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Richard H. Millington, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, £45.00, 245 pages, ISBN 0-521-80774-5X)—Denise Ginfray, Université de Clermont II


Last year, the two-hundredth anniversary of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birth was celebrated with a great many conferences and academic publications. Among them, this new Companion offers a selection of twelve critical essays devoted for the most part to Hawthorne’s full-length novels and to his shorter fiction. Some deal with his tales and sketches (Twice-told Tales, 1837; "The Birth-Mark," "Rappaccini’s Daughter," "The Artist of the Beautiful," all written during the "Old Manse Period," 1842-1845 and later collected in Mosses from an Old Manse, 1854); three of them dwell on his childhood literature (True Stories, 1841; A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys and Tanglewwood Tales, 1852; Our Old Home, 1863). All these contributions rely extensively on references to Hawthorne’s Correspondence and on his Notebooks where he recorded his impressions of the Old Continent. They concentrate on the key issues of history and ideology, the Woman question, national identity, literary genres, power politics, cultural theories, and ethics.

This new Companion includes a Chronology of Hawthorne’s Life [xiv-xviii], a Selected Bibliography [266-280] and an Index [281-285]. In his Introduction [1-9], Richard H. Millington focuses on the split between "mainstream Hawthorne who has written books to which we return for ethical guidance" [2] and "the scholar’s Hawthorne" [3] whose works benefit from "the re-encounter between American literature and American history that began in the late 1970s" [3]. Therefore, it is no surprise that the historical and cultural background to Hawthorne’s thought and works is central to most of the essays presented in this volume.

The autobiographical undertones of Hawthorne’s fiction have led Larry J. Reynolds to analyze the broad context of Transcendentalism dominated by Ralph Waldo Emerson, David Henry Thoreau and Margaret Fuller. In "Hawthorne’s labors in Concord" [10-34], he draws a portrait of the Utopian community of Brook Farm where Hawthorne became acquainted with some of the conceptual models he later rejected. Reynolds’s contribution examines Emerson’s magnetic hold, which was at the origin of the novelist’s satirical treatment of human relations in his Mosses from an Old Manse (1846). Reynolds recalls how Hawthorne strove to free himself from Emerson’s "tyranny," and how many of his stories may read like a reflection on the destructive power exercised by human beings on others. Of interest, too, is the critic’s contention that Hawthorne’s observation of social links (notably marriage and polygamy) and questioning of gender relations originated in his friendship with both Emerson and Margaret Fuller. Reynolds intertwines Hawthorne’s life and works and suggests, for example, that the sexual repression crucial to Emerson’s conception of ideal human relations finds its expression in The Scarlet Letter, or that The Blithedale Romance crystallizes on marital law and order. He also emphasizes Hawthorne’s reprobation of his fellow Concordians and his gradual inability to complete his romances during his final years.

Brook Thomas’s essay entitled "Love and politics, sympathy and justice in The Scarlet Letter " [162-185] is about Hawthorne’s political vision in The Scarlet Letter and more particularly about the moral laws edicted by Boston’s Puritan theocracy as regards marriage, adultery and social order. His main argument is that the very structure of the novel reflects both Hawthorne’s sense of the tragic and awareness of the transgressive nature of historical change. Thomas considers that the three "scaffold scenes" stage the problematic passage, for antebellum America, from past to present, religious to civil order, natural to civic liberty. In Thomas’s mind, adultery and slavery lie at the core of Hawthorne’s political vision: the critic insists on the necessity to consider that, in both contexts, the potential threat imposed by the other—be it racial or sexual—blocks the possibility of change in either Puritan Boston or mid-1850s America.

The links between cultural theory, literature and ideology are analyzed by Joel Pfister in his "Hawthorne’s as cultural theorist" [35-59]. The starting-point of this study is the role played by "The Custom House" in The Scarlet Letter: Pfister argues that it serves as an avant-texte where Hawthorne displays his deep curiosity for the customs of his time and exposes his ambivalent attitude towards the demanding laws of the new economic order. For the critic, literature is a praxis involved in a dialogue with human sciences, and Hawthorne a cultural theorist who reacted to the ideology of technology-as-progress characteristic of his time, to urbanization and its evils and mainly to the destructive power of culture that shapes individual minds and collective patterns of meaning. Pfister considers that Hawthorne’s fictional works thematize and dramatize the Puritan ideology whose main concern was to make things seem "natural." Likewise, he focuses on the novelist’s rejection of "the industrial reorganization of intimacy" initiated by the modern social framework whose main danger was the proximity of stores and domestic places. What Pfister calls "cultural innerselfing" is about subjectivity formation and gender identity as cultural artifacts. He sees in Hawthorne’s fiction a response to the many changes imposed by the Industrial Age along with a growing interest in signs of all sorts that always fail to encapsulate the complexities of the human soul. Pfister’s reading of Hawthorne’s sketches and tales deal with the novelist’s insistence on the divided self, and recognition of otherness. He also foregrounds the contradictions of Hawthorne’s characters and plots and tries to account for his romantic surge for aesthetics. His analysis of Hawthorne’s "romantic middle-class individualizing of the artist" [52]—that rests on crisscross references to Benjamin, Ariès, Foucault, Freud, Franklin, and Carlyle—is a praise to the novelist’s permanent meditation on selfhood.

Two contributions deal more particularly with the gender issue. In his "Hawthorne and American masculinity" [60-78], T. Walter Herbert examines Hawthorne’s "self-reliant" style of manhood that questioned the ideology of natural genders. For Herbert, the novelist was in the grip of the ambient "ideal of self-reliant masculinity" [63] and, in the same time, he was upset by "the afflictions of men in the new social order" [65]. Herbert considers that it would be totally misleading to label Hawthorne "an anti-feminist;" instead, he suggests that his conception of masculinity relied exclusively on the traditions inherited from nature, on Man’s place in American society, on the drastic changes imposed by new socio-economic forces. For him, the gradual shift to the modern age that codified the gender system differently, is repeatedly dramatized: for example, he considers that The House of the Seven Gables or "Mr. Kinsman, Major Molineux" show how the dominant culture of Hawthorne’s time created male ideals of womanhood/womanly sexuality. For him, the main consequence was the novelist’s skeptical attitude towards gender identities fraught by the confusion of law and religion imposed by the Puritans. In Herbert’s mind, another fine example is in The Scarlet Letter where it is Hester who challenges the validity of nature’s God and man’s virility, while the male protagonists are faced with the torture of failed masculine values.

Alison Easton’s essay entitled "Hawthorne and the question of women" [79-98], reads like a counterpart to Herbert’s, where she analyses the novelist’s ambivalent attitude towards the Woman issue in terms of class and gender together. The critic claims that Hawthorne questions "the bourgeois ideology of 'True Womanhood,' that is to say a pious, asexual, submissive, domestic femininity." [80] In Easton’s mind, Hawthorne was well aware of the emergence of conflicting gender and class patterns. Her extensive study traces the historical and cultural context of Hawthorne’s short fiction, and more particularly the influence of Quakerism in America in the 1840s. Her main focus is on the issue of marriage, the key site for the "Woman Question" and the very expression of the dichotomy between nature and culture. What the critic sees in The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables or The Blithedale Romance, is the confrontation between conventional patterns where the Woman was relegated to the domestic sphere, and the emergence of the "unhoused" woman, responsible for the irruption of the mercantile in the private sphere. Of interest also, is Easton’s contention that these narratives of social changes that dismantle a great many old clichés and binary oppositions are tightly connected with the constraints of literary genre, namely the emotional structures of traditional romance.

Three critics examine the didactic dimension of Hawthorne’s fiction, and concentrate on the relations between history and childhood, national identity and literary genres, the socio-economic background and his choice of literary forms and stylistic devices.

Kristie Hamilton’s essay "Hawthorne, modernity, and the literary sketch" [99-120] focuses on the novelist’s obsession with his own dissolution. She contends that the literary sketch was indeed a good response to the general feeling of evanescence characteristic of mid-nineteenth-century America. Quite convincingly, Hamilton pinpoints the modernity of Hawthorne’s narratives dominated by temporality, a sense of saturation and dissolution, ontological fear, but also by a strong desire for self-inscription. For her, Hawthorne’s treatment of the literary sketch aptly transcribes the "new reality" imposed by the industrial age.

Similarly, Gillian Brown tackles the issue of literary genre and examines the role of fancy and childhood in Hawthorne’s making of a national feeling. In her contribution entitled "Hawthorne’s American history" [121-142], she surveys Hawthorne’s narratives for children, whose main ingredients were fancy, speculation, a sense of lineage, and above all, the kinship between persons and places; a fine example is "Grandfather’s Chair: A History for Youth" (1841), a tale about colonial American life. For her, its main interest is in the way Hawthorne managed to promote a patriotic sense and operated a selective representation and reception of history through children’s books. She considers that the great amount of stories and tales written about and for children by Hawthorne was a sign of his constant preoccupation with the past and the assertion of his faith in the power of discourses to shape both subjective identity and a national conscience.

The aim of Karen Sánchez-Eppler in "Hawthorne and the writing of childhood" [143-161] is also to show how Hawthorne’s fiction celebrates America’s values, moral precepts and national norms. She emphasizes the relations between class and gender, authorship and citizenship, childhood and writing with special references to Hawthorne’s novels, stories and/or tales like "Little Annie’s Ramble" (1835), The Scarlet Letter (mainly the chapter "The Child at the Brook-Side"), or A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys" (1852) where "childhood appears truly as a parental paradise, Locke’s tabula rasa offered literally as a blank page on which the father-author can write" [158]. Her main argument is that Hawthorne’s idealization of childhood goes with adult disillusionment. She first traces the American literary production in the 1830s dominated by female writers ("those scribbling women and their trash," in Hawthorne’s own words) with their domestic ideology, before she dwells on the expansion of the market and Hawthorne’s treatment of the genre. By choosing children’s literature, the critic argues, Hawthorne asserted the necessity to consider the place of the child in the family in terms of love and creativity rather than authority.

Three essays concentrate on Hawthorne’s full-length romances other than The Scarlet Letter. Christopher Castiglia’s study "The marvelous queer interiors of The House of the Seven Gables" [186-206] rests on the following contradiction: Hawthorne’s obsession with the law (social order, legal terms, life-patterns, subjectivity…) and his interest in those outside law. The organic structure of the house itself, its inside/outside dialectic, its metaphorical link with the literary form of the novel, illustrate the contrast between the diegetic spaces of disorder qualified by the critic as "queer interiors" (in which "queer" means "deviation," "excess," "opacity"), and the legal structure represented by Judge Pyncheon. Opposing novel and romance, realism and imagination, the critic notes the complementarity of external signs and the revelation of hidden meaning that runs throughout Hawthorne’s fiction. He also lays stress on the conflict between the ideological discourse and selfhood present in his novels and stories centered around "identity’s status as counterfeit" [198].

Two contributions deal more specifically with the notion of "sympathy." Right from the start, Robert S. Levine, in his thorough examination of The Blithedale Romance [1852], posits that it is "a novel of social reform" that challenges the traditional topoï of the sentimental fictions of the mid-1850s. In his essay "Sympathy and reform in The Blithedale Romance" [207-229], the critic claims that Hawthorne’s treatment of the model inherited from eighteenth-century Scottish moral philosophy (F. Hutchinson and A. Smith) was a response to the many narratives of social reforms that failed to promote a true recognition of otherness; instead, the sentimental vein, he argues, based on emotional connection may have encouraged readers to indulge in fantasies of communion and "may have undermined readers’ abilities to apprehend the other as truly other" [210]. Levine’s repeated references to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s most popular Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) help the reader to grasp Hawthorne’s design in The Blithedale Romance: in it, he writes, communion between self and other with a view to social reform is treated in a satirical tone that makes identification between reader and participant impossible, contrary to what happens between white readers and black slaves in Stowe’s novel. Likewise, the "sympathy" or "sense of fraternity," i.e. the "romantic ideal of communion" central to Adam Smith’s philosophy exposed in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) is constantly subverted by narrative strategies that block the possibility of empathy with Coverdale, the first-person narrator and main protagonist of the novel. Levine demonstrates that to the question "But is the model sentimentalist the model reformer?" [221], Hawthorne’s novel answers with an acute—and very modern—sense of what otherness really is; in this respect, the critical distance made perceptible in The Blithedale Romance is also a reappraisal of what literature is: the locus par excellence of alterity.

Emily Miller Buddick’s essay, "Perplexity, sympathy, and the question of the humane: a reading of The Marble Faun" [230-205] pinpoints the epistemological dimension of a novel which, she argues, "seems even to violate Hawthorne’s own carefully specified definition of romance fiction" [230], and that discloses the aesthetic and ethical intention behind his works. The Marble Faun is essentially a story of frustrated desire and failure; it is a gloomy world "of missed moral opportunities" [234] where art itself cannot redeem the limitations of human beings. The novel, set in Europe, interrogates cultural values like national and religious affiliations, good and evil; it also invalidates the clear-cut division between tragedy and comedy in an attempt to display the complexities of human scenarios and of their artistic representations. Buddick’s main interest here is the self-reflexive dimension of the novel that creates a strong feeling of perplexity in its readers and raises the question of the human race confronted with both evil and a craving demand for sympathy. The novel also investigates the world of plastic arts (painting and sculpture) and the riddle of the human soul, in an urge to find the truth about morals, justice and "the Fortunate Fall."

Gordon Hutner’s essay serves as a conclusion to the volume: his polemic "Whose Hawthorne?" [251-265] refers to Lionel Trilling’s "Our Hawthorne" (1964) dominated by a "sense of critical proprietorship" [251]. Hutner traces the landmarks to Hawthorne’s academic criticism and focuses on the way his "canonical status has been challenged" [259], before praising contemporary criticism that brings new interest to Hawthorne’s social writings. For example, he sees The Scarlet Letter as "a foundational text for cultural citizenship in pre-Civil War America" [263-264], and The House of the Seven Gables as a novel about "changing demographics" [264]. Hutner considers that Hawthorne has ceased to be "the moralist of imagination—the liberal visionary par excellence" [264] to become a literary voice apt to teach something essential to us, twenty-first century readers.

This new Companion constitutes a valuable guidebook to scholars and students that provides a good reassessment of Hawthorne’s works.

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