Book Review: Twice Told Tales

Book Review: Twice Told Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) is one of the great American writers; his The Scarlet Letter is studied in many schools across this land.  But it took him quite a while to reach that status.  After crushingly disappointing sales for his first novel, Fanshawe, Hawthorne spent a dozen years in poverty, scraping by selling short pieces.  In 1837, his friend Horatio Bridge put up the money to have a collection of those short pieces (titled “Twice Told Tales” because they’d all been printed before) printed in a book, first anonymously, then with his name attached once good reviews came in.  A second edition with more stories (39 in all) was published in December 1841, and is the one usually reprinted.

Twice Told Tales

As the introduction by Professor Gemme explains, Edgar Allan Poe’s review of the later edition became famous in its own right–Poe objected to several of the pieces not actually being “tales” (what we’d call “short stories”) but essays  or sketches.  And in the process of explaining that, he set down his own theory of what a proper short story was.  This was influential in American literary circles.  Poe did praise those “tales” that met his criteria, hailing Hawthorne as one of the few worthwhile authors America had produced to that date.  After that, another review seems superfluous but I will proceed.

The book opens with “The Gray Champion”, a tale of a mysterious old man who appears in 1689 to halt the massacre of malcontents in Massachusetts by the tyrannical Governor Andros.   An unnamed ancient in Puritan garb, the old man is said to return whenever New England faces an existential crisis.   This is only the first of many ghost-like figures in these tales, a haunted New England that influenced many American writers including H.P. Lovecraft.  The first piece in the 1841 addition, “Legends of the Province House” is a collection of ghost stories involving the former colonial governor’s residence in Boston.  There’s a character named Bela Tiffany, which Hawthorne admits is highly unlikely.

There are some classics in this collection, including “The Minister’s Black Veil” about a small-town minister who abruptly and for no reason he will explain conceals his face behind a cloth mask he never removes, and how that affects people’s perceptions of him.  “The Great Carbuncle” concerns the search for a giant gemstone; the motives of the people looking for the jewel affect their fates, and how they react to the carbuncle’s true nature.

“David Swan” is a lesser-known piece about a young man who falls asleep by the road and is visited by Wealth, True Love and Death, awakening unaware of his brushes with fate.  “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”, the last story in the 1837 section, involves the title character inviting some senior citizens to imbibe water from the Fountain of Youth.  The story looks at the follies of both youth and age.

“Peter Goldthwaite’s Treasure” is about a man that has failed at every attempt at getting ahead in life staking everything on finding a fabled treasure of his similarly-named ancestor, even to the point of destroying the family house that is his last possession.  The story makes a point of contrasting Peter, whose get rich quick schemes all rely on luck he doesn’t have, with his ex-partner John Brown who never goes for a risky prospect,  but has excellent luck.

The last story in the book is “The Threefold Destiny”, which is deliberately evocative of fairy tales.  A young man becomes convinced that three astounding events will occur to him, with special prophetic signs.  He goes out in search of these, but his worldwide quest has none of these results.  The man returns to his home village to rest before starting anew, and of course discovers his true destiny.

Mr. Hawthorne was big on allegory and symbolism, and sometimes this gets heavy-handed.  Sometimes he also goes out of the way to make sure you get the point he’s trying to make, as in “The Ambitious Guest” where the moral is “you don’t know when you’re going to die, and trying to avoid fate can doom you worse than accepting it, so all human ambition is folly.”

The essays, while certainly not as compelling as the tales, are mostly good, and of interest for what they tell us about life in Hawthorne’s time.  “A Rill from the Town Pump” for example examines life without central plumbing from the perspective of the main water source of the village.  “The Sister Years” on the other hand is clearly a piece written for a local newspaper for New Year’s of a particular year, and has a number of in-jokes that are lost to all but scholars of that time period.  (On the gripping hand, it’s not often that we see the new and old years depicted as women.)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, while very much a Christian, was not a big fan of religious fanaticism; while his Puritan ancestors took the brunt of this in his stories, he also was critical of Shakers and even Quakers on that point.  The most humorous take of this is in “Endicott and the Red Cross” where the Puritan title character’s patriotic rant on the importance of “religious freedom” is interrupted by a “wanton gospeler” who reminds Endicott that he was not so keen on that freedom when he condemned the gospeler for heresy a few hours ago.

A more tragic treatment is in “The Gentle Boy” with prejudice against Quakers leading to murder and ostracism.  There’s even a preacher saying that Christian mercy does not apply to the despised sect, even to their children who are no doubt permanently corrupted.  (Remind you of anything?)

There’s some period sexism and racism in these stories and essays.  The latter really comes up in “Mr. Higginbotham’s Catastrophe”, about a gossipy traveling salesman who hears a report that Mr. Higginbotham has been murdered, with use of the N-word in conversation.  (And an equivalence of black people and the Irish as the lowest of the low.)

Overall, there’s more good material here than mediocre, and more excellence than clangers.  Some of the most famous stories have been reprinted in other anthologies, or if you want to read the entire thing, there are many inexpensive reprint editions, and it is also available from Project Gutenberg.

Here’s the trailer for the 1963 Twice Told Tales movie, which is not at all faithfully adapted, but does star Vincent Price in a triple role.

 

Book Review: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Book Review:  Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Tom is a good man, a Christian man.  Tom is kind, hard-working, trustworthy, intelligent (though barely educated) and honest.  He’s respected by his colleagues, a faithful husband to Chloe and a loving father.  But Uncle Tom is also a slave, and all his positive qualities mean nothing to the law which makes him a piece of property to be bought and sold.

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Tom’s owner, Mr. Shelby, lives in northeastern Kentucky, not far from the Ohio  border.  While a kindhearted fellow, whose wife is practically a saint, Mr. Shelby is unlucky in his stock speculations and has become heavily in debt.  His notes have fallen into the hands of Mr. Haley, a slave trader.  Mr. Shelby can clear his debts by selling Mr. Haley his best hand, Uncle Tom, and the handsome, witty child Harry…or all the other slaves on the farm.  Mr. Shelby’s choice is clear; it grieves him, but after all, they’re just property.

Eliza, Harry’s mother, refuses to give him up.  Her other children died in infancy, and she knows her husband George Harris is soon to be sold by his own crueler master.  Forewarned of the sale, she runs off with Harry in the middle of the night.  But even if she can cross the broken ice in the river separating Kentucky from Ohio (for it is early spring), the free state holds no safety, for this is the time of the Fugitive Slave Act, and the law requires her and the child to be returned to bondage.

This 1852 novel was originally published as a newspaper serial (which is most obvious in the final chapter “Concluding Remarks”.)  Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) was an abolitionist, but some of the heartfelt sorrow in the writing came from her own experience of losing a small child.  The 1850s were a time of high infant mortality, and nearly every woman in the United States would have known the heartbreak of losing a child or be personally acquainted with someone who had.  So one of the main target audiences of the book was the nation’s mothers.

At first, Uncle Tom’s fate does not seem too hard; though separated from his wife and children, and everything he’s known, Mr. Haley prides himself on his humane treatment of his goods.  Why, he even makes sure not to sell children directly in front of their mothers!  As it happens, Tom saves the life of a little white girl, Evangeline St. Clare, who begs her father Auguste to buy Tom.

In many ways, Auguste St. Clare is the nicest slaveowner in New Orleans.  He despises the institution of slavery, and the abuses the law allows, so tries to be kind to his servants.  But his own heartbreak has left Auguste feckless, and prone to “I’m only one man, what can I do about the system?”   Worse, he married his wife Marie as a rebound relationship without taking time to see if they were compatible–they aren’t, and she is a cause of misery to all around her.

Evangeline, on the other hand, is too good for this sinful Earth, and is a joy to everyone with her simple and kindly faith.  She forms a special bond with the trustworthy Tom, and even manages to reach the heart of Topsy, an abused girl who frequently acts out with destructive pranks.  Too soon, Eva’s health fails, and she passes away to the sorrow of the household.

Between Eva and Tom, Auguste’s heart is moved, and he resolves to reform, beginning with doing the involved paperwork required for freeing Uncle Tom.  Before he does more than start, however, St. Clare is mortally wounded in a tavern brawl.  While it appears he finally comes to Jesus before he dies, Auguste fails to tell Marie his intention to free Tom, and she refuses to hear anyone else informing her of this.

Thus it is that Tom is sold at auction to Simon Legree, a planter who hates everyone, but especially his own slaves.  Legree is a cruel man who cares only for profit, driving his slaves until they die from overwork.  Tom is deeply unhappy at this twist of fate, but is willing to work hard and help his fellow slaves.  Legree can’t abide kindness, so tries to drive it out of Tom.  But this is where Tom draws the line.  He will not be cruel, even if it costs him his life.  Nor will he inform on runaways, which leads to the final crisis.

This is a very religious book, heavy-handed on the Christian message.  Which is not to say that it’s comfortable reading for Christians.  Many white Christians of the time believed that the Bible fully sanctioned the system of chattel slavery  practiced in the United States, and this is on full view.  At one point, we even have pastors quoting dueling proof-texts.  We also have the character of Miss Ophelia, Auguste’s cousin from Vermont.  She’s firmly against slavery as a matter of principle, but deeply prejudiced against black people, and must overcome her own narrow-mindedness to help Topsy.

And though the people of best character in the book are fervent believers in God, He is silent throughout.  Perhaps He has a hand in fortunate things that happen, and lends strength to His children to endure; He also seems to allow vast suffering and withhold punishment from the wicked.  It’s up to Christians themselves to do the right things as best they know how.

The book is melodramatic, full of coincidences and unlikely twists.  Like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, while individual incidents and types of people are drawn from real life and things that actually happened, all of this happening to a small group of people is clearly fiction.  The last few chapters heap on happy coincidences as if to make up for what happens to Uncle Tom, and point towards what people of conscience should be doing.

As one might expect, the book is full of period racism (much use of the “N” word included) and period sexism also plays a part (in later years, Mrs. Stowe was what we now call a first-wave feminist.)  There is suicide, infanticide, animal abuse, torture and what is obviously rape takes place offstage.  The old-fashioned writing style can also be a bit difficult to get through; I would not recommend this book for teenagers, as it works better if you have some experience with adult life.

This is an important book, and Mrs. Stowe really knows how to hit a reader in the “feels”, while also knowing when to use heavy sarcasm.  If you haven’t already read it, consider doing so; it’s in the public domain, so easily available in affordable editions, or free at the library or online.

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