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SELF-PORTRAITURE IN THE WORK OF NATHANIEL
BY AMY LOUISE REED
Hawthorne's motive in attempting authorship was not selfrevelation or even self-expression in any real sense. At the end of The Old Manse (1846), which is avowedly autobiographical, he defends himself from the charge of egotism, and congratulates himself on his successful avoidance of anything like self-exposure. "How little have I told! and of that little, how almost nothing is even tinctured with any quality that makes it exclusively my own! . . . So far as I am a man of really individual attributes, I veil my face; nor am I, nor have I ever been, one of those supremely hospitable people who serve up their own hearts, delicately fried, with brain sauce, as a tidbit for their beloved public." Under a second autobiographical impulse, as he himself calls it, he wrote. The Custom House, the sketch prefixed to The Scarlet Letter (1850); but here, too, he voices his disapproval of authors who "indulge themselves in such confidential depths of revelation as could fittingly be addressed, only and exclusively to the one heart and mind of perfect sympathy." He is disinclined to talk overmuch of himself and his affairs even in his own home and to his personal friends. His vein of autobiography is only for the initiated few who, having read and liked his earlier work (Twice-Told Tales), have thereby proved themselves better able to understand him than his fellow townsmen. He will imagine himself to be speaking to a kind and sensitive, though not very close friend, willing to listen to his talk. Then, "a native reserve being thawed by this genial consciousness "-and here he wraps himself in the cloak of the editorial plural-"we may prate... of ourself, but still keep the inmost me behind its veil." In Mrs. Hutchinson, an early sketch, Hawthorne deplores the entry of woman into the profession of authorship on the ground that "there is a delicacy . . . that perceives, or fancies, a sort of impropriety in the display of woman's natal mind to the gaze of the world, with indications by which its inmost secrets may be searched out." If she possesses genius and obeys its promptings, she must realize that she does so at a great price" relinquishing a part of the loveliness of her sex."
Yet Hawthorne's personal history during his formative period as an artist is such as to drive us to the conclusion that his material must be autobiographical, for he had access to no other. Everyone knows the strange tale of those years of young manhood, between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-three, spent in his mother's house in Salem; writing the Seven Tales which, after their refusal by seventeen publishers, he burned; writing Fanshawe, of which he published a small edition at his own expense, later successfully suppressed; printing an occasional tale in some obscure magazine; keeping an exact journal (The American Note Books) of the minutiae of his daily life, carefully observed and recorded with finish; avoiding all society, even that of his mother and sisters; taking his necessary exercise in the form of a swim at sunrise or a walk after dark; nourishing himself upon the dream of becoming some day an artist.
Henry James, in his penetrating volume on Hawthorne, has emphasized for us the cultural aridity of the small New England town of that day; and Hawthorne himself, after the success of The Scarlet Letter, was able to look back upon that early experience and to analyse correctly the causes of his failure to make any impression upon the literary public with the tales written under such circumstances. The stories were, he says in the Preface to the second edition of the Twice-Told Tales (1851), "the production of a person in retirement." They lack passion, humor, depth. They are too tame. So he condemns their substance. Yet they have the clarity proper to the style of a man in society. They are the author's "attempts to open an intercourse with the world." He wrote to Longfellow: "I have seen so little of the world that I have nothing but thin air to concoct my stories of . . . Sometimes, through a peep-hole, I have caught a glimpse of the real world, and the two or three articles in which I have portrayed these glimpses, please me better than the others." 1 Even so his own Artist of the Beautiful, working long years in solitude and poverty, made a small but perfect thing of beauty-a butterfly. The mechanism was so successfully contrived that for a few moments the crea
1 Quoted by G. P. Lathrop in his Introduction to Twice-Told Tales, p. 11. All references are to the Riverside edition of The Complete Works, ed. by G. P. Lathrop.
ture was, to all intents and purposes, alive. It was not, however, understood or valued, even by the woman he loved or the innocent child on whose finger it alighted. A few minutes' contact with the real world destroyed it, leaving to the artist only the satisfaction of having, for a brief moment, achieved reality.
From this beating of delicate wings in a vacuum, Hawthorne was startlingly and successfully rescued by the intrusion of that vigorous and original soul, Elizabeth Peabody, his consequent acquaintance with her sister Sophia, love at first sight, and happy > marriage, followed by a completely normal family life and the wholesome experience of earning a living for himself and his family under the same circumstances as other Americans. But in spite of the effort of his biographers and critics to prove that the twelve years of almost solitary confinement only gave him time to mature his art, it is hard for the reader of Hawthorne to see in such an experience, or such a lack of it, anything but a cramping of his genius. Milton's twenty years of unliterary labor were at least passed in the thick of great affairs; Masefield's service before the mast was never like looking at life in "Fancy's Show Box"; and Conrad's belated arrival in literature was delayed by reason of many ventures into actual seas. But for Hawthorne, the coal heap and the manure pile, the campaign life written for a friend's sake, the small political job, and the European journey came several years too late. They were all good for him. The first book published after his marriage, Mosses from an Old Manse, contains his finest short stories. His greatest work, The Scarlet Letter, could scarcely have been written by a man who had not in his own person known passionate love. The truly effective parts of The Blithedale Romance are derived from his actual sojourn at Brook Farm. The Marble Faun is the result of the actual impact upon his consciousness of a single Greek statue against a background of Italian scenery. Even The House of Seven Gables is less the fruit of life in Salem than of getting away from that life. Yet we are almost forced to wonder, not at how much he got from these new contacts, but how little. The immortal power of Greek art as a whole, the best of Italian painting, remain to him a book written in a strange tongue, and he never really assimilates Europe. The development of his art is towards ever greater elaboration of scantier and
scantier materials, until the joy of the whole becomes lost at last in the milder pleasures of detail.
Of some fundamental difficulty with his art Hawthorne, never under much illusion about himself, was perfectly aware. In The Custom House sketch just mentioned, he tells us that, during the entire time that he was in that office (1846-9) his imagination refused to work, although his mind had already before it the theme of The Scarlet Letter. "A gift, a faculty, if it had not departed, was suspended and inanimate within me," he says. "My imagination was a tarnished mirror. It would not reflect, or only with miserable dimness, the figures with which I did my best to people it." This failure he attributes, quite wrongly as it seems to me, to his having accepted the routine of public office for the sake of mere money. Yet, by his own account, his business life was neither hurried nor exhausting. There was time enough for long walks by the shore and in the woods; there were hours enough of solitary musing by the fire. He himself reminds us that Burns and Chaucer were customs officials in their day. A truer explanation lies, I think, in the supposition that he had exhausted his materials and that time was necessary to secrete more. After three years of thus lying fallow, his imagination germinated once more, and he produced with peculiar certainty and rapidity the three great romances of his life, of which the first is acknowledged to be the best.
But even in so doing he had already accepted a certain measure of defeat. He had deliberately determined not to deal with life as a whole, not to attempt the "serious task," as he calls it, of novel writing, but rather to confine his efforts to what he considered the lesser art of the romance. This he variously phrases as "creating the semblance of a world out of airy matter," blowing a soapbubble, dreaming strange things and making them look like truth, converting snow images into men and women. He defines it perhaps most clearly by an elaborate analogy with the effect of moonlight upon a familiar room; the everyday objects are there, distinctly seen, but spiritualized, dignified, rendered strange and remote, and thereby become things of the intellect, not warmed by everyday feeling. It is in this "neutral territory," half actual, half imaginary, that nearly all of Hawthorne's work is laid and that he achieved success.
To himself he seemed to have shirked the better part. wiser effort would have been to diffuse thought and imagination through the opaque substance of today . . . to seek, resolutely, the true and indestructible value that lay hidden in the petty and wearisome incidents and ordinary characters, with which I was now conversant. The fault was mine. The page of life that was spread out before me seemed dull and commonplace, only because I had not fathomed its deeper import. A better book than I shall ever write was there . . . But these perceptions have come too late." In this fashion do we find Hawthorne reproaching himself, on the eve of his great success, with his own failure to mingle sympathetically with the actual society into which he was thrown and to interpret truly what he finely phrases as "the united life of mankind."
But even the romance as he conceived it must have a certain reality and must not, as he repeats in the preface to The House of Seven Gables, swerve aside from "the truth of the human heart." Now, as I have been saying, Hawthorne, though a good observer, had seen but little of life, and though he caught well enough the external features which individualize a character, when it came to explaining or motivating his character, he declined to penetrate deeply and preferred to conjecture, to dream, and to play with several different explanations. There were, to be sure, few human hearts whose truth Hawthorne really knew-perhaps, indeed, only one, and that his own.
This fact has been frequently enough noticed. Holmes, for instance wrote in 1884:
Count it no marvel that he broods alone
Less obvious and more sinister is the suggestion of Mr. D. H.
2 Scarlet Letter, pp. 53-57.
At the Saturday Club.