- 2 Hawthorne
Celebratory publications for the bicentennial anniversary year of Hawthorne's 1804 birth stretched into 2005, with the February appearance of a new Norton Critical Edition of The Scarlet Letter. With its inclusion of essays emphasizing varied critical approaches and cultural contexts in recent scholarship, this new edition shares the central concern of what is arguably the most important contribution to Hawthorne scholarship this year, the collection Hawthorne and the Real: Bicentennial Essays. This volume, which examines the degree to which Hawthorne's writings were implicated in realism, features essays by Millicent Bell, Leland Person, Michael T. Gilmore, Larry J. Reynolds, Lawrence Buell, John Carlos Rowe, Nina Baym, David Leverenz, Rita K. Gollin, and Brenda Wineapple. This year also saw the appearance of a book by Clark Davis and Megan Marshall's biography of the Peabody sisters.
With a nod to the 1964 Centennial Essays, the editor, Millicent Bell, launches the important collection Hawthorne and the Real: Bicentennial Essays (Ohio State), using the anniversary of the author's birth as an opportune moment to redefine Hawthorne in terms of the intersecting recent interests of several leading scholars. In her preface to the collection, Bell notes that Hawthorne is now read quite differently from the earlier bias that saw a detached allegorist aloof to historical events and contexts. Instead, the pieces in this volume interpret [End Page 29] Hawthorne's work as significantly implicated in the common details and concerns of his own day. The central subject, "the relation of his imagination to 'the real'—that is, to the social reality he sometimes claimed to find uninteresting or unrepresentable"—is advanced by scholars from a variety of critical perspectives that collectively deepen the redefinition of Hawthorne not as isolated but as richly engaged in the cultural crises and contexts of mid-19th-century America. One of the collection's ten fine essays, Baym's "Revisiting Hawthorne's Feminism" (pp. 107-24), is reprinted from the NHR's 2004 bicentennial double issue. Writing in ALS 2004 (p. 39) Thomas R. Mitchell called Baym's essay "indispensable."
In "Hawthorne and the Real" (pp. 1-21) Bell articulates the collection's core assertion that Hawthorne's writings are "more expressive of the common conditions and public issues" of his time than has heretofore been accepted. While Hawthorne seems to have desired the classic realist's embrace of a solid and accessible meaning that was not undermined by human perception and doubt, he lacked the confidence that such an orientation could be grasped and implemented. Certainly his personal economic situation and enduring lack of security was "fraught with matter-of-fact realities" no dreaming could erase. Hawthorne hungered for an "untranscendental reality," Bell suggests, and well knew the world's realities, whether from scrounging old newspapers, securing a political post from friends, or by long and close observation of New England's communities and the countryside. Bell urges we move beyond the Jamesian classification of realism and romance to consider the real as not so separate from the fantastic. Bell sees several features in Hawthorne's writing that suggest realism, including his fictionalized pasts as settings for "an encounter with historical reality." She reminds us that Hester's letter is discovered in the Custom House, in "the realm of recovered fact," and notes that the illumination of coal fire and moonlight in the parlor sounds like realist description, making ordinary objects "minutely visible." The Scarlet Letter demonstrates a commitment to exploring history that is still alive both in and to the present. Hawthorne incorporated and "gave significant importance to" modern technical innovations like the railroad and the daguerreotype, both of which were rapidly transforming his culture. The political corruptions of the Pyncheons, the socialist remove to Blithedale, and his recurring "responsive fascination" with female reformers (Hester, Zenobia, Miriam) all suggest "an art of reference that he was disinclined to admit [End Page 30] to." If we have to resist earlier critical interpretations of Hawthorne as apart from historical contexts and realities, we should also exercise more skepticism regarding what he often told us to believe about his art. In The House of the...