Hawthorne: Demon or Big-Headed Genius?

Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Long dead and safely buried, Nathaniel Hawthorne is now securely ensconced as a benign classic. The Scarlet Letter and Hawthorne’s short stories are often taught to high school students. But in his own lifetime and for years after his demise, Hawthorne was a divisive figure in American letters, widely reviled for his satire on the transcendentalists writers, his richly rewarded bootlicking on behalf of the Democratic president Franklin Pierce, and his sympathetic handling of the theme of adultery.

A taste of the scorn that Hawthorne received can be seen in the remarkably bitter and uncharitable obituary that was published by the Christian magazine the Circular on May 30, 1864. The obituary suggested that Hawthorne was a “fallen angel”, that is to say a demon:   

The moral of Hawthorne’s most popular work, the “Marble Faun,” is that crime and remorse are essential to the lifting of animalism up to manhood. And it is not too much to say that evil in some form is the center of interest in all his writings. The impression left on the mind after reading the “Scarlet Letter,” the “Blithesdale Romance,” &c., is as if you have been in communication with a fallen angel.

For this last reason – the predominance in his writings of the minor mode which glorifies evil – we have no faith in the permanence of Hawthorne’s reputation. In the long run, no skill in the music of words can make evil-worship popular. That which is vitally pernicious will sooner or later be disgusting to good taste. 

The Circular’s posthumous hatchet-job is useful in one regard, it is a good illustration of the fact that moralizing can never be a substitute for aesthetic judgement. A more favourable but equally bizarre view of the novelist was presented in an illustrated article that appeared in the American Phrenological Journal of July 1864. They were particularly impressed by the size of Hawthorne’s head:

Mr. Hawthorne had a large brain, with the Intellectual, Imaginative, and Social organs predominating. His head was high in the intellectual region, broad through the temples, and well developed in the region of the affections, but not so broad between the ears.

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