The Early American Historians.
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( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Today, foreigners probably consider Poe and Hawthorne to contain the most classical elements of any American writers, although they will admit Longfellow's cosmopolitanism, Lowell's scholarliness and Lowell's description of Emerson as "a Greek head on right Yankee shoulders." As Lowell himself declared :
"There is Hawthorne, with genius so shrinking and rare
Despite a certain delicate humor and playful fancy, which are revealed so beautifully in his "Tanglewood Tales," that feat of "Gothicising" the Greek myths (as he himself described it), he felt the gloomy spirit of Puritanism and became for all time its supreme romantic interpreter.
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) was born in Salem, Massachusetts. This old seaport town appealed at the outset to his spirit of melancholy, and its witch-craft associations had a peculiar force for him; for one of his forefathers, Judge Hathorne (so the name was then spelled), had sentenced several of the "witches." Hawthorne himself was a graduate of Bowdoin College in the same class with Longfellow. He was shy and too lacking in self-assertion. As a collegian he served the usual apprenticeship to the Muse and after graduation in 1825 he became a recluse and book-worm, writing by day and night. In 1826 he published anonymously and at his own expense a novel entitled "Fanshawe" in which we can see today the real Hawthorne but in which his contemporaries saw nothing. "I passed the day," he afterward said of this time, "in writing stories, and the night in burning them." But some manuscripts, including several of the "Twicetold Tales," were sent to Samuel Goodrich, who published them in "The Token." Peter Parley introduced Hawthorne to literary hack-work as well. The first series of "Twicetold Tales" appeared in 1837 and was reviewed in the "North American" by Longfellow with enthusiasm. These half weird but felicitously told tales marked an epoch in American literature. They were followed by his delightful tales for children from "Grandfather's Chair," in which he first treated New England history. Meanwhile Bancroft, the historian, then collector of customs at Boston, appointed him a weigher and gauger, a place which the Whigs permitted him to retain but two years. He also embarked in the Arcadian Brook Farm experiment. "I went to live in Arcadia," he said, "and found myself up to my chin in a barnyard." Deserting Brook Farm he married and took the historic gambrel-roofed home at Concord, from whence issued the tales collected in the "Mosses from an Old Manse." His second series of "Twicetold Tales" with their Legends of the Province House, added a fresh romantic interest to Revolutionary Boston. Almost noiselessly his shy genius had made itself recognized as a new literary force. He returned to Salem for four years as Surveyor in its old Custom House. After leaving this berth, he gave forth his master work, "The Scarlet Let-ter," in the preface to which he has told the story of that old Salem institution (1850). Hawthorne afterward observed that "no author without a trial can see the difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity in broad and simple daylight." Yet in "The Scarlet Letter" he had touched even the gloom of Puritanism with the glamour of romance, as well as achieved a world's masterpiece of psychology. He now retired to Lenox, Massachusetts, with Herman Melville, author of "Typee," as almost his sole companion, and wrote the "House of Seven Gables," in which with his peculiar mingling of mystery and melancholy he fairly invested the past-haunted house with a spiritual atmosphere. Hepzibah, sad relic of New England aristocracy, condemned to run a penny store, and stern Judge Pyncheon are masterly delineations of Rembrandt shadow and force. And yet he could turn from this somber tale to his charming "Wonder Book" and parable of the "Snow Image." In Hawthorne's genius there was a remarkable intermingling of delicacy and strength, grave sunshine and beautiful shadow. In the "Blithedale Romance" he figured forth the superb Zenobia, the placid Miles Coverdale, the sweet Priscilla with the same skill as the intensely self-concentrated Hollingsworth, blindly abandoning and ruining himself for a theory. In the "Dolliver Romance" he found theme for his plot in the idea of an elixir of life. In 1853 President Pierce, a life-long friend of Hawthorne, appointed him consul at Liverpool, England. Shortly before his term expired he resigned, and traveled on the continent. The record of his sojourn survives in his charming English, French and Italian Notebooks. In Italy he sketched the tale of "The Marble Faun," in which strange tale a young Italian bears the symbolical tell-tale ears of the Faun of Praxiteles. Here the author treated with the same fascination—despite its change of scene from New England to Italy—the old problem of moral guilt and of passion and sorrow.