In The Devil in the Manuscript, Hawthorne conveys the message that an author’s words will endure rejection and criticism by others in society and by the author himself to live on with inexorable power. Furthermore, writing is a passion that cannot be extinguished; it exerts an indestructible force that overwhelms the author and readers.
Hawthorne exhibits this message through the actions of Oberon, a law student who composes poetry and tales. After his manuscript is rejected by all seventeen publishers to which he submitted it, Oberon plans to burn it and asks a friend (the narrator) to help him. The seventeen publishers range from those printing schoolbooks or five novels already, to those asking Oberon to help partially fund the publication while profiting from the loans themselves. He comically speculates that one man even quit the business in order to avoid publishing his manuscript! Most importantly, though, Oberon emphasizes the effect that “outsiders” can have on an author’s work. On the one hand, a person can try to alter or edit an author’s words, like a publisher who “has the impertinence to criticize them, proposing what he calls vast improvements.” On the other hand, as an “honest man” states “fairly,”
no American publisher will meddle with an American work,—seldom if by a known writer, and never if by a new one,—unless at the writer's risk.
Oberon’s attitude toward the publishers is twofold; while he smarts at their rejection, he also asserts his autonomy and preeminence as a writer. Like Hawthorne, Oberon views his work ambivalently and self-critically, righteously defending it against critics while expressing admiration yet having doubts about it. On the one hand, the friend (e.g., Hawthorne) asserts, “a bad author is always his own great admirer"; on the other hand, the publishers’ rejection turns Oberon the author against his own papers:
I loathe the very thought of them, and actually experience a physical sickness of the stomach, whenever I glance at them on the table. I tell you there is a demon in them.
Hawthorne injects the fantastical into The Devil in the Manuscript to illustrate how a piece of writing overpowers the author and takes on a life of its own. Oberon views his manuscript as his baby but as an evil—not innocent—creature. He holds the papers “with a mixture of natural affection and natural disgust, like a father taking a deformed infant into his arms.”
Like a nursing baby, the manuscript is a “hellish thing used to suck away the happiness of those who, by a simple concession that seemed almost innocent, subjected themselves to his power” (e.g., the author and reader). It is a monster that Oberon created and inflicted upon his friend to read:
there is a devil in this pile of blotted papers. You have read them, and know what I mean,—that conception in which I endeavored to embody the character of a fiend, as represented in our traditions and the written records of witchcraft.
The act of writing is a contagious affliction; when his friend admits “a desire to turn novelist, after reading your delightful tales,” Oberon exclaims, “Then, indeed, my devil has his claw on you! You are gone!” Writing not only separates the writer from society and reality but also engenders excessive pride and disregard of others:
You cannot conceive what an effect the composition of these tales has had on me. I have become ambitious of a bubble, and careless of solid reputation. I am surrounding myself with shadows, which bewilder me, by aping the realities of life. They have drawn me aside from the beaten path of the world, and led me into a strange sort of solitude,—a solitude in the midst of men,—where nobody wishes for what I do, nor thinks nor feels as I do.
Imagination and writing are uncontrollable and passions that conjure up, release, and yield nothing of value. Oberon has fantastical visions—like racing along the Milky Way or riding at night—that he puts to paper in writing … that become deflated in reality:
My ideas were like precious stones under the earth, requiring toil to dig them up, and care to polish and brighten them; but often a delicious stream of thought would gush out upon the page at once, like water sparkling up suddenly in the desert … [yet] I find no traces of the golden pen with which I wrote in characters of fire. My treasure of fairy coin is changed to worthless dross. My picture, painted in what seemed the loveliest hues, presents nothing but a faded and indistinguishable surface[.]
The friend tries to stop Oberon from destroying his work, praising them as highly imaginative, deep in pathos, and filled with original thoughts. Oberon retorts that he cannot stand the humiliation of criticism from others as well as from himself:
Would you have me a damned author?—To undergo sneers, taunts, abuse, and cold neglect, and faint praise, bestowed, for pity's sake, against the giver's conscience! A hissing and a laughing-stock to my own traitorous thoughts! An outlaw from the protection of the grave,—one whose ashes every careless foot might spurn, unhonored in life, and remembered scornfully in death!
Again, Hawthorne illustrates his ambivalent attitudes toward his writing: he admires it yet cringes under scrutiny of it by critics and himself.
In the end, Hawthorne describes fantastical sights visible in the burning manuscript, portraying it as a living document that resists destruction; Oberon sees in the flames
my lovers clasped in each other's arms. How pure the flame that bursts from their glowing hearts! And yonder the features of a villain writhing in the fire that shall torment him to eternity. My holy men, my pious and angelic women, stand like martyrs amid the flames, their mild eyes lifted heavenward. Ring out the bells! A city is on fire. See!—destruction roars through my dark forests, while the lakes boil up in steaming billows, and the mountains are volcanoes, and the sky kindles with a lurid brightness! All elements are but one pervading flame! Ha! The fiend!
Although the manuscript burns up in the fireplace, it sends embers up the chimney that spread and start a fire in the “wooden town.” Oberon declares,
The Fiend has gone forth by night, and startled thousands in fear and wonder from their beds! Here I stand,—a triumphant author! Huzza! Huzza! My brain has set the town on fire! Huzza!
Hawthorne demonstrates that the author has ultimate power and influence over others, for example, wide audiences of readers as well as the general public affected by the writer's words.