Thursday, January 31, 2013

Notes on Hawthorne, I

Nathaniel Hawthorne's TalesNathaniel Hawthorne's Tales 
by Nathaniel Hawthorne


"Nathaniel in his turn would walk the ways of Salem, town and village, and ghosts would keep him company, never quite visible , lurking always just beyond the corner of his eye.  But he would pin them down on paper and when he had them there he would inspect them with a kind of literary credulity.  For it was with him somewhat as it was with Cotton Mather; useless to preach to the artist against the existence of witches; the very breath of the artist is witchery and magic."  (Marion Starkey, The Devil in Massachusetts, p 277)


The ghosts of Salem and Nathaniel Hawthorne's past are represented in many of the  tales in this collection. None do it as well as in his magnificent short story, "Young Goodman Brown". 
 In this story Hawthorne describes the titular young man on a journey one evening that would change his life. As the story begins he comes "forth at sunset" after "crossing the threshold" of his house and his life, leaving his wife, Faith, who talks of "dreams" and is, he believes, "a blessed angel". His journey turns into one of his own dreams or visions where one after another of the people in his life are unmasked by the devil. He gradually discovers that his own corruptibility which he fears his embodied in his fellow townspeople, and ultimately in his own wife Faith. Young Goodman starts the evening journey with "excellent resolve", but he also has doubts which are fueled by comments from the stranger he meets. He grows more concerned and conceals himself even as his spectral visions (not unlike the evidence of witches in old Salem) show the deacon and elders of the town laid bare in their consorting with the devil. The evening has led to Young Goodman's loss of moral virginity. It is a loss that will haunt him the rest of his life.
 Hawthorne mirrors the communion of the church with that of Satan's altar. Contrasts abound with Faith, the angel of Young Goodman, joining the fallen angel in his mind. His tale is a blend of simplicity and seriousness. But more importantly he portrays experiences, fears, and feelings that, at least in part, his readers share in the sense they may experience similar doubts and wonder about the nature of their own morality and mortality. Melville would say of Hawthorne that his writing was "as deep as Dante". There is abundant evidence in this and the best of his early stories that Hawthorne has much magic in his prose.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Norton Critical Editions, 1987.
The Devil in Massachusetts by Marion L. Starkey. Time Reading Program Edition, 1963 (1949).

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