Tuesday, May 19, 2009

In memory of Nathaniel Hawthorne

On May 19, 1864, the American novelist and tale-writer Nathaniel Hawthorne died while traveling with his friend, former President Franklin Pierce. Hawthorne, like Poe, often wrote of the darker side of human nature, revealing lives of guilt, sin, and temptation. In 1842, long before Hawthorne would write many of the novels for which we remember him today, Poe noted that his skill relates "to the highest region of Art—an Art subservient to genius of a very lofty order." Perhaps the greatest bit of praise from Poe, who perpetually accused writers of ripping off the ideas of others, was when he noted that Hawthorne's "originality both of incident and of reflection is very remarkable."

As Poe prepared his dream journal, The Stylus, he tapped Hawthorne as a contributor to its first issue. Hawthorne agreed, to the tune of $5 a page, and even offered an engraved portrait created by his wife, the talented Sophia Peabody Hawthorne. In this case, it was not Poe's plans that stalled the first issue of The Stylus, originally slated for June 1843 release, but Hawthorne — who had difficulty writing. He noted that the summer left him with "no more brains than cabbage." Finally, Poe gave up as well, at least temporarily, when a financial supporter backed off suddenly. Poe wrote, "my Magazine scheme has exploded—or, at least, I have been deprived, through the idiocy of my partner, of all means of prosecuting it for the present."

Hawthorne and Poe continued an occasional correspondence throughout the 1840s, and Poe continued reviewing Hawthorne's work. Eventually, as Poe became more well-known as a critic, his reviews became harsher. Though he continued to believe Hawthorne was one of the greatest—though most underappreciated—American writers, Poe was disappointed by his fellow scribe's reliance on morality. Poe, of course, hated didacticism (part of his argument against Henry Wadsworth Longfellow), and Hawthorne's work is full of it. In fact, his morals beat you over the head as strongly as Roger Chillingworth whipped himself in The Scarlet Letter (published the year after Poe's death).

Hawthorne seemed to enjoy Poe's work as well — though, not all of it. In a letter to Poe dated June 17, 1846, Hawthorne gave his frank and amiable opinion:
I have read your occasional notices of my productions with great interest—not so much because your judgment was, upon the whole, favorable, as because it seemed to be given in earnest. I care for nothing but the truth; and shall always much more readily accept a harsh truth, in regard to my writings, than a sugared falsehood.

I confess, however, that I admire you rather as a writer of tales than as a critic upon them. I might often—and often do—dissent from your opinions in the latter capacity, but could never fail to recognize your force and originality, in the former.

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