My maritime theme has led to an unusual number of literary reassessments on my part. I unexpectedly enjoyed The Odyssey, altered my general thoughts on travel writing based on several sailors’ narratives, and completely changed my opinion of The Old Man and the Sea. And now I’ve had to reassess Nathaniel Hawthorne, too.
Hawthorne is another one I developed my bad opinion of in high school, but seriously, The Scarlet Letter is pretty insufferable (though now I’m sort of thinking about re-reading it). Now I’ve read “Foot-Prints on the Sea-Shore,” one of his Twice-Told Tales, and I think it’s completely wonderful. Extremely evocative and contemplative, and actually, like, playful and funny. Not what I was expecting when I picked it up.
Of course Hawthorne is still a curmudgeon, enough so to begin the tale, “It must be a spirit much unlike my own, which can keep itself in health and vigor without sometimes stealing from the sultry sunshine of the world, to plunge into the cool bath of solitude.” Indeed. Well, unlike my own too, so I shouldn’t give him too hard a time. And when he’s feeling this way, he likes to take a walk on the beach (who doesn’t?).
So he takes us with him, “the reader’s fancy arm in arm with mine.” There are actually two walks on the beach. Hawthorne’s last walk on the beach is remembered and recounted by him in the past tense. Meanwhile, “our” walk on the beach is described to us—Hawthrorne actually deduces what we are doing by looking at our footprints—in the present. The narrative drifts back and forth almost imperceptibly, and fact and fantasy mingle and tangle together. It’s very well done.
The fantasy parts are the most playful, and really just joyful.
This extensive beach affords room for another pleasant pastime. With your staff, you may write verses—love-verses, if they please you best—and consecrate them with a woman’s name. Here, too, may be inscribed thoughts, feelings, desires, warm outgushings from the heart’s secret places, which you would not pour upon the sand without the certainty that, almost ere the sky has looked upon them, the sea will wash them out. Stir not hence, till the record be effaced. Now—for there is room enough on your canvass—draw huge faces—huge as that of the Sphynx on Egyptian sands—and fit them with bodies of corresponding immensity, and legs which might stride half-way to yonder island. Child’s play becomes magnificent on so grand a scale. But, after all, the most fascinating employment is simply to write your name in the sand. Draw the letters gigantic, so that two strides may barely measure them, and three for the long strokes! Cut deep, that the record may be permanent! Statesmen, and warriors, and poets, have spent their strength in no better cause than this. Is it accomplished? Return, then, in an hour or two, and seek for this mighty record of a name. The sea will have swept over it, even as time rolls its effacing waves over the names of statesmen, and warriors, and poets. Hark, the surf-wave laughs at you!
He comes to the beach to contemplate eternity. The ocean tells him not to worry too much about worldly things, and he learns that spending “the next half-hour in shaping little boats of drift-wood, and launching them on voyages across the cove, with the feather of a sea-gull for a sail” is just as wise as becoming a merchant and sailing real ships to trade with China. He goes by turns from this peaceful contemplation of “the majesty and awfulness of the great deep” to romantic fantasies about a tidal pool as a microcosm of the ocean (“But where are the hulks and scattered timbers of sunken ships?”). He sees his shadow and says, “I will pelt it with pebbles. A hit! a hit!” And by the end of the day he’s ready to return to the world—“Sir Solitary” supping with fishermen and young girls, eating his chowder with a clam shell as a spoon—“the sweetest moment of a Day by the Sea-Shore.”
I’m going to end up leaving the world of maritime literature with a huge new reading list. I must have more of these short stories. Washington Irving’s “The Voyage” also proved unexpectedly good, and he’s not even someone I’d considered reading really. But I can’t complain; this story made me smile more than anything else so far.