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Common Knowledge 12.3 (2006) 410-419

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Outside The Custom-House?

On the Philosophy of Shyness

It is generally conceded that Nathaniel Hawthorne was shy. Accounts by those who knew him are clear: "Often, too, he was strangely shy, so much so that he has been known to leave the highway for the fields rather than encounter a group of approaching villagers." This comment, from an 1881 Harper's retrospective, is typical. The young William Dean Howells found the famous romancer "visibly shy to the point of discomfort"; Oliver Wendell Holmes compared Hawthorne to "a dim room with a little taper of personality burning on the corner of the mantel"; and Henry James Sr. said that he looked, in social situations, like "a rogue who suddenly finds himself in the company of detectives."1 These descriptions may sound familiar to anyone who has read Hawthorne's novels or stories: secrecy, isolation, and the ironies of hiddenness are persistent themes. But on a more basic level, what do we mean by "shyness" in this context? What happens in our minds when we hear someone like Hawthorne described as "shy"?

Certainly nothing dramatic. Initially we might consider the word appropriate enough. Hawthorne seems to have liked his image as a recluse and cultivated [End Page 410] it. The role of the young man, isolated by fortune and choice, who finds a life writing shadowy romances congenial, was a marketable identity. He wrote prefaces to his early story collections in which he appears as "the obscurest man of letters in America . . . a mild, shy, gentle, melancholic, exceedingly sensitive, and not very forcible man, hiding his blushes under an assumed name."2 This description was no less accurate than self-consciously ironic; it was also a form of self-defense, a way of disarming criticism and giving his audience what they wanted—a personality in harmony with the "clear, brown, twilight atmosphere" in which, or so he claimed, the stories were written.3

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Figure 1
Nathaniel Hawthorne, c. 1850. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-27721 DLC)

Whatever the response that Hawthorne, in this pose, hoped for from his audience, the tendency has been to understand his shyness as we choose to understand any atypical personality trait. We accommodate it with an air of frustration, as a problem to be solved, an affliction to be remedied. Emerson, for instance, thought that Hawthorne's shyness helped explain his early death: "I thought there was a tragic element in the event, that might be more fully rendered—in the painful solitude of the man—which, I suppose, could no longer be endured, & he died of it."4 This diagnostic, therapeutic, and basically judgmental attitude [End Page 411] might be appropriate in some cases, but Hawthorne seems to have understood his social reticence in an entirely different way. He recognized, perhaps instinctively, that even small, delicate acts of social resistance imply deeper questions about the placement of individuals in society—that shyness could be less evidence of a flaw than the expression of a heightened form of awareness. It might, for instance, be figured as a veil:

An essay on the misery of being always under a mask. A veil may be needful, but never a mask.5

So far as I am a man of really individual attributes, I veil my face; nor am I, nor have ever been, one of those supremely hospitable people, who serve up their own hearts delicately fried, with brain-sauce, as a tidbit for their beloved public.6

And this figural veil might raise questions often begged by remedial reactions to shyness. What is normal social interaction? Does such a thing exist? Why do we want it so badly, at least for others in our company? To whose advantage is it if no one is frustrated or uncomfortable and social interchange functions without anxiety or refusal?

These questions help structure one of Hawthorne's most famous pieces of autobiographical "nonfiction," the preface to The Scarlet Letter, commonly known as "The...


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