(Return to Web Text-ures)
Click Here to return to
IN his half-apologetic preface to The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne professes to disparage the value of the cold New England history as material for romance. He has shown however his own artistic sense of the relative value of this material, in his frequent choice of that period of history before the revolt of the colonies, when a miniature court offered some of those contrasts in the externals of life which furnish the romanticist with the color and richness he desiderates. It is true the Province House would have cut but a poor figure if it had been placed alongside a royal residence in England, but as seen through the magnifying glass of a New England imagination it had the requisite state, and it was not much more difficult for a lover of the picturesque to reconstruct a pageant in it, than it was for the courtiers of King James the First to see a divinity-hedged king in the half-naked Powhatan.
The Boston of Hawthorne's youth, moreover, still preserved a quaint dignity in its streets, houses, and names which rendered it easy to re-people it with a more mannered folk and to make it the scene of ceremony and high social functions. Such streets as Franklin Street and Summer Street, such gardens as could be seen in Chauncy Street and in Pemberton Square, hinted at dignity carefully secluded from common gaze, and by way of contrast, the little alleys that stole across the main thoroughfares, emerging in the open light, to duck again and go under buildings and skirt back yards, made easy the suggestion that dignity had its counterpart in humble ways.
As the opening pages of the Legends of the Province House intimate, the Province House itself, though much fallen from its high estate, was not without its reminiscence of grandeur; and to-day, the court which bears its name, in spite of its miscellaneousness, is approached so furtively that one might be forgiven if he turned into it, and turn he must, with a half expectation of finding Deacon Drowne's wooden Indian instead of the plaster images that till lately populated the place. I believe a bit of the wall of the Province House may remain, and that the clerk who makes his way to Boston Tavern brushes past it, but the interior was long ago demolished after the declining state of Thomas Waite's tavern was given a rapid push downward by the antics of a negro minstrel show which was housed there.
The imaginative handling which Hawthorne gave to New England history finds a fit companion to the Legends in that dramatic and elusive tale of "The Gray Champion," in which Hawthorne blends the story of the regicides with the myth of many variants which finds expression in the tales of King Arthur, Frederick Barbarossa and Holger the Dane. Perhaps in no other sketch has Hawthorne shown more of that will-o'-the-wisp genius which enabled him to lead the prosaic reader of New England history into the low ground and misty regions where legends are made.
In a brief paragraph in one of his Note-Books Hawthorne jotted down what might well have been the first suggestion of "The Great Stone Face." "The semblance of a human face," he writes, "to be formed on the side of a mountain, or in the fracture of a small stone, by a lusus naturae. The face is an object of curiosity for years or centuries, and by and by a boy is born whose features gradually assume the aspect of that portrait. At some critical juncture the resemblance is found to be perfect. A prophecy may be connected."
It is not impossible that this conceit occurred to Hawthorne before he had himself seen the Old Man of the Mountain, or the Profile, in the Franconia Notch which is generally associated in the minds of readers with this story.
The gently allegorical character of this and many of Hawthorne's sketches and stories reflects both a fashion of the time when he wrote, and the composition of his own mind, which blended the inherited moralizing of the Puritan and the artistic sense which is so pathetically set forth in his own Pygmalion story of Deacon Drowne's Wooden Image. But it may be doubted if Hawthorne ever more surely or more delicately presented his artistic consciousness than in the little fantasy of "The Snow-Image," which seems to me to find its true parallel in Andersen's tale of The Ugly Duckling. Hawthorne encountered in the world about him that same skepticism of the reality of works of the imagination which kind Mr. Lindsey stoutly averred, and he seems always to have stood a little off and looked at himself and the figures which rose under his shaping hands as if they were of a perishable material which needed to be screened from the warmth of human life if they were to preserve their reality.
H. E. S.