The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Hawthorne Omission

BY ELI SIEGEL

Dear Unknown Friends:

In this number of TRO, I shall give evidence that Nathaniel Hawthorne knew he was driven by a deep contempt; and he also knew that he might die of it. Yet Hawthorne, even when renowned in America as the author of The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, did not know an syone who was so concerned as to take his own statements about himself and others seriously; and so be of friendly use to him. Nor have critics taken many things Hawthorne said with the amiable gravity they deserved.

Consequently, dear unknown friends, the Hawthorne Omission is persons’ failure to see a great, constant fear of his. Perhaps this letter or essay is the first attempt to take a deadly concern of a noted writer as truly that.

1. Hawthorne Feared His Contempt

Hawthorne has this sentence in his “Egotism; or, The Bosom Serpent,” a story in Mosses from an Old Manse (1846):

Thus he drew his misery around him like a regal mantle, and looked down triumphantly upon those whose vitals nourished no deadly monster.

This is in a story about Roderick Elliston. About sixteen years later, in 1862, we find Nathaniel Hawthorne trying to do something about his contempt for Abraham Lincoln. We are in the most difficult year, for the North, of the Civil War. It was before Gettysburg, a battle which made for hope in the States north and west of Maryland. I quote from Hawthorne’s paper, “Chiefly about War Matters,” in the Atlantic Monthly, July 1862. In the spring of 1862, Hawthorne and others were received by the President in the White House. Hawthorne writes:

By and by there was a little stir on the staircase and in the passage-way, and in lounged a tall, loose-jointed figure, of an exaggerated Yankee port and demeanor, whom (as being about the homeliest man I ever saw, yet by no means repulsive or disagreeable) it was impossible not to recognize as Uncle Abe.

Certainly, Hawthorne is trying to restrain his deep propensity for contempt. Bur he doesn’t succeed so well; for in the next few paragraphs, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, in a note, chides the distinguished American novelist. Here are some reprehending sentences:

We are compelled to omit two or three pages, in which the author describes the interview, and gives his idea of the personal appearance and deportment of the President. The sketch appears to have been written in a benign spirit, and perhaps conveys a not inaccurate impression of its august subject; but it lacks reverence.

Hawthorne’s sketch was also unkind; for never was a person deeper in a question of this world than Abraham Lincoln was in 1862.

2. The Desire to Make Fun

The desire to make fun can show itself as humor with good will. Hawthorne, as artist, was often a true humorist. But also, in him as a person, there was the deep desire to laugh at things because it made for his own superiority.

The likelihood of this is in “The Minister’s Black Veil,” a story printed first in 1836. One sentence is this:

One imitative little imp covered his face with an old black handkerchief, thereby so affrighting his playmates that the panic seized himself, and he well-nigh lost his wits by his own waggery.

Does Hawthorne here intimate that he was afraid of how he could make fun of things? ls the boy who ridicules the minister’s black veil like the writer who twenty-six years later ridiculed the sad, lanky appearance of Lincoln?

3. Laughter and Insanity

In Hawthorne’s works, again and again a relation is made between a mind faring unfortunately and laughter, a cackle, or a grin. Notable here are some passages in “Ethan Brand.” “Ethan Brand” tells of man both as hard and airy. Ethan Brand is a lime-burner, which means his furnace changed hard marble or limestone into something viscous; also into hot vapor. How often the idea of a heart of stone and the idea of a bosom that wriggles like a serpent are in Hawthorne’s writings! However, my immediate purpose is to present the feeling Hawthorne had that a certain tendency to ridicule in a person should be feared by that person.

Early in the story, the child of Bartram, the new lime-burner, says of Ethan Brand:

"But, father,” said the child, more sensitive than the obtuse, middle-aged clown, “he does not laugh like a man that is glad. So the noise frightens me!"

Was there a laugh within the author of The House of the Seven Gables which frightened him? I think there was.

4. What Went with the Laughter?

It is clear from the story, “Ethan Brand,” that his laughter arose from his feeling that he was separate from all else. This exulting and fearful feeling of separation Hawthorne and the lime-burner see as the “unpardonable sin.” I quote Hawthorne and Ethan Brand at this point:

"It is a sin that grew within my own breast,” replied Ethan Brand, standing erect, with a pride that distinguishes all enthusiasts of his stamp. “A sin that grew nowhere else! The sin of an intellect that triumphed over the sense of brotherhood with man and reverence for God, and sacrificed everything to its own mighty claims!"

We have, then, Ethan Brand’s contempt making for three things: 1, a tendency to ridicule, which is not strengthening for him who ridicules; 2, a drift to unkindness, or that which mocks what Hawthorne calls the brotherhood of man; and 3, a restless loneliness, somber in separation.

Did Hawthorne know that he himself was affected by what saddened Ethan Brand? Hawthorne had this knowledge; but it needed that reality which friends or critics might provide, for him to see in the most effective way what saddened him. Hawthorne’s readers appreciated his work; but they did not see that the fear told of in this work was deep and active in the being of the author.

5. How Hawthorne Died

Hawthorne was much taken by the idea of persons’ dying quietly and alone. In Hawthorne’s story, “The Man of Adamant,” Richard Digby dies not quite alone, but ever so quietly. And it needs to be pointed out that when Digby dies, she who had seemed to be with him and had tried to change him somewhat, vanishes:

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 a likeness in the way Richard Digby dies and the way the boy Miles dies in the last sentences of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, a work which likely was affected by Hawthorne’s “The Man of Adamant.”

Furthermore, and I do not mean to be sensational at all in saying this, there is a likeness between the death of Richard Digby and that of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Donald G. Mitchell, in his American Lands and Letters (Scribner’s, 1899), tells of Hawthorne’s deep desire for isolation, greater than ever, in the last years of his life. Mitchell mentions the tower Hawthorne had built over his Concord home, The Wayside. Here are some of Mitchell’s words (page 265):

Upon whose roof-top he has built a clumsy tower-chamber, on whose inner walls he has inscribed the legend: “there is no joy but calm.”

Hawthorne, I am sure, would interpose a gracious denial if he were told he was like the lady in Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,” or like the person who built Tennyson’s “The Palace of Art.” Yet the likeness is there. The three of them—Hawthorne, the Lady of Shalott, and the builder of the Palace of Art—had that disdain for reality which made sumptuous isolation look wise.

I am sustained in this characterization of Hawthorne by the final words of Van Wyck Brooks’s sketch of the novelist in Our Literary Heritage (Dutton, 1956, page 83):

A sudden change seemed to have come upon him with his return to America, a blight as of winter, a deadly estrangement even from his own imagination. The sight of a friend or a stranger approaching his house drove him up the hill into the woods....Then, one day in 1864, the news reached Concord from Plymouth, New Hampshire, that he had died in his sleep at the village inn....He had not disappeared, but he had wandered away.

The dying of Hawthorne is always described rather indefinitely by his biographers. The phrase that Brooks uses, “he had wandered away,” is sustained by other writers on Hawthorne. Words like “vanishing,” “wandering,” “decay,” are used by sober critics and biographers. Always, there is mortuary mystery.

Here is a sentence with much meaning from Fred Lewis Pattee’s sketch of Hawthorne in Pattee’s Century Readings for a Course in American Literature (1919, page 310):

The old skill had left him. Something, a subtle disease perhaps, a mysterious decay which no physician might diagnose, had laid hold upon him.

I cannot give all the evidence, dear unknown friends, for saying that the contempt which Hawthorne recognized in himself was the beginning cause of his dying quietly, with his heart somewhat doubted. In reading Hawthorne, one sees how often some person goes about with his hand over his bosom or over his heart. Dimmesdale does this in The Scarlet Letter; and Roderick Elliston does this in the story from which I have already quoted, “Egotism; or, The Bosom Serpent.” Does this solicitude about one’s heart have to do with the seen presence of contempt in oneself? I think so. Let us look again at Digby, the man with the heart of adamant.

Early, Digby goes for that seclusion which, we have seen, Hawthorne was much given to. There is a plunging “into the dreariest depths of the forest.” This “plunging” likewise took Hawthorne very much. There is considerable going into the woods in The Scarlet Letter and in The Blithedale Romance. As Digby walks on, he has triumphant contempt for other persons:

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.

I feel that this sentence from a story in The Snow Image of 1851, says frighteningly much of how Hawthorne died.

And just as I have distinguished two kinds of contempt: one, in behalf of a world more just or beautiful; and two, in behalf of a segregated, imperial self—so it is necessary to distinguish two kinds of loneliness. Sometimes it is necessary to be lonely so that the way one really feels or the thoughts one really has may be given their useful due. Sometimes one has to be apart in a tumultuous or unjust world. This apartness or loneliness is instanced by the audacious activity of John Brown in 1859. If there ever was a person who commendably—at least, in idea—worked in loneliness, it was the John Brown made everlasting in the line: “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave.”

And how, dear unknown friends, did that other lonely man, Nathaniel Hawthorne, see John Brown? I quote again from Hawthorne’s 1862 essay, “Chiefly about War Matters”:

On the other hand, any common-sensible man, looking at the matter unsentimentally, must have felt a certain intellectual satisfaction in seeing him hanged, if it were only in requital of his preposterous miscalculation of possibilities.

With this coldness akin to contempt shown by Nathaniel Hawthorne, we can go back to 1836 and the boy making fun of the minister’s black veil; and also to May 18, 1864, with Hawthorne lying quietly in a room of the Pemigewassett Inn at Plymouth, New Hampshire.

Donald G. Mitchell writes (American Land and Letters, page 267) of Hawthorne and his accompanying friend, Franklin Pierce, a short while ago President of the United States:

They had adjoining rooms; so, twice or thrice in the night Pierce steps to the bedside of his companion, who seems sleeping quietly—very quietly. No change ever came more quietly....Only the gates opened—for this, our great romancer, and our greatest master of English prose—and he passed through by night.

Contempt permeates everything.

With love,

Eli Siegel