Nathaniel Hawthorne was ten years away from Brook Farm, the socialist, utopian project, before he wrote the book The Blithedale Romance, from his observations there. By then, the success of The Scarlet Letter had justified his habit of looking at people out of the corner of his eye, of taking his nature walks by moonlight, of personifying abstractions instead of rendering persons, and of converting impressions of lively Yankee contemporaries into “strange portraits of something sad, terrific.” The dark half of his genius was vindicated.
All the while he had something else going. Just as there was an extraordinarily sharp distinction between night-self and day-self in the man, there are really two kinds of novelist signing themselves Nathaniel Hawthorne. “Moonlight is sculpture,” he wrote in his notebook. “Sunlight is painting.” The Blithedale Romance is, mostly, a painting in sunlight to complement the sculpture of the earlier and greater novel.
The legless beggar who haunted Hawthorne’s walks in Liverpool, mentioned in an altogether excellent sketch called Outside Glimpses of English Poverty, is more ominous in his daylight credibility than the goblin figure of the artist’s model in The Marble Faun.
“There is a fellow hereabout who refuses to pay six dollars for the coffin in which his wife was buried. She died about six months since, and I believe he is already engaged to another. He is young and rather comely, but has not a straightforward look.” In such a self-contained fragment from the notebooks a god ear catches the accent of writers we usually consider far removed from the modes of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Jane Austen perhaps, or Hardy, or even Chekhov, whose notebooks more often give the same tone as Hawthorne’s than a comparison of their fiction could possibly suggest. And elsewhere in the pieces of direct observation and selective reportage one can be convinced that this author was born to write in the manner of Dickens and Balzac.
Secondary though it is in most of his fiction, his skill as “painter” shows his growth in his notebooks and the travel essays of Our Old Home (1863) – works whose literary value is probably equal to most of the novels and tales. They are the notes of a clear-eyed New Englander alert to the human values, the color and variety, of the people he met in offices, in taverns, at country fairs, and on the mountain roads of his own country or in the slums and offices of Liverpool during his consulship there.
In his notebooks he reports the dialogue of his children, as when his son Julian said “When I grow up I shall be two men,” or “Look, papa, there’s a bunch of fire.” The speech is supple as life compared to the often wooden exchanges in the novels and tales- dialogue, we have to concede, was not the strong point of Hawthorne’s art.
The prose of the notebooks never has the gimcrack grandiloquence that stiffens some of the fiction. The swarming notes of the stories – some of them quickly identifiable as the germs of works later completed and published, some of the best never developed- have an epigrammatic precision that we long for in vain amid the tedious laboring and incredibly obtuse repetitions in a couple of the novels.