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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XI. Hawthorne

§ 2. His Relations with the Transcendentalists

But if as a Transcendentalist he stood aloof from Puritanism, his temperament forced him to stand aloof also from the other Transcendentalists. Although their philosophy, as they liked to say, was a “questioning” of life, he differed from them all in being a true skeptic. To be quite precise, let us say that he drew the inspiration of his romances not so much from their ideas as from the neglected but inevitable conclusions of their ideas. Alcott and Emerson uttered between them a set of doctrines so full of apparent contradictions as to seem almost double-faced. They preached the sacredness of fact as against the authority of tradition; they made much of physical heredity, of evolution, of fate; they pointed out the inadequacy of any moral scheme to comprehend all the surprises of nature; yet being inveterate optimists, both of them, and both at certain moments curiously mystical, and both enjoying an outward orthodoxy of manners and culture, they soothed their hearers and seemed less dangerous than they were. Their sincerity, of course, was unquestionable, but they obscured even to themselves the startling conclusions of their own surmises, and having shaken their moral world to its foundation, they allowed the structure to settle again, and all this in such a glamour of temperamental cheerfulness that those who felt only the eloquence of their mood could depart conscious of spiritual uplift, and none but the few who attended to the implications of their specific ideas went away troubled. How few these critics were is attested by the lonely position in which their spokesman, Hawthorne, seems to stand. He was no mystic; what attracted him in Transcendentalism was its free inquiry, its radicalism, its contact with actual life. In his stories, therefore, he was a philosophical experimenter, in whose method was no room for optimism nor for prepossessions of any kind; he had recourse to life in order to try out the efficacy or the consequences of Transcendental ideas, and if the result was hardly what he expected, he still pursued the hypothesis to the bitter end. He was really the questioner, the detached observer, that other Transcendentalists thought they were. The soul, Emerson had said, “accepts whatever befalls, as part of its lesson. It is a watcher more than a doer, and it is a doer only that it may the better watch.” The description is truer of Hawthorne’s soul than of Emerson’s. In accepting whatever befalls, Emerson was convinced, as he says in the essay on Circles, that there is a saccharine principle in all things; small wonder that Hawthorne seems an alien among such cheerful sages. When Emerson says that either love or crime leads all souls to the good, that there is no straight line in nature, that evil in the end will bless, Hawthorne examines the doctrine somewhat dubiously in Hepzibah and Clifford Pyncheon and in Donatello; and when the cheerful philosopher tells us to trust ourselves, to follow our own nature, to live from the Devil if we are the Devil’s children, Hawthorne projects the advice experimentally in The Scarlet Letter and in The Blithedale Romance.

Those who classify Hawthorne in a loose way as the romancer of Puritanism sometimes speak of him also as a psychologist. The term needs defining. To him, as to other Transcendentalists, the fortune of a human soul was the most critical of experiences; comparatively negligible were the doings of society as a whole or the outward panorama of events and scenes. If to be thus interested in the soul is to be a psychologist, then Hawthorne was one, as to some extent are all who write of human nature. But if the term denotes attention to motives and to fine mental processes, to the anatomy, as it were, of character, then Hawthorne was no such psychologist as, let us say, Henry James or George Meredith. It is important to realize how broad and general his ideas and his art were, how completely he avoided the special and the minute. He studied no subtle character, nor any character subtly. He was a moralist rather than a psychologist. Were it not sufficiently evident in the stories themselves, the notes preserved in his journals would show that his imagination was engaged first by a moral idea, which he afterwards incorporated in plot and in persons. When he is most successful the plot seems actually to occur, and the persons really live; when his imagination fails him, the incidents seem allegorical and the figures become shadowy; but in either case the abstract idea from which he started is likely to be clear enough, and his own personality will probably be felt as standing outside the story, looking on. Since he is neither novelist nor preacher, but only an investigator of moral ideas, it is equally beside the mark to expect of him Balzac’s sense of the social panorama, or Bunyan’s certitude of faith.