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

§ 6. His Close Observation of Life

If it is just to see in the early writings a picture of his native temper before he was consciously engaged with Transcendental doctrines, it is also true that from the first his mind was of another order than Alcott’s or Emerson’s, and that though he might be interested in the same ideas, he would treat them very differently. Most philosophers can be classed roughly among those who conceive of the ideal ends of life as already existing in heaven, in some order or pattern which may be imitated on earth, or among those who think of the ideal as of something which does not yet exist, but which is implicit in the universe, and toward which the universe evolves. A philosopher of the first or Platonic type, if he notices facts at all, is likely to be disconcerted by them, since they rarely conform to his ideal or serve to authorize it; his comfort is in rising superior to actual life—that is, in ignoring it. Alcott was an almost pure example of this type. The other kind of philosopher is likely to entertain a respect amounting almost to reverence for any concrete existing condition, because as two points determine a straight line, so a recent moment observed against the past gives indication of the order to come. Emerson was partly, like Alcott, a Platonist, but he had also a profound and inconsistent disposition toward this other way of thought; having two points of view at once, therefore, he is not only perplexing at times, but really contradictory, and it is not strange that he should have proved in one aspect of his genius inspiring to Maeterlinck and in the other aspect acceptable to Nietzsche. Hawthorne belonged altogether to the second type of thinker. Concerned primarily with the actual world before him, he found a natural use for the past in the explanation it might give of the present, but the present was to him just as naturally the more important moment, and most interesting of all was the occasional hint or prophecy of that to which time through its past and present changes might be tending. He was a radical, therefore, but he saw clearly that this particular present will soon be no more sacred than any other moment of the past, and that to devote oneself to any cause as though it were a final remedy of circumstances, promising rest thereafter, is merely to postpone stagnation for a while. With this insight he could not readily give his faith to any reform or reformer; even the crusade for abolition and the war for the Union left him cold, for he wisely doubted whether measures conceived in the root-and-branch spirit might not raise more evils in the state than they were intended to cure. True reform, the only kind that could enlist his sympathy, must work hand in hand with nature’s slowly evolving but inevitable order, and so long as that order can be but partially or infrequently discerned, it is best to do nothing violent, nothing headlong. Even when we discern the order, from time to time, we should become humble, observing how little it resembles our own morality, our own dreams of perfection.

It needs no fine perception to discover these principles or attitudes in Hawthorne, for they are displayed quite simply on the surface of his early stories. The significance he attached to the present world, whatever it might be, can be seen in the important group of essay sketches such as A Rill from the Town Pump, David Swan, Sights from a Steeple, and Main Street. Some resemblance has been found between this department of his work and the essays of Addison and of Irving, and certainly Addison’s cheerfulness is here, and often something more than Irving’s fancy. But neither The Spectator nor The Sketch Book would suggest that Addison or Irving was in the habit of keeping a diary; whereas Hawthorne’s simple studies, of the group just referred to, are in form nothing more than episodes in a journal. The fact is of some consequence in understanding his genius. When the American and European notebooks were finally included in the complete editions of his writings, they took their place, not as an appendix or illustration of more perfect things, but on equal terms with his other works; for the journal manner was suited to his realistic, unprejudiced search into the world about him, and his lifelong preoccupation with his diary was not, as with most novelists, for the sake of books to be written later, but was itself the satisfaction of a primary literary interest. Like the journals, the essay sketches take the scene as they find it, extract from it all that observation can, and then discard it, having proved no point and exhibited no characters in continuous interplay, but having uncovered possibilities, hints, causes, coincidences. In the simpler essays Hawthorne observed these possibilities and coincidences in a kind of stationary cross-section, and left them undeveloped; but in more elaborate stories he played with the ironic contrasts between the order which we foresee in life and the order which time brings to pass. Emerson often came out of his mysticism and contemplated the “beautiful necessity,” the inevitable consequence of things, to which man must submit himself before he has either happiness or power. Hawthorne was inclined to stress rather man’s inability to submit himself to this necessity, since he seldom guesses correctly what it would be. Mr. Higginbotham’s Catastrophe is a lighter treatment of this theme of consequences; Edward Fane’s Rosebud and The Wives of the Dead are in a darker tone. Or sometimes Hawthorne would turn the irony in another direction, by emphasizing the incredible swiftness with which the present becomes the past, and the insidiousness with which antiquity begins to show its symptoms even in what seems youthful and emancipated. The May-pole of Merry Mount brings this idea home, less in the overthrow of the maskers at Merry Mount than in the expressed faith of the stern Puritan leader that the troubles of life come soon and unexpectedly—a confession which somehow brings a chill over his own righteous success. A still better illustration is Endicott and the Red Cross, which shows the Puritans, who crossed the ocean for freedom of conscience and who in the moment of the story proclaim themselves champions of religious liberty, as having nevertheless instituted already the pillory and the stocks for those who disagree with them.