Emerson and Hawthorne in Conversation
As I read The House of the Seven Gables, a particular passage caught my attention. “That,” I said, “sounds exactly like something I read by Emerson last semester!”
It shouldn’t be surprising that these two writers influenced each other. Both lived in Massachusetts in the early 1800’s when, thanks to Emerson and his colleagues, the Transcendentalist movement was going strong. While Thoreau was practicing living deliberately at Walden Pond, Hawthorne was writing The Scarlet Letter less than 30 miles away. When Hawthorne and his wife were living in Concord, Emerson actually invited him to join his social circle. Clearly, Hawthorne was no stranger to Emerson or his Transcendentalism, and comparing passages from their work reveals two narrators who seem to be operating on the same wavelength.
An Imaginary Conversation
Just for fun, I’ve assembled the following out of quotes from Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables and Emerson’s essay Nature to create a dialogue of sorts. We begin by asking each for their opinion on society’s relation to the past:
Hawthorne responds by saying: “‘Shall we never, never get rid of this Past?’ … ‘It lies upon the Present like a giant’s dead body! In fact, the case is just as if a young giant were compelled to waste all his strength in carrying about the corpse of the old giant, his grandfather, who died a long while ago, and only needs to be decently buried.'”
And Emerson’s answer comes in perfect agreement: “Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes.”
Hawthorne provides more examples: “‘A dead man, if he happen to have made a will, disposes of wealth no longer his own; or, if he die intestate, it is distributed in accordance with the notions of men much longer dead than he. A dead man sits on all our judgment seats; and living judges do but search out and repeat his decisions. We read in dead men’s books! We laugh at dead men’s jokes, and cry at dead men’s pathos! We are sick of dead men’s diseases, physical and moral, and die of the same remedies with which dead doctors killed their patients! We worship the living Deity according to dead men’s forms and creeds. Whatever we seek to do, of our own free motion, a dead man’s icy hand obstructs us!'”
Emerson nods in agreement and asks: “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?”
Hawthorne: “‘I ought to have said, too, that we live in dead men’s houses… But we shall live to see the day, I trust… when no man shall build his house for posterity… If each generation were allowed and expected to build its own house, that simple change, comparatively unimportant in itself, would imply almost every reform which society is now suffering for. I doubt whether even our public edifices– our capitols, state houses, courthouses, city halls, and churches– ought to be built of such permanent materials as stone or brick. It were better that they should crumble to ruin once in twenty years, or thereabouts, as a hint to the people to examine into and reform the institutions which they symbolize.”
And Emerson concludes: “Why should we grope among the dry bones of the past…? The sun shines today also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.”
A Bit of Bubble Bursting
Yeah, that’s right, I’m going to burst my own bubble here. It’s unfortunately necessary because, while Emerson is writing out his own ideas in his own voice, we must remember that The House of the Seven Gables is a novel. If you noticed the constant use of triple quotes, it’s because they were all taken from the dialogue of a character named Holgrave, which means that they can’t actually be connected in any way to Hawthorne’s real opinions on Transcendental thought. In fact, Holgrave himself appears to change his mind near the end of the story, saying of a certain house that it should have been built of stone rather than wood so that it could last longer.
To take things a step farther, I found out while doing a bit of research for this post that Hawthorne apparently had no love for Transcendentalism, having lived in a failed Utopian community based on those ideas. His novel The Blithedale Romance (which I unfortunately have yet to read) is said to satirize the Transcendental movement by drawing upon his experiences there.
So if Emerson and Hawthorne really sat down to have a discussion on Transcendentalism, it probably would have looked much less like this “great minds think alike” sort of exchange I made up and a lot more like a great big, cleverly worded argument. Now that is something I would really like to see!
- Ralph Waldo Emerson (captainslead.wordpress.com)
- Reading Emerson (starscrutiny.wordpress.com)
- Nathaniel Hawthorne (hilobrow.com)