Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The joys of completism – Hawthorne’s sketches

I mentioned yesterday that most selections of Hawthorne’s stories omit his dull “concept plus list” tales, a significant (in quantity, not quality) part of his work. They also omit what I thought were some of his best short pieces, his sketches. These are not really stories. They’re more like descriptive writing.

The subjects are often very simple. Hawthorne walks on the beach. Or he sits in front of his stove and misses his open fireplace. Or he looks out the window while it snows. “Snow-flakes,” that’s one of his prettiest sketches.

One of my favorites is “The Old Apple-Dealer” (1843):

“He looks anxiously at his plate of cakes or heaps of apples, and arranges them somewhat differently, as if a great deal depended on their being placed exactly so and so. Then he looked out of the window a moment; then shivers, quietly, and folds his arms, as if to draw himself closer within himself, and thus keep a little warmth in his heart. Then he turns round again to his display of cakes, apples, and candy (all this time keeping his seat; for he very seldom rises) and finds some new arrangement to make.” The American Notebooks, Centenary Edition, p. 223

I think there are a lot of nice touches here. There’s even a hint of drama – the Salem train station has a second apple dealer, a young dapper boy who hustles for business. This bothers Hawthorne, “and so I am a customer of the old man.” The sketch ends with Hawthorne thinking that he has failed to capture “the aspect and character of the old man.”

Actually, thats not how it ends. I cheated and took the passage from Hawthorne’s American Notebooks, January 23, 1842. Hawthorne later polished up his journal entry for a magazine piece. He adds a moralizing beginning and end, and smoothes down a few sentences. I prefer the journal version, but the sketch is really a fine thing, too, as are “Snow-Flakes” and “Foot-Prints on the Sea-Shore” and a number of others, almost all borrowed from the notebooks.

In exchange for the tedious lists, I received the lovely sketches, a fair trade.


  1. This seems like a nice way to trace his development as a writer - I would enjoy peeking into those notebooks.

  2. I'm not familiar with Hawthorne's sketches, but those sound intersting to me. Based upon what you posted, it reminds me of an essay I read once which relates Hawthorne with Edward Hopper in that they both represent inidividuals as both spectators and actors, echoing the New England puritanism of 'self' and 'conscience'. Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance used as an example. Seems like this dualistic vision would be one of the reasons for Hawthorne's algebraic symbolism.

  3. The notebooks are a work of art in their own right, worth attention on their own - see today's post.

    Hawthorne's development or growth as a writer is a juicy subject, too, really interesting. I think I'm saving that for Friday.

    Funny that you mention The Blithedale Romance, since the section of the notebooks that Hawthorne wrote while at Brook Farm seem relevant to your point. It consists almost entirely of descriptions of Hawthorne's walks. Almost nothing about the work on the farm, or the Utopian ideas. Very little about any other people. In the notebook, Hawthorne is purely a spectator. In life, he's actually working on the farm. It's very curious.