Thursday, October 30, 2008

Hawthorne’s marvelous notebooks – it is found to be laughably vague

Hawthorne’s more or less allegorical stories are not populated by what I would call rounded or real characters. I don’t exactly mean psychologically rounded characters. I mean people like this:

“The skipper of the wrecked sloop had, apparently, just been taking a drop of comfort – but still seemed downcast... there was something that made me smile in his grim and gloomy mien, his rusty, jammed hat, his rough and grisly beard, and in his mode of chewing tobacco, with much action of the jaws, getting out the juice as largely as possible, as men always do when disturbed in mind.”

That’s the sort of thing I like – “with much action of the jaws.” The author of this admirable portrait is, of course, Nathaniel Hawthorne, in the American Notebooks, Sep. 15, 1852. Yes, there is an island off the coast of New Hampshire named “Smutty Nose.”

Many months ago I typed up some other examples – the high-spirited French roommate, or the engineer who was proud of his way with a scythe. The notebooks are full of these character skecthes; the stories are full of emblems, and would hardly work if they weren't.

For a real treat, don’t miss the longest sustained stretch of the American notebooks, Twenty Days with Julian & Little Bunny by Papa. Mama and the daughters are away, so it’s bachelor life in the Hawthorne house. There’s certainly a great character here – the old gentleman, the little man, 5 year-old Julian:

“The little man has been speculating about his mother’s age, and says she is twenty years old. ‘So very small,’ he exclaims, ‘and twenty years old!’” Aug. 4, 1851

Bunny (an actual rabbit) is not bad either:

“Bunny has a singular countenace – like somebody’s I have seen, but whose I forget. It is rather imposing and aristocratic, on a cursory glance, but examining it more closely, it is found to be laughably vague.” July 28, 1851

A lot of Twenty Days is taken up with Hawthorne curling his son’s hair, or taking walks, or being driven insane by Julian’s incessant yammering (“smashing every attempt at reflection into a thousand fragments”). Hawthorne reads Fourier, and Thackeray’s Pendennis. Herman Melville stops by now and again (“and if truth must be told, we smoked cigars even within the sacred precincts of the sitting-room”).

The American Notebooks are fragmented and sometimes obscure without annotation, but they contain some of Hawthorne’s best writing. Allegorical Hawthorne is brought right back down to earth. Twenty Days with Julian & Little Bunny by Papa is the best of the best.

NYRB has published a hardback of Twenty Days. I vaguely remember seeing it marketed as a Father’s Day gift. How they get the length up to 182 pages is beyond me. There are a number selections from the notebooks floating around.

Alternatively, stop by Hawthorne's Words, where each post is an excerpt from Hawthorne’s notebooks, including the extensive English and Italian notebooks, on the appropriate date.


  1. Twenty Days sounds fun. Your review had me smiling.

    I just finished The Secret Of Lost Things which has Hawthorn and Melville's friendship as an element in its plot. Sounds like an interesting friendship.

  2. If anything, I undersold Twenty Days. It's a very charming book.