Friday, November 5, 2010

Hawthorne's notebooks - too much, not enough

The Blithedale Romance contains an amazing drowning scene, a search for the body of a person feared drowned .  Chapter XXVII, “Midnight.”  Victim’s name omitted:

Hollingsworth at first sat motionless, with the hooked pole elevated in the air.  But, by and by, with a nervous and jerky movement, he began to plunge it into the blackness that upbore us, setting his teeth, and making precisely such thrusts, methought, as if he were stabbing at a deadly enemy.  I bent over the side of the boat.  So obscure, however, so awfully mysterious, was that dark stream, that - and the thought made me shiver like a leaf - I might as well have tried to look into the enigma of the eternal world, to discover what had become of [the victim’s] soul, as into the river's depths, to find her body.  And there, perhaps, she lay, with her face upward, while the shadow of the boat, and my own pale face peering downward, passed slowly betwixt her and the sky!

The chapter has a lot of good writing.  It is drawn not from anything that happened at Brook Farm, where The Blithedale Romance is partly set, but on an entirely separate incident Hawthorne had witnessed, in which a servant girl drowned, probably by suicide.

In the novel, the chapter is a highlight.  The end of the above paragraph seems especially good to me, especially well imagined, but the “nervous and jerky” “stabbing” with the pole is sinister and even the dead shivering simile, “like a leaf,” takes on more life amidst other, actual, shivering leaves.  The atmosphere is functionally oppressive, but see how Hawthorne rubs it in – “obscure” and “mysterious” and “enigma.”  Maybe it’s laid on a bit thick.

I remember the episode, as recounted in The American Notebooks, as being at least as good as the one in the novel.  More clinical, I think.  When I turned to the edition at hand, though, the 1896 reprint of the 1868 Passages from the American Note-books, I couldn’t find it.  Sophia Hawthorne suppressed it.  The entirety of Twenty Days with Julian & Little Bunny by Papa is also absent.  Help!

Hawthorne’s notebooks contain a great deal of his best writing.  I have read the Centenary editions (Ohio State University) of both The American Notebooks and The English Notebooks, and am eager to read The French and Italian Notebooks.  These are the complete notebooks, with modern critical editing and annotations.  It actually shocks me a little that as charming a book as Julian & Little Bunny was first published in 1972 embedded in one of these ungainly 1,000 page bricks.

I could easily recommend a fat one volume condensation of the Centenary notebooks, if such a book existed.  Library of America?  NYRB?  Hmmm?  As it is, there’s either the Centenary edition, or texts that omit anything Sophia Hawthorne did not want the world to know about her husband.  For example – this is from memory – she excised most of Hawthorne’s references to drinking or smoking cigars, which might be understandable if he were an alcoholic, but I’m talking about a drink and cigar after dinner while on vacation.  She snips out dismayed reactions to Liverpool poverty, a couple of lines about Herman Melville’s tormented atheism, and who knows what else.  She leaves in his complaints about museums, luckily for me.

It’s a paradox.  Sophia’s version is Not Enough.  The complete version is Too Much.  If somebody will solve this problem for me, I’d appreciate it.  I’ll buy a copy, and ask my library to buy another.  Thanks in advance.


  1. When I last checked I saw Gilbert and Sullivan, and then I miss an entire week of Hawthorne, including Blithedale!? Have to go and catch up now... very exciting.

  2. I don't know if it's a week of Hawthorne so much as a week around Hawthorne. Kinda wanders.

  3. All caught up now.

    Again, drowning scene is an amazing combination of inspirations. First, there's the actual story from the notebooks. Then, you have the fact that Margaret Fuller, who many would naturally associate with your character in Blithedale, drowned. But I'd like to think that Hawthorne was using the obvious Fuller parallels to throw people off the scent of his imaginative treatment of the Peabody Sisters.

    And speaking of odd, Sophia was super odd until she met Hawthorne. And after Hawthorne married her he got a lot more normal, for a long time. And then Sophia was normal for a little while, but odd again later. Not the ideal editor for the notebooks.

    And I also remember that she got testy in her dealings with James and Annie Fields after Hawthorne's death, made things tough. Like I said, good stuff in Marshall's Peabody Sisters book, but it may be that the best stuff will be in her next book, about his sister.

  4. All right, I've gotta go to your place and look at your Peabody stuff.