Posted by: zhiv | April 14, 2009

Nathaniel Hawthorne Time

I guess it turns out that I took an extended break from blogging, but I think I’ve been building up a nice stack of material, so we’ll see how it goes. And most of it is a fair number of thoughts on Hawthorne, of all people.

My interest in Annie Fields and Sarah Orne Jewett led me to an early March lunch with an English professor acquaintance, which was a joy from start to finish. He had browsed through some of these blogposts and was most interested by the stuff on The Bostonians, which he had been working on quite recently. We talked about its strangeness, how it has been an ill-starred text from its inception, and he confirmed that it has received relatively little critical attention. One of his current studies is an examination of serial publication in American Literature, and the publication of The Bostonians was a bit of a disaster. I knew a few vague details about this, and about how it wasn’t included in the New York Edition of James’ works, but it was funny to hear his description of how James intended to write The Bostonians as a smaller, compact “romance,” but it just kept going and growing, and the publisher was doubly alarmed that nobody liked the story while James showed no signs of moving towards a conclusion. The idea that it was intended as a romance prompted my lunch guest to ask if I had ever read Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance, and I had to think back pretty carefully to remember that I hadn’t, though it should have been obvious. He told me I would probably find it fascinating, as The Bostonians was a direct, though rather indirect in its lengthy, overextended outcome, response to Blithedale, and they share remarkable similarities in structure, character, themes, and concerns.

And so I set out to read Blithedale a few weeks ago, and stumbled through it in fits and starts in what seems to be my scattered 2009 manner. My Chekhov project has been unsettling in its vagueness, as I’ve been reading at least somewhat steadily, if not extensively, but the first three months of the year are gone and it seems like I’ve read no “books,” or much of anything at all. And it has been a weird and difficult year for everybody and everything, with nothing going very smoothly or easily. But that’s all par for the course for a blog about nothing, I suppose.

So this is now a Hawthorne warm up post, getting my bearings before digging into Blithedale. I want to record the calculations of memory that I had to make when my lunch guest asked if I had read Blithedale, when I tried to remember what I had read and what I hadn’t, and I want to move along the same lines as a similar post I did on Henry James. This is one of the nice things about blogging–it provides an invitation to stroll along the shady avenues, streets, and byways of literary memory.

As I’ve mentioned before, my recent interest in Hawthorne was triggered by Megan Marshall’s New Yorker article “The Other Sister,” which was subtitled “Was Hawthorne a cad?” and her outstanding book “The Peabody Sisters.” (My professor friend told me that he owns a copy of Marshall’s book, but hasn’t read it–so now that it’s a few weeks later and I’ve finally finished Blithedale, which should be a two or three day read under more congenial circumstances, I wonder if he has taken any of the bait I cut for him, which also included Jewett’s Deephaven. If I recall, however, it seemed at the end as if he was going to start by giving Annie Fields’ Asphodel a second try.) I can’t recreate the specific Hawthorne–Elizabeth Peabody–Sophia Peabody timeline at the moment, but it’s pertinent to Blithedale, which uses Hawthorne’s summer sojourn at Brook Farm as the inspiration for its setting. I also noted that Henry James drew a portrait of the elderly Elizabeth Peabody as Miss Birdseye in The Bostonians, which makes for an interesting connection. So I’ll want to go back to Marshall’s book to see how Brook Farm fits into the sequence. And I should add that Marshall is apparently writing about Hawthorne’s sister Ebe (another Elizabeth) now.

Thus I’ve been approaching Hawthorne from the side (Peabody Sisters) and back around somehow (going to Blithedale through The Bostonians and Henry James). My guess is that this is in part due to his titanic literary status, and I’ll say now that I didn’t want to get sucked into the world of Hawthorne commentary and criticism (too late!). I suppose that reading Blithedale at all, from one perspective, is an exercise in exploration of secondary material. But going in, I’m not really sure about the reputation of Blithedale. Is it a critically admired success? Is it seen as a failed experiment, a bit like Brook Farm, ironically enough? Is it creepy in a good way, like Hawthorne’s other works, or is it just plain creepy?

I should say that I like Hawthorne, but I can’t say that I quite know the appropriate dosage for me right now. It seems to me that I reread The Scarlet Letter (TSL) rather recently, within the past decade, but that might not be true. At any rate, I have a sense of affection and respect for TSL, and reading Blithedale brought back a feeling of how TSL, as a “romance,” holds a poetic power that seems almost geological in its layering. It’s a technique and type of writing that buries riches for every type of reader and approach. It’s very different from the realism that I seem to be craving most recently, but that doesn’t take anything away from its status as a classic. And I believe I was also always taught that TSL had a special status as a breakthrough in creating an original approach to fiction and literature in America. This and more is a lot for a single book and author to handle, but TSL and Hawthorne shoulder the burden pretty easily, with lots of help from Moby Dick and Melville, and it’s a fairly readable text, although too many readers probably encounter it when they are too young, and only able to scratch the surface. I certainly didn’t have that problem (although I was only scratching around in my first encounter with TSL), as I was incapable of reading anything besides the sports page until I was 18 and in college. My daughter sailed through it pretty smoothly, but I worry that my son might have a tough time when it comes up in the near future. I should probably ask my daughter what she thinks about it at this point.

My own first step with Hawthorne, if I recall, must have been a selection of the Tales and Stories, and these make a nice lead up to TSL. Amateur Reader did a good job of going through them last year, which I should review after I get down the basics on Blithedale, and I bought a copy of the Penguin edition of the Tales around the same time that I was reading The Peabody Sisters, which is when my daughter was reading TSL I think. And I’m remembering now that she even read The Peabody Sisters herself and loved it, which is kind of amazing.

So that leaves the other novels/romances. I remember impressing myself by reading The House of the Seven Gables, back in the day. This was when I was trying to dig into the second level of the American Masters, reading Pierre and taking a crack at The Confidence Man. It might have been a wrong turn, and I might have done better with Typee and Melville’s South Seas books, or more Thoreau, but I was more inclined to read Seven Gables than Emerson essays, which I really couldn’t figure out at the time. I guess it’s a way of saying that I liked reading semi-straightforward novels at the time, and I was probably already on the road to realism.

This is all a long way of saying that, no, I hadn’t read Blithedale before, or gotten anywhere near it, a realization that only took a moment of reflection. It’s a very interesting book, at least from my own perspective, as I’ll try to explain in the next post.

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Responses

  1. I hope to get to The Blithedale Romance this year – The Scarlet Letter, too. I’ve never read a Hawthorne novel, and want to fill the gap.

    I’m struggling with Mardi now. Typee and Omoo are much more straightforward; they hardly seem to come from the same writer.


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