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Mosses from an Old Manse (Modern Library Classics) Paperback – March 11, 2003
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“Whatever Nathaniel Hawthorne may hereafter write, Mosses from an Old Manse will ultimately be accountedhis masterpiece.”—Herman Melville
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"Mosses from an Old Manse is Nathaniel Hawthorne's second story collection, first published in 1846 in two volumes and featuring sketches and tales written over a span of more than twenty years, including such classics as "Young Goodman Brown," "The Birthmark," and "Rappaccini's Daughter." Herman Melville deemed Hawthorne the American Shakespeare, and Henry James wrote that his early tales possess "the element of simple genius, the quality of imagination. That is the real charm of Hawthorne's writing--this purity and spontaneity and naturalness of fancy."
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Unlike "Twice-Told Tales", a collection of somewhat hit-and-miss stories that owes some of its culture notoriety to its quaint title and much of the rest of it to one story ("The Minister's Black Veil"), "Mosses" catches Hawthorne's engaging genius at full flower. Right from the first of the Manse stories, the wonderful Poe-like "The Birthmark", about a scientist who risks losing his lovely bride in pursuit of perfection, Hawthorne shows himself in utter command: "In his grasp the veriest clod of earth assumed a soul."
Actually, Hawthorne begins the demonstration earlier than in his first proper story, with his introductory sketch about the house where he composed his stories, "The Old Manse" in Concord, Massachusetts. It's the only piece here that didn't see prior publication, and has Hawthorne ruminating, lightly but memorably, about the perishability of human thought. It also establishes the strong ambiance of time and place, crusty New England in its post-Puritan period, that undergirds much of what follows.
"Genius, indeed, melts many ages into one, and thus effects something permanent, yet still with a similarity of office to that of the more ephemeral writer," he explains.
More false humility? Maybe. But Hawthorne gives the impression, here and elsewhere in "Manse", of being utterly sincere. It's his blessing and curse. Even when he writes a story where the allegory, the moral point of the matter, is developed clearly enough, he feels a need to underscore his points with narrative rumination. At least he doesn't capitalize key words as he did in "Twice-Told Tales".
Yet unlike the stories in "Tales", which are often quite beautiful but easier to reduce, there is greater ambiguity and depth in "Manse". You have to take Hawthorne's messaging here with a grain of salt. Sure, there's a point in "The Birthmark", about being content with nature's imperfections, but there's also sympathy for the erring, striving doctor that complicates the picture, and connects it up with Hawthorne's own vocation.
One of the last stories here, "The Artist Of The Beautiful", is a marvelous bookend in that regard, regarding the attainment of perfection, and as open-ended a story as Hawthorne ever wrote. It's a crushing tale, and yet quite positive, a miracle of creation by itself.
In between, Hawthorne's variety is on full display, as it was in "Twice-Told Tales", only the work is uniformly better. Not only do you have a stronger body of celebrated stories, like "Young Goodman Brown" and "Roger Malvin's Burial", but the less-heralded stories are nearly all brilliant. No dated bits of patriotic ephemera like "Gray Champion" or strained symbolism like "The Maypole Of Merry Mount" to be found here. You get instead inspired bursts of stirring melancholy ("The Christmas Banquet", "Feathertop") alleviated by clever gusts of humor ("Mrs. Bullfrog", "The Celestial Railroad"), and everywhere a modulated appreciation for the complexity of the human condition. "Earth's Holocaust" may be an ur-text for American conservativism, but then there's the transcendental strain that enlivens "Fire Worship".
A couple of stories here feel overwritten, but you will get that with such a large body of work, not to mention Hawthorne's anxiety to please. Overall, the tales and sketches of "Old Manse" is a stirring display of how much a great writer can capture of life, ironic given how many of the stories contemplate (and in a roundabout way, celebrate) the limitations of human imagination. A thing of joy, "Manse" holds its own alongside any of Hawthorne's great novels.
_Mosses from an Old Manse_ (1846) consists of a descriptive/poetic prologue (titled "The Old Manse") followed by 25 short stories. Hawthorne wrote the work collected here between 1932 and the date of publication; a second edition, from 1854, added three pieces, "Feathertop," "Passages from a Relinquished Work," and "Sketches from Memory," all three of which are included in the Modern Library edition. Generally speaking, Hawthorne's stories can be divided into two categories: tales and sketches. To put it simply, the tales are plot driven, while the sketches are descriptive in nature.
The collection includes three classics: "Young Goodman Brown," "Rappaccini's Daughter," and "The Birth-mark." Most collections of Hawthorne's work will include these. The first is the famous account of a meeting, in the woods, with one of literature's oldest characters, viz. the Devil himself. "Rappaccini's Daughter" is one of Hawthorne's longest stories, and I would argue it is more of a novella. The story takes place in Italy, where a scientist works with poisonous plants. One day, a young student sees the scientist's beautiful daughter Beatrice (yes, like Dante's love), and so the story really begins, as the two lovers share moments in the scientist's poisonous garden, a clear allusion to--and perversion of--the Garden of Eden. "The Birth-mark" suggests that imperfection is an integral part of human nature, and it touches upon the male obsession with female purity.
Of the less known texts, some of my favorites were "Feathertop," "Egotism; or, The Bosom-Serpent," "Drowne's Wooden Image," "Roger Malvin's Burial," and "The Artist of the Beautiful." In "Feathertop," subtitled "A Moralized Legend," a witch gives life to a scarecrow and sends him out into the world, to conquer a young woman. The question is raised: how fake is the scarecrow, and how real "normal" people? "Egotism; or, The Bosom-Serpent" concerns a man who is convinced that there is a snake living in his chest. Among other things, the story is about the redeeming qualities of human relationships, that is, of looking outside of oneself. "Drowne's Wooden Image" is about an artist who creates a beautiful figurehead for a captain's ship; one day, the latter is seen walking with an apparently foreign lady who looks exactly like the wooden image. (Hawthorne was great both at the fantastic and at the seemingly fantastic.) "Roger Malvin's Burial" deals mostly with the feeling of guilt and with the inescapable nature of fate. Finally, in "The Artist of the Beautiful," a man creates a mechanic butterfly. The tale juxtaposes the artistic/spiritual temperament with the practical/material one.
Now, to the sketches. Though not as famous as the stories, these are poetic, and in them it is the language itself that takes center stage. In a sense, the sketches are for Hawthorne initiates, as readers new to the author might prefer the more traditional stories. "Buds and Bird-Voices" is a meditation on the coming of spring. "Fire-Worship" laments the replacement of the hearth by the stove. Probably one of the most well-known, "The Celestial Railroad" is an allegory based on John Bunyan's _The Pilgrim's Progress_, only now the pilgrimage is made by railroad. The style of "The Procession of Life" recalls that of Emerson, as it sounds quite like a sermon. "The worst possible fate," Hawthorne writes, "would be to remain behind, shivering in the solitude of time, while all the world is on the move towards eternity." I also enjoyed "A Select Party," about a fantastic fete in a castle in the air, with impossible, paradoxical guests, and featuring a library of books that were never written, but that remained in the minds of their authors. "The Hall of Fantasy" is the description of an ideal realm, akin to Swift's Laputa. The doppelgänger, the duality of personality, or the relationship between a person and his/her ego, is the topic of "Monsier du Miroir." "The New Adam and Eve" places the first couple in the modern world after some kind of catastrophe, and follows them as they try to make sense of the ruins. In "The Intelligence Office," people enter a store to ask for the inmost desires, à la _Needful Things_, while "P.'s Correspondence" tells of a man for whom time has become mixed up. "Earth's Holocaust" describes the burning of things mankind has become tired of: robes, books, weapons, instruments of torture, alcohol, money, even religious symbols. The wonderful "A Virtuoso's Collection" describes a museum of literary objects. This sketch is a great example of the text in which setting is the most important element. This is more modern than may appear. (Think of Borges' "The Library of Babel," for instance.)
I realize the only texts I haven't described so far are "Mrs. Bullfrog," "The Christmas Banquet," "The Old-Apple Dealer," "Passages from a Relinquished Work," and "Sketches from Memory." The last two, as I pointed out above, were added to the 1854 edition. "Passages" is about a young man who decides to leave the home of the pastor who raised him, in order to become a wandering storyteller. There is a reference in it to "Mr. Higginbotham's Catastrophe," an excellent story from Hawthorne's first collection, _Twice-Told Tales_ (1837). My least favorite piece, "Sketches" consists of a series of descriptions of a walking tour. "The Old Apple-Dealer" is a beautiful character study of a seemingly insignificant vendor. In "The Christmas Banquet," a man offers a yearly meal for the miserable, and the character who seems most out of place there turns out to be the most fitting guest. Finally, "Mrs. Bullfrog" is a hilarious comment on marriage.
In the preface, "The Old Manse," Hawthorne calls his tales and sketches "the scattered reminiscences of a single summer, [...] which had blossomed out like flowers in the calm summer of my heart and mind." He sees his readers as a circle of friends. When he writes the preface, he is at the Custom House (see the introductory chapter of _The Scarlet Letter_), so he is looking back on his days at the Manse and the stories he wrote there. He recalls the river, the library, Emerson, who owned the house... It is said that in later years the author spoke in slightly disparaging terms about _Mosses from an Old Manse_, claiming that he didn't understand what he had meant by the tales and sketches included in the collection. That is quite alright. An author often does not know what he/she means; it is for the reader to decide what each piece means to him/her, and for each reader the text will have a different, personal meaning. That is the beauty of literature.
_Mosses from an Old Manse_ is one of the greatest short-story collections in the whole of literature, by one of the immortals of American literature. Both the tales and the sketches exhibit a mastery of the craft, and display the beauty of the English language and of its American form in particular. I will never forget the pleasant hours this book afforded me, and I'm quite sure I will come back to it often.
My next Hawthorne will be either _Twice-Told Tales_ or _The House of the Seven Gables_.
Thanks for reading, and enjoy the book!