Text: Charles N. Watson, Jr., “The Fallen Worlds of Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe,” Poe Studies, June 1982, Vol. XV, No. 1, 15:22-24


[page 22, column 2:]


The Fallen Worlds of Hawthorne,
Melville, and Poe

G. R. Thompson and Virgil L. Lokke, editors. Ruined Eden of the Present: Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe: Critical Essays in Honor of Darrel Abel. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1981. xviii + 383 pp. $15.75.

In both quality and quantity, the essays in this volume pay impressive tribute to the career of an influential scholar-critic. That so many of the writers represented here are moved to extend, or even to take issue with, the ideas of Darrel Abel is a measure of the continuing importance of his achievement, all the more remarkable in view of the absence from his bibliography of that standard criterion of professional success, a major book. The present volume opens appropriately with a personal memoir by his longtime colleague are Purdue, Chester E. Eisinger, and with Virgil L. Lokke’s assessment of the recurrent themes of his criticism. It closes with a bibliography of his many publications.

As its subtitle indicates, the book is organized into three sections devoted to the writers who were most frequently the subject of Abel’s scrutiny. First, however, comes a preface in which the editors, summarizing the essays to follow, attempt to show that to varying degrees all of these critics share the fashionable obsession with methodology. But many of them manifestly do not, and this book perhaps inadvertently illustrates the methodological conservatism of much criticism of nineteenth-century American literature, which, for better or worse, has only recently begun to be affected by the currents flowing across from the Continent.

This point is illustrated by another prefatory essay, “The Chaotic Legacy of the New Criticism and the Fair Augury of the New Scholarship,” in which Brian Higgins and Hershel Parker continue their advocacy of a notably conservative kind of newness: the proposition that critics should respect biographical and textual evidence and that scholars, in turn, should be alert to the aesthetic implications of facts. Focusing primarily on the compositional and textual problems of “The Gentle Boy,” Moby-Dick, Pierre, and Billy Budd, they find scholars who have been variously “misguided” or “blinded,” “willful” or “irresponsible,” while those who escape the indictment are canonized at the end as “a group of scholar-critics, most of them associated . . . with one or more CEAA editions” and with “only a few universities” (p. 41). The authors modestly refrain from including themselves on this list, but their names do turn up frequently in the notes.

The essays on Hawthorne are the most numerous and also the most uneven in value. Nina Baym, in “The Significance of Plot in Hawthorne’s Romances,” continues [page 23:] her salutary revisionist examination of Hawthorne and his critics, here taking issue with Abel, whose essays she finds typifying the tendency of the New Critics to “diminish the significance of Hester” (p. 50) and hence to devalue Hawthorne’s romanticism. This misreading, Baym argues, is rooted in ideological bias and is manifested in the neglect of plot and overattention to such poetic elements as metaphor and symbol. Baym has a valid point, yet surely she overcorrects. As Hester’s stock rises, Dimmesdale’s falls — and falls far. We “must see,” Baym insists, “thee Dimmesdale is the less weighty of the two characters. He is responsible for the failure of the two lovers to escape, just as he is the ‘poseur’ in the drama of false appearances.” As a man who “thinks of no one but himself,” he is “one in Hawthorne’s long line of obsessed egotists” (p. 58). If this rather jaundiced description is at all accurate, then Dimmesdale sounds like a very weighty character indeed — more Captain Ahab than timorous priest.

In “Hawthorne’s Literal Figures,” Roy R. Male expands interestingly on a passage from the American Notebooks in which Hawthorne imagines “letters in the shape of figures of men.” Unlike Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Poe, who in their various ways emphasize the oral dimension of language, Hawthorne is fascinated by the graphic. Conscious of the problems inherent in the translation of sensation into language, he frequently seeks to reverse the metaphorical equation — to imagine the consequences of taking symbols or metaphors literally. This conception of a “fluid dialectic between literal and figurative” (p. 85) enables him to convey the instability of language as it struggles to mediate between an outer world of objects and an inner world of perception.

Male is one critic who aloes attempt to place his subject under the lens of modern linguistics and allied schools of criticism. The next three essays are thoroughly traditional. In “Romantic Iconology in The Scarlet Letter and The Blithedale Romance,” Donald A. Ringe adds only a little to a commonplace of Hawthorne criticism of the 1950’s, finding in Blithedale some of the same landscape symbols that govern The Scarlet Letter. Richard Harter Fogle, in “Art and Illusion: Coleridgean Assumptions in Hawthorne’s Tales and Sketches,” modestly extends his exploration of Hawthorne’s debt to English romanticism. In another excursion into literary history, “‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ and the Nineteenth-Century Physician,” Seymour L. Gross reveals how Rappaccini and Baglioni typify several of the traits that Hawthorne’s era found objectionable in its physicians: indifference to human life, pursuit of visionary theories, jealous rivalries, and refusal to learn from new or unorthodox methods.

In the final Hawthorne essay, “Eve’s Bower: Hawthorne’s Transition from Public Doctrines to Private Truths,” William H. Shurr retraces some well-beaten paths as he explores the Eden motif in “The Old Manse,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” and “The New Adam and Eve”; and he strains Hawthorne’s ambiguous allegory to the breaking point when he finds Baglioni an “impotent old Christ” (p. 154). Yet the examination of these works enables Shurr to make enlightening connections between the Old Manse period and the longer romances of the [column 2:] early 1850’s, where he finds Hawthorne continuing his uneasy exploration of the conflict between transcendental antinomianism and seem Calvinist verities.

The next section contains three fine essays dealing primarily with Melville. Buford Jones makes the transition with “Some ‘Mosses’ from the Literary World: Critical and Bibliographical Survey of the Hawthorne-Melville Relationship,” suggesting that “Hawthorne and His Mosses” embodies Melville’s response to the images and ideas of “The Old Manse” and possibly also of The Scarlet Letter. But the most instructive part of the essay is an examination of the vicissitudes of the two writers’ reputations as revealed in the pages of the Literary World. In passing, Jones shrewdly observes that Evert Duyckinck, by confining himself to superficialities and failing to draw on his unparalleled knowledge of both Hawthorne and Melville, missed “a rare opportunity to immortalize himself as a critic” (p. 181). An appendix provides an annotated bibliography of all items from the Literary World relating to either writer.

In a long, densely wrought, and richly rewarding essay, “Nemo Contra Deum . . .: Melville and Goethe’s ‘Demonic,‘” Robert Milder continues to demonstrate that he is one of the very best of the new generation of Melville scholar-critics. Here he sheds light on the complicated problem of Melville’s imaginative development between Mardi and Moby-Dick by showing how the concept of the“Demonic,” as defined by Goethe in his Autobiography, helped Melville to break out of the impasse he had depicted at the end of Mardi and to conceive a dramatic action suitable for a protagonist who is both mad and heroic. The essay defies easy summary; suffice it to say that Milder is thoroughly in command of his subjece and exceptionally sensitive to the temper of Melville’s mind.

Equally long and almost as good is Richard Boyd Hauck’s “Nine Good Jokes: The Redemptive Humor of The Confidence-Man and the Confidence-Man.” New approaches to this novel are getting harder to find, and Hauck does cover some familiar ground. But he is also highly readable and continually illuminating. He is alert to the tormenting epistemological enigmas of the novel but minimizes some of their darker implications, finding the humor fundamentally affirmative and the act of charity a necessary leap of faith. “The moral of both the masquerade and the book,” he concludes, “is that charity cannot arise from experience and must therefore be continually invented in an act of confidence, in spite of the horrendous risk of being defrauded or being thought a fraud” (pp. 280281).

The section on Poe contains two framing essays by Barton Levi St. Armand and Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, and as its centerpiece, a debate on “Usher” between Patrick F. Quinn and G. R. Thompson. St. Armand’s “Poe’s Unnecessary Angel: ‘Israfel’ Reconsidered” is occasionally somewhat forced in its readings but nevertheless a witty and provocative piece. First comparing “Israfel” with Emerson’s “Uriel” and finally aligning it with Gnostic thought, St. Armand succeeds in uncovering the poem’s essential [page 24:] dramatic nature, emphasizing the playful and even satiric ambivalence with which Poe regards the angelic singer, whose music falls short of the “poetry of power” (p. 300) that Poe imagines for himself.

An equally provocative if more turgid essay is Fisher’s “Playful ‘Germanism’ in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’: The Storyteller’s Art.” Fisher argues that the narrator, as he enters Usher’s mansion, is symbolically entering “the house of Gothic fiction” (p. 361), where the overdone trappings of Germanism provide a clue to Poe’s “covert lampooning of the Gothic tradition” (p. 371). Although at times this approach comes perilously close to making the narrator sound like Mr. Lackobreath or the Signora Psyche Zenobia, it is nonetheless useful to have the possibilities of “Usher” tested at their outer limits.

Fittingly, a touchstone of the Quinn-Thompson exchange is Darrel Abel’s seminal essay “A Key to the House of Usher.” Not only do Quinn and Thompson differ sharply in their readings of “Usher,” they differ in their readings of Abel and in their understanding of the uses to which his essay can be put. The result is an air-clearing critical event in which a major Poe scholar offers a systematic critique of Thompson’s controversial thesis, while Thompson, in turn, is moved to a more extensive and subtle restatement of it. Quinn opens with “A Misreading of Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher‘”; Thompson replies in “Poe and the Paradox of Terror: Structures of Heightened Consciousness in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher‘”; and finally there is a rejoinder by Quinn, “‘Usher’ Again: Trust the Teller!”

Judging a debate is an uncertain business at best; but if the thesis of Poe’s Fiction falls short of an all-encompassing explanation of the canon, Thompson’s reading of “Usher” nevertheless seems fundamentally sound, and I cannot find that Quinn has made more than a few minor dents in it. Thompson may occasionally appear over-ingenious, but Poe was demonstrably a highly self-conscious writer who delighted in elaborate word-games. Certain writers seem virtually to require critical ingenuity — Joyce comes to mind as a supreme example — and in this respect, at least, Poe is of Joyce’s party (to put it anachronistically) . In contrast, Quinn’s points too often seem unduly literal or psychologically inadequate. But however these issues are decided, readers can be grateful to both Quinn and Thompson for this candid exchange, which clarifies two radically divergent ways of responding to Poe.

The book contains the inevitable scatrering of minor authorial or typographical errors, one of which deserves mention because it may cause confusion: a misplaced line at the top of p. 94 (it belongs at the top of p. 95). But altogether, Thompson and Lokke have assembled a fine collection, which can stand both as a tribute to Darrel Abel and as a significant contribution to scholarship. I have learned from all of these essays, and the best of them achieve genuine distinction.

Charles N. Watson, Jr., Syracuse University


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]