Saturday, March 26, 2011

Selections from Twice-Told Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Hawthorne's collection of Twice-Told Tales was published in two volumes: the first in 1837 and the second in 1842. All of these tales had previously appeared in magazines or annuals. The collections were only moderately successful, though the stories were praised by the likes of Poe and Longfellow in critical reviews.

The Gray Champion: A ghostly old warrior reappears during times of trial, specifically, when the people of New England were under oppression. This "Gray Champion" fends off the tyranny of Royal Governor Edmund Andros in April of 1689. 
The Wedding Knell: Like many of the other stories in this collection, this is a frame story: the narrator tells his grandmother's testimony of an incident in a church in New York years ago. An old widow was to marry an old scholar. At her wedding, funeral bells ring ominously, and a ghastly procession of old men and women enter, with the bridegroom entering finally in a shroud. She grimly accepts this marriage as a "marriage of eternity."
The Minister's Black Veil: This is one of the most famous and anthologized stories of the collection. One day, the reserved Reverend Hooper began to wear a black veil without explanation. The mystery gradually threatens to degenerate into scandal, but the minister refuses even to tell his wife why he wears it, only saying that it is a "type" or "symbol" of his sorrow. The minister finds that sinners are attracted to his veil, perhaps imagining their own sins as a kind of black veil. The minister won't even take off his veil on his deathbed, and he is buried with it. Oddly, though the minister says on his deathbed that it is indeed a symbol for the evil that is in every human, the story ends with people fearing something very material rather than the abstract--the mouldering face under the veil.
The Maypole of Merry Mount: This account is framed by the narrator's guarantee that what follows may be verified in "Strutt's Book of English Sports and Pastimes." The narrator proceeds to describe a scene of the Maypole celebrations in the New England colony: a lord and lady of the Maypole are crowned, and all are happy; suddenly, though, "care and sorrow" enters into the countenances of the couple because they "truly loved." Here, a historical account of the Puritan settlers and the Merry Mount colonists interrupts. The account, though seeming to go for an "objective" tone, paints a pretty grim picture of the austere Puritans. Governor Endicott himself stops the Maypole celebrations, cutting down the maypole itself in a castrating stroke. He takes the lord and lady prisoner, and punishes the rest of the revelers. He does take some pity on the two young lovers though, and decides to take them up and indoctrinate them into Puritanism. The narrative ends by suggesting, however, that some part of their "early joys" remained in them.
The Gentle Boy: This is a story of the Quaker-Puritan encounter in New England in the colonial days. The narrator isn't particularly kind to either group--the Quakers are represented as overly-eager martyrs, and the Puritans are over-stern in their persecution of other faiths. The exception is a Puritan named Pearson, who takes in a Quaker boy named Ilbrahim whose father has been killed by the Puritans. Pearson and his wife take care of the boy, and prepare to raise him as their own. In church, they are shunned by their peers. Pearson eventually becomes a Quaker himself, but his new faith is tried when Ilbrahim falls ill. Ilbrahim dies just as his biological mother returns from exile to say that the King has issued a mandate to stay Quaker martyrdoms.
Mr. Higginbotham's Catastrophe: This is a markedly more comical story than most, in which a tobacco pedlar spreads a rumor that he hears from a traveler on the road that Mr. Higginbotham has been hanged. It turns out that Higginbotham is not dead. However, there are several men that still seem to corroborate that Higginbotham has in fact been hanged. To get to the bottom of it all, the pedlar follows Higginbotham home one day, and actually catches someone in the act of hanging him. The mystery is solved: three men plotted Higginbotham's robbery and murder, but two of them delayed the act because they lost their courage. The pedlar had run into both of these men. The third he caught in the act.
Wakefield: This is one of the more formally interesting stories: the entire "plot" is told in the first paragraph. Basically, a man in London leaves his new wife, lives next door to her undiscovered for twenty years, and then finally returns and lives out the rest of his life as a loving spouse. The narrator uses this story to construct a speculation as to what happened. The speculation is that Wakefield didn't plan his long absence--that one day, he just sort of left and then got used to blending into the London crowd. Similarly, the narrator doesn't think that Wakefield's return was pre-meditated. If there is any sort of moral that the narrator offers, it is this: "Amid the seeming confusion of our mysterious world, individuals are so nicely adjusted to a system, and systems to one another and to a whole, that by stepping outside for a moment, a man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever."
The Great Carbuncle: This story reads a bit like a fairy tale: eight people are seeking "the great carbuncle" (a precious jewel) in the mountains of Maine. They are a cynic, a poet, a merchant, a scientist, a "seeker" (someone who has just been ambitious since his youth about seeking this jewel), a lord, and a humble, rustic young couple named Matthew and Hannah. They all have different reasons for seeking the great carbuncle. At night, Matthew and Hannah go to seek it and nearly perish in the attempt because they have gone so far up the mountain. They finally find it, and they see that the seeker has perished beneath it. The cynic has made it up there too: he doesn't see the carbuncle at first, but Matthew and Hannah tell him to take of his spectacles. He does so, and he is blinded by the light of the jewel. Matthew and Hannah decide to return home without the carbuncle; they don't need such an extravagant light for their humble cottage.
David Swan: A Fantasy: This story is about events that come close to happening that we are unaware of. David Swan was on his way to Boston to work for his uncle, the grocer. He falls asleep under a tree and doesn't wake as various people pass by him. A couple nearly takes him in to be their own charge, a potential lover passes by, and a couple of "rascals" nearly rob (and potentially murder) him. David wakes up, and eventually goes on his way to Boston not knowing anything of what might have happened.
The Hollow of the Three Hills: A young woman meets with a old crone with psychical powers in order to listen to the voices of people she's "left behind." She has left behind aged parents, an estranged husband, and a defenseless child. She dies from the spell.
Dr. Heidegger's Experiment: The doctor conducts an experiment on four aged friends of his. Apparently, he has discovered the fountain of youth--not  in Europe, as might be expected, but in Florida. The aged friends, a widow and three men who have loved her in her youth, drink the water and forget the lessons of old age when they find that they are young again. They are reckless, and shatter the vase with the water in it. The effects of the water are only temporary. Having seen the "results" of his experiment, Dr. Heidegger gives up on pursuing this project.
Legends of the Province House: This is a group of stories that are linked to a province house that the narrator visits. It is the old mansion of the royal governors of Massachusetts. The narrator essentially says that these stories are likely to have a foothold in truth as well as in legend. In the first story, Howe's Masquerade, Sir William Howe, who would be the Commander-in-Chief of the British army during the American Revolution, has a masquerade party in the mansion. At this party, a funereal procession of former Massachusetts governors enters. Howe beholds himself at the end of this train. The legend says that on the anniversary of the British loss to power, these ghosts frequent the province house. Edmund Randolph's Portrait is framed as an account of one Mr. Bela Tiffany, whom the narrator encounters. The Lieutenant-Governor Hutchinson makes the mistake of not listening to his niece's warnings that the portrait of Edmund Randolph hanging in the province house registered the man's agony of having done evil against the people. He decides to sign an order to allow British troops to occupy the Castle William. Years later, Hutchinson is said to have died with the same frenzied look on his face that the portrait of Edmund Randolph revealed. Lady Eleanor's Mantle is about the haughty Lady Eleanor, who arrives to live at the province house because she is the relative of one Colonel Shute who lived there. She wears a mantle which symbolizes pride and the mantle brings smallpox to New England. The crazed suitor of hers, Jervase Helwyse, ends up burning the mantle. This story is also told by Bela Tiffany. The final story, Old Esther Dudley, is told by an old and somewhat senile royalist who has joined their circle. After Howe left the province house, the old Esther who had lived there all her life decided to stay behind. It became rumored, long after the revolution had happened, that she would have ghosts from colonial times over at the house. When the Republican governor Hancock comes to the province house, she mistakes him for the royal governor. She dies soon afterwards, loyal to the king to the end.
The Ambitious Guest: This is the harrowing tale of a family living in the mountains of Maine. They are shown as rustic and happy, until an "ambitious guest," a young man who dreams about doing things worthy of a commemorative monument comes to seek shelter. He inspires the members of the family to also desire more--the father thinks about political office, the eldest girl thinks of love, and the Grandmother thinks of what she wants for her burial rites. A landslide rolls down the mountain and obliterates them all.
Peter Goldthwaite's Treasure: A reckless speculator named Peter Goldthwaite believes that there is gold hidden under his house by an old relative of his. Peter lives with an old housekeeper named Tabitha. Peter tears apart the house, confident that he will find something. He finds nothing but old, devalued currency. He is rescued by his partner, John Brown, who offers to buy his property and to put them up at a nearby place in the meantime.
Shaker Bridal: Much like the stories of other religious sects, the narrative offers a critical account. Two Shakers, a woman and a man, have been too poor to marry even thought they are in love. Instead, the two decide to commit their lives to leading the Shaker community together: as the Shaker elder dies and passes on his authority two these two, other members of the community are skeptical and are afraid that these two will submit to "carnal desires." The man, Adam, vows at length that he will not, but Martha, the woman, is too in touch with her own real feelings to venture more than a quick response. The story points out the hypocrisy of the Shaker men who have libertine pasts and require strict sexual mores of others. 
The importance of creating American historical myths cannot be too much emphasized in any discussion of this collection. The story frames, the linking of stories to specific places, the emphasis on passages of time all contribute to the sense that Hawthorne is deliberately making American historical myths. America has its own myths separate from Europe. And though these "myths" are centered in New England, which functions in Hawthorne's stories as a kind of sacred and mysterious originary place, it is clear from moves like locating the fountain of youth in Florida in Dr. Heidegger's Experiment that Hawthorne means to create national and not just local myth. Even the title, Twice-Told Tales signals re-telling and the passing down of stories. Publication in different serials and annuals renders the short stories transitory and fragmented; Twice-Told Tales regroups them into a unified body of American myth to be passed down throughout the generations.

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