ISSUE THREE
May 1998

William Heath


THE CORTLAND REVIEW

INTERVIEWS
 
R.T. Smith

POETRY
 
R.T. Smith
  Muffy Bolding
  John Kinsella
  Richard Foerster
  A.F. Moritz
  Miriam Levine
  Louis Armand
  David Shevin
  Stellasue Lee
  Adrian C. Louis
  David Sutherland
  Gregory Djanikian
  Paolo M. Bottigelli

REVIEWS
 
J.M. Spalding
  R.T. Smith

ESSAY
 
William Heath

FICTION
 
Douglas Thornsjo

William Heath William Heath teaches American Literature, and Creative Writing at Mount Saint Mary's College, where he is also the editor of The Monocacy Valley Review. He has written a novel about the civil rights movement, The Children Bob Moses Led, and a book of poems, The Walking Man. His essays of Melville, Twain and Styron have appeared in The Massachusetts Review, The South Carolina Review, and The Southern Review respectively.

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III.

The theme of sexual unease permeates his finest work.  From "My Kinsman, Major Molineaux" and "Young Goodman Brown," written in his mid-twenties, to the tales of art and beauty that culminate with "Rappaccini's Daughter," Hawthorne struggled to arrive at a more satisfactory understanding of the nature of women and the power of passion.  Yet even in his best tales it is difficult to decide when tragic wisdom, with its proud protest against mortality, yields to private obsession, with its neurotic fear of the body.   Only when Hawthorne is at his most crafty and ironic, suggesting sincerity and clear meaning one moment and coyly hinting at the impossibility of ultimate truth the next, can he switch from being the virtuous philosopher that was expected of him to the chameleon poet more in keeping with his genius.  Thus Hawthorne, in a sense, had to fool himself to become a great writer.  He had to subvert his conventional rhetoric and sentimental stereotypes as well as his semiconscious neurotic compulsions.  This required a delicate balance; very rarely can he both summon his demons and make them jump through the hoops of his choosing.  And even when he can analyze the deeper psychology of his hypersensitive heroes, tormented by their inability to come to terms with the feminine, he still can't cure himself of being like them.
 
"My Kinsman, Major Molineaux" and "Young Goodman Brown" are companion pieces about a naive hero's quest for experience and his discovery of what he takes to be evil.  Both Robin and Brown draw their names from Puck in Shakespeare's A Midsummer  Night's Dream, "That shrewd and knavish sprite/ Call'd Robin Goodfellow."  The two youths rely on their shrewdness and scruples to protect them on their adventures.  Robin has come to the city for the same reason Brown has gone to the forest, to be initiated into the mysteries of sexuality.  For Robin temptation comes in the form of "the slender-waisted woman, in the scarlet petticoat,"whose saucy eye and round, beckoning arm "proved stronger than the athletic country youth" (76). Captivated by her charms and on the verge of losing his scruples, Robin according to the inverted logic of the dreamwork causes Molineaux's fall: By defying the moral authority symbolized by the Major and yielding to illicit wishes he unleashes all the forces of chaos.  Soon "a multitude of rioters" surges around the corner with Molineaux, "in tar-and-feather dignity" (85), trying to make the best of his humiliation.  What Robin at first assumes is some kind of "prodigious merrymaking" (83), proves to be mob violence in the service of revolutionary ideals:  "On they went, in counterfeit pomp, in senseless uproar, in frenzied merriment, trampling on an old man's heart" (86).  As this passage makes clear, Hawthorne's sympathies lie with the overthrown patriarch, whose "head...grown grey in honor" deserved better than this "foul disgrace" (85).  As for Robin, the fact that he so easily catches the "convulsive merriment" (86) of the crowd, and joins in its shout of wild laughter, does not bode well for his maturity or independence of mind.  He may use his shrewdness to "rise in the world" (87), but will he ever achieve the distinction of his deposed kinsman?

The motif of merriment run amuck is carried over into "Young Goodman Brown."  If Robin, as we are told, is eighteen, we might well ask just how young is Brown?  Although he is three months married, he is clearly a neophyte with little knowledge of the world.  The witch Goody Close describes him as "silly" and "nice."  His wife is aptly named "Faith," and her pink ribbons puzzle and allure Brown the way the scarlet petticoat tantalized Robin.  She begs her husband to "tarry" with her "this of all nights of the year" (276), but he has plans to tarry elsewhere.   He has a "covenant" (278) to attend a black mass in "the heathen wilderness" (282).  In the Puritan imagination, a black mass was a perversion of the Eucharist; what took place around the Devil's blazing altar was an orgy among witches and warlocks.  Brown, in short, has come to the forest seeking satanic sex.  And he is not setting family precedent: In the past his forefathers took this same primrose path of dalliance, and "returned merrily after midnight" (278).  The story traces Brown's progressive dis- illusionment, as all the townspeople he looked up to join in the demonic merriment: "...irreverently consorting with these grave, reputable, and pious people, these elders of the church, these chaste dames and dewy virgins, there were men of dissolute lives and women of spotted fame, wretches given over to all mean and filthy vice..." (285).  Brown learns that the urge to think wicked thoughts, speak wanton words, and do lustful deeds unites mankind in sinful brotherhood.  And when he evidently sees his own Faith of the pink ribbons among the throng, he shrieks with hideous laughter, renounces his faith that his wife is "a blessed angel on earth" (276), and converts to the hellish doctrine that "Evil is the nature of mankind" (287).   Has Brown only "dreamed a wild dream of a witch meeting?" (288).  If so, it is a dream laced with phallic anxiety as the imagery of trees, twigs, staffs, snakes, broomsticks and walking sticks illustrates and the distraught young man awakes with his
cheek "besprinkled...with the coldest dew" (288).

Has Brown discovered evil or only dreamt about his own sexual inadequacy?  Has a glimpse of the abyss blighted his life? What does his "sad transformation" mean?  It is possible for a penetrating mind to conceive a larger truth from a seemingly trivial event.  What Oedipus learns is and is not "trivial": The root meaning, "where three roads meet," literally recalls the place where he slew his father and the word also symbolizes the ill-fated trio of his tragedy.  Saint Augustine's life-long obsession with original sin, the precursor of the Puritan doctrine of innate depravity, dated from his feelings of shame as a boy when he got unwanted erections at the public baths.  Since passion was a force ungovernable by human willpower, he concluded that it must be a legacy from Adam's fall.  In sum, Hawthorne's young heroes, Robin and Brown, play with fire and get burned, but each draws a different moral: Robin is now "liberated," a masterless man who can do whatever he wishes; Brown, on the other hand, is doomed:  "A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate, man did he become from the night of that fearful dream.... They carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone; for his dying hour was gloom" (288-89).
 
It is difficult to take either Robin's willful jollity or Brown's fateful gloom very seriously, since neither was a person of substance to begin with.  The Reverend Hooper in "The Minister's Black Veil" is a more difficult case: He is an older, more complex man, and the form his gloom takes, covering his face with a piece of black crepe, is troubling at first sight and, upon reflection, appalling.  From the opening paragraph where we see the sexton "pulling lustily at the bell-rope" and "spruce bachelors" noting that "the pretty maidens" dressed in their Sunday best looked even "prettier than on week-days" (371)to the hints that Reverend Hooper feels a guilty complicity in the death of the maiden whose funeral he conducts the very day he dawns his veil, the story insinuates that the incense of religion and the spice of eroticism are not unrelated.  Has Hooper covered his face because he has committed a sexual crime?   Or is it because he cannot face connubial bliss with his plighted wife, Elizabeth? The fact that the veil is a feminine article warning of sexual taboos a maid's modesty, a nun's chastity, and a widow's mourning is certainly relevant.  Hawthorne's parable implies these possibilities in the process of raising a more unnerving set of questions.

Hillis Miller, in his astute study Hawthorne & History, argues that "the story is the unveiling of the possibility of the impossibility of unveiling" (51).  He notes that a parable, by definition, is esoteric,its meaning known only to the initiated few who have eyes to see and ears to hear.  Hooper's baffling decision to see the world through a veil darkly undercuts his congregation's, and the reader's, securities.  The black veil unmasks our fear of masks, that perhaps nothing can be taken at face value in this world and that there may be no moment of face to face revelation in the next.  Miller postulates that our ability to see ourselves in a mirror, or to exchange reciprocal looks with others, is crucial to our sense of having a true self; that all social intercourse is based on the assumption that people have honest faces we can trust; that the reason we examine the faces of the dead and dying is to gain assurance of their salvation, to personify death's enigma, and to find the courage to face death ourselves; and that we humanize all the great mysteries God the Father, Mother Nature, the Prince of Darkness, the Grim Reaper to make our existence make sense.  According to Nietzsche, we have art so as not to die of the truth; religion and literature give us the necessary illusion of meaning: We prefer Adam and Eve in the garden to atoms in the void.  If the world is a set of signs that can be read and interpreted,then existence is not absurd.  But if faces are undecipherable masks, then perhaps no signs truly signify; thus Goodman Brown may be justified to decide that "sin is but a name" (283) and to despair and die.   For how can anyone know the truth, if Reverend Hooper discerns "on every visage a Black Veil!"? (384).
 

 

 

IV.
 
In the two years following his marriage to Sophia in 1842,Hawthorne wrote four related stories about the conflict between ideal beauty and earthly desire.  Although these tales expose the inadequacy of his aesthetic assumptions and his incapacity to accept women as passionate flesh-and-blood creatures, Hawthorne is reluctant to acknowledge the truths they dramatize.  Instead he writes apologetics for his tendency to spiritualize and idealize women and the world.   Phallic anxiety and a fear of being touched are prominent motifs in all four stories.  Passion is seen as so powerful a force that any contact with the feminine is intolerably charged.  In "The Birthmark," for example, Aylmer shows Georgiana his magical plant: Then came the slender stalk; the leaves gradually unfolded themselves; and amid them was a perfect and lovely flower.  "It is magical!" cried Georgiana.  "I dare not touch it."  "Nay, pluck it," answered Aylmer,"pluck it, and inhale its brief perfume while you may.  The flower will wither in a few moments and leave nothing save its brown seed vessels; but thence may be perpetuated a race as ephemeral as itself."
 
But Georgiana had no sooner touched the flower than the whole plant suffered a blight, its leaves turning coal-black as if by the agency of fire. "There was too powerful a stimulus," said Aylmer, thoughtfully (771). That stimulus is even stronger in "Rappaccini's Daughter," which teems with lush and lethal plants; never did "deflowering" have more dangerous connotations!   Although Beatrice "looks redundant with life, health, and energy," Giovanni is convinced that she should "be touched only with a glove, nor to be approched without a mask" (979-80).  His fears of impotence are apparent when he observes how "a drop or two of moisture from the broken stem" of one of her flowers falls upon the head of a lizard, causing it to contort and die (984); he feels "a thrill of indefinable horror" when he perceives that the beautiful bouquets he has brought her quickly "wither" and "droop" in her grasp (1000).   And when he reaches his hand toward her favorite purple shrub which he has seen her embrace with "passionate ardor" and call "my sister"Beatrice cries out in agony: "Touch it not!  Not for thy life!  It is fatal!" (993).

How a love of beauty can be an escape from contact with reality is illustrated by "The Artist of the Beautiful."   Owen Warland, a frail creator of fragile miniatures, has a "microscopic" mind, "diminutive frame," "slender voice," and fingers of "marvelous smallness and delicate power" (909).  Naturally enough, his adored Anne rejects him for Robert Danford, the blacksmith whose "vast hand" (911) was "accustomed to grip bars of iron" (925).  Owen admits Robert's strength with his sledge hammer, but hopes to lure Anne away with his artistic ingenuity.   But when she reaches for one of his spiritualized mechanisms, he cries, "For Heaven's sake...do not touch it!  The slightest pressure of your fingers would ruin me forever" (915). The story ends with Anne's child crushing Owen's "ideal butterfly" in his hand to "a small heap of glittering fragments" (930).   Only in "Drowne's Wooden Image" is touch seen as a creative force.   John Singleton Copley, the American-born painter who made his career in England, tells Drowne the wood carver that the only thing his work lacks is "one touch"namely, "passion enough to communicate warmth and sensibility to the lifeless oak" (936).
 
The other three stories depict passion as a genie to be eradicated or kept in a stoppered bottle.  Alymer, for example, cannot love his wife until her birthmark that "crimson stain" symbolizing her mortality and sexuality has been removed.  Even Hawthorne's poor artist of the beautiful was so "thrown off balance" by his love for Anne that for a time he was swept away by "uncontrollable" passions: "Owen Warland made proof of whatever show of bliss may be found in riot" (918).  Given Owen's attenuated nature, this assertion is questionable at best, but it does reaffirm how fearful Hawthorne was of unchecked desire.  None of his stories is more tormented by "the subtle sophistry of passion" than "Rappaccini's Daughter."  Giovanni describes Beatrice in images that suggest a burgeoning, barely restrained, sensuality: all her luscious "attributes were bound down and compressed, as it were, and girdled tensely, in their luxuriance, by her virgin zone" (980).  Hawthorne is unusually explicit that what his hero feels for this budding beauty is lust: "she had at least instilled a fierce and subtle poison into his system.  It was not love, although her rich beauty was a madness to him; nor horror...but a wild offspring of both love and horror that...burned like one and shivered like the other.... Blessed are all simple emotions, be they dark or bright!  It is the lurid intermixture of the two that produces the illuminating blaze of the infernal regions" (987). Baglioni's tale within the tale of the beautiful woman whose "love would have been poison her embrace death" (996) suggests that Giovanni's tendency to equate pollination with pollution, sex with death, has historical roots. Freud's essay "The Taboo of Virginity" cites literary variations on the theme of "The Virgin's Poison," and he traces this notion back to primitive anxieties about menstruation and castration the fear that sex steals men's strength and infects them with feminine weakness (71-86).
 
On an overt level, these stories are remarkably uncritical of their heroes' notions that the artist's mission is to spiritualize nature and eschew passion.  Although Georgiana tells Alymer "you cannot love what shocks you!" (765), she still sees his misguided effort to remove her birthmark as noble and lofty, even though he has "rejected the best the earth had to offer" (780).  Only the despised Aminadab, who gets the last devilish laugh, has the sense to say, "If she were my wife, I'd never part with that birthmark" (770).   In "Rappaccini's Daughter," when the dying Beatrice cries out, "O, was not there, from the first, more poison in thy nature than in mine?" (1005), Hawthorne is criticizing Giovanni for relinquishing his belief that "the real Beatrice was a heavenly angel" (1001), not for his inability to accept female sensuality.  Even the ineffectual Owen is treated sympathetically as "the ideal artist" striving to keep faith in his refined vision in spite of a crass and hostile world; it is never stated that his problem might be misguided assumptions about art and life.  The crucial exception to this pattern is "Drowne's Wooden Image."   Although the story contains Hawthorne's usual insistence on "the ethereal essence of humanity" (935) and the need to spiritualize matter, it is clear that the woman Drowne carves is endowed with passionate vitality: The strange, rich flowers of Eden on her head; the complexion, so much deeper and more brilliant than those of our native beauties; the foreign, as it seemed, and fantastic garb, yet not too fantastic to be worn decorously in the street; the delicately- wrought embroidery of the skirt; the broad gold chain about her neck; the curious ring upon her finger; the fan, so exquisitely sculptured in open work, and painted to resemble pearl and ebony;where could Drowne, in his sober walk of life, have beheld the vision here so matchlessly embodied!  And then her face!  In the dark eyes and around the voluptuous mouth there played a look made up of pride, coquetry, and a gleam of mirthfulness, which impressed Copley with the idea that the image was secretly
enjoying the perplexed admiration of himself and all other beholders(939).

Clearly, this is not a sentimental fair maiden, but a mature woman in all her infinite variety.  Drowne has created her in "a brief season of excitement, kindled by love," and Hawthorne is exactly right when he adds that "Drowne was more consistent with himself when he wrought the admirable figure of the mysterious lady, than when he perpetuated a whole progeny of blockheads" (943).  The question is, has Hawthorne yet learned to be "consistent" with his own passionate self?  Until he can outgrow his recoil from sensual experience and renounce his tendency to idealize instead of embody the physical world, the masterpiece he has been striving for will elude him.  He will never be able to create Hester and write The Scarlet Letter.
 

 

 

Works Cited

Crews, Frederick.  The Sins of the Fathers.  London: Oxford
University Press, 1966.

Freud, Sigmund.  Sexuality and the Psychology of Love.  New York:
Collier Books, 1963.

Hawthorne, Julian.  Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife: A Biography.
2 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1884.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel.  The Letters.   The Centenary Edition of the
Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Vols. XV-XVII.  Columbus: Ohio State
University Press, 1985.

Hawthorne's Lost Notebook, 1835-1841.   Ed. Barbara S.
Mouffle.  University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1978.

Novels.  New York: The Library of America, 1983.

Tales and Sketches.  New York: The Library of America, 1982.

Lawrence, D. H.  Studies in Classic American Literature.  New
York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1930.

Mellow, James R.  Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times.  Boston:
Houghton Mifflin Co., 1980.

Melville, Herman.  "Hawthorne and His Mosses."  Nathaniel
Hawthorne's Tales.  Ed. James McIntosh.  New York: W. W. Norton & Co.,
1987.

Miller, J. Hillis.  Hawthorne and History.  Oxford: Basil
Blackwell, Inc., 1991.

Thompson, Roger.  Sex in Middlesex: Popular Mores in a
Massachusetts Colony, 1649-1699. Amherst: University of Massachusetts
Press, 1986.

Young, Philip.  Hawthorne's Secret.   Boston: David R. Godine,
1984.

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William Heath: The Power of Passion, essay, 2
Copyright 1999 The Cortland Review Issue ThreeThe Cortland Review