"My Kinsman, Major Molineux"

Fields Hawthorne Ticknor ca1863 byJWBlack
Portrait of James Thomas Fields (1817-1881),
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864),
and William Davis Ticknor (1810-1864).

Over on Instagram, I’d mentioned I’ve been getting into Hawthorne’s short stories again.  He’s a favorite author of mine, and when I read the collection Twice Told Tales (already five years ago, wow!), I was blown away by the craft of his shorter works.  I finally broke down and bought the complete Tales and Sketches, and for my first reading chose “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” one of the more famous ones.

The story is set up simply enough: a young man and clergyman’s son, Robin, sets out one day to seek his fortune.  More specifically, he leaves the countryside and arrives in Boston in order to get in touch with Major Molineux, a relative who had once offered to help him get started in life.

It’s a dark, gloomy night in Boston.  Robin goes from door to door, inquiring for his kinsman.  Everyone laughs at him, while he wanders through the streets looking for at least one towns-person who will listen to him seriously.  Finally, he meets a man who tells him to wait by the church, because Major Molineux will soon arrive.  Shortly after, Robin hears the voices of a crowd in the next street.  When they at last turn the corner, he is unprepared for what he sees.

For such a simple, subtle buildup, this story ends with a punchline I was not expecting.  I’ve left out the ending to avoid spoilers, but in short, it was disturbing.  At the same time, this twist opens up the story to a larger realm of questions, just as it closes this peek into Robin’s life.  This is what makes Hawthorne’s style so powerful, even as it seems fairly conventional on the surface.

Have you read any of Hawthorne’s short stories, and if so, what are your favorites?

4 ♠ The Mystery of Marie Rogêt … A ♥ The Old Manse

Mystery of Marie RogetThe Mystery of Marie Rogêt is from the trio of C. Augustus Dupin mysteries by Edgar Allan Poe.  It is closely based on the real-life murder of Mary Cecilia Rogers, except the setting is Paris instead of New York City.  Marie Rogêt leaves her home one Sunday evening, purportedly to visit a relative, and she is not seen again until her body is found floating in the Seine.  The newspapers are full of speculation regarding the mystery, but Dupin’s only concern is to reconcile the known facts with each other and, slightly different than his British counterpart, to eliminate the unlikely.

I remember when I first read this story, years ago, and found it to be pretty bland.  It is more of a commentary than a story.  The one thing that stood out to me this time was the brutality of the crime, much worse than the average Holmes story, but more true to life in that it was based on real life.  I think we tend to have a rose-colored perspective of the 19th century, but really it was profuse with some of the same issues, and the same barbarity of crimes, that exist today.

Despite the slow pace of the Dupin stories, I do wish Poe had written a full-blown detective series, just like I wish Melville had written more Royal Navy stories.  Then perhaps there would be more of these humorous random moments:

…the Prefect broke forth at once into explanations of his own views, interspersing them with long comments upon the evidence; of which latter we were not yet in possession. He discoursed much, and beyond doubt, learnedly; while I hazarded an occasional suggestion as the night wore drowsily away. Dupin, sitting steadily in his accustomed arm-chair, was the embodiment of respectful attention. He wore spectacles, during the whole interview; and an occasional signal glance beneath their green glasses, sufficed to convince me that he slept not the less soundly, because silently, throughout the seven or eight leaden-footed hours which immediately preceded the departure of the Prefect.

Detroit Photographic Company (0389)

It’s early days, but so far The Old Manse by Hawthorne is my favorite from the Deal Me In challenge.  I can’t really explain it, but I feel a very strong connection to Hawthorne’s writing.  Even when he is just writing about the old house he lived in, for a short time, there is something so personal and profound in the way he makes the whole place become real to you and impresses you with its quiet significance.

He talks about Emerson, whose family lived in the house for decades before Hawthorne.  He describes a vignette from the Revolutionary War which he supposes could have taken place within view of the Old Manse.  Hawthorne takes you down the river on a fishing excursion, and you walk with him through his bountiful orchard in the autumn, and watch his garden grow in the spring.

We were so free to-day that it was impossible to be slaves again to-morrow. When we crossed the threshold of the house or trod the thronged pavements of a city, still the leaves of the trees that overhang the Assabeth were whispering to us, “Be free! be free!”

Eventually, Hawthorne’s life took him him back to the city, away from the Old Manse, to earn his livelihood working at a customs house.  There is always this call in his stories to keep these beautiful places in your head, pure moments that live in your memory and which even time can’t undo.  A very Romantic notion…but something quite uplifting, even practical, for day-to-day life.

4 ♦ The Golden Fleece

And my first story for the Deal Me In challenge comes from Tanglewood Tales.  How appropriate!

Constantine Volanakis Argo

“The Golden Fleece” is the last story in Tanglewood Tales, a sequel to A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys.  Through the frame plot of a young student, Eustace Bright, retelling Greek myths to his little cousins, Nathaniel Hawthorne takes us through the highlights of these sanguinary dramas in a quaint, cosy, and child-friendly format.  “The Golden Fleece” recounts the epic quest of Jason and the Argonauts, as they embark in a fifty-oar ship to find the mythical ram’s fleece and reclaim the kingdom that was stolen from Jason’s father.

I enjoyed this story quite a bit.  It was entertaining and often funny, a nice balance to the darkness of Gatsby to start off this year’s reading.  The abrupt ending – and a few loose threads – were the main things I wished had been tidied up.  However, those are more or less due to the myths themselves and not Hawthorne’s rendition, necessarily.  4.5 stars.

A side note – many critics would take issue with his bowdlerization of the original plots.  It doesn’t bother me, especially since he approaches it almost like a spin-off rather than censorship.  Growing up, I read another small collection (for children) of the Greek myths, and it was perhaps slightly less “adapted,” but also more dreary.  The point is, I do think this is a good adaptation to give kids the gist of the myths.  This, and Wishbone (oops – dating myself here!).

Twice-Told Tales

Central Park New York City New York 10It is puzzling to me why Twice-Told Tales is passed over for The Scarlet Letter as required/recommended reading in U.S. schools.  I cannot yet compare the contents of the two, having avoided Scarlet Letter this far, but in the context of his other writings such as Blithedale or Seven Gables, Twice-Told Tales strikes me as quintessentially Hawthornesque writing in a more “fun-sized” format.

And Nathaniel Hawthorne, especially in Twice-Told, is more contemporary than he is usually perceived.  Born in Salem, MA, in 1804, he lived the first several years of his post-graduation life in a solitude worthy of a 20th-century existentialist.*  Hawthorne’s melancholy outlook, however, is intertwined with his own religious feeling, skepticism of society, the legacy of American history, and the two sides of death: the ugly and the beautiful.  Always in his writing runs this thread of contrast between the Jekyll and Hyde characteristics of the world, in which Hawthorne hesitates to take anything at face value.

A frequent motif of both Scarlet Letter and Twice-Told Tales is that of religious hypocrisy.  Hawthorne comments on this through stories of Puritans vs. non-Puritans, such as “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “The Gentle Boy,” and “The May-Pole of Merry Mount.”  His impassioned regret (stemming emotionally, perhaps, from his relation to a Salem witch trial judge†) suggests he views this as the most damaging rift between human beings, more than isolation or even death.

Death, indeed, goes so far as to bring comfort to characters in “The Wedding-Knell” and “Old Esther Dudley.”  It plays a more ambiguous role in “The Hollow of the Three Hills,” in which grief drives a woman to witchcraft in search of knowledge, leaving her in return no reassuring closure. As one of the Dark Romantic authors, Hawthorne’s romanticism of death is inevitable, yet fully recognizant of its meaning and not altogether untinged with realism.

A third major theme of Twice-Told is Hawthorne’s New England identity.  From “The Great Carbuncle: A Mystery of the White Mountains” to “Foot-prints on the Sea-shore,” the natural beauty of New England is a character in its own right.  You stand in the sunny rain of a summer shower, and wander among the sunny trees of an autumnal wood, and look upward at the brightest of all rainbows, over-arching the unbroken sheet of snow, on the American side of the Niagara (“The Haunted Mind”).

A few of my favorites which I have not mentioned yet are “Sunday at Home,” “Sights from a Steeple,” “The Prophetic Pictures,” and “The Ambitious Guest.”  The first two are something like creative nonfiction, really allowing the reader to understand Hawthorne’s perspective and feelings of isolation.  The third is a chilling story reminiscent of Poe.  In the fourth, Hawthorne sketches the ties that can connect total strangers when they are united by their common tragedy.

4.5 out of 5 stars.


* Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Biographical Note,” in Twice-Told Tales, New York: Random House, Inc., 2001.

† “Nathaniel Hawthorne – Biography,” The European Graduate School, http://www.egs.edu/library/nathaniel-hawthorne/biography/ (accessed June 21, 2013), paragraph 1.