a quibble

May 27, 2008 at 6:49 pm Leave a comment

Here’s a young dapper Nathaniel Hawthorne:

Hawthorne

Good looking guy, right? Here’s the picture for Hawthorne at Wikipedia:

Hawthorne

Why choose this picture from the 1860s? Hawthorne dies in 1864, his last novel The Marble Faun is published in 1860. By the time this picture is taken, his corpus is behind him. Maybe there are house rules at Wikipedia about needing an actual photograph? I’m not trying to be ageist, here. It’s just that for an author as concerned with youth and beauty as Hawthorne frequently is to be made a period piece strikes me as inimical.

I could be wrong. In “The Artist of the Beautiful,” Hawthorne writes “when the artist rose high enough to achieve the beautiful, the symbol by which he made it perceptible to mortal senses became of little value in his eyes…” I realize I’m conflating Hawthorne’s opinion about his image with his fiction, and taking the narrator of his story at his word. These are problems. Nina Baym goes so far as to suggest that “At the core of ‘The Artist of the Beautiful’ is Hawthorne’s recognition of how inadequate a figure Owen [the protagonist of the story] is for the vocation he has chosen [watchmaker], how timid and shrunken his conception of art. The narrative belies the narrator’s claim for Owen’s artistic stature and calls for another kind of artistry than his” (Norton Critical Edition 431).

Baym argues as follows:

When the narrator brings the tale to a close with the assurance that ‘when the artist rose high enough to achieve the Beautiful, the symbol by which he made it perceptible to mortal senses became of little value in his eyes, while his spirit possessed itself in the enjoyment of the Reality,’ he claims a dignity for Owen Warland that the story will not support. The conflict here is directly related to Hawthorne’s own literary dilemma, for if Owen’s audience is faulted for its indifference to his art, so is he faulted for devoting himself to the realization of ideas that have so little connection to the life around him. (430)

I find the use of passive voice in the the last sentence suspicious. Exactly who, other than Nina Baym, is faulting Owen for the realization of ideas that have so little connection to the life around him? Baym blames Owen because his “impulse to attain the beautiful springs not from a desire to enrich life but from the need to escape it.” Again, enrich life for whom? The suggestion, I guess, is that the Beautiful only counts if other people’s lives are enriched by it. This move cancels the Beautiful as transcendent and personal. I’m unconvinced that Hawthorne recognizes Owen as inadequate to his vocation, and further that there is a contradiction present between the narrative and the narrator.

The bottom line, vulgar though it may be, is that Hawthorne, if we take Owen as his type, might not care a twit about what picture Wikipedia uses. But I do, and want the beautiful.

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Entry filed under: Hawthorne. Tags: , , .

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