Friday, January 30, 2009

American Lit Notebook: Hawthorne I

Every class we had for American Lit, we were required to write a single page about our reading. I've pulled them together, unedited. So they will read a little odd, as my audience was my professor, and occasionally they refer to lectures (though that is rare).

References are to the Portable Hawthorne, edited by William C. Spengemann.


Hawthorne: “Young Goodman Brown”

What a contrast Hawthorne is to Emerson and Thoreau, so-called Transcendentalists! Sin is a primary source of meditation for Hawthorne, it would seem, and it is nowhere in evidence in Emerson, agonistic wrester of the Christian tradition. Whereas Emerson seems more intent on setting the ideals of America, Hawthorne would take the culture as he finds it to complicate and enrich the laden tensions.

The swift, penultimate paragraph of “Young Goodman Brown” sums up the wisdom found in Hawthorne’s allegory: “Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest, and only dreamed a wild dream, of a witch-meeting?” (64) The point of the tale is that it doesn’t matter. Brown has been changed by the experience, and lost to the forces of sin. The shape-shifting devil says that the knowledge he would bestow those who’ve traveled is “to know their secret deeds,” (62) of all your neighbors, “to penetrate … the deep mystery of sin….” (63)

What knowledge is this? seems to be the question. At the outset of Brown’s journey, Hawthorne sets in contradistinction the lonely solitude of the traveler with the possibility of “passing through an unseen multitude.” (52) This “unseen multitude” eventually takes the shape of all his neighbors: “And all the unseen multitude, both saints and sinners, seemed to encourage her [Faith] onward.” (58) Even if we can commonsensically distinguish between saints and sinners, Hawthorne blurs them all together in Brown’s nightmare.

The figure of Faith completes the allegory, for the significance is the setting of faith against doubt, and the triumph of doubt. Previous convictions of purity are shattered as he hears their whispers in the dark gloom of the wilderness. We should take the wilderness to be simply the living of life: we walk through life without truly knowing the hearts of our fellow-travelers, but—and this is key—only our own. “But, where is Faith?” (61) says Brown, and it is the loss that sinks us. The trick of the devil is his “reasoning as we go,” (53) “discoursing so aptly, that his arguments seemed rather to spring up in the bosom of his auditor….” (56) The reasoning that the devil teaches, which seems so natural in the “uncertain light,” (53) is that, if we harbor any sins in our own hearts, even living as if we did not, then could not any other, including those pure saints we esteem as being beyond sin entirely?
“Ye deemed them holier than yourselves, and shrank from your own sin, contrasting it with their lives of righteousness, and prayerful aspirations heavenward.” (62, italics mine)
It is because Brown treats the possibility of goodness as coextensive with the existence of pure cases of purity from sin that, having finally lost faith in this easily doubted notion, he becomes a storm of gloom, “a distrustful, if not a desperate man,” (64) treating everyone as a secret horrid sinner, lustful for the worst depravities. Forever after, Brown “shrank from the bosom of Faith….” (ibid.)

Hawthorne: “My Kinsman, Major Molineux”

“My Kinsman” seems a step down from “Young Goodman Brown,” a mere fable compared to the latter’s complex allegory. “My Kinsman” seems to be not much more than a running joke capped with a good, old-fashioned piece of potted American wisdom: we rise and fall on our own merits; no hereditary hand for us. Hawthorne lets the story unfold, but we get it early on and the references to “dreaming” at the end are in no way narratively central, and are no doubt a first attempt to use a good idea, which he was able to capitalize on in “Young,” though not earlier.

Like every good poet, Hawthorne chooses his words carefully and there are three repetitions that call for attention, the first two responsible for the humor. The joke is that every time Robin opens his mouth to seek the Major, he says, “my kinsman, Major Molineux,” a phrase chosen with great calculation by Robin (with the attendant pomp), but for which backfires every time. The exact phrase, barring the title, appears nine times (11, 14, 15, 16, 18, twice on 19, 22, and 27). On 23, when we would expect the phrase, Robin says “one Major Molineux,” which allows him brief headway in finding his kinsman. And, of course, the tale ends with the converse, “your kinsman, Major Molineux,” thus capping the joke and the bit of Emersonian Americanism.

The joke is aided by a second repetition, that of “shrewd” and its cognates. This aids the joke, it being repeated over and over how intelligent, cunning, and perceptive Robin thinks he is, yet the reader already knows exactly why he keeps getting the treatment he is, totally misreading the situation he is in by, as Hawthorne puts it, a pompous “assumption of consequence.” (14) The use of “shrewd,” however, also allies itself with a major thematic of Hawthorne’s, here and in “Young.” Whereas Hawthorne hasn’t figured out yet how to use dreaming in his narrative yet, the two tales have in common what lies at its root, a preoccupation with “appearances,” the appearance of reality, or people, or streets.

Shrewdness, intelligence, doesn’t help Robin read his situation. We may question how shrewd Robin really is, and it certainly is a mistaken assumption that guides Robin’s actions, but the third repetition, of “countenance” and its cognates, pleads us to think deeper into the subject: the “long favored countenance” (11) of the first man he accosts, the “strange hostility in every countenance” (14) at the inn, the final stranger’s “altogether prepossessing countenance” (23). I’m not sure Hawthorne was able to successfully harness the thematic to open up a dialogic space, but it is raised in two coded places. The first is the vanity of “the philosopher seeking an honest man.” (15) I’m unsure whether this is an old saw or not, or whether it is a reference to some specific philosopher, but Socrates’ quest for someone who knew something, always ironically disarmed by his own profession of ignorance, certainly rings with it (because when faced with Socratic irony, the honest thing to do is admit, no, I don’t know anything) no less with the second code, “physiognomy.” (19) Socrates became a meditative source for Montaigne on just this score, with such a beautiful soul but ugly face. The question of the relationship between the appearance of something, and its reality, floats around the tale, though is never quite put centrally into place.

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