Nathaniel Hawthorne (18041864). The Scarlet Letter & Rappaccinis Daughter.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
Criticisms and Interpretations
IV. By Bliss Perry
WHY did Hawthornes imagination fasten upon subjects like these? It is not enough to say that he wrote under the influence of Puritanism. Too much has been made, by his critics, of such phrases as Puritan gloom and the morbid New England conscience It is true that Hawthorne inherited from Puritan ancestors a certain tenseness of fibre, a sensitiveness of conscience, a conviction of the reality of the moral life. It is also true that he was intensely interested in Puritanism as an historic phenomenon. It gave him the material he needed. How thoroughly he apprehended both the spirit and the outward form of life in early New England is evidenced by his Legends of the Province House, Goodman Brown, The Gentle Boy, The Ministers Black Veil. Yet neither his inheritance in Puritanism nor his profound study of it is enough to account satisfactorily for his choice of themes for his stories. Judged by his reading, by his friends and associations, by the spiritual emancipation which was already liberalizing New England when he began to write, he was Transcendentalist rather than Puritan. Puritan theology, as such, had no hold upon him personally; he was not even a church-goer. One can only say that he was drawn to moral problems by the natural gravitation of his own mind, just as Newman was inevitably attracted to theology, or Darwin to science. From the days of Job to the day of Ibsen and Maeterlinck there has been here and there a person able to find in the moral nature of man material for the creative imagination. Hawthorne was one of these persons; he was nurtured by Puritanism, but not created by it.
And what a writer this provincial New Englander is! We talk glibly nowadays about painting and writing with ones eye on the object. Hawthorne could do this when he chose; but think of writing with your eye on the conscience of Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne, and never relaxing your gaze till the book is done! What concentration of vision! What exposing power! Hawthornes vocabulary is not extraordinary large;nothing like Balzacs or Merediths; but the words are chosen like Davids five smooth stones out of the brook. The sentences move in perfect poise. Their ease is perhaps a little self-conscious;pains have been taken with their dressing,it is not the careless inevitable grace of Thackeray,but it is a finished grace of their own. It is a style exquisitely simple, except in those passages where Hawthornes fancy gets the better of him, and leads him into forced humor, all the worse for its air of cultivated exuberance. Yet even when he sins against simplicity, he is always transparently clear. The certainty of word and phrase, the firmness of outline are marvelous, when we consider the airy nature of much of his material; he may be building cloud-castles, but it is in so pure a sky that the white battlements and towers stand out sharp-edged as marble.
Because Hawthorne gave his work such an elaborate finish, some readers are apt to forget its underlying strength. Our own day of naturalistic impressionism and correct historical costuming has invented a hundred sensational and clever ways of tearing a passion to tatters. But it is well for us to remember that the real strength of a work of fiction is in the conception underlying it, and that the deepest currents of thought and feeling are
Strong-fibred, sane, self-controlled, as was Hawthorne, one may nevertheless detect in his style that melancholy vibration which marks the words of allor almost allthose who have interpreted through literature the more mysterious aspects of life. This pathos is profound, though it is quiet; it is an undertone, but not the fundamental tone; the gloom and terror may lie deep, but deeper still is this eternal beauty.
Yet the most marked quality of Hawthornes style is neither simplicity, nor clearness, nor reserve of strength, nor undertone of pathos. it is rather its unbroken melody, its verbal richness. Its echoes linger in the ear; they wake old echoes in the brain. The touch of a few other men may be as perfect, the notes they evoke more brilliant, certainly more gay; but Hawthornes deep-toned instrument yields harmonies inimitable and unforgetable. The critics who talk of the colorless life of New England and its colorless reflection in literature had better open their Hawthorne once more. His pages are steeped in color. They have a dusky glory like the great window in Keatss Eve of St. Agnes:
diamonded with panes of quaint device
Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes,
As are the tiger-moths deep-demaskd wings;
And in the midst, mong thousand heraldries,
And twilight saints, and dim emblazonings,
A shielded scutcheon blushd with blood of queens and kings.
This subdued splendor of Hawthornes coloring is a part of the very texture of his style; compared with it the brushwork of his successors seems thin and washy, or else crude and hard; it is like comparing a rug woven in Bokhara with one manufactured in Connecticut. But surely our New England soil is not wholly barren if even for once it has flowered into such a consummate artist as Nathaniel Hawthorne, who, while he devoted his art to the interpretation of truth, was nevertheless dowered with such instinct for beauty that his very words glow like gems and echo like music, and grant him a place among the few masters of English style.From The Centenary of Hawthorne, in The Atlantic Monthly (August, 1904).