Books: Hawthorne Revisited

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HAWTHORNE'S SHORT STORIES—(422 pp.)—Edited by Newton Arvin—Knopf ($3).

It has been 80-odd years since Nathaniel Hawthorne died, but the mystery of his life has never been completely explained. One biographer, Newton Arvin (Hawthorne, 1929), has now selected 29 Hawthorne short stories for this new edition, the majority from Twice-Told Tales and Mosses from an Old Manse. Most of the old Hawthorne favorites are here: Peter Goldthwaite and his hidden treasure, Dr. Rappaccini and his deadly daughter, Ethan Brand and his fiery furnace, the Great Carbuncle shining with its "awful blaze."

Over the years, most of the Hawthorne irony has worn thin; the Hawthorne moralizing and allegorizing now have the force of a Sunday school sermon; the famed Hawthorne style, once so eloquent and orotund, now seems merely archaic and rhetorical ("My father, wherefore didst thou inflict this miserable doom upon thy child?"). But the dark Hawthorne themes of sin and retribution are still absorbing, and more absorbing yet is the mystery of the obsessed, lonely New Englander turning them over & over in his mind.

The Hidden Key. To explain Hawthorne's curious bent in terms of heredity and the "Puritan conscience" means next to nothing; there were hundreds of other young New Englanders in the 1820s and '30s who grew up with a similar inheritance. The key is hidden somewhere in the peculiarities of Hawthorne's boyhood or in those of his years of self-imposed solitude in Salem. As a child, Hawthorne was temporarily crippled. His widowed mother was a virtual recluse and patently neurotic. At 21 he returned from Bowdoin College to Salem and himself developed into a kind of neurotic recluse. In his "haunted chamber" in Salem he sat writing and rewriting his early stories and his first, abortive novel, Fanshawe.

"If ever I should have a biographer," he said later, "he ought to make great mention of this chamber in my memoirs, because so much of my lonely youth was wasted here, and here my mind and character were formed." But he never said exactly what, except for his reading & writing, went on there, and no one else seems to know in detail. It is certain that he was disappointed when editors and publishers showed little interest in his work, but even disappointed authors do not usually bury themselves for years to pore over colonial history and consider the effects of guilt and evil on the soul.

From 1825 to 1836 Hawthorne had little contact with anybody, even members of his family. He took walks by himself, ate meals by himself, published the few pieces he was able to publish anonymously or under an assumed name. "Not many writers," says Editor Arvin in his introduction, "worked so long amid such a hush or in such a shadow." Hawthorne's literary interests hardly explain the hush and shadow, although the hush and shadow go far to explain his literary interests.

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