- The Manuscript of Septimius: Revisiting the Scene of Hawthorne’s “Failure”
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Septimius Felton, or The Elixir of Life (1872) is habitually considered a failure today, valuable only as the pathetic documentation of the rapid decline of the creative capacity of one of America’s greatest writers. Biographer after biographer has ventured to portray this mental “crack-up” in increasingly loud colors, and critics have in the main followed Henry James’s recommendation that we purposely reserve but a small space for speaking of the book, “for the part of discretion seems to be to pass it by lightly.” Dismissing Hawthorne’s posthumous romance as an “essentially crude piece of work” (162), James’s advice apparently has been taken to heart by American critics: over the subsequent 150 years, Septimius has been passed by so lightly that one can to date find only one substantial reading of the whole text.1 Yet when the romance was originally published in 1872, edited by Una Hawthorne with some assistance from the poet Robert Browning, it was favorably, even enthusiastically, received. Despite its unfinished state, the reviewer of the London Times, for instance, did not hesitate to compare it to Hawthorne’s “masterpiece, Transformation, or The Marble Faun.” Indeed, while this reviewer held that some elements of the supernatural “might have been toned down,” he or she did not find that its incompleteness was such that it detracted significantly from the reading experience:
unfinished, extravagant, and mournful as it is, it has a fascination about it that leads you on from scene to scene, dreading yet almost longing to be shocked or surprised again. You feel you are following the workings of, perhaps, the most original mind of his generation, refining with its innate poetry the strange births of a capricious and almost sinister fancy. Reflection is piqued [End Page 239] and excited throughout. Hardly a page but has its startling suggestion subtly argued, or advanced incidentally in the course of conversation.
In short, “it is a remarkable book,” one which “will do no injustice to the author’s memory.” Though hardly destined to rank among the author’s more popular works, “it will be read for its poetry and fancy by many who care but little for fiction in general, and on those who really appreciate and admire it we can hardly doubt it will exercise a strong and growing fascination” (5).2
History would quickly disprove this prophecy; James’s condemnatory view was a mere five years in waiting and has since been almost unanimously upheld. But the review makes evident that, notwithstanding its unfinished state, Septimius is quite capable of generating a mode of response that is at once intellectually intense and highly pleasurable. One might have thought that the 1977 publication of volume 13 of the Centenary Edition, which collected the various documents that make up the romance as The Elixir of Life Manuscripts and thus finally brought Septimius to light in all its ragged glory, would have sparked renewed critical interest in Hawthorne’s last phase; but with the significant exception of Charles Swann’s study, criticism on the romance has remained as scarce as ever.
The reasons behind Septimius’s continued exclusion are complex and multifaceted and would no doubt provide as rich a source for studying the mechanics of canonization as some of Hawthorne’s other works (the pivotal texts in this respect are Tompkins and Brodhead). In the present essay, however, I will confine myself to considering the extent to which the Centenary Edition (CE) might paradoxically have contributed to perpetuating Septimius’s status as a “failure.” It is historical irony that the one critic who has done the most to bring the unfinished romances to light is also heavily responsible for stigmatizing them as unfinished, if not unreadable. Edward H. Davidson, who was on the editorial board of CE Volumes 12 and 13, first presented his view of the unfinished romances in Hawthorne’s Last Phase (1949). Fifteen years later, his contribution to Hawthorne Centenary Essays effectively cemented the notion that the unfinished romances manifest “Hawthorne’s artistic collapse” (“Unfinished” 163) although he had remarkably little to say of...