When one is in the mood for a romantic stroll through autumnal New England, the stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne offer transport. His fables and novels evoke that era with atmosphere, bringing the reader into a landscape of brisk wind and rich colors, surrounded by the possibility of enigmatic sorcery. Amongst the dying forests and chilly winds, his characters encounter demonic entities, ghosts, and their darkest temptations. His collection of Twice Told Tales, published at the start of his career, showcases a broad example of his themes.
Some of Hawthorne's tales are simply depictions of pastoral New England life; describing a child’s view of her small town in “Little Annie’s Ramble,” or observing village courtship as a storm approaches in “Sights from a Steeple.” Morality inspires and buoys almost all of his substantial stories, often in rather surprising ways. When writing about the Puritans, whose culture is based on infamously rigid moral standards, it takes on surprising shades. Stories like “The Gentle Boy” and “The Maypole of Merrymount” echo The Scarlet Letter in their indictment of Puritan cruelty; the former tells of a young Quaker boy who suffers from the community’s hate, while the latter depicts the breakup of a pagan community by Christian conquerors. In Hawthorne’s view, that righteous hate is evil, deserving of our horror.
While he can be a realist, Hawthorne appears to favor the fantastical throughout his work. His supernatural and romantic stories bring a tinge of magic to the American landscape. In adventures like “The Great Carbuncle,” archetypal characters seek a stone worshiped by native people, but devolve into their worst traits when they find it. He blends fairy tale and history most directly in the four-part Legends of the Province House. This collection of fables tells of a haunted Boston mansion that once housed the royal governor of Massachusetts before the revolution. “Howe’s Masquerade” describes a party during the war, where costumed guests witness a procession of dead loyalists passing miserably through the house, signifying the end of the war. “Lady Eleanor’s Mantle” recreates Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” with a woman whose luxurious wardrobe brings smallpox to Boston as punishment for her vanity.
Most of these stories are infused with a sense of archaic adventure; they’re romantic, after all. The dark elements are sequestered to the past, allowing current Americans entertainment without having to confront their current prejudices. It comes as a shock, then, when Hawthorne’s writings become pessimistic. Some of his fables point to surprisingly bleak truths. His attitude can be tongue-in-cheek, such as “The Sister Years,” which imagines the Old and New Years as women, the latter excited about the possibilities, the former disgusted with humanity after spending a year with their greed and sin. Often, though, his implications are nightmarish.
“The Ambitious Guest” creates a simple scene—a content family questioning their lives when a young man tells them his lofty goals—but ends with a catastrophe that obliterates everyone involved, rendering their lives obsolete. “The Minister’s Black Veil” tells of a holy man who, disgusted with the state of the world, wears a black veil over his face that remains with him in death. My favorite of his works, “Young Goodman Brown,” imagines a morally pure man facing the devil, only to realize his esteemed community have already sold their souls. While the incident is played off as a dream, the implication remains horrific: sin permeates everything, even those you hold closest. The bleak revelations echo his realistic stories about human hate and fear—perhaps those things are the true evil at the heart of his supernatural nightmares.
Considering the nature of American history, it’s inevitable that prejudice would infuse itself into Hawthorne’s work. And considering that this thread of darkness still influences our culture in dreadful ways, Hawthorne’s bleakest stories resonate the furthest, tales like “Young Goodman Brown” and “The Maypole of Merrymount,” which infer that human paranoia drives their actions to the grave. That destructive Puritan dread, conjured throughout our culture in stories like The Crucible and The Witch, seeps in dark autumnal smoke from Hawthorne’s words; and it leaves a lingering stench. Hawthorne may not have acknowledged it himself, as most of his stories end with at least a glimmer of romantic hope, but he lived in a time when that prejudice still caused endless death and genocide. That sense of doom pervades his stories beyond their autumnal chills—the horror they draw from goes deeper, and has yet to be resolved.