Monday, October 27, 2008

The perils of completism – Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tales and Sketches - one of the lighter exercises of the imagination

I admire, obviously, the Library of America project. They publish such attractive books. But they are not ideally suited for the Neurotic Reader. Completism can be a curse, a time-waster. What I mean is, some of the tales and sketches in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tales and Sketches are terrible, yet there they were, so I read them.

In the early days of Wuthering Expectations, I sent out a distress signal, asking for help with the Hawthorne’s stories. Since then, with more reading, I figured out my problem. Henry James, I ask you, what’s my problem?

“Hawthorne, in his metaphysical moods, is nothing if not allegorical, and allegory, to my sense, is quite one of the lighter exercises of the imagination. Many excellent judges, I know, have a great stomach for it; they delight in symbols and correspondences, in seeing a story told as if it were another and a very different story.” Henry James, Hawthorne, p. 50.

As one of the few fools who has read all six cantos of The Faerie Queene, who am I to argue against allegory? Yet at its best, it tries my patience. And often, Hawthorne’s allegories are nowhere near his best.

“A Virtuoso’s Collection” (1842) will serve as an example. The narrator visits a museum that has the skin of the wolf that reared Romulus and Remus; the bones of the horses of Alexander the Great, and Don Quixote; the raven of Barnaby Rudge (from a novel only a year old); Aladdin’s lamp; the crossbow shaft of the Ancient Mariner. On and on, mixing history and literature. The tale, such as it is, is just a long list of references.

This is an allegory of – who cares what. I count a dozen or so of these polished lists in Tales and Sketches. They’re pretty dull, mostly; I have noticed that most collections of Hawthorne’s stories omit them.

All right, forget the lists, Hawthorne at his worst. I want to spend the week with Hawthorne at his best.* There was plenty of that in the Library of America volume, once I figured out how to read it.

* I’ve never read a Hawthorne novel, nor the English or Italian notebooks. Caveat emptor.

No comments:

Post a Comment