, could not fail to be evil. How much greater was this influence when Nathaniel, a strangely shy and thoughtful child, was driven to solitude in his turn and to lose himself in the great world of books. His favorite books in those days were Pilgrim's Progress and the Faerie Queene. From these and the King James Bible he drew that marvelous style which has been the despair of all other writers. When four-teen years old his mother moved from Salem, Massachusetts, where the boy was born, to a little village near Lake Sebago, in the Maine woods, where she owned some land. There the boy led a very unhealthy life, carrying his love of solitude to the dangerous point of never going out upon the road by daylight, lest he should meet people, and frequently skating alone on the somber lake until midnight or after.

Physically in those months Hawthorne became a model of manly strength and beauty, but mentally he received a twist. toward the morbid, from which he never recovered. Also he seemed ever after to be curiously detached from real life, to look on the most vital things with the eyes of a mere uninterested observer.

This was probably seen in greatest measure in the early days of the Civil War, when Hawthorne could feel no stirrings of patriotism, but regarded the tremendous struggle for national life and honor as a deplorable mistake, born of political feuds and hatreds. There was something wrong with a man who could, as George William Curtis so well said, "write like a disem-bodied intelligence of events with which his neighbors' hearts were quivering."

Hawthorne went to Bowdoin College at seventeen, and had as chums Longfellow, Franklin Pierce, afterward President, and Horatio Bridge. He gained no distinction at college, and after graduation returned to Salem, where his mother had established her home. For twenty years in Salem he wrought at literature, writing the stories which were gathered in Mosses From an Old Manse and Twice-Told Tales. Few knew him, and he said bitterly after years of work that he still remained the least known of any American man of letters. He married Sophia Peabody, a woman of great purity of mind and spiritual fervor. She proved an enormous stimulus and comfort to the lonely, sensitive man, and helped him to find himself.

After serving in the Custom-house at Boston, and later in the Salem Custom-house, Hawthorne made his first literary hit in 1849 with The Scarlet Letter, the greatest tragedy of a guilty soul ever written. He followed this with The House of the Seven Gables, The Blitbedale Romance and The Marble Faun. These sum up his best work, which is in a class by itself, set apart from all other fiction by its sense of spiritual power working out the problems of remorse of soul and the inevitable atonement for sin.

The reader-who is taking up Hawthorne for the first time would do well to begin with some of the short stories from Mosses From an Old Manse. Perhaps the preface to this book shows Hawthorne's style at its best. Of the tales take Roger Malvin's Burial, The Birthmark and Young Goodman Brown. One gives the somber Puritan idea of the terrible expiation of sin that must be made by everyone in this world. In this tale the desertion of a comrade in the wilderness costs a man the life of his dearly beloved son, and the boy falls by his father's hand in the shadow of a great rock which he identifies as the very place that witnessed his own treachery to his dying comrade. The Birthmark illustrates the foolish passion for perfection that led an artist to sacrifice the woman he loved in order to free her face from a minor blemish. In the third story we have a powerful picture of the evil influence of witchcraft upon the soul of the Puritan. Goodman Brown's one night in the forest, is a picture that no reader will ever forget.

Of all Hawthorne's romances, The Scarlet Letter is the most finished and satisfactory. It is a full-length study of the spiritual influence of sin upon two highly sensitive natures and the terrible effects of hate upon old Roger Chillingworth. He was. the husband of Hester, who fled from him for love of Arthur Dimmesdale, the eloquent young preacher. In New England, where the guilty couple sought a refuge, the woman was condemned to wear the scarlet letter A, a symbol of her shame, on her breast, for she refused to divulge the paternity of her child. No one except the old husband knew that the preacher was her lover and the father of the beautiful girl who is at once her mother's daily torment and comfort. Sad but sweet are the secret meetings of Dimmesdale and Hester, but the little child, Pearl, serves by her innocent questions to barb the arrows that sting the soul of the two forlorn lovers. The final scene, in which the preacher denounces himself and his sin, is one of the most tremendous in all literature', but the irony of fate makes his devoted hearers believe he has lost his mind, for they cannot associate the breaking of the' moral law with the pure-minded ascetic who has served as their model for so many years.

The House of the Seven Gables is the very essence of mellow, romance. The illusion of old New England days is perfect, and the figure of judge Pyncheon, a hard-hearted but sanctimonious old Puritan, a devourer of widows and orphans, whose voice is yet loud in the tabernacle, is the most impressive in the story. All the little detail of Hepzibah's shop is beautifully done, and pretty Phoebe is one of the daintiest maidens in fiction.

Hawthorne's The Marble Faun is the only romance in which the background is rich in a storied past. Into it he has put all his passion for the things in Rome that appealed to his imagination, but these historic buildings and the magnificent works of art that he describes do not move him like the homely things of New England that he has preserved in the amber of his incomparable style. In Donatello, the faun, Hawthorne has drawn a figure that, seen in the vivid Roman sunlight, appears to be simply a light-hearted young man, but in a moment, shifted to the shadows of the half-light, he is a wild creature of the woods, and we look for the faun's ears under his curly hair. It is . fine conception, wrought with all the skill of a great artist and with an atmosphere of mingled mystery and expectation that serves to bring every figure into bold relief.

Hawthorne did much good work aside from these novels. His articles on English life, gathered under the title Our Old Home, have never been equaled for shrewd insight and descriptive skill. His note-books; edited by his widow, are filled with good things, and on many pages one sees a sentence which has served as the germ of a story. Hawthorne also wrote some of the most delightful letters, and his love letters reveal the tender heart and the quick sympathies of the man .who seemed so cold to mere acquaintances. No author, in my opinion, will repay careful study so richly as Hawthorne. You may read him many times, yet every fresh perusal reveals new beauties. As a study in style his books excel those of any American or English author.

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