The OF Blog: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Tales and Sketches

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Tales and Sketches

Bartram and his little son, while they were talking thus, sat watching the same lime-kiln that had been the scene of Ethan Brand's solitary and meditative life, before he began his search for the Unpardonable Sin.  Many years, as we have seen, had now elapsed, since that portentous night when the IDEA was first developed.  The kiln, however, on the mountain-side, stood unimpaired, and was in nothing changed, since he had thrown his dark thoughts into the intense glow of its furnace, and melted them, as it were, into the one thought that took possession of his life.  It was a rude, round, tower-like structure, about twenty feet high, heavily built of rough stones, and with a hillock of earth heaped about the larger part of its circumference; so that blocks and fragments of marble might be drawn by cart-loads, and thrown in at the top.  There was an opening at the bottom of the tower, like an oven-mouth, but large enough to admit a man in a stooping posture, and provided with a massive iron door.  With the smoke and jets of flame issuing from the chinks and crevices of this door, which seemed to give admittance into the hill-side, it resembled nothing so much as the private entrance to the infernal regions, which the shepherds of the Delectable Mountains were accustomed to show to pilgrims. ("Ethan Brand," pp. 1051-1052, Library of America edition)

Like many Americans, I first encountered Nathaniel Hawthorne in high school (sophomore year for me) when we devoted six weeks to the "reading" of The Scarlet Letter.  Although I liked that novel a bit more than most of my classmates, I don't recall ever really having a desire to read any of his other works, even despite seeing encomiums to him written by divers writers whose works I did enjoy reading over the intervening twenty-six years.  Even in college, I never was assigned any of his short fiction in my English Comp classes (however, I was blessed to be introduced to William Faulkner then), so it wasn't until this past month that I ever got around to reading any of his short stories and sketches.

I say this as a long preface because the stories found within the Library of America volume, Tales and Sketches, that collect all of his extant published stories from 1830 to 1854 were a revelation to me.  It was interesting to see certain story conventions that I had encountered in other writers here in a slightly different, sometimes rawer, state decades before those other tales were written.  In reading several of his stories, particularly "Ethan Brand" and "Roger Malvin's Burial," I was struck by how chilling his backdrops were due to the elegant placement of metaphor and simile; it was no wonder to me that Henry James praised him highly, as there seem to be certain stylistic elements in common between these two stories and James' The Turn of the Screw, if memory serves (it has been, however, nearly twenty years since I last read that novella, so I might be mistaken).

Even more than any superficial or substantive influences Hawthorne might have had on some of my favorite authors is the effect that his native New England had on his writings.  Born on the fourth of July 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts, Hawthorne might appear to be fated to be blessed and cursed to bear the burdens associated with that date and place.  There certainly is a different strand of "local color" to his stories that differentiates him from the mainstream of mid-19th century Anglo-American literature.  Sin and the desire to expiate it run like a current through many of his tales, but most explicitly in "Roger Malvin's Burial," where we witness the tortured life of Reuben Bourne and the effects that a vow made in his youth has on his life.  Or how about this passage from "Young Goodman Brown":

And there they stood, the only pair, as it seemed, who were yet hesitating on the verge of wickedness, in this dark world.  A basin was hollowed, naturally, in the rock.  Did it contain water, reddened by the lurid light?  or was it blood?  or, perchance, a liquid flame?  Herein did the Shape of Evil dip his hand, and prepare to lay the mark of baptism upon their foreheads, that they might be partakers of the mystery of sin, more conscious of the secret guilt of others, both in deed and thought, than they could now be of their own. (p. 287)

In Hawthorne's best stories, such as the ones cited above, there is a palpable sense of emotion, sometimes verging on dread, that slowly yet steadily builds through the narrative course.  In these tales, there is an interesting interplay between the often-stern, sometimes eloquently taciturn New Englanders who populate his sketches and tales and their harsh, unforgiving environments, both natural and internal alike.  We see the predecessor of Hester Prynne and her scarlet A in "Endicott and the Red Cross," where an anonymous young adulterous woman is seen sporting the scarlet A embroidered with fine materials, "so that the capital A might have been thought to mean Admirable, or any thing other than Adulteress." (p. 544).  Yet this tale does not revolve around this arresting yet fleeting woman, but rather around another act of rebellion, one that presages, in narrative terms, that of the region against royal/Anglican authority.  Hawthorne does an excellent job plumbing the depths of emotional turmoil in order to bring to light some of our basest, most primal urges and conflicts.

Yet as outstanding as a great many of these tales are, it is equally obvious that amongst the hundreds of stories included here that there are a fair share of duds.  Some of these are truly sketches of greater stories, replete with false starts and unfulfilled promises.  Others are just tedious to read and are obviously essays into narrative craft that are otherwise unmemorable.  Then there are Hawthorne's retellings of classic myths, in which the sometimes saucy commentaries by the children toward their pompous tutor are far superior to the actual retold tales.  I was of two minds while reading those "Twice-told Tales":  First, the moralizing and occasional distortion of the Greco-Roman originals was irritating.  Second, the children's responses within the frame narratives partially redeems these moralizing tales, imbuing them with a second layer that, while not superior to that employed by Boccaccio in The Decameron, at least adds certain subtleties to the narrative that otherwise might have suffocated in its primness.  Although I suspect the latter interpretation might not have been exactly what Hawthorne had intended (after all, these were marketed then as children's tales), it certainly is a plausible reading, at least for twenty-first century readers.

Tales and Sketches shows Hawthorne before and at the cusp of his greatest literary success.  Although the collection as a whole is uneven, containing as it does the known entirety of his shorter works, there are enough gems in here to appeal to those who did enjoy his novels or to those like myself who are fascinated with stories that utilize atmosphere and internal conflicts to drive the narratives.  After reading it, I find myself more curious not just about Hawthorne's longer prose works (which I will read and likely review later this year), but also about the 19th century New England literary scene.  In particular, after seeing a reference to him in one of the frame stories of "Twice-told Tales," I especially am curious to explore the literary relationship between Hawthorne and Herman Melville.  Certainly this volume helps the reader gain a better, deeper understanding of Hawthorne and how his stories have influenced generations of American (particularly New England) writers.

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