Reading all of a writer’s work is super awesome and rewarding not just for the insight into a writer’s “project” or even the excellent reading experience itself, but also for the “Easter eggs,” I’ll call them—the unexpected shiny objects that glint back at you only if you’ve been exploring. Melville recycles so much he’s really wonderful for this, and there are not only many familiar motifs but also reappearing details throughout his work, including in Clarel.
But here my favorite source of such a glint was an allusion to another writer’s work—something else Melville does in abundance, of course. And it was an allusion to something I wrote about on this very blog, something that made me reconsider Hawthorne all on its own, even before I knew he was so respected by Melville:
For Vine, from that unchristened earth
Bits he picked up of porous stone,
And crushed in fist: or one by one,
Through the dull void of desert air,
He tossed them into valley down;
Or pelted his own shadow there (3.5)
In “Foot-Prints on the Sea-Shore,” by Hawthorne, the model for Vine:
There lies my shadow in the departing sunshine with its head upon the sea. I will pelt it with pebbles. A hit! A hit!
And this story of Hawthorne seems strangely relevant, if not to the most central themes of Clarel than to many of the ideas in its orbit. Hawthorne’s narrator and his “we” “have been, what few can be, sufficient to our own pastime—yes, say the word outright!—self-sufficient to our own happiness.” As is Vine—and so few others—in Clarel.
And thus ends my portion of the Unstructured Clarel readalong! I feel like I should thank those still reading for bearing with it, if anything, but I do hope it was a positive experience. It was for me. Now, for the Big Question: will she read it again? While reading it, I would have said no. In fact, I did say several times, aloud, things to the effect of, “Man, I’m not re-reading this one.” But now I would have to say, someday—probably.
Title of this post taken from “Foot-Prints on the Sea-Shore.”
In Owen Warland, “The Artist of the Beautiful,” Nathaniel Hawthorne has created an almost too-perfect representation of the Romantic artist. Even as a child Owen had no use for the utilitarian, even for faux-utilitarian toys. Only Beauty has ever interested him. Not fit for manual labor, he’s apprenticed to a watchmaker, learns his trade very well, but doesn’t care a whit for his livelihood. He toils, instead, like a madman at his master work. He works on it unceasingly, until his inspiration is frustrated and he gives it up entirely. Then again, unceasingly, then again, gives it up. He takes to drink and gives it up just as cleanly. And his love for Annie, the daughter of his former master, is unrequited—but maybe that’s for the best, as she might not fully understand him anyhow.
As a watchmaker Owen is directly in touch with the most deterministic of all mechanisms, the one used by Enlightenment figures to illustrate the determinism of the world at large. But where the Enlightenment turned us all into despiritualized machines, Owen’s life’s work is “the spiritualization of matter.” Seeing a steam engine, “he turned pale, and grew sick, as if something monstrous and unnatural had been presented to him.” He chases butterflies and water insects, studying their ethereal movements so he can reproduce them within the finest mechanical object ever made.
His master, Peter Hovenden, is so earth-bound in comparison. He tells Owen to “get rid altogether of your nonsensical trash about the Beautiful”—what a hard-headed New Englander—and then he’ll be free and successful. But for the Romantic artist like Owen, it is only through Beauty that he can be free. When he does, later, lose faith, he is “fallen” and has “ceased to be an inhabitant of the better sphere that lies unseen around us.” Before Hawthorne has quietly mocked the materialism of Hovenden, but here he really adopts Owen’s spiritual worldview.
While Owen has been creating his mechanical butterfly, Annie has been creating something of her own: she’s gotten married and had a child. The child is what really makes the story, I think. He’s a miniature Peter Hovenden; he’s “a little personage who had come mysteriously out of the infinite, but with something so sturdy and real in his composition that he seemed moulded out of the densest substance which earth could supply.” While Owen has been spiritualizing matter, Annie has been, if you will, matterizing spirit. She’s so proud of her creation, and though her and her husband (a blacksmith!) are charmed by the butterfly, they fail to realize its true worth as a unique object. Whereas their child, well, anyone could have made that. I mean, people do it every day!
I don’t know what Hawthorne really thinks of the child. The contrasts are right there for anyone to see, and of course the child’s solid little fist, along with his inability to appreciate Beauty, will destroy the butterfly. “Well, that does beat all nature!” says the blacksmith when the butterfly takes wing, and it does—but is then itself beaten by a truly natural thing, the whim of an infant.
But perhaps that’s why Hawthorne, along with Owen, isn’t quite so hard on the child—the whim of the infant, his naïveté, puts him at one with nature, the way Owen only wishes he could be.
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.