No Longer a Thorne in My Side

Bust a Muse No Longer a Thorne in My SideJoshua Earle /

I finally managed to finish up The Complete Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The work of this author was one of the last literary frontiers I had yet to explore. This wasn’t from a lack of opportunity, I just had no interest: I had endured a compulsory reading of The Scarlet Letter years ago, and with each page turned in that novel I began to wonder if it wouldn’t be worth it to poke out my own eyes to get out of reading any more. That experience still haunting me, I wasn’t exactly giddy when I saw this collection of short stories, but I knew familiarizing myself with one of our most prolific authors was a rite de passage for me as a writer, history buff, and American.

So, holding the book a little away from me and flinching slightly, I slowly cracked it open, expecting nostalgia and moral condemnation to leap out at me. No such phenomenon occurring, I relaxed and took some time to behold it; the bibliophile in me was actually a little captivated by the musty smell, yellowed pages, and imperfect print. I started off slowly, painfully plodding along, but by the third or fourth story, I started to get the hang of it. I eventually became a Hawthorne-deciphering machine, plowing through pages at finger-fatiguing pace—I felt like Neo at the end of The Matrix when he sees everything in binary code.

Reading his works gives you plenty of “meta-matter,” to contemplate—as is to be expected from allegories—but I was surprised by how much of it in this anthology can still be applied to modern life. When you travel back through the many epochs and technological breakthroughs to Hawthorne’s time via his writings, you find the same basic fears, joys, faults, and struggles that sculpt our lives today. I found a predicament in “The New England Village” that differed little in similitude from one I personally have faced and contemplated before. The woman with whom the narrator is conversing divulges the hardships of her upbringing. As she is telling her tale, one line jumped out at me: “I was an orphan, and lived with my grandmother, who was as different from me in her habits and opinions as old people usually are from young ones.” It was another universal truth that Hawthorne had woven into a tale.

Some of the exhortations in other stories are more overt. This is sort of a letdown for the sleuth types that like to sift through mystery and intrigue to discover the author’s message, but their being affirmed by the characters gave them greater force and credence. One such instance was in “Graves and Goblins” when the narrator—the ghost speaking from his experiences in the hereafter—states to the mortal reader: ”Let nothing sordid or selfish defile your deeds or thoughts, ye great men of the day, lest ye grieve the noble dead.” My first reaction was, “Oh, that’s kinda cool.” Then terror struck: I mean, actions I get, but thoughts too? Man, my mind has grieved a lot of noble dead.

There are those, though, where you have to dig below the surface; “The Snow-Image: A Childish Miracle” is a fine example. Read literally, it’s just a tale of an obtuse dad that melts his kids’ snowman, who he thinks is a real child, by bringing it inside despite their pleas to leave it outside. But contemplating it further, one deciphers Hawthorne’s message: Even when attempting to do good, if you disregard the opinions and wishes of others, you can do harm. I started with this story (for no other reason than I like snow), and that proved auspicious because it was so captivating that it made me want to delve deeper into this author’s world. The story was beautifully simple yet elegant, detailed yet easy to read; after reading it, all of the preconceptions I had about Hawthorne melted away. (See what I did there?)

As an added bonus, the peruser (it’s my blog; I’ll make up words if I want to) of this anthology gets a crash course in the intricacies of sixteenth- to eighteenth-century New England history. Some of the important figures that pop up I knew of, but I never understood the significance of their strife or tyranny or triumph until given perspective by these tales. Some of the short stories provide insight into the politics of the day, others the customs, and show how both caused distress in the average person’s life. “The Gentle Boy” depicts the conflict in a certain village between the Quakers and the Puritans (two savage bunches, I know, hurling epithets and wishes for eternal damnation in flowery prose at each other). Their mutual animosity stemmed from ideological differences that eventually led to violent means of forcing conformity, and caught in the middle is a young boy who is orphaned by the persecution of his family. It was yet another cautionary tale whose hand seemed to reach through the ages to today to yet again wag its rebuking finger at mankind.

Some stories have silly character names and outlandish circumstances like a Poe story, which was a welcomed change of pace from the generally heavy style of most. But they are easier to read than Poe’s because half of it isn’t in a foreign language or in reference to a figure from classical literature. Some stories had a sentence or two of print-worthy text jammed into five pages. A small number were pretty bland—more informative than enthralling, like a Terms of Use agreement—but made up for it by the last sentence or two conveying some unique insight that I found myself contemplating days later. Fewer still didn’t excite me much at all in any regard.

Overall, this is a fantastic collection of Hawthorne’s short stories; the perspective-changing, age-old wisdom that is bestowed upon the reader far outweighs the few short stories that are lackluster. The language, to my pleasant surprise, was a daunting but ultimately surmountable obstacle; if you enjoy a vocabulary challenge, this is a pretty stout exercise. He was quite adept at vividly describing scenes and circumstances and emotions—allowing the reader to experience the beauty and torment of life right along with the characters—and it was on full display in these stories. My only regret is that I waited so long to start reading it.

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