Hawthorne's "The Man of Adamant"
By Eli Siegel
I am ashamed: does not the stone rebuke me
For being more stone than it?
— Shakespeare, The Winter's Tale
If there is any one work, it seems to me, where Hawthorne has presented concisely and richly his attitude to the world and the heart of man, that work is the short story "The Man of Adamant." This story was included in The Snow Image, and Other Twice Told Tales, which appeared in 1851, a year after The Scarlet Letter.
All through Hawthorne's work, there is the admonition: "Do not be alone in concealed glory. Do not separate yourself from the rest of things, so that, darkly, you can establish yourself in another world." We know that Hawthorne himself had to meet this temptation. Often he was described as seclusive, remote, Olympian in the shades. Henry James, Senior, went so far as to think of Hawthorne as some malefactor being pursued. James's words, in a letter to Emerson of 1860, are: "He had the look all the time, to one who doesn't know him, of a rogue who suddenly finds himself in a company of detectives."
Indeed, a meaning never absent from Hawthorne's writing is that being alone makes for pride, but it also makes for an unresting sense of iniquity within and a sense of hardening that is also corruption. Perhaps Hawthorne never said this so plainly, so unmistakably, so compactly as he does in "The Man of Adamant."
The man who has hardened himself is Richard Digby. There are two kinds of persons who are aloof in Hawthorne's works: one is the man like Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter, who, religious, is apart from men; the other is exemplified by Miles Coverdale in The Blithedale Romance, who is aloof not so much because he is religious, but because he is uncaring, rather calm; he may want to be excited but he can't be. In Richard Digby we can see both kinds of unmoved men: the religion in Richard Digby is accented, but we can also feel the voluptuous pride, the sense of sequestrated comfort that the more secular non-participant may have.
We can see this quite early in the story. Richard Digby in the first sentence of the story — or "apologue," to use Hawthorne's own word — is described as "the gloomiest and most intolerant of a stern brotherhood." But there is something else in a later sentence:
In other words, as his creed was like no man's else, and being well pleased that Providence had intrusted him alone, of mortals, with the treasure of a true faith, Richard Digby determined to seclude himself to the sole and constant enjoyment of his happy fortune.
The phrase "sole and constant enjoyment of his happy fortune" places Digby not so much with the turbulent Dimmesdale or the penitent minister in "The Minister's Black Veil," but with persons who like to make a quite obvious luxury out of their being apart. We have both the religious uniqueness and the profane luxury.
As the story goes on, the religious uniqueness is accented: however, the feeling of secular satisfaction is never absent. Digby gets a triumph out of having nothing to do with men: he is a thorough biblical snob.
"And verily," thought he, "I deem it a chief condition of Heaven's mercy to myself, that I hold no communion with those abominable myriads which it hath cast off to perish."
So Digby uses God to justify his separation. A person can use the universe as an argument for his vanity.
Digby is vanity made portentous and terrible in the following sentence about his desire to put men away from him:
So Richard Digby took an axe, to hew space enough for a tabernacle in the wilderness, and some few other necessaries, especially a sword and gun, to smite and slay any intruder upon his hallowed seclusion; and plunged into the dreariest depths of the forest.
One can see, quite justly, in this passage, with all its fierceness, Hawthorne criticizing the Hawthorne in seclusion earlier at Salem and later, say in the "Old Manse" at Concord. Hawthorne was an unmeasured critic of himself.
The great triumph in being alone is given powerfully here, along with a quick sense of motion in a deep forest:
The farther he went, however, and the lonelier he felt himself, and the thicker the trees stood along his path, and the darker the shadow overhead, so much the more did Richard Digby exult.
According to Hawthorne, Digby stands for that in ourselves which does not want "bubbling" or "brightness." There is that in ourselves, Hawthorne says, which, even while we shiver, can congratulate ourselves because the world has made us cold, giving us the right, therefore, to go into ourselves. This, I believe, is to be seen in the following two sentences;
There was nothing bright nor cheerful near it, except a bubbling fountain, some twenty paces off, at which Richard Digby hardly threw away a glance. But he thrust his head into the cave, shivered, and congratulated himself.
So the story proceeds, with Digby congratulating himself on his utter distinction; his uniqueness in virtue and good fortune. Vanity here is frightening and delicious. And then we come to what is as remarkable as anything in the story. Hawthorne says, and, I believe, with essential sobriety, that because Digby is cold, he is cultivating and has been cultivating disease of the heart, "caused by an obstructed circulation." Perhaps Hawthorne is a bit fanciful, for, after all, he is in fanciful territory, but I think he is talking essentially seriously or "straight." About the disease Digby is cultivating, Hawthorne says:
And here I am put in mind that Richard Digby, before he withdrew himself from the world, was supposed by skilful physicians to have contracted a disease for which no remedy was written in their medical books. It was a deposition of calculous particles within his heart, caused by an obstructed circulation of the blood; and, unless a miracle should be wrought for him, there was danger that the malady might act on the entire substance of the organ, and change his fleshy heart to stone.
Digby is hardening; and Hawthorne is saying that the mind of man can harden, without his knowing it. Richard Digby's unawareness of what was going on in him is described with terror and a strange jocosity:
Richard Digby, however, could never be convinced that any such direful work was going on within him; nor when he saw the sprigs of marble foliage, did his heart even throb the quicker, at the similitude suggested by these once tender herbs. It may be that this same insensibility was a symptom of the disease.
So Richard Digby thinks he has come to the supreme life, even while he is "awaking to the solitude of death." He thinks that his life is "perhaps superior" to celestial bliss; "for, above the sky, there would be angels to disturb him."
Mary Goffe comes to where Richard Digby is, and she tries to show him he is wrong. She is "so delicate a creature," and her "golden hair" is "dishevelled by the boughs." She, in her lightness, is like Pearl in The Scarlet Letter, and other feminine or childlike beings Hawthorne uses to oppose and set off the heavy, self-contained troubledness or sternness of males like Dimmesdale or Chillingworth. Even while Mary tries, Richard Digby changes the world to what his hardness, coldness and vanity want it to be. As he reads the Bible, he transforms the kind to the unkind:
The shadow had now grown so deep where he was sitting, that he made continual mistakes in what he read, converting all that was gracious and merciful to denunciations of vengeance and unutterable woe on every created being but himself.
As Mary tries more to have Richard Digby be gentler, sweeter, more inclusive of others, and more respectful of them, he grows more and more displeased. He tells her if she goes on, he may smite her down. What has she to do with his Bible, his prayers, his heaven? As he talks this way, his heart stops beating.
No sooner had he spoken these dreadful words, than Richard Digby's heart ceased to beat; while — so the legend says — the form of Mary Goffe melted into the last sunbeams, and returned from the sepulchral cave to heaven.
There is, it may be noted, a great resemblance in the way Richard Digby dies while listening to Mary Goffe, to the way the boy Miles dies while listening to the governess — in the very last sentence of Henry James's Turn of the Screw. It is quite certain that James read the story, both as a boy and, in 1879, as biographer and critic of Hawthorne for the English Men of Letters series. It is my opinion, too, that the mission of Mary Goffe as to Richard Digby was not so different from that of the governess to the self-contained, unyielding boy Miles. But that is another matter.
Hawthorne is much taken with the idea of persons becoming inanimate. We can see this in "Ethan Brand"; in a story like "Drowne's Wooden Image." The notion of persons losing their human animation and mobility is big in folklore and imagination generally. The relation of stone to humanity is a large matter in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, from which I have quoted.
Hawthorne saw the losing of one's life, or liveliness, in some manner, even while one is still alive in the ordinary sense, as a constant, deep, and subtle danger. As we have seen, he saw spiritual hardening, separation, or unconcern as having its physiological side. Is it possible that the trend of Hawthorne's thought (and fear) has a relation to some of our most feared physical calamities?
Hawthorne is imaginative, certainly, when at the end of his story he says of Richard Digby, "The Man of Adamant":
For there still sits, and, unless an earthquake crumble down the roof upon his head, shall sit forever, the shape of Richard Digby, in the attitude of repelling the whole race of mortals, — not from heaven, — but from the horrible loneliness of his dark, cold sepulchre!
If Hawthorne were not imaginative, and if he could not give true structure to his imagination, he would not be an important writer — which he is. And there are aesthetic structure and imagination in this particular story. Yet wherever beauty was for him, Hawthorne was disposed to see ethics too. Hawthorne, then, beautifully says that our beings, including our bodies, do not like cold, secretly triumphant spurning. If we put aside what does not deserve to be put aside, our beating warm hearts rebel; our bodies rebel. The reality which is ourselves objects as we are not just to the reality not ourselves. We stiffen in our unwise injustice.
NOTE: "Hawthorne's 'The Man of Adamant'" appeared in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, #449.