Thursday, October 9, 2008

Hawthorne's ideas - a man to swallow a small snake

Hawthorne's Evangeline, not quite the same as Longfellow's:

"H. L. Conolly heard from a French Canadian a story of a young couple in Acadie. On their marriage day, all the men of the Province were summoned to assemble in the church to hear a proclamation. When assembled, they were all seized and shipped off to be distributed through New England, - among them the new bridegroom. His bride set out in search of him, - wandered about New England all her lifetime, and at last, when she was old, she found her bridegroom on his death-bed. The shock was so great that it killed her likewise."

This is from the American Notebooks, Centenary Edition, p. 182. Hawthorne apparently thought it was not quite his kind of story and passed it on to Longfellow, who got his first bestseller from it.

Hawthorne's notebooks are filled with pages of story ideas. Most of them sound terrible to me. How about this one:

"A very fanciful person, when dead, to have his burial in a cloud." p. 183

Ugh. Or this one:

"Meditations about the main gas-pipe of a great city, - if the supply were to be stopped, what would happen? How many different scenes it sheds light on? It might be made emblematical of something." p. 166

Or it might not. Let's try:

"A man to swallow a small snake - and it to be a symbol of a cherished sin." p. 228

Can this possibly be the way to write a good story, by starting with the symbol? All right, one more:

"The life of a woman, who, by the old colony law, was condemned always to wear the letter A, sewed on her garment, in token of her having committed adultery." p. 254

Yes, just another hopeless idea from Nathaniel Hawthorne's notebooks.


  1. I mentally anticipated that last as soon as I hit "It might be made emblematical of something."

    Last week I was thinking I should read some non-Scarlet Letter Hawthorne, despite my dislike of that book, probably because of some misguided homesickness for New England. Thank you for curing me of that plan.

  2. I read somewhere -- can't remember where, possibly as a footnote in a Norton Anthology -- that Hawthorne wrote "Young Goodman Brown" after thinking of writing a story about a woman with pink ribbons in her hair that would symbolize girlhood. Picture me making a cross-eyed grimace, here.

    My favorite piece of Hawthorne's writing? One line, etched into the attic window of his home with Sophia's engagement diamond: "Man's accidents are God's purposes." Thank you, American transcendentalism, for the summation.
    Also, from the notebooks, I kind of like "Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny, by Papa." I like the part where Melville comes over for cheroots and a discussion of the Eternal. Do you suppose that Nat told Herm that first, he should come up with a a gold doubloon or a tattooed islander or maybe a white whale or something...then flesh the book out around that?

  3. p.s. yes, I know he(HM) dedicated it to him (NH). Maybe he *did* come up with the symbol. Who knows? One of the grand mysteries of association and the general grand edification and glorification of the land in and around Concord at the time. (Except for Margaret Fuller, whom I loathe. And Bronson Alcott was kinda stuffily over-convinced of his own importance.)

  4. Maybe this would be a good point to say that, if I can ever make my way through the dang things, I will do a week - at least! - of full-on Hawthorne Appreciationism about his short stories and sketches. Maybe not quite full-on. 80%. Perhaps, nicole, I will uncure you.

    Hawthorne's notebooks have played an essential role in helping me enjoy Hawthorne. A lot of his best writing is in them. See just above for some apt examples.

  5. Quite like the swallowing a snake idea - wish he would have tried that one. Must read more Hawthorne to mute Susan Cheever's portrait of him and create my own.

  6. So it turns out that he did write the snake story. I read it this weekend. "Egotism; or the Bosom-Serpent", it's called. It's terrible in the way I expected, but not at all terrible in other, more surprising, ways.

    "It gnaws, it gnaws!"

  7. It is nice to see someone else is reading Hawthorne's note-books. For anyone who is interested in reading some of his note-book entries, I am blogging his entries at

    Like your site, and will continue to follow it!

  8. Very nice idea. I'll write more about Hawthorne's American Journal soon.

  9. These comments are dated in 2008 -- it is now 2015 -- I just discovered your blog. I am a cousin of Hawthorne, we are related thru the Ingersolls of Salem (Susannah Ingersoll's dad owned the House of the Seven Gables) so I am biased and seriously in love with Nathaniel, but have not read all his works... I also live here in Salem, MA, where his ghost continues to live - I know these things - I have his Notebooks and I have always loved his little jottings of ideas for stories -- to me reading those is almost better than a real manuscript! His mind was incredible. I especially love the era when he lived in Liverpool.

  10. Bex, thanks for the note. I have read far more Hawthorne now - most of what he wrote, including the entire bulk of the Notebooks. The Notebooks are terrific. A few years ago, a decent selection from the Notebooks was finally published. I hope it has encouraged more people to read the Notebooks.

    Salem is such a pleasant city. It must have been soon after this post when I visited. Well, a year after - a post on the Peabody Essex Museum.

    Anyway, there is plenty more about Hawthorne here. It was a great pleasure to read through his books.