There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Lovecraft on Hawthorne


….Poe represents the newer, more disillusioned, and more technically finished of the weird schools that rose out of this propitious milieu. Another school — the tradition of moral values, gentle restraint, and mild, leisurely phantasy tinged more or less with the whimsical — was represented by another famous, misunderstood, and lonely figure in American letters — the shy and sensitive Nathaniel Hawthorne, scion of antique Salem and great-grandson of one of the bloodiest of the old witchcraft judges. In Hawthorne we have none of the violence, the daring, the high colouring, the intense dramatic sense, the cosmic malignity, and the undivided and impersonal artistry of Poe. Here, instead, is a gentle soul cramped by the Puritanism of early New England; shadowed and wistful, and grieved at an unmoral universe which everywhere transcends the conventional patterns thought by our forefathers to represent divine and immutable law. Evil, a very real force to Hawthorne, appears on every hand as a lurking and conquering adversary; and the visible world becomes in his fancy a theatre of infinite tragedy and woe, with unseen half-existent influences hovering over it and through it, battling for supremacy and moulding the destinies of the hapless mortals who form its vain and self-deluded population. The heritage of American weirdness was his to a most intense degree, and he saw a dismal throng of vague specters behind the common phenomena of life; but he was not disinterested enough to value impressions, sensations, and beauties of narration for their own sake. He must needs weave his phantasy into some quietly melancholy fabric of didactic or allegorical cast, in which his meekly resigned cynicism may display with naive moral appraisal the perfidy of a human race which he cannot cease to cherish and mourn despite his insight into its hypocrisy. Supernatural horror, then, is never a primarily object with Hawthorne; though its impulses were so deeply woven into his personality that he cannot help suggesting it with the force of genius when he calls upon the unreal world to illustrate the pensive sermon he wishes to preach.

Hawthorne’s intimations of the weird, always gentle, elusive, and restrained, may be traced throughout his work. The mood that produced them found one delightful vent in the Teutonised retelling of classic myths for children contained in A Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales, and at other times exercised itself in casting a certain strangeness and intangible witchery or malevolence over events not meant to be actually supernatural; as in the macabre posthumous novel Dr. Grimshawe’s Secret, which invests with a peculiar sort of repulsion a house existing to this day in Salem, and abutting on the ancient Charter Street Burying Ground. In The Marble Faun, whose design was sketched out in an Italian villa reputed to be haunted, a tremendous background of genuine phantasy and mystery palpitates just beyond the common reader’s sight; and glimpses of fabulous blood in mortal veins are hinted at during the course of a romance which cannot help being interesting despite the persistent incubus of moral allegory, anti-Popery propaganda, and a Puritan prudery which has caused the modern writer D. H. Lawrence to express a longing to treat the author in a highly undignified manner. Septimius Felton, a posthumous novel whose idea was to have been elaborated and incorporated into the unfinished Dolliver Romance, touches on the Elixir of Life in a more or less capable fashion whilst the notes for a never-written tale to be called The Ancestral Footstep show what Hawthorne would have done with an intensive treatment of an old English superstition — that of an ancient and accursed line whose members left footprints of blood as they walked-which appears incidentally in both Septimius Felton and Dr. Grimshawe’s Secret.

Many of Hawthorne’s shorter tales exhibit weirdness, either of atmosphere or of incident, to a remarkable degree. Edward Randolph’s Portrait, in Legends of the Province House, has its diabolic moments. The Minister’s Black Veil (founded on an actual incident) and The Ambitious Guest imply much more than they state, whilst Ethan Grand — a fragment of a longer work never completed — rises to genuine heights of cosmic fear with its vignette of the wild hill country and the blazing, desolate lime-kilns, and its delineation of the Byronic “unpardonable sinner,” whose troubled life ends with a peal of fearful laughter in the night as he seeks rest amidst the flames of the furnace. Some of Hawthorne’s notes tell of weird tales he would have written had he lived longer — an especially vivid plot being that concerning a baffling stranger who appeared now and then in public assemblies, and who was at last followed and found to come and go from a very ancient grave.

....But Hawthorne left no well-defined literary posterity. His mood and attitude belonged to the age which closed with him, and it is the spirit of Poe — who so clearly and realistically understood the natural basis of the horror-appeal and the correct mechanics of its achievement — which survived and blossomed.




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