No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

#20: Selected Tales and Sketches -- Nathaniel Hawthorne

I read this for the Blog-a-Penguin-Classic project, and I have to say I wouldn't have picked it up otherwise. I've read and enjoyed several works by Hawthorne, but for me his work is best in small doses: Selected Tales and Sketches is over four hundred pages long, and consists largely of Hawthorne's earlier short fiction, before he'd made a name for himself as a novelist.

To someone familiar with the modern short story, and especially with genre fiction -- I read a lot of SF, a genre in which the short story form is an arena for ground-breaking innovation and general cleverness -- the tales and sketches in this collection seem unsophisticated. That's hardly surprising, as they were written nearly two centuries ago (between 1830 and 1844) and seem to me to typify the earliest truly American literature: Hawthorne is trying to escape the traditions of European (and especially British) fiction, to start afresh as his Puritan ancestors did.

There are plenty of Puritans here, not always especially godly. Hawthorne iconifies the Puritan whipping-post ("which may be termed the Puritan May-pole") as an emblem of Puritan repression and joylessness. He tackles religion in several of the tales here, including 'The Celestial Railroad' which describes a railway trip to Hell -- with Apollyon as Chief Engineer -- through the landscape of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. 'The Maypole of Merry Mount' describes a bucolic masque with pagan overtones, broken up by a stern band of Puritans: 'as the moral gloom of the world overpowers all systematic gaiety, even so was their home of wild mirth made desolate amid the sad forest'.

Often, in these stories, Puritanism is coupled with its dark antithesis, witchcraft and devil-worship. Hawthorne was born in Salem, and grew up with tales (and family history) of the witch trials: he brings a Gothic sensibility to tales of superstition and the supernatural. 'Young Goodman Brown' is the story of a young Salem Puritan who, encountering a gentleman on the road finds himself attending a ceremony deep in the forest, and recognising 'a score of the church-members of Salem village, famous for their especial sanctity'.

There are other recurrent themes: the wild frontier, and the transformative power of wilderness; the Indians; the Revolution; the sea. Women who, though innocent, have some deadly power: 'Rappacini's Daughter', one of the longer tales here, is the tale of a mad scientist who makes his daughter's glance fatal to flora and fauna. Some of the tales suggest the themes of Hawthorne's later novels: 'Endicott's Red Cross' features a woman forced to wear a scarlet letter 'A', for Adultress, while there are plenty of family feuds and dark and bitter secrets reminiscent of The House of Seven Gables.

The theme that interested me most was that of the storyteller, at once outside his story -- often providing a simple framing narrative for some Gothic spine-chiller -- and wholly in love with his audience. In 'Passages from a Relinquished Work', which is the unfinished tale of an itinerant story-teller, it's hard to believe that Hawthorne is not opening his own heart, showing his own doubts, when he writes:
Since I shall never feel the warm gush of new thought, as I did then, let me beseech the readers to believe, that my tales were not always so cold, as he might find them now. (p. 77)

The story-teller's tales are not notably cold, but the framing descriptions of his listeners, the towns where he stops, the landscape through which he wanders are warmly and lovingly drawn: the story-teller (and the author) display compassion and affectionate mockery for the ordinary folk who, though of a different background and sensibility to the story-teller, are never painted as inferior. Here, and in the majority of the other tales in the collection, there's plenty of telling psychological detail, albeit sometimes heavy-handed.

It's possible that, as Colacurcio writes in his detailed and erudite introduction, Hawthorne is satirising himself in the person of the story-teller: that the anguished artist losing faith in his own powers of creativity is not Hawthorne himself -- who was at this stage in his career struggling to make a living from his writing, struggling towards publication, not yet a novelist -- but Hawthorne's mockery (less affectionate now) of the excesses of other writers, or perhaps more cruelly of his own doubts. I think I'd rather believe that Hawthorne's story-teller stands for the author himself, in his fascination and compassion and psychological insight.

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