Hawthorne: Looking Before and After

by Paul Elmer More

Nathanael Hawthorne was born just one hundred years ago, and, by a happy coincidence, the one artist who worked in materials thoroughly American and who is worthy to take a place among the great craftsmen of the world celebrates his nativity on the birthday of the nation.* By something more than a mere coincidence he lived and wrote at the only period in the history of the country which could have fostered worthily his peculiar genius; he came just when the moral ideas of New England were passing from the conscience to the imagination and just before the slow, withering process of decay set in. As I read his novels and tales to-day, with the thought of this centenary in my mind, the inevitable comparison arises with what preceded and what exists now; he stands as a connecting link between old Cotton Mather and - magna cum parvis - Mary Wilkins Freeman, and only by looking thus before and after can one get a clear idea of his work.
[* On the Fourth of July, 1904, the centenary of Hawthorne's birth was celebrated at Salem, Mass., at Bowdoin College and elsewhere. I was asked to write something in commemoration of the season for the Independent, and it seemed appropriate to consider Hawthorne's work historically, as the central point of a long development in New England literature.]
It seldom happens, in fact, that the history of a country shows so logical a development as that represented by these three names. To look backward, almost all of Hawthorne may be found in germ in the group of ecclesiastical writers among whom Cotton Mather rises pre-eminent, and he in turn is but a spokesman of that half-civilisation which migrated across the Atlantic under the pressure of the Laudian persecutions. I say half-civilisation, for the beginnings of New England took place when the mother country was split, as no people in the world ever before was divided, not by sectional but by moral differences into two hostile parties; nor do we always remember how largely the brilliant flowering and quick decay of New England depend on this incompleteness of her origins. Especially is this true in literature. Read through the critical essays that were written in the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages and you will be struck by the fact that the most serious debate was whether poetry had any right to exist at all. That discussion, of course, is as old as Plato and was taken up by the Italians of the Renaissance as part of their classical inheritance. But in England the question was not academic, but vital; it came to the actual test of battle. As early as 1579, in the very first bloom of that "perpetual spring of ever-growing invention," Stephen Gosson dedicated to Sir Philip Sidney his School of Abuse, which he aptly describes as "an invective against poets, pipers, players, jesters, and such-like caterpillars of a Commonwealth." "The fathers of lies, pipes of vanity, and schools of abuse," to use another of the crabbed Gosson's phrases, remained snugly in the mother country, along with those who thought it possible to worship God with the homage of the imagination, who made of religion, in fact, a fine sense of decorum in the ordering of the world. The wonder might seem to be that any literature at all ever sprang from the half-civilisation that came to New England, or that any sense of art found root among a people who contemned the imagination as evil and restricted the outpouring of emotion to the needs of a fervid but barren worship. The root was indeed long in coming to flower, yet there are passages in the Magnalia of Cotton Mather both magnificent in themselves and indispensable for a right understanding of what was to follow. There is, for example, that famous account of the death of John Cotton, worthy of repeated quotation:
After this in that study, which had been perfumed with many such days before, he now spent a day in secret humiliations and supplications before the Lord; seeking the special assistances of the Holy Spirit, for the great work of dying, that was now before him. What glorious transactions might one have heard passing between the Lord Jesus Christ, and an excellent servant of his, now coming unto him, if he could have had an hearing place behind the hangings of the chamber, in such a day! But having finished the duties of the day, he took his leave of his beloved study, saying to his consort, I shall go into that room no more!
That is the positive side of the ideal, and it is a dull heart to-day that can read this story of rapt holiness without a thrill of wonder and admiration. But the negative side is close at hand. The same annalist records of another of his family, Nathaniel Mather, a little incident that shows how inveterate was the suppression of the easy enjoyments and emotions of life. The quotation is from Nathaniel's diary:
When very young I went astray from God, and my mind was altogether taken with vanities and follies; such as the remembrance of them doth greatly abase my soul within me. Of the manifold sins which then I was guilty of, none so sticks upon me, as that being very young, I was whittling on the Sabbath-day; and for fear of being seen, I did it behind the door. A great reproach of God! a specimen of that atheism that I brought into the world with me!
One may be inclined to smile, perhaps, at this early intrusion into sacred literature of the Yankee's proverbial trick of whittling, but he will be more apt to marvel at the austerity of a discipline which could associate such a childish escapade with life-long remorse. It is not strange that melancholy hovered over that chosen land. To quote from the Magnalia once again:
There are many men, who in the very constitution of their bodies, do afford a bed, wherein busy and bloody devils, have a sort of lodging provided for them .... 'T is well if self-murder be not the sad end, into which these hurried people are thus precipitated. New England, a country where splenetic maladies are prevailing and pernicious, perhaps above any other, hath afforded numberless instances, of even pious people, who have contracted those melancholy indispositions, which have unhinged them from all service or comfort; yea not a few persons have been hurried thereby to lay violent hands upon themselves at the last. These are among the unsearchable judgments of God!
It is not fanciful, I think, to find in these three passages from the greatest of the early New England divines the ideas that were in due time to blossom into a true and peculiar literature. That isolation from the world and absorption in an ideal that signalised the death of John Cotton were to leave an echo in many lives through the following years. Nor did the inability to surrender to the common expansive emotions of human nature and the dark brooding on damnation utterly die out when the real cause ceased to act. They changed, but did not pass away. When, with the coming of the nineteenth century, the fierce democracy of those Northern States asserted itself against priestly control and at the same time shook off the bondage of orthodoxy, it only moved the burden from one shoulder to the other, and the inner tyranny of conscience became as exacting as the authority of the Church had been. But this shifting of the centre of authority from without to within was at least fruitful in one important respect: it brought about that further transition from the conscience to the imagination which made possible the only serious literature this country has yet produced. In that shift from the conscience to the imagination lies the very source of Hawthorne's art. The awful voice of the old faith still reverberates in his stories of New England life and gives them their depth of consciousness; the dissolution of the commands of a sectarian conscience into the forms of a subtle symbolism lifts them from provincial importance merely to the sphere of universal art.

Nor is it at all difficult to follow the religion of the seventeenth into the art of the nineteenth century. In an earlier essay on The Solitude of Nathaniel Hawthorne I pointed out - what must be plain to every reader of that author - the central significance of his Ethan Brand in the circle of his works. So manifestly do the doctrines of Cotton Mather stalk through that tale under the transparent mask of fiction that it might almost seem as if Hawthorne had taken the passages just quoted from the Magnalia as a text for his fancy. For the first quotation, in place of the rigid theologian "perfuming" the bleak atmosphere of his study with meditations on the great work of dying orthodoxy, we have Ethan Brand, the lime-burner, dwelling in the fragrant solitude of the mountains, watching his kiln through the long revolutions of the sun and the stars, perplexing his mind with no problem of predestination and free-will, but with the meaning of life itself, with its tangle of motives and restraining intelligence. For the second quotation, in place of remorse over one act of surrender to impulse against the arbitrary dictates of religion, we have a strange reversal of Puritan faith through the lens of the imagination. Ethan Brand returns to his long-abandoned lime-kiln after wandering over the world, bringing with him the sense that he has sought and found at last in his own heart the Unpardonable Sin, the sin of banishing from the breast all those natural, spontaneous emotions in the pursuit of an idea. He bears the mark, not of an artificial atheism, like that which abased the soul of the young divine, but of that ananthropism (if I may use the word) which was the real sin of New England, symbolised by the strange nature of his successful search. "He had lost his hold of the magnetic chain of humanity. He was no longer a brotherman, opening the chambers or the dungeons of our common nature by the key of holy sympathy, which gave him a right to share in all its secrets; he was now a cold observer, looking on mankind as the subject of his experiment." There lies the tragedy not of Ethan Brand alone, but of the later New England. The dogmas of faith had passed away and left this loneliness of an unmeaning idealism; the enthusiasm which had trampled on the kindly emotions of the day has succumbed, and the contempt of the human heart has given place to this intolerable loneliness.

And last of all there is the "splenetic malady," the melancholy that pursues this thwarting of nature and drives the wanderer to lay violent hands on himself. The burning of Ethan Brand in the lime-kiln, within the circle of whose crimson light he had pondered the Unpardonable Sin, is not, in the sense of Cotton Mather, one of the unsearchable judgments of God, but a cunningly devised symbol of literary art.

This is the second act of the New England drama, and the third proceeds from it as naturally as the second proceeded from the first. From the religious intolerance of Cotton Mather to the imaginative isolation of Hawthorne and from that to the nervous impotence of Mrs. Freeman's men and women, is a regular progress. The great preacher sought to suppress all worldly emotions; the artist made of the solitude which follows this suppression one of the tragic symbols of human destiny; the living novelist portrays a people in whom some native spring of action has been dried up, and who suffer in a dumb, unreasoning inability to express any outreaching passion of the heart or to surrender to any common impulse of the body. It is true, of course, that Mrs. Freeman describes only a single phase of New England character, just as Hawthorne did before her; but the very genealogy of her genius shows that she has laid hold of an essential trait of that character, and, indeed, it needs but little acquaintance with the stagnant towns of coast and mountains to have met more than one of the people of her books actual in the flesh. Her stories are not tragic in the ordinary sense of the word; they have no universal meaning and contain no problem of the struggle between human desires and the human will, or between the will and the burden of circumstances. They are, as it were, the echo of a tragedy long ago enacted; they touch the heart with the faint pathos of flowers pressed and withered in a book, which, found by chance, awaken the vague recollection of outlived emotions. They are very beautiful in their own way, but they are thoroughly provincial, just as the treatises of Cotton Mather were provincial; they have passed from the imagination to the nerves.

Already in Hawthorne we find the beginnings of this strangely repressed life. Hepzibah Pyncheon, struggling in an agony of shame and impotence to submit to the rude contact of the world, is the true parent of all those stiffened, lonely women that haunt the scenes of Mrs. Freeman's little stage. Only there is this signal difference: poor, blighted Hepzibah is part of a great drama of the conscience which in its brooding over the curse of ancestral sin can only be compared with the Ate of the Aeschylean theatre. All the characters that move within the shadow of that House of the Seven Gables are involved in one tragic idea assimilated by the author's imagination from the religious inheritance of the society about him - the idea that pride, whether worldly or unworldly, works out its penalty in the separation of the possessor from the common heart of humanity. But in Mrs. Freeman's tales this moral has utterly vanished; they have no significance beyond the pathos of the lonely desolation depicted. Her first book, A Humble Romance, is made up of these frustrate lives, which are withheld by some incomprehensible paralysis of the heart from accepting the ordinary joys of humanity, and her latest book, The Givers, appeals to our sympathy by the same shadow of a foregone tragedy.

Very characteristic in the first book is the story of the Two Old Lovers. There was nothing to keep them apart, none of the well-used obstacles of romance in the shape of poverty or tyrannous parents or religious differences or an existing alliance - nothing save the ingrown inability of the man to yield to the simple call of his own bosom. For many years he visits the girl and, as time passes, the aged woman, as an accepted but curiously undemonstrative lover. There is, to me at least, a pathos like the nightly memory of tears in the watchfulness of the waiting woman over her diffident wooer:

She saw him growing an old man, and the lonely, uncared-for life that he led filled her heart with tender pity and sorrow for him. She did not confine her kind offices to the Saturday baking. Every week his little house was tidied and set to rights, and his mending looked after. Once, on a Sunday night, when she spied a rip in his coat, that had grown long from the want of womanly fingers constantly at hand, she had a good cry after he had left and she had gone to her room. There was something more pitiful to her, something that touched her heart more deeply, in that rip in her lover's Sunday coat, than in ali her long years of waiting. As the years went on, it was sometimes with a sad heart that Maria stood and watched the poor lonely old figure moving slower than ever down the street to his lonely home; but the heart was sad for him always, and never for herself.
Only in the end, when he lies dying in his solitary house and she is summoned to his bedside, does the approach of the great silence of death unlock the dumbness of his breast:
He looked up at her with a strange wonder in his glazing eyes. "Maria" - a thin, husky voice, that was more like a wind through dry cornstalks, said - "Maria, I'm dyin', an' - I allers meant to - have asked you - to - marry me."
Is it fanciful to say that this story has the shadowy pathos of emotions long ago fought against and overcome? The tragedy of New England came when Hawthorne wrought the self-denial of the ancient religion into a symbol of man's universal isolation, when out of the deliberate contemning of common affections he created the search for the Unpardonable Sin. In the pages of Mrs. Freeman we hear only an echo, we revive a fading memory, of that sombre tragedy. Ethan Brand was a problem of the will, a question of morality; the tale of the Two Old Lovers is a sad picture of palsied nerves.

The latest volume of Mrs. Freeman's sketches treats the same theme, with this difference, however, that here it is the woman who abandons her lover for many years, returning to him only when both are grown old and past the age of spontaneous pleasures. There is perhaps some softening of tone, a kindlier feeling that into this strange desolation of the heart some consolation of the spirit may descend with chastened joy. Hardly in the earlier books, I think, will one find any picture of the possible mellowing effect of solitude comparable to this description of the waiting lover:

He was a happy man, in spite of the unfulfilled natural depths of his life. His great sweetness of nature had made even of the legitimate hunger of humanity a blessing for the promoting of spiritual growth. It had fostered within him that grand acquiescence which is the essence of perfect freedom.
But beautiful as this grand acquiescence may be, it is not in that direction lies the real freedom of New England life or literature. Rather shall the deliverance come in the way hinted at in that other phrase, the hunger of humanity. The whole progress from Cotton Mather to Mrs. Freeman was determined by the original attempt to stamp out that legitimate hunger for the sake of an all-absorbing pride of the spirit. And now, when the spirit, after having been victorious in the long warfare, has itself starved away and left the barrenness of a dreary stagnation, the natural reversal may well be looked for, and we may expect the hunger of humanity to grow up out of the waste, untempered by spiritual ideals. Already in the New England of Hawthorne, in the exaggerated sentimentalism of the abolitionists and a thousand other reforming sects, this movement had begun. Hawthorne himself, despite his humorous insight and his aloofness from the currents of life about him, did not wholly escape its influence. Through the dark pages of The House of the Seven Gables moves the hopeful figure of young Holgrave, the daguerreotypist. To him, says Hawthorne, thinking no doubt of the burden that weighed on his own imagination, it seemed "that in this age, more than ever before, the moss-grown and rotten Past is to be torn down, and lifeless institutions to be thrust out of the way, and their dead corpses buried, and everything to begin anew." There is a world of significance in the analysis which follows of Holgrave's restless and ardent nature, of his generous impulses, that might solidify him into the champion of some practical cause. He is the type of a whole race of men who were to take revenge on the despotism of the spirit by casting it out altogether for the idealised demands of the hunger of humanity.

But what was foreshadowed in Hawthorne becomes the one dominant human note of Mrs. Freeman's stories, heard through the desert silence that otherwise encompasses her characters. This vision of a growing humanitarianism that shall awaken new motives for healthy, active life and feed the hunger of the heart is the real theme of the best of her novels, Jerome. There is a scene in that book where the hero, beaten and marred by hard circumstance, suddenly gives vent in his awkward, unschooled manner to the late-born recalcitrance against the tyranny of Providence:

What was it to the moon and ail those shining swarms of stars, and that far star-dust in the Milky Way, whether he, Jerome Edwards, had shoes to close or not? Whether he and his mother starved or not, they would shine just the same .... He was maddened at the sting and despite of his own littleness in the face of that greatness. Suddenly a wild impulse of rebellion that was almost blasphemy seized him. He clinched a puny fist at a great star. "Wish I could make you stop shinin'," he cried out, in a loud, fierce voice; "wish I could do somethin'!"
And then, later, comes the companion scene, again under the cold eyes of the heavens, when the final determination takes shape before him and he sees at last the work which the world holds for him:
A great passion of love and sympathy for the needy and oppressed of his kind, and an ardent defence of them, came upon Jerome Edwards, poor young shoemaker, going home with his sack of meal over his shoulder. Like a bird, which in the spring views every little straw and twig as toward his nest and purpose of love, Jerome would henceforth regard all powers and instrumentalities that came in his way only in their bearing upon his great end of life.
We have followed the development of that half-civilisation which moulded New England from the religious enthusiasm of Cotton Mather, through the tragic art of Hawthorne, down to the pathetic paralysis portrayed in these stories of a living writer. We have seen a morbid spirituality, spurning the common nourishment of mankind, slowly starve itself into impotence. Now, as the hunger of humanity begins to assert itself unhampered by any vision beyond its own importunate needs, are we to behold a new ideal create in turn another half-civilisation, blindly materialistic as its predecessor was harshly spiritual? That question may not be lightly answered. Only it is clear that, for the present, the way of growth for the literature of New England lies through the opening of this door of strictly human sympathies.

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