Saturday, November 25, 2017

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Twice-Told Tales

Introduction

Sample Opening Passage: From "The Birthmark", which captures a common theme in Hawthorne's work:

In the latter part of the last century there lived a man of science, an eminent proficient in every branch of natural philosophy, who not long before our story opens had made experience of a spiritual affinity more attractive than any chemical one. He had left his laboratory to the care of an assistant, cleared his fine countenance from the furnace smoke, washed the stain of acids from his fingers, and persuaded a beautiful woman to become his wife. In those days when the comparatively recent discovery of electricity and other kindred mysteries of Nature seemed to open paths into the region of miracle, it was not unusual for the love of science to rival the love of woman in its depth and absorbing energy. The higher intellect, the imagination, the spirit, and even the heart might all find their congenial aliment in pursuits which, as some of their ardent votaries believed, would ascend from one step of powerful intelligence to another, until the philosopher should lay his hand on the secret of creative force and perhaps make new worlds for himself. We know not whether Aylmer possessed this degree of faith in man's ultimate control over Nature. He had devoted himself, however, too unreservedly to scientific studies ever to be weaned from them by any second passion. His love for his young wife might prove the stronger of the two; but it could only be by intertwining itself with his love of science, and uniting the strength of the latter to his own.

Summary: The stories in the volume I read were collected from three different short story collections published by Hawthorne; they are practically all well known. One of the notable things about the selection is that it markedly toned down Hawthorne's tendency to allegorize -- except for the pure satire-allegory of "The Celestial Railroad" and some of the more popular moralizations, like "Lady Eleanore's Mantle",it mostly just peeks out here and there. I'm not sure this is fair to Hawthorne, because Hawthorne has two strengths: allegorization and atmosphere. Throwing out too much of one gives an unbalanced Hawthorne. Modern readers tend to have a distaste for allegory; this distaste is sometimes justifiable, but more often it is bad taste. Hawthorne still lived in a day when Pilgrim's Progress was in practically every house, when preachers still preached the world as a typology of moral and religious life, when Calvinist and Transcendentalist alike saw the world in moral terms. The palate was accustomed to allegory, so allegory was part of the palette. On the other side, I find it a bit suspicious that the stories that tend to be preferred by modern readers are those that in some way can be read as jabbing at Calvinist gloominess; I wonder if the more allegorical side of Hawthorne jabs at the pet views of modern readers more than they like.

In any case, I read most of Hawthorne in high school. I had read Little Women, which had led to Pilgrim's Progress; then we had read "Young Goodman Brown" in American literature, and, liking it, I looked around for more Hawthorne and happened to stumble upon "The Celestial Railroad", which, of course, uses the framework of Pilgrim's Progress to mock the world of Hawthorne's day, with its sleek taste for making things, anything, more efficient, and for going more comfortably and quickly in any direction you wished to go, even if it was in the direction of hell. Even after reading a lot of Hawthorne it (along with House of Seven Gables) became my favorite work by him. I was pleased to find, not having read it in several years, that it holds up splendidly, and is still my favorite. One that improved greatly was "The Artist of the Beautiful", which I vaguely remember not liking very much, and yet found quite enjoyable this time around. Likewise, I enjoyed "Mr. Higginbotham's Catastrophe" a bit more than I remember. "The Great Stone Face", on the other hand, seemed a little strained.

In addition to reading the short stories, I listened to classic radio adaptations (a reason why this fortnight extended to three weeks). I have already discussed the four versions of "Rappaccini's Daughter" to which I listened. In addition, I listened to The Weird Circle's adaptations of "Ethan Brand" (retitled as "The Heart of Ethan Brand") and "Lady Eleanore's Mantle" (retitled as "The Curse of the Mantle"). Both were fairly freely adapted, emphasizing the fantastic elements -- for instance, the latter takes Hawthorne's identification of the mantle with pride and runs with it, making an interesting story, but one with a very different atmosphere than Hawthorne's original. CBS Radio Mystery Theater's "The Birthmark" made a strong effort to stay close to the story; it does so by telling a lot of it in conversation, which gives an interesting staccato pacing to the tale. I listened to two versions of "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment": one by Favorite Story and another by CBS Radio Mystery Theater. The Favorite Story adaptation was splendid; easily the best of all the adaptations I heard -- discovering it was worth the time spent listening to all the episodes I listened to for this project, and I highly recommend it. The CBSRMT version was pretty decent -- it's a good story for radio -- although not as good as the Favorite Story version, in part because it felt a little more padded -- it only really starts picking up halfway through. I also listened to Vanishing Point's "The Artist of the Beautiful", which was, shall we say, entirely bizarre, in part due to VP's taste for modernizing old tales; they make Owen a 1980s computer programmer and Annie a slang-slinging feminist with an interest in robotics. Everyone becomes infinitely more annoying. It's also over-busy in terms of music and sound effects. The basic idea in the adaptation was interesting, but it doesn't, I think, come out entirely as it should have (although they do a good job with the ending).

Favorite Passage: This passage, from "Earth's Holocaust", jumped out at me this reading:

From Shakespeare there gushed a flame of such marvellous splendor that men shaded their eyes as against the sun's meridian glory; nor even when the works of his own elucidators were flung upon him did he cease to flash forth a dazzling radiance from beneath the ponderous heap. It is my belief that he is still blazing as fervidly as ever.

"Could a poet but light a lamp at that glorious flame," remarked I, "he might then consume the midnight oil to some good purpose."

"That is the very thing which modern poets have been too apt to do, or at least to attempt," answered a critic. "The chief benefit to be expected from this conflagration of past literature undoubtedly is, that writers will henceforth be compelled to light their lamps at the sun or stars."

"If they can reach so high," said I; "but that task requires a giant, who may afterwards distribute the light among inferior men. It is not every one that can steal the fire from heaven like Prometheus; but, when once he had done the deed, a thousand hearths were kindled by it."

Recommendation: Hawthorne is very uneven, but his worst is always at least good, and his best is very good. Highly Recommended.

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