The manuscripts were piled on the escritoire, ready to be torched into oblivion. A foreshadowing of Fahrenheit 451? Probably, but no one could see that far. Instead, unchurched Nathaniel Hawthorne was let alone to do what he pleased. He was a reprobate. Maybe he should burn those damnable papers!
When I received sad word that my dear American friend and literary companion Nathaniel, now of memorable Hawthorne fame (notwithstanding the publick infamy which his Puritan forefathers, and most especially William and John Hathorne, have brought upon their subsequent generations through their sinister errors with the Indigenous Tribes, and then with the inexcusable witchcraft trials wherein many of societal innocence were drowned and pricked; hanged, drawn and quartered; gibbeted and set afire), began burning his mss. by the dozens, I set in my mind that I would stop him. But wherewithal? Through a letter or series of personal broadsides aimed at shaking his apparently beleaguered soul? Though I loathe the circumstance, I cannot visit him forthwith, for I have been posted here in the wee Irish fishing village of Malinmor for two years near to date, and see no way of being relieved of my bishoprick duties, though they be scant, at any time in the very near future. And to the support of every known woe, Nathaniel has already begun his saddening conflagration. I am most likely too late as it is, misery to us all for the loss of such exhortations toward the Sublime.
Though the Spiritual Principle, by very ontologick essence, cannot suffer deficit for a self-willed misplacement ordered by one of Its infusers, this selfsame Principle, which we have been taught to call “Spirit”, cannot but help to feel sorrow at the loss of a fervent disciple gone awry in mission of sharing life with all nature, as does, and with great kind-heartedness, our dear friend Nathaniel in whom, like the beloved disciple for whom he stands namesake, there is no guile. May we all pray that Nat does not reduce to ashes something of such magnitude which it has been entrusted only to him; though I do admit to fearing the worst in this respect, so great stands my admiration for his spiritual talent and subsequent honed ability with the written word. I ask forgiveness for him if he acts in haste and in the spirit of fear, laying aside his power and authority over the malevolence of this world and succumbing to that which is easy, yet deadly in grasping. Forgive me if I misspeak, but to me it appears that Nat is behaving much like his character Young Goodman Brown, or his lesser known Alberon; utterly overcome by that iniquity which lies in his own breast while being besieged by the trickery of the Devil. Would that our dear frightened brother could find the strength in himself to rise in power like his precious character Mr. Hooper, minister behind the black veil, who, though assailed with all hellish presence in the form of Puritanick backbiting, gossip, and the most terrible situation of a virtuous wife only desiring a blameless and righteous husband, stood to the end at his lonely post to ensample that which was brought to us all at Golgotha; namely, the ability to be formed into magnanimous beings of authority and light.
It seems to us, his friends, then, that Nat is exceedingly frightened of something, and in a letter which I have received from a mutual companion of ours, a Mr. John H--, of Plymouth, New England, our beloved brother is described as being
“oft seen, when at his home, to be wholly terrified, having become nauseous & sparkling with a perspiration which valiantly assists in creating a sallow cast across his grimacing face (otherwise, as you know, rather pleasant to look upon) as he sits entranced, his gifted hands mechanickally grabbing up great bundles of precious mss. &, after fondling them lovingly yet only for the briefest of moments, tossing them, with nearly inaudible moans, into his hearth ablaze, his eyes a’glaze & bugging wildly, as if he sits in the presence of the most horrible apparition...& he does so, we think, for he claims he is haunted by his very Self found in his writings, which are considered by him, if his friends understand him rightly, to be diabolickally inspired & theretofore worthy of nothing but the fire...”
Further, I am informed (by another expedient colleague knowing him quite well, for I have not received an epistle from my brother Nathaniel in well nigh one year), that our comrade has been heard most recently to say that his sleeping has become very chequered of late; for it was one month and a fortnight ago (from the time the letter to me was dated) that our beloved friend awakened suddenly and quite alarmed from a nightmarish slumber, his bed wet with both tears and sweats, the tormenting thought racing to his mind, and in a hellish fury, that the soot from the embers of his burnt manuscripts had surely drifted into the atmosphere and had begun to damn all who had then enbreathed their fiendish essences not having been destroyed in the flames, but somehow refined and made the more deadly by the fires of his hearth.
You see, Nat feels (and most of us think wrongly) that the majority of that which he has penned has not been of the nature of edification, but of blasphemy, in that he has revealed through his sundry characters, in no uncertain terms, his lawless soul; and perhaps in doing so has disclosed the selfsame Soul of Mankind (or part of it), and being the pastoral humanitarian that he most certainly is, he has become tremendously mortified to imagine that any of the filth (his own terminology shared with Mr. H--) revealed in his essays and stories (and, I hear, quite a hoard of dark poetick works as well) may indeed not be destroyed at his hearth at all, but rather shall find themselves in their unfettered state transported upon demonick wings into the air which the populace must necessarily breathe, and so then shall live on in the hearts and minds of an unsuspecting publick who may one day orate, become published, or simply live out, indiscriminately and with seared conscience, the degradation he has writ down, as if the collective idea of evil being written (albeit turned to chemick ash and then unconsciously enbreathed) were somehow made socially acceptable... like the perverse pornographia slung out today, and in the imprudent cause of “healing the soul”, in certain so-called “news” papers, University “reviews,” pamphlets and tracts created, for the most part, in those so-called “coffee houses” aptly named ‘seminaries of sedition.’
We, and I refer to Nat’s closest comrades, have tried in vain to reach the eminent Herman Melville, a great admirer of our friend, that we might be renewed in vision concerning our dear departing companion; for a deportation of faculty has become truly what we feel may be occurring within his overly-excited mind, though we hope with all prayers and sincerity that we are mistaken in our hypothesis. I am, even as I pen these words, broken in heart to think that our pastor and theologian par excellence may be undergoing a dark mental imbalance akin to that which the most troubled and distraught of humanity eventually succumb.
[unsigned ms.; author unknown]
The piece here presented, entitled “Hawthorne’s Hearth,” which stands as an academic outré in light of today’s reduced standards, concerns a common story... a literary legend, if you will...among lovers of Hawthorne. This myth has told, and in a rather one-dimensional way to date, that the illustrious author burned his work for fear that someone would read and terribly misunderstand it, thinking that, for example, he might be glorifying the Black Mass as set up for us in the widely-read and exhilarating short story “Young Goodman Brown.” Then, as our man sat watching the ashes escaping from his chimney, he would become terrorized by the idea that this work, full of what he had convinced himself were damnable ideas, would permeate the hearts and lives of simple people, thus corrupting their souls. Herman Melville’s character Bartleby the Scrivener springs to mind here. Bartleby encounters an extremely dark inconsolability like that which Hawthorne may have experienced while in his fiery deliriums.
We are given brief yet highly enjoyable insight into Hawthorne’s own thoughts on the subject in his not-oft-reprinted “The Devil In Manuscript,” a tale in which, it is assumed, he writes himself into his somber yet comic character. Nevertheless, the legend does remain that Nathaniel did indeed do what his character in the story does; he torched a large stack of stories in his chimney, and perhaps on more than one occasion.
If anyone wonders, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and allegedly because of his embarrassment with his New English ancestors (as the ms. above speaks to), changed his family name Hathorne back to its original Middle English spelling Hawthorne, keeping the once-pronounced “e” at the end, which of course none has enunciated since ‘The Great Vowel Shift,’ a post-Chaucerian change in English elocution.
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