Friday, November 16, 2007

Nathaniel Hawthorne, and my intellectual flaws

Test question: What book did you most dislike in this course? What intellectual or characterological flaws in you does that dislike point to?

This question was a regular feature on the Western Civ-equivalent final of a Columbia prof, or so I read in a classic Harpers article, "Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students", by Mark Edmundson, available here as a PDF.

Great questions. Maybe I'll write more about them later. But right now, the issue is that I most dislike the stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne. I have the confidence to say that some of them are terrible - the four under the heading "Legends of the Province-House", for example. Ugh, ugh. Very much period pieces, at minimum.

But there are others where the problem is with my understanding, certainly with my sympathy, possibly with my character. "The Minister's Black Veil", "Roger Malvin's Burial", "Young Goodman Brown" - these are real works of art, coherent, purposeful. So why do I dislike them?

The Amateur Reader knows enough to turn to the professionals for assistance. My intellectual flaw is something other than refusing to ask for help. If anyone wandering by would like to suggest a book or essay on Hawthorne or his stories it would be much appreciated.


  1. Of the books I've read as part of an "English class", The Scarlet Letter must be my very least favorite, or perhaps a tie with Robinson Crusoe. I'll have to look up what that means. Which, I suppose, means that am totally unable to help you find greater understanding in Hawthorne, but you do have my sympathy.

  2. I read several of Hawthorne's stories in school and remember really enjoying them. Several of them have a creepy gothic-ness to them. Sorry, though, I can't recommend a book or even an essay.

    I like the professor's questions.

  3. Now Robinson Crusoe, that's almost the opposite sort of book. He said cryptically.

    Barring further advice, I'll probably give the Edward Wagenknecht book a try.

  4. I like Hawthorne, but he's very self-conscious about art. He always seems to be saying, "Look, I'm making something, and in the process, I'm thinking about what it means to make something." As in "The Artist of the Beautiful." I thought about writing an essay about Hawthorne once, about his interest in museums and waxworks. But I never wrote it, so I can't recommend it to you.

  5. Much of the best literary criticism has never been written.

  6. I just reread "Young Goodman Brown" and loved, er, appreciated it very much! Why do you dislike it? Seriously?

  7. Allegory. A strong distatste for allegory.

    But now I have read a lot more Hawthorne. Thousands of pages more. I should revisit some of the stories I resisted. I think I have a better idea of how he worked.