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Authors: Nathaniel Hawthorne

Selected Tales and Sketches

BOOK: Selected Tales and Sketches
Table of Contents
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) was born in Salem, Massachusetts, where, after his graduation from Bowdoin College in Maine, he wrote the bulk of his masterful tales of American colonial history, many of which were collected in his
Twice-told Tales
(1837). In 1839 and 1840 Hawthorne worked in the Boston Customs House, then spent most of 1841 at the experimental community of Brook Farm. After his marriage to Sophia Peabody, he settled in the “Old Manse” in Concord; there, between 1842 and 1845, he wrote most of the other tales in this volume, first gathered in a collection entitled
Mosses from an Old Manse
(1846). His career as a novelist began with
The Scarlet Letter
(1850), whose famous preface recalls his 1846-1849 service in “The Custom-House” of Salem.
The House of the Seven Gables
(1851) and
The Blithedale Romance
(1852) followed in rapid succession. After a third political appointment—this time as American Consul in Liverpool, England, from 1853 to 1857—Hawthorne's life was marked by the publication of
The Marble Faun
(1860) but also by a sad inability to complete several more long romances. Ill health, apparently, and possibly some failure of literary faith finally eroded Hawthorne's striking ability to make imaginative sense of America's distinctive moral experience.
Michael J. Colacurcio is the author of
The Province of Piety: Moral History in Hawthorne's Early Tales
and of various essays and reviews in the field of American literature. He has also edited and contributed to a volume of
New Essays on The Scarlet Letter.
He is currently Professor of English and American Studies at UCLA.
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First published in the United States of America by Penguin Books 1987
Published simultaneously in Canada
Introduction and compilation copyright © Viking Penguin Inc., 1987
All rights reserved
The text of the stories in this collection is that established by the
Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne
published by the Ohio State University
Center for Textual Studies and Ohio State University Press. The selections are
from the volumes entitled
Twice-Told Tales, Mosses from an Old Manse, The Snow-Image
and Uncollected Tales,
Copyright © Ohio State University
Press, 1974, 1987. All rights reserved.
Acknowledgment is made to The Library of America for their assistance in the
production of this book.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel, 1804-1864.
Selected tales and sketches.
(Penguin classics)
Bibliography: p.
I. Colacurcio, Michael J. II. Title.
PS1852.C'.3 86-21247
eISBN : 978-1-101-07780-1
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When Hawthorne recollected, in the often quoted Preface to the third edition of his
Twice-told Tales
(1851), that he had once found himself “the obscurest man of letters in America,” he was speaking of a phase of his career that had long since lapsed.
The Scarlet Letter
(1850) had not yet had time to establish itself as the classic we now universally recognize—that miracle of meditation which transcends provincial origin and subject matter to become a standard of World Literature; but it was already a significant critical and popular success.
The House of the Seven Gables
( 1851), which Hawthorne himself in some moods preferred to
The Scarlet Letter,
would further secure his reputation. And by the time
The Blithedale Romance
(1852) was making its way among reviewers and booksellers, a somewhat envious Herman Melville could write his recently estranged friend that “this name of ‘Hawthorne' seems to be ubiquitous.”
But if these three extended fictions—the “American Romances,” as Henry James would name them in his critical biography of 1879—established Hawthorne in that rich and catholic world we treasure as “fiction in English,” and also at the center of an ongoing critical debate we recognize as “novel versus romance,” it remains true that those shorter fictions Hawthorne produced in the decades prior to 1850 amount to far more than a long foreground to worldly success. Indeed the total achievement of his earlier tales and sketches is so remarkable that Hawthorne would merit a place in the first rank of American authors even if he had written none of his longer works. Nor would the literature of any modern nation-state be anything but significantly enhanced if Nathaniel Hawthorne had happened to be born there and to have subjected its peculiar moral history to his unique style of fictional analysis.
Yet Hawthorne remains emphatically an
writer—self-consciously then and distinctively now. Most obviously: as no one escapes the pressures of history, so this notable descendant of the American Puritans could scarcely have eluded
trace of their conscientious and symbolic manner of taking the world. More significantly, his American-ness reveals itself in terms he consciously learned, by immersing himself, at the outset of his career, in the whole sequence of colonial and provincial texts which inevitably express the Puritan Mind and arguably control American Identity.
That is to say, Hawthorne did not merely inherit his status or assume his function as an “American” author; rather, he studied to recreate and meditated to judge the special quality of moral experience in his native land. More incisively than any writer of his generation, he placed the moral argument both for and against Calvinism. Further, he had the critical intelligence to discern how much of the familiar politics of mission and destiny was but the public face of a piety that flourished in America distinctively. And eventually, especially in the 1840s, he acquired the perspective to notice how much of the morale of his own generation of intellectuals was suitably understood as neo-Puritan, despite their vigorous rejection of the theological idioms of the older orthodoxy. The continuities are clear and strong enough to suggest that, after he had written out his account of the Puritan conscience, he deliberately turned to something like a moral history of his own times. Thus even Hawthorne's more contemporaneous tales maintain a firm sense of involvement in a reality that is both concrete and continuous.
From this observation it follows that the enduring, even dazzling achievement of Hawthorne's early fiction is not sufficiently appreciated in the terms modern readers find readiest to hand: not in that formalism which regards literary meaning as utterly internal to the work itself; and not even in those systems of psychoanalytic analysis which help us find, in literature as elsewhere, some structure deep enough to inform all possible experience of the world. For, contrary to the implication of both these famous critical schemes, the typical Hawthorne tale appears to insist that we
get along without historical reference. Not thematically, of course, as the tales frequently set out to judge the import of experiences that have been altogether real and definite. And not even formally—should we find ourselves insisting on that once proud distinction—for the reality of history usually introduces, quite deliberately, some contrary or discordant element into the otherwise smooth and plausible rhetoric of the Hawthorne tale itself. As
in Hawthorne usually signals
so we often find an entire reordering of values is triggered by some local but altogether strategic reference or allusion.
This is not to say, of course, that some subtle “historicism” may serve as our only system of critical notice. No one should fail to observe that Hawthorne's plots are often crafted for exquisite swiftness and precision of impact; or that his patterns of sight and sound are arranged with an artist's sense of repetition and difference. And only the studiedly naive will resist the intimations of psychic complexity that lurk (even unconsciously) behind his most innocent-looking image or symbol. Yet the reader is also invited to pursue, with equal vigor and tact, the significance of allusions that seem to incorporate history into the imaginative world of the fiction. It might be too much to claim that we must always begin or end with such references. Yet it may be fair to suggest that Hawthorne
emerges from his early obscurity only when the reader is determined to trace his art back to the real-life sources in the history that sustained it.
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