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ALAN O. WELTZIEN The Picture of History in "The May-Pole of Merry Mount" Perhaps the most curious texture in "The May-Pole of Merry Mount" is the interlude described by some critics as an "historical essay."1 Within "these authentic passages from history" the narrator concludes, "[the May-Pole] has made their true history a poet's tale" (9: 60).2 That visual and spiritual center of the colony conflates "history " and "tale" into a common, enduring truth. This conclusion also represents an authorial signature in the comer of his canvas: like its title symbol, the tale itself, however historical, makes history into story. "The May-Pole" 's rich effect derives in good part from the apparently competing claims of history and story, which I take to be the tale's dominant contrasts. History and story—under which umbrella I locate common features of allegory, Hawthorne's favorite term; romance, critics ' favorite term; and dream—implicate one another so pervasively that each exists only in the context of the other, as a sort of shadowy double. This symbiosis, evident in an oscillating textual rhythm,3 results in an emblem that stresses eternal contraries rather than reconciliation , and that simultaneously records and stops change.4 The entire tale figures as an emblem whose quintessential gloss describes a permanence that displaces the transitory: There they stood, in the first hour of wedlock, while the idle pleasures, of which their companions were the emblems, had given place to the sternest cares of life, personified by the dark Arizona Quarterly Volume 45 Number 1, Spring 1989 Copyright © 1989 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 004-1610 30??a? O. Weit^'en Puritans. But never had their youthful beauty seemed so pure and high as when its glow was chastened by adversity. (9: Ó5)5 As John T. Irwin remarks of Hawthorne's work, "human character is pictographically inscribed,"6 and this distilled moment inscribes the emblem, illustrating as it does the narrator's explication of "Edith's mystery." Like that of Keat's urn the tale's realm is one of "slow time," with the sunset rendered into stillness, and the antic motions of the colonists caught in frozen attitudes even before the Puritans appear. Indeed, the Puritans' arrest of the festivities only literalizes the arrested movement within the tale. Chronology breaks down, as Hawthorne minimalizes the apparent passage of time and allegorizes history into an emblem that holds contrary ideas in potent suspension. "History," that is, becomes dehistoricized, or other than itself: "a poet's tale." As a "Twice-Told Tale" "The May-Pole," as several critics have documented, presents history re-presented. The once-told tale is the history of the Mount Wollaston community at what is now Quincey , Massachusetts. "Once-told" comprises the source materials at the historian's disposal, materials that emphasize the pastness of the past.7 "Twice-told," grounding that past in an eternal present,8 suggests more than the necessary selectivity of Hawthorne's sources, the ultimate fictionality of history. Re-telling turns into depicting, and functions more as a spatial than a temporal concept. Hawthorne's second telling, the act of narration, is compositional, devoted to grouping, such that only dreamlike "history," or historical dream, has claim to truth; neither makes sense apart from the other. For all that has been written about "The May-Pole" 's historical allegory , critics have usually slighted, so it seems to me, the range of reference each term, "history" and "allegory," possesses for the other. "Once-told" and "twice-told," forever different, are forever linked, and their symbolic story is told, I shall argue, in the several "histories" inscribed in the tale. Before assessing these histories, it would help to study the space between telling and re-telling, history and "allegory" (Hawthorne's term in the tale's opening), in Hawthorne's responses to source materials. The American Notebooks provide an excellent means of opening that space. Specifically, two Notebook entries serve as my outer, historical frame enclosing the important historical frames in the tale: the prologue, the history of May, and the historical interlude. "The ?a^-Poíe of Merry Mount"3 1 Examined out of order, these...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 29-48
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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