Hawthorne's Mosses from an Old Manse

Extollager

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Having completed a reading of Hawthorne's thick first collection, Twice-Told Tales

Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales

I mean, starting in a few days, to start a similar series of postings on his second collection, Mosses from an Old Manse (1846). While I'm glad to have read the first collection, and discovered some nice pieces in it that aren't noticed often, I expect to like this second collection more overall. Just look at that table of contents!

Mosses from an Old Manse - Wikipedia

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Extollager

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I'm relishing the Preface, which is missing from the Project Gutenberg texts of Mosses from an Old Manse, it seems, but available online from the University of Adelaide (link below). The Preface is providing a glimpse of that genial Hawthorne who deserves to be better known. He writes of his study with its cheerful wallpaper and the shady willow outside the window, the slow-moving Concord stream he can see from his house, finding Indian arrow-heads as Thoreau taught him to do, and the satisfaction of gardening:

....the light toil requisite to cultivate a moderately sized garden imparts such zest to kitchen vegetables as is never found in those of the market-gardener. Childless men, if they would know something of the bliss of paternity, should plant a seed — be it squash, bean, Indian corn, or perhaps a mere flower or worthless weed — should plant it with their own hands, and nurse it from infancy to maturity altogether by their own care. If there be not too many of them, each individual plant becomes an object of separate interest. My garden, that skirted the avenue of the Manse, was of precisely the right extent. An hour or two of morning labor was all that it required. But I used to visit and revisit it a dozen times a day, and stand in deep contemplation over my vegetable progeny with a love that nobody could share or conceive of who had never taken part in the process of creation. It was one of the most bewitching sights in the world to observe a hill of beans thrusting aside the soil, or a row of early peas just peeping forth sufficiently to trace a line of delicate green. Later in the season the humming-birds were attracted by the blossoms of a peculiar variety of bean; and they were a joy to me, those little spiritual visitants, for deigning to sip airy food out of my nectar-cups. Multitudes of bees used to bury themselves in the yellow blossoms of the summer-squashes. This, too, was a deep satisfaction; although, when they had laden themselves with sweets, they flew away to some unknown hive, which would give back nothing in requital of what my garden had contributed. But I was glad thus to fling a benefaction upon the passing breeze with the certainty that somebody must profit by it and that there would be a little more honey in the world to allay the sourness and bitterness which mankind is always complaining of. Yes, indeed; my life was the sweeter for that honey.

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hawthorne/nathaniel/mosses/complete.html#chapter1
 

Extollager

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I'm not rereading "The Birth-Mark," certainly one of Hawthorne's major short stories, and one that I included in one of the college courses I taught, which contained an introduction to literature component. For what they may be worth, here are notes on the story that I provided for the students, to go with the text as printed in a little Dover Thrift edition of Hawthorne. Students could earn a bit of credit if they read the story ahead of the discussion date, sending me an email about it. The "textbook" referred to was an online document I had prepared.

Notes on “The Birthmark” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Have you ever wondered when science fiction was invented? Sometimes Mary Shelley is credited as having written the first indisputable work of SF, Frankenstein, which was published in 1818. Edgar Allan Poe has been considered an early writer in the field that came to be known as science fiction. As you will see when you read “The Birthmark,” Nathaniel Hawthorne deserves to be recognized as a writer of proto-science fiction for works such as this 1843 story.

This remarkable story is, simultaneously, notably dated – it refers to a lot of outdated science – and notably timely, dealing with issues that vex people right now. It deals with issues of ethics and science-technology; and it deals with how men look at women.

p. 11 Georgiana’s lovers – i.e. men who admired her. Sign-manual: a sign in the shape of a hand.

p. 14 Pygmalion – in Greek mythology.

p. 16: do Aylmer’s artificial pictures remind you of anything?

p. 17 elixir vitae – elixir of life.

p. 18 Paracelsus, et al.: In The Abolition of Man, a short book that education majors should read, C. S. Lewis points out that modern science was born in the Renaissance effort to compel nature to give up its/her secrets and to gain power over nature – and that this was the same goal as that of the Renaissance magicians. (The Renaissance, not the Middle Ages, was the high tide of interest in magic, contrary to the stereotype.) To simplify: earlier ages emphasized God as the Lord of the universe, with man having his place given him, as the various orders of angels and the animals, etc. had their places. With the Renaissance, and into our own time, the emphasis was more on man taking control of nature, forcing it to his will, harnessing its power in order to satisfy his own materialistic desires, and, perhaps, taking a place for himself that belonged to God alone.

Questions to think about:

What view of nature, or Nature, do you derive from this story?

What religious language do you detect in the story?

As always with Hawthorne, a rich but precise vocabulary is used. You should be prepared for several vocabulary items on the quizzes for any of the Hawthorne stories, although there might be only one vocabulary item. The important thing, of course, is to have a secure grasp of the story.

EMAIL -- TWO OPTIONS

All students: read the discussion of the four types of endings in the Literary Terms textbook and the four points of view (#2, #4 in the textbook).

Option A

Send an email of no more than 75 words (total), in which you write one sentence stating which of the four types of endings seem to you to be present in “The Birthmark,” and in which you include a second sentence in which you state which of the four points of view you believe predominates in this story, and why.

Also: all students, read the discussion of round and flat characters in the textbook.

Option B

Send an email of no more than 75 words (total), in which you explain whether you see (1) Aylmer and (2) Georgiana as a flat character or as a round character, and why. Write on both persons.
 

Bick

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I like these Hawthorne threads, Extollager. Can you comment on the nice images you've posted, and their relevance to the works. This is the house of Hawthorne? In your other thread on Twice Told Tales, there were several pictures of graveyards - to what do these specifically refer? Are they particular graveyards?

Cheers.
 

Extollager

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The house here is the Old Manse, yes. I think the graveyards were New England graveyards without a specifically Hawthornean significance. More Mosses comments coming soon! Thanks for your interest.
 

Extollager

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After "The Birth-Mark" comes "A Select Party" -- one of those Hawthornean allegorical pieces that have fallen into oblivion. As usual, it has a degree of charm, but that quality seems a bit labored, at least to a reader today. A man of fancy plays host to a group of figures such as the conventional Oldest Inhabitant, the Master Genius of the age (not recognized as such), and his own old day-dream characters. The wind rises, a storm comes, and all are blown away. I
 

Extollager

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Next come two masterpieces, "Young Goodman Brown," probably the creepiest of Hawthorne's tales, and "Rappaccini's Daughter," perhaps my favorite of Hawthorne's short fictions. It seems to cry out for illustration (were it not too late) by one ofthe Pre-Raphaelites such as J. W. Waterhouse.

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From my notes for students on "Young Goodman Brown":
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(G. Inness, Sunset in the Woods)
This is one of Hawthorne’s most famous short stories. It is a fantasy – neither Hawthorne nor his readers would have believed that the central situation in the story really was part of the literal history of Salem in colonial times. However, Hawthorne is serious about issues that are raised by the story. Like “Rappaccini’s Daughter” and other Hawthorne tales, this story can be read for escape, as simply a scary weird tale, but it also invites the kind of careful, attentive reading that “interpretive” stories solicit.
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(Inness, Edge of the Forest)
Incidentally, one of Hawthorne’s own ancestors was involved in the outbreak of anxiety about witchcraft in Salem. It happened a century and a half before Hawthorne wrote his story. For what it’s worth, here’s what Wikipedia says about the ancestor:

“John Hathorne (August 1641 – May 10, 1717) was a merchant and magistrate of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He is best known for his role as one of the leading judges in the Salem witch trials, and the only one who never repented of his actions. He was also a merchant in Salem, Massachusetts, and the patrilineal ancestor of writer Nathaniel Hawthorne.” [my italics]

Our story contains innumerable carefully-chosen details, ranging from when it occurs, where it occurs, to whom it occurs, etc. to small descriptive details. As always, Hawthorne employs a rich, precise vocabulary.

From my notes on "Rappaccini's Daughter":

p. 36 – the great Italian poem; Dante: The author refers to the famous Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. In the three books of the Comedy, the pilgrim – Dante himself – is led through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven by the Roman poet Virgil and the woman Dante fell in love with, Beatrice.

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Vertumnus – Roman god of the seasons. He won the nymph or goddess Pomona after he disguised himself as an old woman and gained entrance to her garden to speak with her.

p. 39 “virgin zone” – the passage in which this term occurs means that the young woman is radiantly beautiful and healthy-looking, and it’s as if all her vitality is held in by the belt or sash around her waist (zone can mean a belt; the old-fashioned use of the word contributes to the antique atmosphere of the story).

p. 41 “black-letter tracts” – early printed documents. They probably had printing that looked something like the print in this book:
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Be sure you can identify the five characters in the story.

Here’s a painting that doesn’t illustrate the story, but that relates to it when you realize that the plant near the woman is an oleander – i.e. a poisonous plant. Is the woman harmlessly sleeping near a dangerous plant? Has she somehow been overcome by it? Or is the person in danger not the woman, but the viewer, if the viewer approaches too closely? The painting works on an “escape” level – it’s an attractive picture that takes us away from slush, exams, and laundry needing to be washed; but it also invites “interpretation.” For example, we might wonder about this strange habit of earthly creatures, that they sleep, and about how, though proper sleep helps to keep us healthy, sleep itself makes sleepers look almost like they have died.
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Extollager

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"Mrs. Bullfrog" was clever, funny, and a bit gruesome, reminding me a little of Swift's "Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed." Hawthorne satirizes his fastidious narrator, Mr. Bullfrog, a dry-goods store assistant used to feminine charms. At last his heart is won, but in a coach accident, his brand-new bride's charms become a little bit shaken up. Hawthorne goes a step further, though, & provides a conclusion I didn't see coming! He gives a different answer than Blake to the question: "What is it in women that men do desire?"
 

Extollager

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"Fire-Worship" is a sketch contrasting the bygone fireplace and hearth with the new cast-iron stove. Hawthorne's Old Manse is heated by the later, but Hawthorne fondly remembers the former. "Truly it may be said, that the world looks darker for it. In one way or another, here and there, and all around us, the inventions of mankind are fast blotting the picturesque, the poetic, and the beautiful out of human life."

The hearth used to nurture domestic life, a warm centre with the fascination of the restless flames that could be watched in pauses in the long talk of a winter's evening. But now, Hawthorne suspects -- it's the Law of Unintended Consequences at work, isn't it? -- that the "easy gossip -- the merry, yet unambitious jest -- the life-long, practical discussion of real matters in a casual way -- the soul of truth, which is so often incarnated in a simple fireside word -- will disappear from earth." He remembers the old Roman little gods of the hearth.

I liked this essay.

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Extollager

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"Buds and Bird-Voices" may seem old-fashioned: too obviously intended to edify the reader, too given to familiar sentiments about spring.

Myself: I think man shall not live by irony and cleverness alone, and that one should make the effort to read and enjoy such a celebration of normal feelings, even if one might find that a few bits really might seem strained -- except that, after all, Hawthorne is writing with tongue in cheek and expects readers to get that, as when he meditates on lilac bushes in their decline and affects to be displeased with them and with people who are like them -- graceful and ornamental in their prime, but displeasing when they linger into old age.

The piece has plenty of good observation of changes brought by spring to the immediate neighborhood of the Old Manse and its environs. The local river was in flood from snowmelt -- I'll see something of that here in North Dakota, probably, in a few weeks, when our local river's ice melts.

Hawthorne likes the birds -- crows, gulls, sparrows, ducks. I try to keep track of the robins. Here in eastern North Dakota, I last heard a robin, before deep winter, on 22 October, and first heard one this year on 11 March. Our American robin is a thrush, not a member of the flycatcher family like the European robin.

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Extollager

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"Monsieur du Miroir" may remind readers of the Argentinian author's "Borges and Myself" and, even more remotely, the beginning of Harding's Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth (which I hasten to admit I've never managed to stick with). The Hawthorne performance didn't seem quite as good as I had thought it might be. One item of interest was his allusion to the idea that, from the bottom of a well, one could look up and see stars in daylight. That sort of thing is something I've run across before, and there's something like it in Tolkien's Mirrormere episode in The Fellowship of the Ring. So far as I know, this doesn't actually happen. It may be that it's rooted in the experience of people looking at reflections when Venus was visible (if you knew where to look) or at reflections of the sky in morning or evening, when Venus or the stars were visible in the sky if you looked in the right places. Perhaps someone can tell us more.
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Extollager

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"The Hall of Fantasy" ushers us into a locale where, first, we see shrines such as we might expecting such a place: Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, and others. But we see also those who imagine fanciful inventions and great business deals. We hear of the uppermost part of the Hall, where there's the telescope through which faith looks towards the celestial city, but also encounter the millenarian prophet Miller, which leads to a discussion of the end of the world.

Here's an extensively annotated text of the piece, from The New Atlantis:

 

Teresa Edgerton

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"Rappaccini's Daughter," and "The Birthmark" are by far my favorites among Hawthorne's stories. Especially "Rappaccini" which is a miracle of a story on so many levels.
 
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