Tag Archives: Nathaniel Hawthorne

Marginalia, no.345

Hither comes the ventriloquist, with all his mysterious tongues; the thaumaturgist, too, with his miraculous transformations of plates, doves, and rings, his pancakes smoking in your hat, and his cellar of choice liquors, represented in one small bottle. Here also the itinerant professor instructs separate classes of ladies and gentlemen in physiology, and demonstrates his lessons by the aid of real skeletons, and mannikins in wax, from Paris. Here is to be heard the choir of Ethiopian melodists, and to be seen, the diorama of Moscow or Bunker Hill, or the moving panorama of the Chinese wall. Here is displayed the museum of wax figures, illustrating the wide catholicism of earthly renown by mixing up heroes and statesmen, the Pope and the Mormon Prophet, kings, queens, murderers, and beautiful ladies…

~ Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance

The New England village lecture hall of the middle 1840s was apparently identical to the Internet.

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Three Paragraphs of Disappearance

Not long ago there was a story in the news about a woman who turned up a decade or more after mysteriously disappearing. Her husband and children had come to believe she was dead, but here she was alive all this time a few hundred miles away. She’d left on a whim, when some passing travelers invited her to join them on the road to Florida, and she never contacted her family. Similarly, my great-grandmother’s father walked out on his wife and daughters, though he went in the opposite direction. It was the early 1900s and he supposedly marched off to hunt gold in the Yukon, never to be heard from again.

Behavior of this sort holds no appeal for me personally. I am a homebody and a family man. The theme of sudden, unannounced departures recurs with some frequency in my reading, however. I recently read Georges Simenon’s Monsieur Monde Vanishes, about a man who leaves one morning for his office in Paris but who boards a train for the Mediterranean instead. My favorite H.G. Wells book, The History of Mr. Polly, involves something similar. ‘Wakefield,’ one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories, follows the same pattern.

Some high school student or college freshman could write a term paper comparing the French, British, and American treatment of the theme. Monsieur Monde seems to be after something like integrated personhood. Mr Polly, in a way, wants romantic heroism. Both involve the creation of new social ties. Hawthorne’s story is the most disturbing, I think, because Wakefield seems to want nothing. He is swallowed up in utter isolation. “By stepping aside for a moment,” Hawthorne writes, “a man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever… He may become, as it were, the Outcast of the Universe.”

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Book Porn, no.3

In the final track of the classic Smiths’ album, The Queen is Dead, Morrissey croons his tardy discovery that “some girls are bigger than others.”  The same is true of paperbacks.  And size, as they say, matters.  There’s a power of attraction in gratuitous endowment.  By force of its own mass, and regardless of subject matter, a large paperback generates a kind of gravitational pull.  Do laws of physics place any ultimate constraints on size?  At what point will glue binding simply fail?  And is that fail-point determined by the total number of pages or the total weight of pages?  Such are the mysteries of love.  But while oversized hardbounds revolve in our eyes like solemn Jupiters of desire, absurdly thick paperbacks draw us in like insatiable black holes, concentrating acquisitional lust in objects deliciously balanced between virginal modesty and button-bursting extravagance.

Note how careful I am not to crease their spines in the act of love.  Clarel, Herman Melville (Northwestern University Press): 893 pages; The Bible with Apocrypha (Oxford World’s Classics): 1824 pages; Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton (New York Review of Books): 1382 pages; Tales and Sketches, Nathaniel Hawthorne (Library of America): 1200 pages.


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Return of the Outcast

I still reek of campfire smoke and pine sap.  Or maybe it’s my imagination.  My brain is just beginning to regain its accustomed functions.  Our several days in the high Sierra were devoted entirely to the elemental and the sensory.  Thin air does something to the brain, I think, and prevents it from working in abstractions.  For a week I was merely my body: sweating at noon, shivering at dawn, eating and drinking when necessary, marching over granite domes and through primeval woods, content to smoke my pipe at night above the glowing embers, below the glowing galaxies.  All intellect was banished.

Or not quite banished.  I did read some Hawthorne.  The flavor of plain food is improved in proportion to one’s general discomfort and filthiness in the wild, and words work in similar fashion.  Not that Hawthorne is plain, or if he seems so it’s a case of proverbial still waters.  But reading and rereading his little story Wakefield was an intense delight to me.  A youngish husband in the city one morning leaves home and wife as usual and on a whim takes up lodgings a block away to vanish into anonymity for twenty years.  He watches from a near distance as he is missed and mourned and all but forgotten.  Out of an eccentric selfish act he is made witness to his own final irrelevance.  Then as an old man, passing by on a rainy night, he opens the door and takes up his place again beside his widowed wife, as if the interlude had lasted no more than a couple days.

Hawthorne wants sometimes to be a moralist – it’s his Puritanical inheritance.  Happily, he fails more often than succeeds.   He suffers, I think, from a condition common to those of us for whom certainty of faith is lost but its power in biography and culture is still keenly felt.  He senses like seeds in a bed the moral significances of striking events “even should we fail to find them done up neatly and condensed in the final sentence.”  He senses them, that is, and communicates them, but their facile interpretation has become impossible.  At the end of Wakefield he writes:

Amid the seeming confusion of our mysterious world, individuals are so nicely adjusted to a system, and systems to one another, and to a whole, that, by stepping aside for a moment a man exposes himself to the fearful risk of losing himself forever.  Like Wakefield, he may become, as it were, the Outcast of the Universe.

It’s not quite a moral, we were warned, but perhaps it expresses something of Hawthorne’s own sense of displacement, of being lost in a wilderness of untamed significances.  It’s an experience mirrored in miniature by my own return from the mountains.  Amid the self contained city, knit in by highways, baffled by the errands and imperatives of others and the neglected expectations of work and custom, I almost prefer to go back and lose myself in the high and lonely places.

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