Friday, October 31, 2008

Hawthorne's annual short story productivity - converting what was earthly, to spiritual gold

My favorite Hawthorne story is "The Artist of the Beautiful" (1844), an allegory about Hawthorne's own creative life. An inventor tries to create some sort of device of perfect beauty. He fails, gives up, tries again, fails, gives up, tries again. In the end, he succeeds, but not before surrendering all ambition and desire for approval. His creativity becomes sufficient in itself.

My perception is that Hawthorne got better over time. Better at what? Descriptive passages, characterization, fleshing out his fictional world. Not necessarily better at handling ideas or concepts. His conceptual germs were still hit or miss. I think that in the first part of his career, Hawthorne mistook his talents. "The Artist of the Beautiful" is partly about his discovery of the nature of his own creativity. I don't want to get into this more now - see the latest Malcolm Gladwell piece in The New Yorker.

The artist in the story works in bursts and then stalls out for a while, just like Nathaniel Hawthorne. Look, I made a graph of the publication of Hawthorne's short stories over time:

Let's see, what's going on here. Hawthorne published a small mountain of stories from 1835 to 1838, including some famous ones like "Young Goodman Brown." From 1840 to 1841, he published some children's books and lived at Brook Farm for eight months. In 1842, Hawthorne got married and moved to the Old Manse (pictured) in Concord. Marriage, or Thoreau, or genteel poverty, got him writing stories again.

Next, he decides he needs to work for a living. He publishes nothing, writes almost nothing, for three years. Then he writes and publishes three novels in rapid succession (the first one, The Scarlet Letter (1850) is pictured), along with a few more stories and a couple more children's books. Then nothing, again, for five years. No more short stories, ever.

Since it's Halloween, I also put Hawthorne's very last short story, "Feathertop" (1852), on the graph, about a pumpkin-headed scarecrow who comes to life. It's one of his best, and is good Halloween reading.


  1. "Feathertop" is a great short story - and it feeds straight into what was to become the fountainhead of American imaginative fiction, the Oz books of L. Frank Baum. Feathertop reappears in there as Jack Pumpinkead. There's also an interesting comparison to be made with Hans Christian Andersen's "The Shadow", which in itself leads back to Adelbert von Chamisso's "Peter Schlemiel", and no doubt beyond that into the deep backward and abysm of time...

  2. I loved that Gladwell piece -- it was fun to see him attack some very common ideas about artistic genius and creativity.

  3. Thanks for the graph--that's a great way to look at creativity/productivity. I missed the Gladwell piece, my New Yorkers have been piling up the last couple of months--but my husband put a lecture together once on Creativity and the Mind--and it sounds like it's the exact thing he contemplated in that discussion. I'll have to check it out. Nice blog! I'm going to thumb through your archives.

  4. While reading "Feathertop" I had to consciously forget the illustrations of Jack Pumpkinhead in The Marvelous Land of Oz et. al. Hawthorne is very precise about his scarecrow, and it doen't look like Baum's character. But yeah, Jack Pumpkinhead, the witch, etc., are otherwise straight out of Hawthorne.

    Dorothy, I don't want to give Gladwell too much credit. None of the ideas in his article are his own. Linda, yes, if you or your husband are interested in the subject, the Gladwell article is a good primer to David Galenson's research, which is itself worth reading. Also, Ben Fountain's short stories are as good as Gladwell says they are.

    And thanks for the kind words about my graph. Take that, Franco Moretti!

  5. The pumpkin head on the graph sure looks like Jack as illustrated in my copy of "The Land of Oz."

  6. Well, Feathertop wears a three-cornered hat with the long tail feather of a rooster. I couldn't find a picture of a jack o'lantern with that hat.

  7. I love the productivity graph! Awesome!

  8. my God finally something i care about