Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Melville redux

I've been a little immersed in 19th century literature lately. I just read a biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne -- one of those writers whose presence haunts all of American literature. The Scarlet Letter always draws me in. If I pick it up again and begin reading -- somewhere at random, or from the beginning, I fall back into its spell -- the secret sin of the pastor, the female outsider who endures, and the wronged husband -- all the buried emotion and twisted obsessions that motivate the characters -- Hester, Dimmesdale, Chillingworth. It is Hawthorne at his most assured, in beautiful, crystalline prose that for all its coolness, also burns and thrills, or so it seems to me.

And of course, that other novel that dominates American literature is Moby Dick, by Hawthorne's contemporary and passionate admirer, Herman Melville. I read Moby Dick years ago, one quiet summer while working in a university English department as an office admin and going to graduate school at night. It was the same summer that I put together one of those huge DIY office desks. Just me, Melville, and a power screw driver. It was one of the times in my life, when I was most solitary -- single, living in a town where I had no family and no close friends. Call me Ishmael. I, too, could choose a name, start a new story.

Melville has always been an interesting figure to me, both because of his writing (I always loved the perfectly weird short story, Bartleby the Scrivener) and snippets of his personal life that I've encountered here and there. His later life was rather sad, after his early success and fame. His finances collapsed and his home life disintegrated. He appears as a forlorn and broken man in Frederick Busch's darkly beautiful novel, The Night Inspector, when he has taken a job as a customs inspector for the city of New York and his oldest son, has shot and killed himself -- unclear whether by accident or suicide. Melville is buried in a cemetery in the Bronx.

Lately, I've been contemplating the value of re-reading old books as opposed to consuming new ones. Philip Roth, who announced his retirement from fiction recently, said that he was re-reading writers that he hadn't returned to for 50 years -- Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Faulkner, and Hemingway. It made sense to me, and after encountering Melville in the Hawthone biography, it made me think about that summer and how I was surprised and enamored by a book, that frankly, I thought might be a bit of a drag. So I've decided to re-read Moby Dick. I expect it will be quite a different experience nearly 20 years later, and living quite a different life. Maybe I'll identify more with Ahab this time. Who knows?

What books have you re-read? Mine is a short list: The Scarlett Letter, Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and Little Men. There may be a few more of far less stature, and maybe something else I've forgotten.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)

If hard pressed to name a favorite novel, on most days my choice comes down between George Eliot's Middlemarch and Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. It neatly balances English and American, female and male, feeling and detachment. I've read most, if not all, the production of both -- certainly the major works -- including Eliot's letters and multiple biographies. But of Hawthorne, I haven't read that much about the man, until the biography I just finished, James Mellow's Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Times, which won the National Book Award in 1993. It is a great biography -- meticulously researched, even-handed, and elegantly written. It doesn't make great leaps in speculation or psychological diagnosis -- it just presents a portrait that emerges from Hawthorne's own writings, notebooks, and letters and contemporary accounts.

One reason I love to read biographies of literary people is that the best ones take in so much more of the general history and culture of their lives. Hawthorne didn't go in for most of the transcendental philosophy of his friends, neighbors, and colleagues -- Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, and Alcott. He visited the Shaker communities (with some withering commentary) and was a resident at Brook Farm, one of the Utopian experimental communities, but he remained skeptical and conservative -- the original stiff-necked New Englander. He regarded radical abolitionists rather severely and seemed largely unmoved by the plight of slaves in the South (of whom he had no personal knowledge and seemingly little curiosity, much to the chagrin of Emerson and his own sister-in-law, Elizabeth Peabody). He wasn't so much skeptical of mesmerism and spiritualism, as he was leery of them. There might be something there, but he thought it was too dangerous to pursue.

He was thoroughly unsentimental (excepting, perhaps,  regarding his devoted wife, Sophia, who all her life, likened him to a demi-god or angel, dropped straight out of heaven), did not like to be touched, and was just this side of anti-social. He was notoriously hard to get to know, even for such a passionate admirer as his friend, Herman Melville. He met few of the literary lions of his age even after he had achieved his own level of fame. When he served as consul in Liverpool for several years, Mellow points out that he claimed to try to arrange a meeting with Mary Anne Evans (George Eliot) but was not successful, although how hard he really tried is debatable. He silently observed Lord Tennyson ( a favorite poet of his wife's) at a picture gallery, missed a chance to meet Thackeray (an author he admired), and never showed an inclination to meet Dickens. He did attend a dinner with Anthony Trollope later in life when Trollope visited Boston, and according to Hawthorne's friend, James Field, who declared to him in a letter:
Trollope fell in love with you at first sight. He swears that you are the handsomest Yankee that ever walked the planet.

Hawthorne's obsessions with secret sin, historical guilt, and curses run through nearly all his fiction, but in even such a thorough biography, no particular reason for it is uncovered. Yes, his ancestor was a judge at the Salem witch trials, but his more immediate familial history and experience is rather unextraordinary. Why he held on to such remote, dark elements of his pre-history remains a mystery, unless, by comparison, his rather staid, small-town upbringing was so unimaginative that he had to cast back into the family's more colorful stories for inspiration.

The other small pleasures of biography are the random cross-hatchings that occur within the cozy world of 19th century literature. While serving as consul, one of the people Hawthorne met in passing was Ada Byron's husband, the Earl of Lovelace, looking for information on his wayward son who had gone missing (apparently the eldest, who joined the Navy and then deserted). Hawthorne made a pilgrimage of his own to visit Lord Byron's ancestral home, Newstead Abbey, shortly after Ada's death, thus creating a bridge to the last biography that I read last fall -- Ada Byron's (Bride of Science by Benjamin Wooley).

And then there's the weird trivia. For example, did you know that Hawthorne's only son Julian spent a year in an Atlanta penitentiary for his role in a shady stock scheme? Once sprung, he went to California, where he worked for the Pasadena newspaper as a journalist. He died in San Francisco in 1936. 1936! Hawthorne's youngest daughter, Rose joined the Order of St. Dominic and became Mother Alphonso, caring for terminally ill cancer patients until her death in 1926. I think I'm always surprised by how little time is encompassed in American history. That Hawthorne, who seems to belong to such an early era (compounded by his most famous novel being set in Puritan New England) could have a son who died just on the cusp of World War II is disorienting. I always have the eerie feeling of time being folded somehow.

But, whatever facts are yielded by the industrious biographers, nothing changes the indelible beauty and power of Hawthorne's masterpiece, and how wonderfully he enters into the experience of Hester Prynne -- a woman, an outsider, a fellow sinner, and an unlikely heroine, who shocked many of his contemporary readers in 1850:
But Hester Prynne, with a mind of native courage and activity, and for so long a period not merely estranged, but outlawed from society, had habituated herself to such latitude of speculation as was altogether foreign to the clergyman. She had wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness, as vast, as intricate, and shadowy as the untamed forest, amid the gloom of which they were now holding a colloquy that was to decide their fate. Her intellect and heart had their home, as it were, in desert places, where she roamed as freely as the wild Indian in his woods. For years past she had looked from this estranged point of view at human institutions, and whatever priests or legislators had established; criticizing all with hardly more reverence than the Indian would feel for the clerical band, the judicial robe, the pillory, the gallows, the fireside, or the church. The tendency of her fate and fortunes had been to set her free. The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers--stern and wild ones--and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss. (The Scarlet Letter, Chapter 18, "A Flood of Sunshine")