Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Nathaniel Hawthorne American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Although Hawthorne is still required reading in many American literature courses in high schools and colleges, he is not especially popular with young readers. American fiction has changed greatly since his time. Popular twentieth and twenty-first century novelists make Hawthorne seem sententious and tedious, like some elderly relative who dominates the dinner-table conversation. Hawthorne’s style, once considered elegant and aristocratic, now seems artificial and needlessly complicated, the pernicious effect of the study of Latin. He is weak in dramatic construction; he avoids confrontations where confrontations seem obviously called for, as in the case of Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth at the conclusion of The Scarlet Letter.

Hawthorne has no qualms about stopping his narrative to present long descriptions of trees, flowers, streams, clouds, sunsets, houses, streets, pedestrians, and so forth. He lived at a time when photography was in its infancy and there was no way of reproducing photographs in books or magazines. (One of the principal characters in The House of the Seven Gables earns his living by making daguerreotypes, a primitive form of black-and-white photography.) Readers of Hawthorne’s time enjoyed verbal descriptions of beautiful landscapes or picturesque towns and cities; it was the only means they had of “seeing” them. Modern readers, who are saturated with mass media, have lost the ability to appreciate such detailed verbal descriptions and have a tendency to skip over them in order to get on with the story.

Hawthorne’s characters agonize over moral problems. They often seem impossibly noble or totally sinister to readers who are accustomed to more subtle characterization in fiction. Probably the feature that does the most to date Hawthorne’s stories and novels is his old-fashioned dialogue. As mentioned, the novels of Scott were the rage both in England and the United States during Hawthorne’s day. Hawthorne’s and Scott’s characters speak in the same overblown fashion, full of courtly phrases, noble sentiments, polysyllabic words, and carefully balanced sentences.

Mark Twain, the great American novelist, short-story writer, and humorist, sounded the death knell for this kind of writing—at least in the United States—by producing novels such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), in which the characters talk like real people and are actuated by credible human motivations.

This being the case, why do English teachers continue to assign Hawthorne’s short stories and novels as required reading in American literature courses? Hawthorne is important as the founding father of genuine American literature—as opposed to the transplanted English literature that flourished on the North American continent before his time. He can also be regarded as one of the creators of the modern short story, a literary form that has been described as America’s unique contribution to world literature.

Additionally, Hawthorne is important because of the influence he had on his successors, particularly in terms of theme and subject matter. He was the first American fiction writer to portray the color and drama in ordinary American life, so later writers such as Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and William Faulkner—in fact, all succeeding American writers—are deeply indebted to him. Through his dedication to his craft, Hawthorne showed his successors how to be American writers and not English men of letters living in exile. In practical terms, Hawthorne proved to American writers that they could compete with the more sophisticated English writers for the dollars readers paid for books. His works might be called an artistic declaration of independence.

In the long run, Hawthorne may be regarded as an important writer primarily because of his interest in human psychology and his explorations—daring at the time—of the dark side of human consciousness. Prior to Hawthorne, the function of...

(The entire section is 5,483 words.)