American Literature, American Renaissance, Book review., Books, History, Literary criticism, Michael J. Colacurcio, Mosses from an Old Manse, My Kinsman Major Molineux, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Puritans, The Province of Piety, Twice-Told Tales, Young Goodman Brown
I was intending to enjoy Michael J. Colacurcio’s The Province of Piety: Moral History in Hawthorne’s Early Tales (1984), but Professor Colacurcio’s particular historicist approach ultimately renders this landmark of “Hawthornean studies” something of an eyesore. The achievement of The Province of Piety is to validate its assumption that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s early romances amount to great philosophical fiction. We may put down the book assured that “Young Goodman Brown” is really is the equal of some mountain by Tolstoy; and relieved to find “The Wives of the Dead” categorised as “a crucial piece of evidence in any argument about the range of Hawthorne’s literary intentions,” rather than merely a trifle written to divert recipients of The Token gift-book. Market necessities often forced the leaders of the American Renaissance to value the quality rather than the quantity of their prose, and they consequently regarded the short story as a far more reputable and promising affair than do most modern authors. Yet rarely have examples of this genre been studied as seriously as they are in Province of Piety.
Colacurcio’s book was founded on the epiphany that “Hawthorne is Perry Miller,” and revised to contend that as a student and critic of Puritanism, Hawthorne is “our first intellectual historian… [who is] profitably compared with Perry Miller.” We here stumble upon a sort of parliament of Hawthorne’s critics, with Freudians heckling Historicists across the chamber. This institution had “philosophically imperfect” beginnings, when Herman Melville’s contention that “Young Goodman Brown” was “as deep as Dante” was “almost diametrically” opposed by Henry James’ conclusion that it was all froth and style. This boiled down to a question of Hawthorne’s Puritan inheritance: did he further its ambitions, or merely appropriate it as literary material?
Van Wyck Brooks took the latter view, demanding of Hawthorne’s early fiction “Could anything be more exquisite? Could anything more utterly fail to connect with reality in a practical Yankee world?” Herbert Schneider conveyed something of the former view in his assertion that Hawthorne “recovered what the Puritans professed but seldom practised – the spirit of piety, humility, and tragedy in the face of the inscrutable ways of God.” Colacurcio, however, will open up an entirely new front:
What if… Hawthorne’s primary relation to his Puritan ancestors had been in a significant sense “historical”? What if he had had to get them up as a quasi-academic subject, as part of a historical attempt to “re-cognize” the authorial intentions of writers such as John Winthrop and Cotton Mather , or to “re-enact” the primal American scene on the native grounds of the Puritan conscience itself?
Hawthorne’s mission, Colacurcio reasons, was to dispel various cherished myths about his readers’ collective history, and to deliver “a truer sense of their own identity in relation to the Puritan past.” Yet only a handful of Hawthorne’s tales will dance to this tune, and the Professor is thereby forced into the unhappy position of making aesthetic judgements from a historicist perspective. “The usable truth of this evocative yet strangely objective, intriguing yet intellectually baffling little tale is still to be sought,” Colacurcio despairs of “The Hollow of the Three Hills.” Maybe this is one to Henry James, who thought that the tales were just pretty. When Hawthorne’s attentions stray from Puritan history, Colacurcio snaps that “there is something half-hearted (if not positively dim-witted) about much that gets written into the Twice Told Tales,” although he will elsewhere grumble when a tale is “relentlessly learned without being adequately dramatic.” At one point, Colacurcio finds it “difficult to imagine how… massively objective and ruthlessly critical tales could have been written by the man who indulged himself in “Sights from a Steeple”.”
And it will transpire that Hawthorne was not only Perry Miller, but that he bore a curious resemblance to Michel Foucault, in his scepticism of “cosmic teleology” and his ambition “to recover the affective quality of human lives lived under conditions or assumptions different from those which prevailed in his own later and more liberal age.” If the latter sounds suspiciously like The History of Sexuality, Colacurcio himself, in writing from a decade when postmodernism was regarded as rather more than banal, feels obliged to write in sentences which almost, in some sense, appear to seem to be approaching some sort of point, without daring to broach anything resembling a certainty. The dithering and hesitating which frames every sentence – the little jig which we always have to perform before getting to the point – doubtlessly accounts for how the five hundred pages of The Province of Piety stack up. This is not merely a quibble over style – Hawthorne was and is one of America’s finest prose writers, and a poorly written study of his work becomes immediately alienated from its subject.
Postmodernism was often feted as progressive, but Hawthorne’s ideas are more recognisably reactionary. For example, Colacurcio attributes his Hawthorne’s insistence that “continuity is true and radical innovation is false” to the influence of Edmund Burke. The perfect multiculturalist, Colacurcio’s Hawthorne warns against losing “the possibility of cultural richness and diversity” along with the Tory contribution to American history. Heaven forefend, of course, that this Hawthorne would ever establish that “veritable certitude which the sciences require,” but Colacurcio repeatedly demonstrates the “contemporary relevance,” so to speak, of Hawthorne’s romances: “Roger Malvin’s Burial” serves to warn of “some dire public consequence which may be expected to follow from a lie about origins,”; “The Gray Champion” questions the assumption that Jacksonian democracy flowed seamlessly from America’s Puritan heritage; whilst “The Minister’s Black Veil,” it will turn out, furthers “the relentless unfolding of the obsessive modern plot of the (so far) unsuccessful search for the Self.”
Problematically, however, Colacurcio will abandon his analysis at just this point. We may be left fascinated by all the circuitry of meaning within Hawthorne’s fictions, but uncertain about its purpose or relevance. Nineteenth-century authors often found the literary marketplace to be a forbidding frontier, and it will not suffice to merely maintain that Hawthorne attempted “to introduce some element of “criticism” into the very sphere of public myth-making.” This is one of the few remarks which Colacurcio bestows on the subject of the relationship between Hawthorne and commerce, and perhaps one is left to assume that the early romances were not the products of market determinism because they were commercial failures. We may conclude that in the absence of literary opportunity, Hawthorne merely indulged in whimsical rhetorical games for his own amusement. Colacurcio notes, for example, how the narrator of “Alice Doane’s Appeal” despairs of an “audience which obviously lacks the literary sophistication to discern the historical truth of a metaphorical fiction.”
Hawthorne may have crafted elaborate narratives packed with encrypted critiques of American mythology, but the insinuation that there was an intended reader for these stories is rather implausible. The first reviewers of Twice Told Tales commended their gentle and graceful prose, comparing Hawthorne to Charles Lamb. Longfellow puffed the anthology as a “sweet sweet book.” There were more perceptive responses to Hawthorne’s Mosses, particularly Charles Wilkins Webber’s conclusion that they provided the “specific remedy for all those congestions of patriotism which relieve themselves in uttering speeches.” Colacurcio maintains that Hawthorne “thought of himself as re-telling, for ironic effect, stories everyone was already supposed to know,” but this does not quite account for the depth and detail of Hawthorne’s historical fiction. For all Colacurcio’s historicism, he tenders the traditional conception of Hawthorne as the Romantic loner – undertaking a methodical and sceptical education in American history under his own volition, without academic supervision – and writing almost within a historical vacuum, bereft of anxieties of influence or creative allies. And to alleviate Hawthorne’s isolation, Colacurcio himself steps forward as an only child of his creative vision, the only reader in history who has understood.
In this monomania, the Professor ends up becoming intolerant of the ambiguity which is plainly central to Hawthorne’s aesthetic. In reviewing “The Wives of the Dead,” Colacurcio is keen to spare us “the troublesome (irresolvable) suspicion that everything which follows is only a dream.” He disapproves of “the all-involving ambiguity (and cliché) or a dream.” His reading of this tale is particularly fine (for all his scepticism of “psychological” criticism, Colacurcio is at his best when speculating upon the motivations of Hawthorne’s protagonists), but to insist upon a “correct” interpretation of such a dreamy tale, as if one was solving a crossword puzzle, is to suppress the very interpretative freedoms licensed by the fiction. Colacurcio is equally intolerant of the “dream-or-not” question which has dogged Goodman Brown’s adventures: “It is all, quite demonstrably, a technical case of specter evidence.” We are required to adopt a Man-in-the-Moon-esque detachment from Robin Molineux’s tribulations, and recognise the “provincial ordinariness of democratic guilt.” Ordinariness is an unhappy place for a reading of this sparkling tale to arrive at.
It is easy to ridicule Colacurcio for insensitivity, for wandering from Hawthorne’s dreamy moonlight and seeking to explain rather than enjoy these Romances, with an incongruous resort to pedantry, academic discipline, and rational critique. In his hands, Hawthorne’s fictions are apt to look exceedingly like a volume of blank pages. A clear danger of this caricature of Colacurcio is anti-intellectualism – a flat refusal to explore indisputable subtexts to Hawthorne’s early fictions. But when Colacurio’s analysis of “The Minister’s Black Veil” seems to be ten times longer than the tale itself, and when not only has Hawthorne read the twelve sermons delivered before Governor Belcher, but “the story obviously suggests that the responsible reader ought to have done so as well,” then we may beginning to suspect the Professor of philistinism. The historical detail of Hawthorne’s fictions is, one proposes, merely a small part of their beauty and richness.
Moreover, it is also possible to criticise The Province of Piety for too narrow a historical vision. Unlike Professor Colacurcio, I am unversed in the intellectual history of Puritanism, but I am rather taken with Susan Manning’s (later) model of the Puritan-Provincial Vision, in which “Puritanism is not a body of doctrine but a state of mind,” the Puritan uncertainty over election renders faith “the subject of investigation,” and the Puritan is left with a “sense of the distance between himself and God.” Manning’s definition of the Puritan heritage encompasses everybody from Daniel Defoe to David Hume, and it seems a broader and more appealing historicist approach than the theological paper trails mapped out by Colacurcio.
When Colacurcio asks, “Why resist the conclusion that, in the end, it is simply the timeless ‘haunting’ in Hawthorne which truly matters?” he is not about to surrender. “A complete answer to this complex but really single question would almost certainly involve an extended (and itself historical) analysis of our own ‘reader expectations’ as these are now so fully ‘psychologistic’… why do we regularly prefer, as handmaiden to literary interpretation, those disciplines which structure and generalise, as opposed to ones which elaborate and specify?” Why, in other words, do we persist in seeing the wood for the trees? One answer may be that reading is an aesthetic act, which liberates the imagination, rather than a “discipline.” A further answer may be that it was unreasonable for Hawthorne to have expected his readers to be Perry Miller.