As indicated to me by the editor, this was “in the pipeline” to be published in Books & Culture. So I was disappointed when the magazine was unexpectedly withdrawn from Christianity Today’s line late last summer. Also, I did not want B&C to go away! Ever. This entry below is part of the original essay.
A Maine writer–summering here as a youth and attending Bowdoin College–Nathaniel Hawthorne has a claim on the state. Or, maybe it’s the reverse.
His stories in The Old Stone Face and Other Tales of the White Mountains are, as you might expect, at once austere and homey, and I find the obvious word in it all is “stone.” The word is here by the dozens and the word “rock” also features less so—maybe a dozen times. I wrote a paper once around the two words while reviewing the elegant memoir-sociological book, A Maine Hamlet by native Mainer, Lura Bean. I had little idea then of what it is to be a writer. It takes more than practice. Among other things, such as walker, researcher and spell-binder, one must also be a packrat. Wish I still had that paper.
If not so much in the other stories collected here, in the first story, “The Old Stone Face,” Nathaniel Hawthorne seems to assume the lastingness of stone formations in this eponymous face. There is much wisdom and moral worth, feeling for culture, and for humanity, especially—and something of nature. But, though he lampoons three types and the locals as well, often I find this story predictable, in ways I don’t usually associate with Hawthorne. I feel his fondness for a certain type, of which I also am fond, but there is a flatness here, a lack of freshness, a felt weariness of types. But in otherwise elegant artistic reliance on his tropes and archetypes, Hawthorne mines literary material out of actual stones and rock elsewhere in the collection. Sometimes he leaves his stones together in a felt everlastingness through creative workmanship, as in “The Old Stone Face.” In this title story he writes:
“True it is, that if the spectator approached too near, he lost the outline of the gigantic visage, and could discern only a heap of ponderous and gigantic rocks, piled in chaotic ruin one upon another. Retracing his steps, however, the wondrous features would again be seen…. Like a human face, with all its original divinity intact, did they appear; until, as it grew dim in the distance, with the clouds and glorified vapor of the mountains clustering about it, the Great Stone Face seemed positively to be alive.”
His style seems crystalline as well. For one thing, it’s slow. In this figure it’s like the slow calculated building of atomically precise structures found in White Mountain gemstone: amethyst, beryl, tourmaline, or quartz. These building forces are subterranean, seeming cold and crushing, but are in fact molten, incalculably hot and driven by an energetic fusion only mineral elements can endure to bring forth lasting and mathematically structured light-enhancing beauty. The style can seem cold, ironic, stylized, but in its light-capturing array we glimpse unbreakable morality, stern and unyielding as Hawthorne’s puritanical spirit—without the Puritan sect’s letter or its laws.
Edgar Allan Poe had good things to say about Hawthorne’s early artistry and words in the May 1842 Graham’s Magazine. Poe was grateful to Hawthorne for helping establish American letters, specifically the short story, saying his belonged to “the highest region of art… art subservient to genius of a very lofty order.” In this article he viewed the stories of Twice-Told Tales as foundational, and gave an example of what he called Hawthorne’s peculiar ability:
“Mr. Hawthorne is original at all points. …Not all is done that should be done, but there is nothing done which should not be. Every word tells, and there is not a word which does not tell…. A tone of melancholy and mysticism [prevails]. The subjects are sufficiently varied. There is not much of versatility evinced as we might well be warranted in expecting from the high powers of Mr. Hawthorne. But… the style is purity itself. Force abounds. High imagination gleams from every page.”