THE BUSINESS OF REFLECTION: HAWTHORNE IN HIS NOTEBOOKS by Robert Milder and Randall Fuller, eds., Reviewed by Laura Dassow Walls
 

THE BUSINESS OF REFLECTION: HAWTHORNE IN HIS NOTEBOOKS
Eds. Robert Milder and Randall Fuller
(Ohio State, 2009) x + 268 pp.
Reviewed by Laura Dassow Walls on 2009-09-01.

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Readers and teachers of Nathaniel Hawthorne owe Robert Milder and Randall Fuller a debt of gratitude for sorting through Hawthorne's notebooks (four large volumes in the Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, also published by Ohio State University Press) and shaping the highlights into this trim and illuminating volume, perfect for reading table, library, or classroom. Milder and Fuller present their selections in chronological order, starting with Hawthorne's American notebooks and continuing through his sojourns in England, France, and Italy, and provide a useful introduction and informative endnotes. In the pages between one finds the coolness of the "hawk-eye" observer (45), the warmth and poignancy of the family man, the bonhomie of the emerging cosmopolitan, the flash and brilliance of the literary artist. Every passage in this thoughtful and well-balanced selection rings with a deeper resonance. Hawthorne never seems to be merely recording, but always to be questing, connecting, deploying, evaluating, opening on every page insight into his published works.

         The American notebooks are dominated by the idyllic period Hawthorne spent in Concord at the Old Manse, which he treasures as "the first time that I ever came home in my life; for I never had a home before" (88). He writes fondly of his bride Sophia welcoming him at the threshold, the children who came into their lives, the circle of friends-- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Herman Melville--who embrace him and entertain him endlessly with their foibles. By contrast, England struck Hawthorne as gross, coarse, and material, and while his journal during his four years at the Consulate in Liverpool is rich and full, it refused to blossom into fiction. Upon arriving in France, Hawthorne's first thought seems to have been to leave immediately for Italy, where once again he was "wretched" (186); yet in the next year and a half Rome so insinuated itself into his thoughts that he left it haunted by its eerie familiarity even as he wished "never to set eyes on it again" (235). This estranging intimacy pervades the volume's last pages, which are rich with raw material for The Marble Faun (1860). Indeed, to read this book through is to be struck by the way displacement and exile were necessary to Hawthorne's art. Soon after arriving in England, he lists the long series of residences he and Sophia had already experienced together, then reflects glumly on the prospect that for the foreseeable future, "we shall have no real home" (131). In his journal he combats the uncanniness of displacement by attempting to capture the strangeness of each new setting, as if to heal the unyielding sense of alienation. Finally, in Italy, homelessness evolves into cosmopolitanism, detachment and destabilization into permanent creative attributes. Near the end of the family's stay there, he can hypothesize "that an individual country is by no means essential to one's comfort" (216). Exile from America made Hawthorne--like Margaret Fuller--a transatlantic thinker.

         Through all the changes of homescape runs the voice of the journal itself. At several points Hawthorne registers an awareness of the journal as a project, a material practice that must be sustained but is often broken, letting many "nice peculiarities" pass from his notice before he can anchor them in prose (187). His self-consciousness makes the reader aware of what the editors call "the business of reflection," the labor of wrestling with an impression, recording an event, or wearily consigning lost days to oblivion. And labor it was: even as the reader marvels at his brilliance, Hawthorne repeatedly mourns his inability to capture what he sees. After attempting a sketch of Tennyson he laments, "How strange, that in these two or three pages I cannot get one single touch that may call him up hereafter!" (175). After trying to pin down the ineffability of the Venus de Medici, he gives up in disgust: "I may as well stop here. It is of no use to throw heaps of words upon her; for they all fall away and leave her standing in chaste and naked grace, as untouched as when I began" (219). After conducting an experiment in Sleepy Hollow, in which he sets himself to "observe such noticeable points as the eyes fall upon," he concludes with disappointment: "And now how narrow, scanty, and meager, is this record of observation, compared with the immensity that was to be observed, within the bounds which I prescribed to myself. . . . When we see how little we can express, it is a wonder that any man ever takes up a pen a second time" (98, 101).

Fortunately Hawthorne persisted in taking up his pen, and his sense of failure is belied by the evocative precision of his word paintings: girls paddling in a fountain, sunlight flitting across a valley, an old man selling nuts and gingerbread at the Salem railway station. The early pages are filled with dazzling nature description: three years before Thoreau removed to Walden Pond, Hawthorne writes that it "lies embosomed among wooded hills, not very extensive, but large enough for waves to dance upon its surface, and to look like a piece of blue firmament, earth-encircled" (77). The next year, in 1843, he adds, "If I were to be baptized, it would be in this pond; but then one would not wish to pollute it by washing off his sins into it. None but the angels should bathe there"--the latter including his "little wife" and their "blessed baby," still unborn (97). Hawthorne's descriptions, like Thoreau's, always tug on something below the surface, as when he writes in the volume's first entry, quietly and simply, "It is a pretty sight to see the sunshine brightening the entrance of a road which shortly becomes deeply overshadowed by trees on both sides" (28). Overshadowed? Allegorical suggestions proliferate: "A sketch to be given of a modern reformer . . ."; "To make one's own reflection in a mirror the subject of a story"; "An essay on the misery of being always under a mask" (29-31). Such lines accrete and gather force: the figure of the "modern reformer" precipitates, together with scores of other brief notes, into The Blithedale Romance (1852), which, we discover, Hawthorne was working on well before his stay at Brook Farm from April to October of 1841. The "blessed baby" is born and becomes Una, of whom he writes, "I cannot believe her to be my own human child, but a spirit strangely mingled with good and evil, haunting the house where I dwell" (112). Una in turn becomes Pearl: "Pearl--the English of Margaret--a pretty name for a girl in a story" (63). In such ways does this collection make vividly clear how Hawthorne's fictions bore his innermost thoughts and perceptions, which his tales lifted out from the stream of life and embodied, estranged from life, yet intimately and even disturbingly familiar.

Some of this book's most memorable passages are the character sketches. The harrowing account of Hawthorne's search for the drowned body of Martha Huntis is transposed into Coverdale's search for the drowned body of Zenobia. Similarly, "the little sempstress from Boston," the child-woman who joins Brook Farm, is transfigured into Priscilla: "She never walks, but bounds and dances along; and this motion, in her small person, does not give the idea of violence. It is like a bird, hopping from twig to twig, and chirping merrily all the time" (57). Hawthorne brought his gift for capturing character to Concord, where, in those three golden years of living embosomed at the Old Manse, he observed and sketched his neighbors: "Mr. Emerson is a great searcher for facts; but they seem to melt away and become unsubstantial in his grasp" (77). "I arose, and began this record in the Journal, almost at the commencement of which I was interrupted by a visit from Mr. Thoreau, who came to return a book, and to announce his purpose of going to reside at Staten Island . . ." (91). "After leaving the book at Mr. Emerson's, I returned through the woods, and entering Sleepy Hollow, I perceived a lady reclining near the path which bends along its verge. It was Margaret herself" (80). Hawthorne relishes his life among such personalities as Emerson, Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller, with a glee not yet darkened by the ironies he injected into his published reminiscences. The reader of, for example, his affectionate glimpses of Fuller is shocked to come upon his chill anatomy of her, written years later in Italy, where we see the hawk-eye observer in full flight, stooping on his prey: "She was a great humbug; . . . she had stuck herself full of borrowed qualities which she chose to provide herself with, but which had no root in her." Hawthorne decides that her fall was due to her material and womanly nature, "this rude old potency," which "bestirred itself" at last to undo all her splendid labor. Yet he concludes, striking an odd note of sympathy, "On the whole, I do not know but I like her the better for it;--the better, because she proved herself a very woman, after all, and fell as the weakest of her sisters might" (203-4).

This curiously admiring disgust at her womanly humanity makes more sense in the context of these notebooks, driven as they are by fascination and repugnance for the materiality of bodies. Thus Hawthorne seems overwhelmed by the mean, coarse grossness of life in England, where "the people are as numerous as maggots in cheese" (130), and women, in particular, seem to him "elephantine," "composed of sirloins, and with broad and thick steaks on their immense rears" (133). On the verge of leaving England he reflects, of London, "I have never had the same sense of being surrounded by materialism, and hemmed in with the grossness of this earthly life, anywhere else" (177). At first Rome is no better; the great city seems to lie around him "like a dead and mostly decayed corpse," its monuments (which were used as toilets) "defiled with unutterable nastiness" (187, 195). But his very disgust with the material comes to seem the engine of his aesthetics. One blessed night in the Old Manse, Hawthorne writes of the effect of moonlight falling across the sitting-room illuminated by coal-fire, investing all objects with "something like strangeness and remoteness" (106). This spiritualization of the material became the stuff of his romances, and in the preface to The House of the Seven Gables (1851), he elaborated the fireside meditation into his famous definition of the genre. Though England may have foiled such attempts to spiritualize the real, Italy offered a challenge that intensified this same aesthetic and brought it to its culmination.

The Italian notebooks give this volume an effective climax, and one is grateful that Hawthorne did not arrive in Italy until his powers were sharpened by unslaked hunger for the mysterious. As ever, the touring Hawthornes start their visit by taking in the local churches, but here these churches embody the Catholic faith, throwing in Hawthorne's way the problem of a materialistic spirituality. Compared with the formless, joint-stock negativity of Protestantism, Catholicism seems "to apply itself most closely and comfortably to human occasions" (189), a troubling insight that he had to write The Marble Faun to exorcise. Works of art became his preferred site for these reiterated meditations on the relationship between body and spirit, filth and purity, angel and beast. He returns again and again to the Pantheon, where "the divine smile was not always the same, but continually variable through the medium of earthly influences," as the sun shines through its circular opening, the clouds shadow it, or the rain dampens the paving stones (209). Matter comes alive in the sorrowful innocence of Guido's portrait of Beatrice Cenci, which seems to have "a life and consciousness of its own" (235), or in the marble Venus that Hawthorne cannot think of as "a senseless image, but as a being that lives to gladden the world, incapable of decay and death" (220). Like the Faun of Praxitiles, transformed in Hawthorne's imagination from marble to flesh, art both animates matter and chills the living into cold stone, into the cold-stone gaze of the cynical anatomizing eye--the eye that pinioned poor Margaret Fuller, who, like Donatello, fell through the "rude old potency" of evil nature.

Thank heavens, Hawthorne realized that something escaped his anatomizing gaze, and he was glad to record moments when the world outran his art. The first time the Hawthornes attend the Roman Carnival, Nathaniel spoils the fun by grumbling that it's all a shallow joke. But he realizes what he has done: "On comparing notes with Julian and Rosebud--indeed, with Una too--I find that they all enjoyed the Carnival much more than I did. Only the young ought to write descriptions of such scenes. My cold criticism chills the life out of it" (191). The following year they go again, and this time Nathaniel joins in, pelting all around with confetti, and "partly understood why the young people like it so much." Art, once again, fails him: "It is strange how the whole humor of the thing, and the separate humor of each individual character, vanishes, the moment I try to grasp one and describe it; and yet there really was fun in the spectacle as it flitted by" (229). The lubricity of life comes to him again when the American sculptor Hiram Powers systematically demolishes his rhapsodic pleasure in the marble Venus by showing ("remorselessly") its anatomical defects. And yet--Hawthorne cannot accept Powers's argument; revisiting the Venus the next day, he comes back to his first view, arguing that "Whatever rules may be transgressed, it is a noble and beautiful face; more so, perhaps, than if all rules had been obeyed" (221, 223). In his loving descriptions of the Pantheon, he seems to be describing his own transgressive works, arrayed all around him like statues in their niches, reflecting the play of light and clouds and rain with insects dancing in the sunbeams, cultivation gone a little bit wild, like his friend Thoreau.

The editors of this collection entitled it The Business of Reflection to emphasize the seriousness of Hawthorne's intent: "'Reflection' was his 'business' . . . . To read Hawthorne in his notebooks is to reflect with him and on him" (7). As Hawthorne was to observe while floating down the Concord River in Thoreau's homemade rowboat, the reflection is more beautiful than the reality: "I am half convinced that the reflection is indeed the reality--the real thing which Nature imperfectly images to our grosser sense" (87). His reflections in this volume have a similarly destabilizing effect, a carnivalesque inversion turning life and art inside out from each other. How could such a man have returned home? As the time to return neared, Hawthorne did worry--"What shall we do in America!" (226). These selections end on his wistful hope that back in Concord they will enjoy "a little rest and sense that we are at home" (236). One knows this was not to be. Like the Melville of their last meeting, Hawthorne too seems to be "wandering to-and-fro over these deserts . . . He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other" (171). Yet the final verdict should be Hawthorne's own, as he reflects on the Sistine Chapel's portrait of Christ at the Last Judgment. We need, he thinks, an infinitely kinder Jesus, one who judges us better than we deserve, for "At the Last Day, I presume--that is, in all future days, when we see ourselves as we are--man's only inexorable Judge will be himself, and the punishment of his sins will be the perception of them" (211). Of such perceptions are these pages made.

 

Laura Dassow Walls is John H. Bennett Jr. Chair of Southern Letters at the University of South Carolina.

 


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