Hawthorne and the Intangible Life

New York Times Saturday Review of Books:

The New York Times Saturday Review of Books to-day answers splendidly and completely the superficial criticisms of Mr. Brownell on the art of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Mr. Brownell seems to be utterly unfitted to comprehend the “meditative mind.”

Hawthorne, like Amiel and Maurice de Guérin and Maurice Maeterlinck, is a type  of being to whom the Intangible Life is an existence within an existence. We have been told about the Simple Life and the Strenuous Life, but who has time for the Intangible Life?

To beings such as Hawthorne the nearest thing is the remotest thing, the remotest thing is the nearest thing. They can put their hands on Arcturus and Aldebaran familiarly, but their bedroom bureaus they do not know. They are never quite socketed in their environment, never quite come into contact with their own bodies; the world is a myth of their brains, something conjured up by the want of a Prospero; a haunted house at most—and this is seemed to Hawthorne. Their lives—such as Hawthorne’s—are meditations.

Hawthorne, read through his works, always seemed to be a man who was resolving a problem, and the flag of his spirit was always at half-mast for the obscure griefs that sucked away at his heart. The world to him was a ghost-walk, the green earth spinning around the sun only a troubled Elsinore. In that mystic imagination of his, which Mr. Brownell looks at with implied contempt, there were the fragmentary records of pasts long swallowed up; the shining dust of worlds crumbled beyond all possibility of reintegration, whirling black meteoric stones flung from the wreck of his own incalculable past selves—and the sorrow of all of this was set in his eyes. Those eyes! They seemed to be the lighted memory of some golden minute overlooked by Oblivion, a miraculous survival in his consciousness of a wonder time, a magical reminiscence that spoiled for him all this sickly fret called “contemporaneous life.” 

Certain beings there are—of which Hawthorne and Poe were types—who seem to be doing a work in some other sphere, to be occupied elsewhere, to be forced guests of earth, looking on things about them as clumsy forgeries of a thing done otherwhere on finer parchment than stone and wave and flesh and blood. Hawthorne was smitten with the Infinite, he was of the centaurs. Their brooding, wistful faces peer across the sills of the House of Revels and they pass on, unallied, aliens beneath an alien sun. They pity Time itself—Time, which seems to them overweighted, forever and forever holding up this accumulating burden of evil, this daily increment of inutile dream and deed, this perpetual postponement of final ends, with its stupidity of being “on the job.” 

New York, Dec. 30.


Source: The New York Times Saturday Review of Books, 4 Jan. 1908, p. 8