Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Tale-Writing — Nathaniel Hawthorne” [Text-02], Godey's Lady's Book, November 1847, pp. 252-256


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TWICE-TOLD TALES. By Nathaniel Hawthorne. James Munroe & Co., Boston, 1842.

MOSSES FROM AN OLD MANSE. By Nathaniel Hawthorne. Wiley & Putnam, New York. 1846.

IN the preface to my sketches of New York Literati, while speaking of the broad distinction between the seeming public and real private opinion respecting our authors, I thus alluded to Nathaniel Hawthorne: —

“For example, Mr. Hawthorne, the author of ‘Twice-Told Tales,’ is scarcely recognized by the press or by the public, and when noticed at all, is noticed merely to be damned by faint praise. Now, my own opinion of him is, that although his walk is limited and he is fairly to be charged with mannerism, treating all subjects in a similar tone of dreamy innuendo, yet in this walk he evinces extraordinary genius, having no rival either in America or elsewhere; and this opinion I have never heard gainsaid by any one literary person in the country. That this opinion, however, is a spoken and not a written one, is referable to the facts, first, that Mr. Hawthorne is a poor man, and, secondly, that he is not an ubiquitous quack.”

The reputation of the author of “Twice-Told Tales” has been confined, indeed, until very lately, to literary society; and I have not been wrong, perhaps, in citing him as the example, par excellence, in this country, of the privately-admired and publicly-unappreciated man of genius. Within the last year or two, it is true, an occasional critic has been urged, by honest indignation, into very warm approval. Mr. Webber, for instance, (than whom no one has a keener relish for that kind of writing which Mr. Hawthorne has best illustrated,) gave us, in a late number of “The American Review,” a cordial and certainly a full tribute to his talents; and since the issue of the “Mosses from an Old Manse,” criticisms of similar tone have been by no means infrequent in our more authoritative journals. I can call to mind few reviews of Hawthorne published before the “Mosses.” One I remember in “Arcturus” (edited by Matthews and Duyckinck) for May, 1841; another in the “American Monthly” (edited by Hoffman and Herbert) for March, 1838; a third in the ninety-sixth number of the “North American Review.” These criticisms, however, seemed to have little effect on the popular taste — at least, if we are to form any idea of the popular taste by reference to its expression in the newspapers, or by the sale of the author's book. It was never the fashion (until lately) to speak of him in any summary of our best authors. The daily critics would say, on [column 2:] such occasions, “Is there not Irving and Cooper, and Bryant and Paulding, and — Smith?” or, “Have we not Halleck and Dana, and Longfellow and — Thompson?” or, “Can we not point triumphantly to our own Sprague, Willis, Channing, Bancroft, Prescott and — Jenkins?” but these unanswerable queries were never wound up by the name of Hawthorne.

Beyond doubt, this inappreciation of him on the part of the public arose chiefly from the two causes to which I have referred — from the facts that he is neither a man of wealth nor a quack; — but these are insufficient to account for the whole effect. No small portion of it is attributable to the very marked idiosyncrasy of Mr. Hawthorne himself. In one sense, and in great measure, to be peculiar is to be original, and than the true originality there is no higher literary virtue. This true or commendable originality, however, implies not the uniform, but the continuous peculiarity — a peculiarity springing from ever-active vigor of fancy — better still if from ever-present force of imagination, giving its own hue, its own character to everything it touches, and, especially, self impelled to much everything.

It is often said, inconsiderately, that very original writers always fail in popularity — that such and such persons are too original to be comprehended by the mass. “Too peculiar,” should be the phrase, “too idiosyncratic.” It is, in fact, the excitable, undisciplined and child-like popular mind which most keenly feels the original. The criticism of the conservatives, of the hackneys, of the cultivated old clergymen of the “North American Review,” is precisely the criticism which condemns and alone condemns it. “It becometh not a divine,” saith Lord Coke, “to be of a fiery and salamandrine spirit.” Their conscience allowing them to move nothing themselves, these dignitaries have a holy horror of being moved. “Give us quietude,” they say. Opening their mouths with proper caution, they sigh forth the word “Repose.” And this is, indeed, the one thing they should be permitted to enjoy, if only upon the Christian principle of give and take.

The fact is, that if Mr. Hawthorne were really original, he could not fail of making himself felt by the public. But the fact is, he is not original in any sense. Those who speak of him as original, mean nothing more than that he differs in his manner or tone, and in his choice of subjects, from any author of their acquaintance — their acquaintance not extending to the German Tieck, [page 253:] whose manner, in some of his works, is absolutely identical with that habitual to Hawthorne. But it is clear that the element of the literary originality is novelty. The element of its appreciation by the reader is the reader's sense of the new. Whatever gives him a new and insomuch a pleasurable emotion, he considers original, and whoever frequently gives him such emotion, he considers an original writer. In a word, it is by the sum total of these emotions that he decides upon the writer's claim to originality. I may Observe here, however, that there is clearly a point at which even novelty itself would cease to produce the legitimate originality, if we judge this originality, as we should, by the effect designed: this point is that at which novelty becomes nothing novel; and here the artist, to preserve his originality, will subside into the common-place. No one, I think, has noticed that, merely through inattention to this matter, Moore has comparatively failed in his “Lalla Rookh.” Few readers, and indeed few critics, have commended this poem for originality — and, in fact, the effect, originality, is not produced by it — yet no work of equal size so abounds in the happiest originalities, individually considered. They are so excessive as, in the end, to deaden in the reader all capacity for their appreciation.

These points properly understood, it will be seen that the critic (unacquainted with Tieck) who reads a single tale or essay by Hawthorne, may be justified in thinking him original; but the tone, or manner, or choice of subject, which induces in this critic the sense of the new, will — if not in a second tale, at least in a third and all subsequent ones — not only fail of inducing it, but bring about an exactly antagonistic impression. In concluding a volume, and more especially in concluding all the volumes of the author, the critic will abandon his first design of calling him “original,” and content himself with styling him “peculiar.”

With the vague opinion that to be original is to be unpopular, I could, indeed, agree, were I to adopt an understanding of originality which, to my surprise, I have known adopted by many who have a right to be called critical. They have limited, in a love for mere words, the literary to the metaphysical originality. They regard as original in letters, only such combinations of thought, of incident, and so forth, as are, in fact, absolutely novel. It is clear, however, not only that it is the novelty of effect alone which is worth consideration, but that this effect is best wrought, for the end of all fictitious composition, pleasure, by shunning rather than by seeking the absolute novelty of combination. Originality, thus understood, tasks and startles the intellect, and so brings into undue action the faculties to which, in the lighter literature, we least appeal. And thus understood, it cannot fail to prove unpopular with the masses, who, seeking in this literature amusement, are positively offended by instruction. [column 2:] But the true originality — true in respect of its purposes — is that which, in bringing out the half-formed, the reluctant, or the unexpressed fancies of mankind, or in exciting the more delicate pulses of the heart's passion, or in giving birth to some universal sentiment or instinct in embryo, thus combines with the pleasurable effect of apparent novelty, a real egotistic delight. The reader, in the case first supposed, (that of the absolute novelty,) is excited, but embarrassed, disturbed, in some degree even pained at his own want of perception, at his own folly in not having himself hit upon the idea. In the second case, his pleasure is doubled. He is filled with an intrinsic and extrinsic delight. He feels and intensely enjoys the seeming novelty of the thought, enjoys it as really novel, as absolutely original with the writer — and himself. They two, he fancies, have, alone of all men, thought thus. They two have, together, created this thing. Henceforward there is a bond of sympathy between them, a sympathy which irradiates every subsequent page of the book.

There is a species of writing which, with some difficulty, may be admitted as a lower degree of what I have called the true original. In its perusal, we say to ourselves, not “how original this is!” nor “here is an idea which I and the author have alone entertained,” but “here is a charmingly obvious fancy,” or sometimes even, “here is a thought which I am not sure has ever occurred to myself, but which, of course, has occurred to all the rest of the world.” This kind of composition (which still appertains to a high order) is usually designated as “the natural.” It has little external resemblance, but strong internal affinity to the true original, if, indeed, as I have suggested, it is not of this latter an inferior degree. It is best exemplified, among English writers, in Addison, Irving and Hawthorne. The “ease” which is so often spoken of as its distinguishing feature, it has been the fashion to regard as ease in appearance alone, as a point of really difficult attainment. This idea, however, must be received with some reservation. The natural style is difficult only to those who should never intermeddle with it — to the unnatural. It is but the result of writing with the understanding, or with the instinct, that the tone, in composition, should be that which, at any given point or upon any given topic, would be the tone of the great mass of humanity. The author who, after the manner of the North Americans, is merely at all times quiet, is, of course, upon most occasions, merely silly or stupid, and has no more right to be thought “easy” or “natural” than has a cockney exquisite or the sleeping beauty in the wax-works.

The “peculiarity” or sameness, or monotone of Hawthorne, would, in its mere character of”peculiarity,” and without reference to what is the peculiarity, suffice to deprive him of all chance of popular appreciation. But at his failure to be [page 254:] appreciated, we can, of course, no longer wonder, when we find him monotonous at decidedly the worst of all possible points — at that point which, having the least concern with Nature, is the farthest removed from the popular intellect, from the popular sentiment and from the popular taste. I allude to the strain of allegory which completely overwhelms the greater number of his subjects, and which in some measure interferes with the direct conduct of absolutely all.

In defence of allegory, (however, or for whatever object, employed,) there is scarcely one respectable word to be said. Its best appeals are made to the fancy — that is to say, to our sense of adaptation, not of matters proper, but of matters irnproper for the purpose, of the real with the unreal; having never more of intelligible connection than has something with nothing, never half so much of effective affinity as has the substance for the shadow. The deepest emotion aroused within us by the happiest allegory, as allegory, is a very, very imperfectly satisfied sense of the writer's ingenuity in overcoming a difficulty we should have preferred his not having attempted to overcome. The fallacy of the idea that allegory, in any of its moods, can be made to enforce a truth — that metaphor, for example, may illustrate as well as embellish an argument — could be promptly demonstrated: the converse of the supposed fact might be shown, indeed, with very little trouble — but these are topics foreign to my present purpose. One thing is clear, that if allegory ever establishes a fact, it is by dint of over-turning a fiction. Where the suggested meaning runs through the obvious one in a rely profound undercurrent, so as never to interfere with the upper one without our own volition, so as never to show itself unless called to the surface, there only, for the proper uses of fictitious narrative, is it available at all. Under the best circumstances, it must always interfere with that unity of effect which, to the artist, is worth all the allegory in the world. Its vital injury, however, is rendered to the most vitally important point in fiction — that of earnestness or verisimilitude. That “The Pilgrim's Progress” is a ludicrously over-rated book, owing its seeming popularity to one or two of those accidents in critical literature which by the critical are sufficiently well understood, is a matter upon which no two thinking people disagree; but the pleasure derivable from it, in any sense, will be found in the direct ratio of the reader's capacity to smother its true purpose, in the direct ratio of his ability to keep the allegory out of sight, or of his inability to comprehend it. Of allegory properly handled, judiciously subdued, seen only as a shadow or by suggestive glimpses, and making its nearest approach to truth in a not obtrusive and therefore not unpleasant appositeness, the “Undine” of De La Motte Fouque is the best, and undoubtedly a very remarkable specimen.

The obvious causes, however, which have prevented [column 2:] Mr. Hawthorne's popularity, do not suffice to condemn him in the eyes of the few who belong properly to books, and to whom books, perhaps, do not quite so properly belong. These few estimate an author, not as do the public, altogether by what he does, but in great measure — indeed, even in the greatest measure — by what he evinces a capability of doing. In this view, Hawthorne stands among literary people in America much in the same light as did Coleridge in England. The few, also, through a certain warping of the taste, which long pondering upon books as books merely never fails to induce, are not in condition to view the errors of a scholar as errors altogether. At any time these gentlemen are prone to think the public not right rather than an educated author wrong. But the simple truth is, that the writer who aims at impressing the people, is always wrong when he fails in forcing that people to receive the impression. How far Mr. Hawthorne has addressed the people at all, is, of course, not a question for me to decide. His books afford strong internal evidence of having been written to himself and his particular friends alone.

There has long existed in literature a fatal and unfounded prejudice, which it will be the office of this age to overthrow — the idea that the mere bulk of a work must enter largely into our estimate of its merit. I do not suppose even the weakest of the Quarterly reviewers weak enough to maintain that in a book's size or mass, abstractly considered, there is anything especially calls for our admiration. A mountain, simply through the sensation of physical magnitude which it conveys, does, indeed, affect us with a sense of the sublime, but we cannot admit any such influence in the contemplation even of “The Columbiad.” The Quarterlies themselves will not admit it. And yet, what else are we to understand by their continual prating about “sustained effort?” Granted that this sustained effort has accomplished an epic — let us then admire the effort, (if this be a thing admirable,) but certainly not the epic on the effort's account. Common sense, in the time to come, may possibly insist upon measuring a work of art rather by the object it fulfill, by the impression it makes, than by the time it took to fulfil the object, or by the extent of “sustained effort” which became necessary to produce the impression. The fact is, that perseverance is one thing and genius quite another; nor can all the transcendentalists in Heathendom confound them.

Full of its bulky ideas, the last number of the “North American Review,” in what it imagines a criticism on Simms, “honestly avows that it has little opinion of the mere tale;” and the honesty of the avowal is in no slight degree guarantied by the fact that this Review has never yet been known to put forth an opinion which was not a very little one indeed.

The tale proper affords the fairest field which [page 255:] can be afforded by the wide domains of mere prose, for the exercise of the highest genius. Were I bidden to say how this genius could be most advantageously employed for the best display of its powers, I should answer, without hesitation, “in the composition of a rhymed poem not to exceed in length what might be perused in an hour.” Within this limit alone can the noblest order of poetry exist. I have discussed this topic elsewhere, and need here repeat only that the phrase “a long poem” embodies a paradox. A poem must intensely excite Excitemcat is its province, its essentiality. Its value is in the ratio of its (elevating) excitement. But all excitement is, front a psychal necessity, transient. It cannot be sustained through a poem of great length. In the course of an hour's reading, at most, it flags, fails; and then the poem is, in effect, no longer such. Men admire, but are wearied with the “Paradise Lost;” for platitude follows platitude, inevitably, at regular interspaces, (the depressions between the waves of excitement,) until the poem, (which, properly considered, is but a succession of brief poems,) having been brought to an end, we discover that the sums of our pleasure and of displeasure have been very nearly equal. The absolute, ultimate or aggregate effect of any epic under the sun is, for these reasons, a nullity. “The Iliad,” in its form of epic, has but an imaginary existence; granting it real, however, I can only say of it that it is based on a primitive sense of Art. Of the modern epic nothing can be so well said as that it is a blindfold imitation of a “come-by-chance.” By and by these propositions will be understood as self-evident, and in the meantime will not be essentially damaged as truths by being generally condemned as falsities.

A poem too brief, on the other hand, may produce a sharp or vivid, but never a profound or enduring impression. Without a certain continuity, without a certain duration or repetition of the cause, the soul is seldom moved to the effect. There must be the dropping of the water on the rock. There must be the pressing steadily down of the stamp upon the wax. De Beranger has wrought brilliant things, pungent and spirit-stirring, but most of them are too immassive to have momentum, and, as so many feathers of fancy, have been blown aloft only to be whistled down the wind. Brevity, indeed, may degenerate into epigrammatism, but this danger does not prevent extreme length from being the one unpardonable sin.

Were I called upon, however, to designate that class of composition which, next to such a poem as I have suggested, should best fulfil the demands and serve the purposes of ambitious genius, should offer it the most advantageous field of exertion, and afford it the fairest opportunity of display, I should speak at once of the brief prose tale. History, philosophy, and other matters of that kind, we leave out of the question’ of course. Of course, I say, and in spite of the graybeards. [column 2:] These graver topics, to the end of time, will be best illustrated by what a discriminating world, turning up its nose at the drab pamphlets, has agreed to understand as tolerate The ordinary novel is objectionable, from its length, for reasons analogous to those which render length objectionable in the poem. As the novel cannot be read at one sitting, it cannot avail itself of the immense benefit of totality. Worldly interests, intervening during the pauses of perusal, modify, counteract and annul the impressions intended. But simple cessation in reading would, of itself, be sufficient to destroy the true unity. In the brief tale, however, the author is enabled to carry out his full design without interruption. During the hour of perusal, the soul of the reader is at the writer's control.

A skillful artist has constructed a tale. He has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents, but having deliberately conceived a certain single expect to be wrought, he then invents such incidents, he then combines such events, and discusses them in such tone as may best serve him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very first sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then in his very first step has he committed a blunder. In the whole composition there should be no word written of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction. The idea of the tale, its thesis, has been presented unblemished, because undisturbed — an end absolutely demanded, yet, in the novel altogether unattainable.

Of skillfully-constructed tales — I speak now without reference to other points, some of them more important than construction — there are very few American specimens. I am acquainted with no better one, upon the whole, than the “Murder Will Out” of Mr. Simms, and this has some glaring defects. The “Tales of a Traveler,” by Irving, are graceful and impressive narratives — “The Young Italian” is especially good — but there is not one of the series which can be commended as a whole. In many of them the interest is subdivided and frittered away, and their conclusions are insufficiently climatic. In the higher requisites of composition, John Neal's magazine stories excel — I mean in vigor of thought, picturesque combination of incident, and so forth — but they ramble too much, and invariably break down just before coming to an end, as if the writer had received a sudden and irresistible summons to dinner, and thought it incumbent upon him to make a finish of his story before going. One of the happiest and best-sustained tales I have seen, is “Jack Long; or, The Shot in the Eye,” by Charles W. Webber, the assistant editor of Mr. Colton's “American Review.” But in general skill of construction, [page 256:] the tales of Willis, I think, surpass those of any American writer — with the exception of Mr. Hawthorne.

I must defer to the better opportunity of a volume now in hand, a full discussion of his individual pieces, and hasten to conclude this paper with a summary of his merits and demerits.

He is peculiar and not original — unless in those detailed fancies and detached thoughts which his want of general originality will deprive of the appreciation due to them, in preventing them forever reaching the public eye. He is infinitely too fond of allegory, and can never hope for popularity so long as he persists in it. This he will not do, for allegory is at war with the whole tone of his nature, which disports itself never so well as when escaping from the mysticism of his Goodman Browns and White Old Maids into the hearty, genial, but still Indian-summer sunshine of his Wakefields and Little Annie's Rambles. [column 2:] Indeed, his spirit of “metaphor runmad” is clearly imbibed from the phalanx and phalanstery atmosphere in which he has been so long struggling for breath. He has not half the material for the exclusiveness of authorship that he possesses for its universality. He has the purest style, the finest taste, the most available scholarship, the most delicate humor, the most touching pathos, the most radiant imagination, the most consummate ingenuity; and with these varied good qualities he has done well as a mystic. But is there any one of these qualities which should prevent his doing doubly as well in a career of honest, upright, sensible, prehensible and comprehensible things? Let him mend his pen, get a bottle of visible ink, come out from the Old Manse, cut Mr. Alcott, hang (if possible) the editor of “The Dial,” and throw out of the window to the pigs all his odd numbers of “The North American Review.”



As is noted by James B. Reese, several reprints of this review carry a typographical error which creates a false sense of contradiction. The first sentence of the 7th paragraph should read, as it does here, “With the vague opinion that to be original is to be unpopular . . . “ but appears erroneously as “With the vague opinion that to be original is to be popular. . . .” This error appears to have been introduced by James A. Harrison in his 1902 edition of Poe's works. Presumably using that as a source, it continues in, among others, Mabbott's 1951 The Selected Works of Edgar Allan Poe and E. H. Davidson's 1956 Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe. (James B. Reese, “An Error in Some Reprintings of Poe's 1847 Critique of Hawthorne,” Poe Studies, IV, No. 2, December 1971,  p. 47.)


[S:0 - GLB, 1847] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Tale-Writing — Nathaniel Hawthorne [Text-02]