Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Reducing Hawthorne - a guide to Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Marble Faun marks the end of a Nathaniel Hawthorne project that began more or less when I started Wuthering Expectations.  I am now officially done with Nathaniel Hawthorne.  “Done.”

Two Library of America volumes, Tales and Sketches (1,463 pages of reading text) and Collected Novels (1,242 pages), and The American Notebooks, The English Notebooks, and The French and Italian Notebooks, which add up to maybe 2,000 pages more in the Centenary collected works.  Holy moley, that’s almost 5,000 pages.  Done!

I’m predicting that I will never read Hawthorne’s unfinished manuscripts, or any more of his books for children (two is plenty), or his campaign biography of General Franklin Pierce, so there are some good, solid limits to my completism.  I wish there had been stronger limits.  Although my opinions are almost entirely conventional, perhaps I can help future Hawthorne readers avoid some of my mistakes.

My one unconventional recommendation, first: the recently published selection from Hawthorne’s notebooks, The Business of Reflection, combined with the NYRB Twenty Days with Julian and Bunny by Papa, are simply outstanding reading, and will confound and delight readers with youthful memories of hating The Scarlet Letter. Other readers, too.  With a stroke, 2,000 pages turn into less than 300.

Now, I’m glad I read the whole bulk of the notebooks, but who are we kidding?  The one book of Hawthorne’s I truly wish I had skipped was his apprentice novel, Fanshawe (1828).  Dull, trite, clumsy, clichéd.  Alumni of Bowdoin College might find some of the details of the setting interesting.  He kept it a secret - Hawthorne’s wife did not even know the novel existed until after his death.  The distance in quality between this poor thing and Hawthorne’s first published story, “The Hollow of the Three Hills,” cannot be explained by the passage of two years.  Hawthorne had discovered an essential part of his imagination.  Fanshawe is not recognizable as Hawthorne; that first story is.

What to do about those stories?  The 1,100+ Library of America pages are rewarding, but much too much.  Some pleasantly fat selection is necessary.  Signet Classics has one, The Celestial Railroad and Other Stories, 270 pages, which omits “The Artist of the Beautiful” and “Feathertop.”  And “Foot-Prints on the Sea-Shore.”  Hmm.  Perhaps supplement it with The Selected Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Alfred Kazin, or the Norton Critical Edition, or something like that.  I don’t know.  Don’t be neurotic, like I was, that’s all, unless you’re trying to graph Hawthorne.

My ranking of the four good novels: The Scarlet Letter (1850), The Marble Faun (1860), The House of Seven Gables (1851), The Blithedale Romance (1852).  I’m ranking by quality, but quality may mean little more than how much I want to reread them.  The latter two, especially, have all sorts of serious structural and conceptual problems and dud chapters.  They also contain some extraordinary scenes, some of Hawthorne’s best.  Try Chapter 3 of Seven Gables, “The First Customer,” in which an old woman and a plump boy negotiate the sale of a gingerbread cookie, and then another. Marvelous, charming scene, even cute.  How it relates to the building dread of the Ecclesiastian “Governor Pyncheon” chapter, one of Hawthorne’s four or five best pieces, escapes me.

It would be nuts for the reader at all sympathetic to Hawthorne to miss it.  I’ve done a good job slimming down the notebooks and the stories, not so well with the novels.  Still, four novels, three of them quite short, is not exactly a hardship for vigorous book blog readers.  Add in a couple more short books, stories and notebooks, and you're "done," too, except now there will be all sorts of wonderful tales and scenes to revisit.


  1. What a helpful listing! My favorite story of his is still the one I read in 5th or 6th grade: Rappaccini's Daughter. I've been a gardener ever since. :)

  2. "Rappacini's Daughter" is a fine example of Hawthorne's art. It looks a little different to me now that I have accompanied Hawthorne to Italy. "Rappacini's Daughter" is set in Fantasy Italy, constructed from books. The Marble Faun is in Real Italy, as seen by the author. So the story and novel have a different feel.

  3. As a writer, I will never rest easy in my grave until I know what, exactly, happened between Hawthorne and Melville.

    Do you have a theory?

  4. Oh sure. My theory is that Melville was having enormous trouble finding a form that could contain his wide but undigested reading and his peculiarly digressive genius. He couldn't seem to turn convert his genius into an actual novel.

    His friendship with Hawthorne, and their late-night bouts of cigar-smoking and book talk, along with the example of The Scarlet Letter, led to the form of Moby-Dick, not the content.

    Hawthorne had already more or less solved his basic aesthetic problems, and was now refining them or trying them out on new subjects, but not restlessly searching for new ideas. So he had a lot less to learn from Melville. The literary friendship was real, but one-sided.