Hawthorne in Our Time

Originally published as “Our Hawthorne” in Hawthorne Centenary Essays, edited by Roy Harvey Pearce (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1964). Also published in Partisan Review, Summer 1964.


Henry James’s monograph on Hawthorne must always have a special place in American letters, if only because, as Edmund Wilson observed, it is the first extended study ever to be made of an American writer. But of course it is kept in the forefront of our interest by more things than its priority. We respond to its lively sense of the American cultural existence and the American cultural destiny, to James’s happy certitude that, in describing the career of the first fully-developed American artist, he celebrates the founder of a line in which he himself is to stand pre-eminent. And we can scarcely fail to be captivated by the tone of James’s critical discourse, of a mind informed and enlightened, delighting in itself and in all comely and civilized things; it is the tone of the center, far removed from the parochialism which (together with strength) James imputes to Poe as a critic. For the student of American literature in general, the little book is indispensable.

But the student of American literature for whom Hawthorne is a particular concern must experience some degree of discom­fort as he reads James on his author. He will be aware that through James’s high and gracious praise there runs a vein of reserve, even of condescension. In an attempt to account for this, the student will perhaps reflect that Hawthorne made himself susceptible to condescension, for he was often at pains to avow the harmlessness of his temperament, to dissociate himself from the fierce aggressions and self-assertions of the literary life; he seems to ask from his readers a tender and cherishing affection rather than the stern regard which we give to the more violent or demonic personalities—or, simply, to the personalities more overtly masculine—whose assault upon us we learn to forgive. Then too, it is not hard to understand that James, in the full pride of his still youthful powers, might have been tempted to slight a predecessor, no matter how truly admired—a predecessor who, although he did indeed show how much could be accom­plished in the way of art, did not achieve a body of work which, in bulk and fierce affronting power, equals that which his successor planned for himself in sublime confidence.

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