The English Notebooks Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

As a result of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s close friendship with President Franklin Pierce for whom he had written a successful campaign biography, he was appointed United States Consul to Liverpool in 1853. Hawthorne eagerly anticipated his first trip abroad, although he hated to leave his pleasant home in Concord.

During the years Hawthorne was in England, 1853-1858, he did no creative writing, largely because he was too busy with his duties as consul and also because he spent much time touring England, Scotland, and Wales. But he did keep an extensive notebook of his English sojourn, and this journal of 300,000 words, comprising seven manuscript volumes, is what has come down to us as THE ENGLISH NOTEBOOKS.

THE ENGLISH NOTEBOOKS has had a curious history. It was first published posthumously in 1870 as PASSAGES FROM THE ENGLISH NOTEBOOKS, edited by Hawthorne’s wife Sophia. But this edition was a bowdlerized version. To abide by standards of Victorian taste, Mrs. Hawthorne very carefully revised her husband’s manuscripts, superimposing an aura of decorum on the whole book. She made stylistic revisions, deleting colloquialisms or substituting genteel language for Hawthorne’s more commonplace terminology; she omitted passages in which mundane, unsavory, or crude subjects were treated; she withheld passages which were too harsh on England and on various English contemporaries of Hawthorne; and she struck out those which gave too personal an account of the Hawthorne family. Though Sophia’s version of the journals was better than nothing, obviously it cast deceptive shadows on the true personality of her husband.

It was not until the work of the late Randall Stewart that THE ENGLISH NOTEBOOKS was published in its authentic form. Stewart’s edition, made possible by infrared light as well as his own deft scholarly judgment, gives us Hawthorne’s own words and thereby not only gives us a more candid look at the author’s view of England and its people but also presents us with a Hawthorne who is more human, more worldly in interests—in short, more alive—than the rather stolid personage of Sophia’s rendition. The notebooks as edited by Stewart are now the standard edition.

The notebooks are not only a fascinating, detailed account of many aspects of England—its topography, the customs of its people, the splendors of its historic buildings—but also an important disclosure of a nineteenth century American’s feelings toward England. Hawthorne’s reaction to the mother country was in part unfavorable. As Professor Stewart points out in his introduction, such a bias was not uncommon among Americans of that day, for a strong patriotism augmented by the Revolution and the War of 1812 still lingered in this country. England was still something of a foe. Moreover, there was much supercilious criticism of America by the British in many English books and periodicals that criticized and satirized America and her customs. As a result, in the notebooks Hawthorne asserts America’s superiority over England whenever he can. He writes of the superiority of American women over their “gross” English counterparts; he praises the common American man for knowing more of political happenings than the English countryman; he even feels American natural scenery, though not as richly verdant as that in England, is superior. He rarely wearies of lightly scoffing at the diminutive lakes, rivers, and mountains he sees in England. And he notes the relative lack of brooks and streams in England as compared to those found in New England.

But there was also much about England that attracted Hawthorne. He loved the beauties of nature, such as the luxuriant hedge rows, and felt in some...

(The entire section is 1538 words.)