Thursday, December 2, 2010

Hawthorne's notebooks for everyone

I asked, and with a bit of research, I received.  I have now read the entirety of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s notebooks, maybe 2,000 pages in the Ohio State University Centenary Edition.  Those Centenary volumes are enormous beasts, about half Hawthorne and half apparatus.  Literally unhandy, hard to hold.  And as good as the notebooks are, as good as the writing is, they are disjointed and repetitive and too much of a good thing.  So I had hoped for a selection, a nice 800 page Library of America edition, for example, which I bet will someday exist.  Not that so many more readers will be tempted by that.

In fact, there is a selection of the notebooks available, a 210 page culling of the Centenary Edition that I can recommend to anyone:  The Business of Reflection: Hawthorne in His Notebooks, eds. Robert Milder and Randall Fuller, Ohio State University Press, 2009.

Do you see the problem?  First, I began reading the notebooks in 2007, so the shorter book didn’t exist.  Second, does that title make the book sound like a selection from Hawthorne’s notebook, or a collection of scholarly essays about the notebooks?  That's what I thought it was.  Third, the cover is ugly.

What’s in it?  It has almost everything I want it to have.  Early vacations in Maine and the Berkshires that contain some brilliant character sketches, something I rarely find in Hawthorne’s own fiction.  A sampling of the Brook Farm entries.  The entry (Jan, 23, 1842) that is smoothed out, moralized, and, I think, worsened when it is published as “The Old Apple Dealer.”

For many people, the honeymoon year beginning in the summer of 1842 will be a favorite.  Nathaniel and Sophia set up house in Concord.  Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller and an eccentric handyman , Mr. Thorow, “ugly as sin, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and somewhat rustic, although courteous manners” (Sep. 1, 1842) drop by now and then.  Hawthorne buys Thoreau’s boat!  Everyone is so happy, genuinely happy.  Literary depictions of happiness, good ones, are not all that common.

The Twenty Days with Julian & Bunny by Papa section, the summer of 1851, is only excerpted, so be sure to track down the separate NYRB edition of that one.

The sections from the Hawthorne family's residence in England and Italy are almost all vacation snaps.  Stratford-upon-Avon, Walter Scott’s mansion, the Lake District.  The slimming down is enormously helpful here.  Herman Melville’s visit is intact, as is the amusing July 30, 1857 entry, in which Hawthorne sees Tennyson at an art exhibit, and resists, barely, the temptation to follow him around, gawking.

I’ll write a bit more about the Italian trip tomorrow.

I still think that there should be an 800 page edition.  And a 400 page edition.  If I were a publisher, I would go broke.  But this is a valuable book, easy to recommend.  Readers who have had not-so-good experiences with Hawthorne’s fiction will be shocked, I predict, at how engaging he is here.  Funny and gloomy, warm and sarcastic, frustrated and inspired, a fine husband and father and a mediocre friend.  Ask your library to buy a copy.  Share the wealth.


  1. Thanks for pointing this out - it definitely sounds like something I would enjoy, and given that I habitually think of Hawthorne as gloomy I'm looking forward to the depiction of genuine happiness that you mention, as well as amusing incidents from his life.

  2. On the one hand, I don't want to make Hawthorne sound too sunny or cute. On the other hand, that's really what parts of the notebooks are like, especially when he is writing about his wife and young children.

    There's a skew, too - when Hawthorne was least happy, he didn't write much in his notebooks.