Thursday, November 4, 2010

Hawthorne the tourist

Odd how so many of the great mid-19th century American writers were so odd.  Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, Dickinson, and so on.  Nathaniel Hawthorne was merely odd imaginatively - merely.  He seems like a good father and husband, a socially friendly fellow, a more than competent bureaucrat.  His extensive notebooks make him seem genial and altogether normal, except for the fact that from time to time he tried to make a living as a professional writer, and, with his odd productions of genius, from time to time succeeded.

The English Notebooks covers 1853 to 1857, when Hawthorne worked at the American consulate in Liverpool.  He was not writing anything for publication, but kept a journal that amounts to 500 or 600 pages, most of it excellent, if soemtimes repetitive.  Hawthorne, and this was true his whole life, did almost all of his journal-writing while on vacation.  He writes little about his day to day activities at the consulate, unless something extraordinary occurs, but fills page after page with detailed descriptions of wherever he took the family on their weekend day trip, whatever was close, by train, to Liverpool.  Hawthorne is especially fond of Chester, which does sound quite nice.  When Herman Melville came to visit, on his way to the Holy Land, Hawthorne immediately took him to Chester.

Perhaps I do not find Hawthorne odd because I identify so closely with his constant worry that he is a bad tourist.  Museums he finds particularly deadly, yet he drags himself through them, again and again.  The visit to Walter Scott’s mansion that I mentioned yesterday also included a tour of Scott’s armory, which contained Rob Roy’s rifle and Claverhouse’s pistol and

a thousand other things, which I knew must be most curious, yet did not ask nor care about them, because so many curiosities drive one crazy, and fret one’s heart to death.  (The English Notebooks, May 10, 1856)

He is hardly any happier in the Louvre, where he writes about the visitors and the architecture, but almost nothing about the art, aside from a miniature of Benjamin Franklin.  Some of his anxiety may be more peculiar to a creative person than to the typical tourist, as in this reaction to the Louvre’s enormous collection of pencil drawings:

No doubt, the painters themselves had often a happiness in these off-hand sketches, which they never felt again in the same work, and which resulted in disappointment, after they had done their best.  (The French and Italian Notebooks, Jan. 10, 1858)

Hawthorne later cannibalized the English notebooks for an unfinished novel, and the Italian notebooks for The Marble Faun, but this is probably not anticipatory of Hawthorne’s feelings about his own off-hand sketches.  Probably.

Hawthorne is disappointed by Stonehenge, and baffled by picture galleries, but he does really fall in love with English cathedrals.  He is in Salisbury:

Cathedrals are almost the only things (if even those) that have quite filled out my ideal here in this old world; and cathedrals often make me miserable from my inadequacy to take them wholly in; and, above all, despise myself when I sit down to describe them. (The English Notebooks, June 17, 1858)

He takes to French food easily enough, and recommends its study.  He’s right, of course, but he had been living in England for four years – “sirloins, joints, joints, steaks, steaks, steaks, chops, chops, chops, chops!” (French and Italian, Jan. 10, 1858).  I have just now set foot in Rome with Hawthorne.  If I did not know his biography, I would feel anxious that the sheer bulk of Italian art treasures might literally kill him.  Perhaps the Italian food sustained him.  I’ve heard it is good.


  1. I am doing a bit of research on Stephen Crane for a post on one of his short stories-for sure he conforms to the notion of odd 19th century American writer-I got interested in reading him when I read in March of Literature that Ford Madox Ford had immense respect for his prose styling-

  2. But is Crane's imaginative world especially strange? I thought he was Mr. American Naturalism.

    No, never mind. I forgot about his poetry - pretty odd.

  3. My sense is that Hawthorne was plenty odd during his youth and the years when he was living quietly at home and writing his stories.

    There's a whole sequence, I believe, leading up to his mother dying (is that it? am I remembering correctly?), and then he sits down and writes The Scarlet Letter very quickly. (Didn't Johnson do something similar, write Rasselas right after his wife died? I wish I had specific memories of these happenstance things.) Two more books in two more years.

    But like I said I think he was plenty odd until he wrenched the Tales out of his imagination and then spit out the romances. But once his talent was recognized and he found his style and approach, and when he straightened out his emotional issues with the intellectual sisters down the street in the Salem, he was a pretty easygoing dude. He let Melville be the weirdo.

  4. If he's odd while writing the tales, he keeps it out of his notebooks. I mean, he is a writer, an odd breed to begin with. It's relative!

    I'll defer, though. I don't know Hawthorne's biography in any more detail than what he wrote down himself.

  5. Your comments on French and Italian food reminded me of comments made by Alexandre Dumas in 'The Count of Monte Cristo'. In that book the author calls Italian food the worst in the world, and does this through an authorial comment and through his French characters. This seems to be a case of how tastes have changed over time.

  6. Oh, right.

    He "ate like a man who for the last four or five months had been condemned to partake of Italian cookery - that is, the worst in the world." Chapter 35, whatever translation is on Gutenberg.

    Yeah, that's amusing. I've been in Rome with Hawthorne now for - let's see - 90 pages, and he hasn't mentioned food once. Just sculptures, paintings, churches, ruins, paintings, sculptures.