Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novels can be so frustrating, mainly because they are not novels. Not quite. The Scarlet Letter is subtitled “A Romance,” and so is The Marble Faun. The Blithedale Romance puts the word in the title. Hawthorne is not exactly hiding the fact that he is writing something other than this new-fangled “novel” contraption, that he is looking back at earlier models of prose fiction, and that his books have as much in common with The Fairie Queen or Malory’s Morte d’Arthur as with Charles Dickens or Jane Austen.
I haven’t read The Marble Faun yet, but now that I have read the results of Hawthorne’s most amazing burst of creativity, the one that produced The Scarlet Letter (1850), The House of Seven Gables (1851), and The Blithedale Romance (1852), as well as the two children’s books I mentioned yesterday (and also, come to think of it, the 1851 summer journal that is Twenty Days with Julian & Little Bunny by Papa), my conclusion is that Hawthorne is at his best when he is least novelistic, that the weakest parts of his books are the most novel-like.
His characters, the few he uses, are static and emblematic, and his setting or frame is constrained – tiny, even. The books consist of a small number of grand scenes, often fantastic pieces of writing that leave me a bit awestruck, held together my more ordinary writing that is little more than novelistic adhesive. In The Scarlet Letter, the big scenes seem huge, and the connective tissue minimal, while the later novels feel more gristly.
Reading The Blithedale Romance finally helped me see the theatricality of Hawthorne’s novels. The Blithedale Romance is particularly packed with performances and costumes. The utopian community at the center of the novel is itself like a play, with the poets and intellectuals playing the role of farmer. I wonder where Hawthorne gets this. From Shakespeare, maybe? In his notebooks, I don’t remember much interest in the actual theater.
It’s not that the great scenes are themselves like something from the stage (although the center of The Scarlet Letter, the Dimmesdale’s vigil in Chapter 12, actually takes place on a stage). The extraordinary “Governor Pyncheon” chapter from The House of Seven Gables depends on a particular sense of the passage of time that would be impossible to imitate in a play. What might be my favorite scene in The Blithedale Romance has a similar static structure.
It’s Chapter 17, “The Hotel.” The narrator has left the utopian farm and is sitting in a hotel room, where, for an entire chapter, he does nothing. Or close to it – “The gradual waste of my cigar accomplished itself with an easy and gentle expenditure of breath.” He also fails to read a novel, a book which was “of the dullest, yet had a sort of sluggish flow, like that of a stream in which your boat is as often aground as afloat.” I don’t think he’s describing his own book. Otherwise, the narrator sits, looks out the window, and listens, pausing to “enjoy the moral sillabub until quite dissolved away.”*
He hears the guests and the kitchen clatter and clocks and fire bells. “A company of the city soldiery, with a full military band, marched in front of the hotel, invisible to me, but stirringly audible both by its foot-tramp and the clangor of its instruments.” And, most weirdly:
In some public hall, not a great way off, there seemed to be an exhibition of a mechanical diorama; for three times during the day occurred a repetition of obstreperous music, winding up with the rattle of imitative cannon and musketry, and a huge final explosion. Then ensued the applause of the spectators, with clap of hands and thump of sticks, and the energetic pounding of their heels.
Hawthorne’s own stories often remind me of the exhibition of a mechanical diorama. In “The Artist of the Beautiful” (1844), the culmination of the artist’s life is the creation of a delicate mechanical butterfly. I’m not sure that the novel is really meant to contain mechanical butterflies, and I fear I sometimes crush them between the pages. But Hawthorne’s novels are not really novels, so it’s all right.
* Maybe I’ll make sillabub for Thanksgiving. Or syllabub, or sabayon, or zabaglione – lemon sillabub, probably, rather than moral sillabub.