- The Entanglements of Nathaniel Hawthorne: Haunted Minds and Ambiguous Approaches by Samuel Chase Coale
With this volume, Hawthorne joins a gradually expanding roster of American writers covered in Camden House’s “Literary Criticism in Perspective” series, which features historical studies of critical and cultural reception. Tracing diverse patterns and permutations in the extensive dossier on America’s first canonical author, The Entanglements of Nathaniel Hawthorne promises, like other titles in the series, to help scholars and students cultivate critical memory and, optimally, the critical self-reflexivity that depends on it. Compared to The Afterlife of Edgar Allan Poe (Camden House, 2007), with which Scott Peeples (now supervising editor) inaugurated the series, Coale’s book may tempt fewer readers to persevere with it from cover to cover. Where Peeples opted, as he put it, “to be more of a storyteller than a bibliographer” (ix), Coale assumes the latter role at least as regularly as the former. The story of Hawthorne criticism may or may not warrant less narrating than Poe criticism, but undoubtedly, to be fair, it involves more collating. And Coale does pursue relevant thematic and argumentative continuities from chapter to chapter, highlighting in particular the dualistic approaches that Hawthorne’s critics and biographers have tended to favor from the first reviews onward. This book will thus appeal most to those who care to know the long (pre-)histories of the questions they take up concerning Hawthorne—and the “entanglements,” to use Coale’s reiterated term, from which those questions may [End Page 262] prove hard to abstract. Of course, readers who prefer to consult it more selectively as a convenient bibliographical resource should also find this book useful and suitably balanced in terms of inclusion and selection.
The book begins with an assessment of Hawthorne’s enduring presence in “everyday” American culture, based specifically on the iconic recognition accorded to The Scarlet Letter as a staple reading for high school students, a source for film and theater adaptations (examined in some detail), a commonplace in popular discourse, and an influence on modern and contemporary fiction. While this engaging opening chapter helps to establish the importance of the chrono-topical bibliographical survey that follows, it does stand apart from the more narrowly literary business conducted in that survey. Enriching our awareness of the sometimes disproportionate significance attached to The Scarlet Letter, and to the Hawthorne whose mind and magnitude it purports to explain, Coale stops short of interrogating that disproportion. Other works, and any “Hawthornes” they might reveal, must make themselves known in the chapters that follow. In order, those chapters cover Hawthorne’s antebellum reputation as “morbid genius”; his late nineteenth-century canonization as nationally representative author and gentleman; his many lives, psychological and social, as told by twentieth-century biographers; his complex evaluation (as novelist and/or romancer) by New Critics; his centrality in late-twentieth-century debates about the American romance tradition; and his reassessment over the last few decades from ideological and contextual (i.e., feminist, masculinist, racial, and new historicist) perspectives. At the midway point marked by the advent of the New Criticism, Coale concedes that “[w]ading though Hawthorne criticism and biography in the last half of the nineteenth, and early decades of the twentieth is by and large a thankless task” (91), looking forward implicitly to the advent of contemporary industry standards. But major interwar and postwar critics such as Matthiessen, Fogle, Levin, and Coale’s mentor, Waggoner (to name a few), did not achieve a clean break from their Victorian and turn-of-the-century forbears. Rather, Coale underscores the tensions that perplex Hawthorne’s writing as well as critical responses to it, past and present:
The dualistic perspective—either/or, neither/nor, both/and—has been deeply rooted in Hawthorne criticism from the very beginning. Polarities seem built into the very fabric of such criticism, a trend that would continue well into the twentieth century and beyond, no matter the focus of the analysis from formal structure and style to much wider social...