Sunday, March 24, 2024

Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice told Tales (1851): David Swan.

First introductions are always the most important.  It's the first impression a person leaves on you that can sometimes wind up counting the most.  That's shallow as hell, I know.  Yet it also doesn't stop such results from being an on-going fact of human nature.  It also doesn't get rid of the truth that sometimes bad first impressions exist for a whole lot of very good reasons.  Some of us carry a palpable sense of threat around with us, like the dangerous warning sign it is.  Whenever that happens. first impressions can be a matter of life or death.  At the same time, this need to make a good introduction is always in need of balance.  Sooner or later, most of us have to learn to look beyond the surface appearances of the people we meet in order to get to know them.  This is another inescapable fact of life.  So you you've got these two social demands vying for attention and always competing and/or cooperating with one another.  When it comes to introducing the reader to a new author, the task of making a good first impression counts for a hell of a lot more than normal.  The trouble with artists is they come with this built-in expectation that a proper sense of entertainment has to always be a part of the package.  They are always supposed to be "on-stage", with the lights up, and the audience waiting for the show to begin, in other words.  So when it comes to a writer like Nathaniel Hawthorne, the modern reader needs just the right introduction to get interested.

If I had to find the right words to describe the writer under discussion here today, then the good news is I don't have to do this job on my own.  Turns out the words of author Rosemary Mahoney can do a better job of giving readers the best first impression of Hawthorne than I ever could.  That's why I want to let her words take over for a minute or two.  I'll just set the stage for Rosemary by letting the reader know that it all started one day while she was at the check-out like in a now defunct bookstore chain, and she got into one of those brief moments of animated discussion with the cashier.  It's the kind of conversation you can expect to find in even the most commercial of bookseller retails.  The kind of informal discussion that can only mean anything to someone with a genuine love for books, in other words.  Mahoney was just handing over her purchases to the clerk behind the counter, when the guy noticed it was a collection of short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne called Twice Told Tales.

"Remember 'Young Goodman Brown'?" I said. Nick stretched a startled finger at me.  "Oh, my God.  Freaky!  That's actually what I was thinkin' of!  And 'The Minister's Black Veil.'  Beneath the bland fluorescent gloss of Borders lights Nick seemed to bask in the pure spooky pleasure of Hawthorne's stories, like a child delighting in a fleeting fright..."And how 'bout..." he raised a knowing brow, "...'Wakefield'?...That one creeped me totally."  "Me too," I said, which was true: totally and memorably, the story "Wakefield" had creeped me.  I asked Nick what else he liked to read.  Vonnegut, Stephen King, Harry Potter.  As I prepared to leave, he passed my book over the counter and said with almost wistful affection, "I hope you enjoy them!"

"When I first read them - in, of course, high school - I had not really enjoyed Nathaniel Hawthorne's short stories.  With it's required reading lists and its parochial and obsessive emphasis on symbolism, structure, metaphor, and all the rest of it, high school had a way of tainting the classics; it turned books into tests and clumsily clawed apart their art.  It was difficult to relax into any book with the exacting eye of a teacher watching and waiting for the usually elusive "right" answer to pop out of my mouth; when, now and then, answers did pop, they popped in anxious fists not dissimilar in style to the process of reverse peristalsis.

"Under the circumstances, I read Nathaniel Hawthorne with one eye on the clock and failed to recognize the beauty of him until I was thirty-four years old, free of the scholastic tax, and living in a solitary lighthouse on a tiny island in Maine with no electricity, no telephone, no human company, and nothing to read but a motley collection of books marooned on a rickety shelf beside the fireplace in the lighthouse parlor.  The fire was long unlit, and the shelves, softened by the ocean damp, bowed like hammocks under their burden.  In their midst was a collection of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales, a musty hardcover mildewed with fog; it had tissue-thin pages and tiny type and the portentous density of the Bible.  It smelled of bedsheets, brine, damp dust, and mice, and sadly of school.

"One night, driven by boredom and depression, I sat at the kitchen table and by the yellowish light of a kerosene lamp began, skeptically, to read these stories.  "Wakefield," "The Minister's black Veil," "The Hollow of the Three Hills."  I read for an hour or so, hunched and squinting over that cinderblock of a book, and at some imperceptible moment during the hour my mood shifted from boredom to fearsome unease.  Something made me look up from the book.  I had the powerful sense that a pair of glittering eyes just outside the house was watching me with sinister interest.  I could feel them fixed upon my figure.  The sensation was so strong that I got up, locked the door, and slid the curtain across the black, rain-spattered windows.  I turned up the flame in the lamp, pushed the book under a pile of dishtowels, and although I tried to think of pleasant things, the rainwater that funneled down the drainpipe in gusts and knocked on a trim board at the base of the house kept sounding like heavily booted footsteps.  

"The waves crashing against the rocks just below the house kept sounding like desperate sighs.  Wide-eyed and mute and stiff with dread I sat on a wooden chair and stilled my own breathing now and then, the better to listen for more human noises.  The Twice-Told Tales had tipped me so thoroughly into Hawthorne's occult universe that finally, hot with apprehension and unable to support my own anxiety, I had to go upstairs to bed so that no one (who was not there) could see me.  I lay in bed waiting for the malevolent thud of Wakefield's footsteps on the lighthouse stairs.  I was, to put it mildly, totally creeped.  The next day, though, the book lying in its bed of dishtowels on the kitchen table was just a book, a block of paper bound in faded cloth, and the stories within it were just a series of shapely ink spots.  Daylight had soothed my imagination and dissolved my fear.

"Last night, in reading Hawthorne's own apologetic preface to these stories - a preface written in 1851 (long after the stories were composed and compiled) in a mood of retrospective correction and fatherly forbearance for his younger, supposedly less talented self - I was surprised and pleased to read this sentence: "The book, if you would see anything in it, requires to be read in the clear, brown, twilight atmosphere in which it was written; if opened in the sunshine, it is apt to look exceedingly like a volume of blank pages."  Hawthorne well knew what he had created: a series of sketches - for more than a few of the stories are snapshot short, miniscule in their scope...that depend somewhat on the mood and suggestibility of the reader; fabular inventions calculated to stimulate that part of the mind that thrives on, even craves mystery and wonder and terror (xiv)".  It's for these reasons that I thought it worth while to take a look at the writings of Nate Hawthorne.  He's one of those Big Names whose reputation is a combination of critical darling and mainstream obscurity.  He's a great writer who everybody hates, except for the rest of us who don't know why, or even who this guy is.

For the longest time, he was just a some byline on a handful of books that I've known more through reputation rather than any legit first-hand knowledge.  Strange as it may sound, I've never really read a single thing by Hawthorne until just recently.  I guess that makes me something of an anomaly.  I've managed to escape the curse that makes writers like him the scourge and bane of all high school and college student's existence.  I never learned a thing about this guy in either of the two main academic settings where his name is most likely to crop up.  The result is this kind of weird, blue moon style situation.  I'm allowed a privilege that I think few of Hawthorne's readers are given.  I'm in a situation where I have no other choice except to go into this guy's work with a more or less blank slate frame of mind.  I can just pick up any of his works that I might like, and then reach my own conclusions on what kind of stories the writer from Salem might be telling, and what he's trying to say in and with them.  With all this in mind, I thought I'd start out small.  I knew the first Hawthorne story I tackled on this blog would have to be both graspable and yet representative of the type of story he specialized in.  It had to be a simple narrative that also stood for the overall outlook and effect of all of his fiction, in other words.  I may have found the right specimen in the course of the curious story of "David Swan". 

 The Story. 

Intro Narration: "You unlock this door with the key of Imagination.  Beyond it is another dimension...A dimension sound - a dimension of sight - a dimension of mind.  You're moving into a land of both shadow and substance - of things and ideas.  You've just crossed over into...The Twilight Zone (web)".

"Narrator (v.o.): Consider if you will, a particular time and place.  A simple, unassuming country road in the middle of a warm, New England Summer.  An artificial construct in the middle of an otherwise vast and untamed wilderness.  A passageway through Nature's labyrinth whose sole purpose is nothing more than the conveyance of travelers up and down the great North American continent from one point to another.  The year is 1837.  In a moment, the main actor of tonight's play will make his appearance, David Swan.  An unassuming young man with either little or everything before him in terms of prospects, currently on his way to Boston on matters of personal business.  At the moment, Mr. Swan has been traveling down this road since first daylight, and is in need of a bit of rest.  Pretty soon now he'll reach this convenient and embracing grove of trees just off the side of the main road for a much needed pause in his journey.  Little does Mr. Swan know that this seeming Bower of Bliss will be his entry point into a world and drama of another kind altogether.  For young Mr. Swan is about to become an unwitting witness and participant in a tableaux whose precincts The Twilight Zone".

Hawthorne's Place as a Writer.  

Like I said at the start, writers like Hawthorne seems to be a victim, of sorts.  From what I understand, there's been a lot of bad blood to go around in terms of his reputation.  Sometimes there's a wall of separation between the artist and his audience.  This can happen for a number of reasons, and sometimes there's a lot of overlap among them.  The most common reason for Hawthorne's infamous reputation among those who had to suffer through English Lit. classes growing up stems from a simple case of obscurity.  This predicament has come about in several ways.  At the most basic level, the inescapable fact is that audience tastes have shifted and evolved a great deal over the span of just two centuries from when Hawthorne first wrote his works.  The second part of the writer's dilemma involves what might be called the problem of Cultural Literacy.  This second issue can be stated like this.  I don't think you can ever quite blame Hawthorne for growing up in the era that he did.  For better or worse, the truth is he seems to have come of age in a time where the public possessed what can only described as a larger canvas of bookish vernacular, combined with an even higher sense of literary reference.

When the author was born, it was possible for writers as high up the ladder as John Milton and the one and only Shakespeare to be held up as public examples of what literature was meant to aspire to.  In fact, the works of the former poet just mentioned were sometimes even touted as a role model in the struggled for American Independence.  Let that stand as a marker for just how much the Country's artistic mindset has changed.  In many ways, it's possible to claim that the American Founding took place in a whole other world.  It would therefore be interesting to find out just what, if any of those times and events have to do with the current moment?  Wouldn't you agree?  Whatever the case, the fact of that matter is that the Cultural Literacy of Hawthorne's era was different from our own.  The best way I can describe it is to claim that the literary mindset of Nathaniel's America was in many ways a strange yet genuine sort of continuation of the same Renaissance outlook as that shared between both Shakespeare and Milton, as it was filtered and transmitted down to the then present moment with the help of the English Romantic Movement, as exemplified by writers like Mary Shelley and Coleridge.

These were folks with a great deal of now obscure reading under their lids.  The type of writing that probably meant a great deal back in the day, yet is now lost to time, so far as we're concerned, anyway.  The funny thing is how names or works by an author like Shelley have managed to hold on, despite the passage of time.  This goes double for Hawthorne as well, and my own two cents on the matter is that you've got to be doing at least something right in order to have your name and efforts survive after all these years.  A lot it seems to boil down to a simple formula.  Sometimes good writing remains just that, regardless of the era it was made in.  I'm willing to argue this is the case with guys like Hawthorne.  All you have to have is an open and curious mind capable of meeting him at least somewhere near half the way.  The surprising thing is to discover that a lot of folks out there seem willing to make this concerted type of effort.  A quick look at how the author's name is trending reveals there's a definite and replenishing amount of interest in his work and artistry, and I for one find that as fascinating as it is encouraging.  It's all part of the reason for why I thought I might give this old bastard a chance.

Like I've said, the key things to keep in mind about Hawthorne's fiction is that it is Romantic at its core, and contains a great deal of literary practices (one almost has to label them as 'survivals') of the Renaissance Age.  The good news in all this is that it doesn't make his diction or character speeches incomprehensible nor convoluted.  Ol' Nate proved himself more than capable of joining in with the work of fashioning the contemporary colloquial expression of American speech into the standard it is today.  That's a lot more than other of his contemporaries (and here I am thinking of James Fenimore Cooper) were able to when they started their careers in the fiction trade.  If you ever decide to go back and study the beginnings of American literature, one of the topics you'll keep running into is the struggle the writers of those days had in just trying to find the proper Modern American voice, or style of writing.  Much like the city of Rome, it turns out this style was by no means built in a day.  This was something everyone (and I mean everybody) had to work their way towards with blood, sweat, tears, and a whole lot of spilled ink and discarded drafts.  Nate had a lot of luck on his side in this regard.

By the time he came along, the type of American voice most of us are too familiar with to ever truly be aware of had already begun to take its more familiar shape.  This means that when the writer started in on his chosen profession in earnest, Hawthorne's prose line suffered from none of the stilted, hollow, and antiquated pigeon Elizabethan grammar and syntax that plagued authors like Cooper.  Instead, he was capable of composing simple statements of declarative power such as, "In old houses like this, you know, the dead are very apt to come back again".  Indeed, that particular quote from The House of Seven Gables is perhaps the most appropriate way to introduce the type of storytelling that made Hawthorne a household name.  Like his later literary heir, Edgar Allan Poe, Nate seems to have had a natural born talent for specializing in the literature of fear.  He was one of the first American Gothic novelists.

The Meaning of David Swan.  

I've referred to this story as a kind of tableaux, and I'd argue there's a very good reason for using that term.  It's because in many ways, it's almost as if Hawthorne has taken the pages from a medieval Book of Hours and turned into the kind of narrative you might find on an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  In order to understand why this is, we first need to know a bit more of the story details.  This is what happens.  The narrative boils down to a series of events that occur to the title character as he's on the road to Boston, in order to start making his way in the world.  The action begins with Swan kind of strung out on the road and in need of a few winks of shut-eye before continuing his journey.  He finds a nice little tree to sleep under.  It's a piece of the wider New England forest which juts out into the path ahead, thus drawing attention to itself, like a signalman at a railway crossing.  It looks just like the kind of shady bower that will offer weary travelers a nice place to rest from their wanderings.  Without having to be asked, Swan takes the opportunity to take a load off, and promptly falls asleep.

What happens to him as he dozes under that blissful wilderness bower boils down to the following series of actions and encounters.  Just as in a medieval tableaux, a number of other characters appear coming down the same road as the protagonist.  The main action(s) of the story happen when their paths cross.  First, a nice young woman on her way to market spots David as he sleeps nestled in the bower of the tree.  Her character and personality puts one in mind of something like a wood nymph, or a princess in a fairy tale.  She's looking for Mr. Right, and upon seeing David, thinks he might be the perfect suitor she's been waiting for.  She's got no doubt that her father might even approve of her choice.  For all she knows, David might even have liked her.  Instead, she dismisses this whole idea, and promptly carries on her way to the city.  The next cast members to pay David a visit are an elderly couple who are waiting for their carriage to be repaired just a ways back.  The couple have been married for a long time, and have essentially become the kind of people who have grown used to each others rhythms through a lifetime of marriage.  Their catching sight of the slumbering title character starts to make them wonder.  They contemplate the possibility of taking him home with them, and making him their heir.  The reason for this idea is simple as it is sudden, they've no children of their own left.

As it transpires, the couple lost their one and only son to disease years ago.  David puts them both in mind of their long gone son.  The wife, in particular, almost begins to insist on this notion.  However, despite still never having gotten away from their grief, even after all this time, the husband manages to dissuade her.  Besides, he can hear their repaired coach approaching, and so they hurry away without waking the traveler.  If the young maid is like a fairy tale princess, than this elderly couple seem to be nothing less than the king and queen of many ancient myths transplanted and transfigured into a pair of early American representatives of Massachusetts' wealthy Brahmin class.  The interesting part about them is that there may be several layers of satire going on here with these figures.  On one hand, it's clear they're written in notes of genuine tragic sympathy.  We're treated here to the sight of parents who've had something of themselves taken away, and it still gnaws at them.  At the same time, it seems very much as if the author is anxious to inject a note of caution into our sympathies.  While it's true that they've suffered a loss, so is the possibility that they might have let it fester, instead of dealing with it.

The trouble with such an approach lies in the danger is has of warping the mind into an unhealthy state.  It is just possible that the moment the couple spotted Swan in the bower, that this unhealthy obsession with a long gone son went to both their heads.  The resulting conversation between the husband and wife could therefore be interpreted as a momentary lapse of reason.  Two lost souls letting their by now self-inflicted tortures allow them to dredge into the opportunity for a lot of darker impulses that can sometimes lie in wait on the other side of sadness.  In fact, the more you stop and think it over, how much of a good idea would it have been for David to even say yes to their proposal?  For one thing, they're asking an individual to give up his own prospects, and therefore not just his future, but even his own life for the sake of the couple being able to live theirs vicariously through him.  All of it based on what may be no more than a simple, fateful accident of physical resemblance.  For what it's worth, it's difficult to find any degree of separation between what the bereaved mother is contemplating, and the state known as a kind of slavery.  Thankfully, either cooler heads or the servants prevail in the matter.

There may even be a bit of class satire here, as its clear that David is of a social station best described as a rung or two down the ladder of early American hierarchy from the couple.  Taking a lower to middle class boy and asking him to be something else merely drives the note of potential slavery even further home.  So, the king and queen depart the bower of bliss, leaving the traveler at the mercy of his final visitors.  If David's second visitors exemplified royalty, and the young maiden personifies a type of the Fair Folk, then the best term to describe the final people who run across the slumbering Swan would have to be that of a pack of devils.  Two highway robbers show up and contemplate just slitting the poor, dumb kid's neck, right then and there, without even waking him up.  In the end, they decide to split the difference, and give themselves a bit of a challenge.  They'll try to lift what they can out of the sleeper's pockets.  The first one to wake the lad up has to separate the walls between here and eternity for the boy.  They start to go through the kid's pockets when the noise of another approaching wagon sends them scattering.  From there, the noise also wakes up David, who hitches a ride out of the story.

The reason this all puts me in mind of a tableaux is because of the way Hawthorne uses David's unknowing encounters as a means of commenting on something to do with the wisdom (and/or lack thereof) of human choice in its application to what we hope is the real world.  Without ever meaning to, David becomes a catalyst for a series of chance self-examinations, each one of which appears to unfurl an aspect of American society that Hawthorne both seems to sympathize with to an extent, only to turn right around and critique as somehow falling short in various fashions.  We've already looked at the pitfalls of the married couple.  In terms of David's first visitor, the Young Woman seems to be the closest thing to a genuinely sympathetic figure outside of the main character himself.  She seems to stand for a kind of youthful idealism, or at least the potential for the promise of Romanticism.  It's the best term I can come up with for what she represents.  In contrast to the old couple, her trouble seems to be a relative lack of commitment.  Rather, let's say she suffers from the lack of some vital nerve that's required or necessary for her to take her own life in her hands, and by extension, letting David apply that same potential to himself as well.  It may be that she represents the closest thing to a missed chance that the story has to offer the main lead, though even here, there is an interesting satirical note.

For instance, how much can you expect from someone who seems to know the right way forward, and yet who then simply lets it pass her by.  You get the sense that there's a fatal flaw, something missing in the Wood Nymph's character that keeps her from ever living up to her full potential.  With this in mind, it leaves open the question of just how much or how far she would be able to allow David to start living an authentic life, when even she seems frightened at the prospect of being alive?  How far can you depend on someone like that before they let you down?  I almost want to say the final visitors, the robbers, are the most clear-cut out of all the other figures in the drama.  Like in a medieval tableaux, they're clear representatives of greed and avarice, making their equation with devils all the more obvious.  However, I also wonder if they're the point at which Hawthorne's satire sounds its most biting note?  Like, are they meant to represent the kind of selfishness which lies in back of all the other two parties that David meets up with in the course of the narrative?  Rather than being a story of chances lost, and reason regained, in other words.  Might this instead be the story of a series of dodged bullets?

It's an interesting question to ask, because as it turns out, I have listened to at least one audio dramatization of this story where it all sounds as if the stakes of the protagonist's plight are taken up a notch.  The way the adapters of this story go about it is by adding at least two other passersby who spot the title character.  The first is the single figure in the tale who gets a passing mention, but not any elaboration.  He's a traveling preacher, and in the source material he's just described as cursing Swan for what might be a misplaced sense of laziness.  This figure shows up in the radio play, as well.  However, in that version, he's given an entire monologue detailing his outlook on life, and of the story's main actor.  Before that happens, though, the adaptation adds a fifth passerby who I can only describe as this misanthropic day laborer.  This extra has no equivalent in Hawthorne's original text.  However, I think that both his and the preacher's soliloquies are worth quoting in full, as it seems like each speech is the adaptor's attempt at an interpretation of the text.  We'll start with the words of the day laborer:

"Look at him, lying there in resting sloth.  The Sun has scarce passed the point of noon, and he sleeps.  Is this life fair?  Is God just that this youth should sleep without cares in the luxury of leisure, while I sweat my way through anxieties and toil?  Why should I endure hardships while this callous lad enjoys his ease in the heat of the day?  Perhaps I be cursed of God.  Doth the serpent bruise my heal?...I care not.  A curse upon ease and a plague upon luxury say I.  Thou, lad, enjoy thy repose, for time and the world shall soon be no more thy friend.  Then shall life know thee with cares and suffering.  Joy shall depart from thee, forever (web, 5:46-7:02)".  Once more, there appear to be several things going on here.  The first and most noticeable part is that an alternate name for this character might be that of the Green Eyed Monster.  There's a clear-cut note of jealousy in this man's comments about the main character.  Looking at David Swan, all the day laborer can see is a life that he feels he was either owed, or else that he believes was denied him.  At the same time, there is the sense that the adaptation has extended Hawthorne's original satiric purpose by highlighting one particular aspect of the laborer's complaint.  It comes in the form of the curse cast upon luxury in this world.  It's enough to make clear that the laborer feels that he's been slighted by America's upper class in some fashion.

This might be the closest the listener can ever come to having sympathy for this figure.  It's also arguable, however, that a valid enough point is being made in the midst of what would otherwise be the ramblings of a potential madman.  Indeed, the laborer's words serve to act as a counterpoint to the later encounter with married rich couple later on.  Their callous indifference to whether or not David has the right to determine the course of his own life (however momentary) shows that the laborer's ranting has at least one smidge of merit to it.  It serves to highlight a sense of shared guilt on the part the Gilded Age class that was (is) an aspect of life that even Hawthorne was all too aware off.  Guys like Mark Twain were too.  However, where Twain's approach to the issue would be to construct a good and humorous joke at the expense of the rich, Hawthorne instead would dig into the layers of guilt associated with such actions, and then proceed to examine how this might effect the guilty party.  It's the quintessential exercise of all Gothic writing, and in a lot of ways it is true to claim that Hawthorne's methods of approach to these topics would be echoed later on down the road, during the glory days of EC Comics.

It's an approach Hawthorne was particularly good at, nor does it end there.  When we come to the preacher, and his added bit of dialogue, we get this: "And I say unto you, brethren, beware.  Beware the foul fiend.  For I say unto you he doth ever lay snares and bits to trap the young and unwary.  Behold, satan doth lurk in the flesh of those who reveal their reposeful bodies to the common view of passersby.  He doth exhibit sloth, and he enrageth the imagination.  And heateth the passions of those who look upon his sensual, fleshly ease.  Witness now this youth, this torpid voluptuary.  I say unto you again, brethren, that he hath delivered his soul up unto beelzebub.  Has deprived himself of his humanity.  Is no more worthy than to be called a swine of the prodigal son.  For here he lies, an awful instance of dead drunkenness by the roadside.  This instance has God afforded me, and it shall be wrought into the text of this evening's discourse (ibid, (9:11-10:32)".  So, that happened.  Which just leaves the question of how does one begin to describe all that?  Well, let me put it this way, if I was in David's situation, and this guy's ranting woke me up, somewhere among all that, my thoughts would go something like, "Please do not let this freak notice me, or I'm a dead duck"!!  A better way to put it goes as follows.

This character is of the type that could have been found occupying any panel in one of those old Tales from the Crypt comics, or the pages of a Stephen King short story for that matter.  It's a note that both the comic series and the later author did very well.  It's also something that each of them first learned from the pen of Nathaniel Hawthorne.  It's also clear the radio adaptation is very self-aware about this aspect of the writer's work, and so it takes the action one final step further by playing into this sense of dark irony.  They take the final pair of robbers and give them a bit of extra plot relevance by making it clear that they have been lying in wait all day on the exact same road that David has been traveling along, in order to spring on various unsuspecting travelers.  Not only that, but by the time they enter the story, the robbers make it clear that they have attacked and maybe even killed all the people who have crossed Swan's path.  This would include the maiden, the king and queen, the laborer, and even the preacher.  They've all met a grisly and ironic fate at the hands of the two strangers.  That leaves David as just their next potential victim.  I won't got into spoilers beyond here.  Except to say that this addition creates an added layer of Gothic irony to the tale.  One who's message involves avoiding false steps.

Conclusion: Perhaps a Good Place to Start.  

In trying to figure out the meaning of "David Swan", I think it helps to keep two things in mind.  The first is the author's place in the tradition of Gothic literature in general.  The second is Hawthorne's role as a satirist of, and commentator on American life in particular.  In terms of the Tradition of which the writer is just one among many individual talents, it has to be said that Hawthorne more or less earns his status as one among a handful of pioneers.  He wasn't the first talent to try his hand at a specifically American form of gothic expression.  He just seems to have wound up being the break-out star, or trend-setter.  His novels and short-stories are more or less what helped set the template for the kind of ghostly fiction that would come after, and in many ways go on to define the nature of American literature.  It's the way Hawthorne used his talent within this Tradition, his chosen role as one of the first satirical commentators of the potential flaws of American existence, that marks out the specific nature of his own form of artistry.  There is a lot more to talk about here further on at a later date.

For now, perhaps the best way to excavate the meaning of this particular narrative is to focus in on the the short story's main setting, and its overall function in the narrative.  The Image of the Forest is an important implement in the writer's toolbox.  It's one of those constant running themes the author keeps coming back to in just about everything he ever wrote.  Hawthorne seems to have attached a particular literary significance to the Great Northern Woods of New England.  They functioned as a potent symbol, of sorts.  The best way I think I can describe it is to claim that the forest serves as a great ethical testing ground in Hawthorne's writings.  In other words, it's very much as literary critic and scholar Tony Magistrale describes it in a series of remarks made in the course of his short book study, Landscapes of Fear.  That text is primarily concerned with the fiction of Hawthorne's more famous literary heir, and fellow Gothic writer, Stephen King.  However, a lot of the terms the critic uses to describe the work of the modern Big Name in Horror literature also applies to his earlier New England predecessor.  Therefore it's worth paying close attention to the way the forest is described here.

Magistrale claims that "Hawthorne's woods are a place of spiritual mystery; in them, young Goodman Brown, Reuben Bourne, and minister Arthur Dimmesdale must confront their own darkest urges.  In Pet Sematary, Hawthorne's historical sense of puritanical gloom associated with the forest is mirrored in King's ancient Micmac () burial ground.  Dr. Louis Creed, like so many of Hawthorne's (characters, sic), discovers in the Maine woods that evil is no mere abstraction capable of being manipulated or ignored.  Instead, he finds his own confrontation with evil to be overwhelming, and like Hawthorne's Ethan Brand and Goodman Brown, he surrender's to its vision of chaos and corruption (17)".

Now, to be fair, there is much in that passage worth appreciating.  Indeed, while it may make one critical error, the fact of the matter is that Magistrale's diagnosis of Hawthorne's poetic use of the Forest Image contains too much of the truth to ever be discarded entirely.  To do so would be to miss a good first surveyor's outline of Hawthorne's meaning.  Nevertheless, while Magistrale manages to lay out a good deal of the truth, it remains true so far as it goes.  His words above provide us with an important first step on the journey to understanding Hawthorne's artistry.  They are far from being the whole story.  What Magistrale gets correct is the fact that Hawthorne's forests (very much identical to the ones shown in the works of King) serve a symbolic, ethical function.  "Hawthorne's conception of nature, as Hyatt Waggoner defines it, is "a symbolic language capable, when responded to imaginatively, of revealing a truth and reality perceived through, but lying beyond, the senses" (45).  Hawthorne's journeys into the realm of primitive landscape were really metaphors for the journey into the self (77)".  In other words, the Forest in these writings always functions as an active agent, an ethical catalyst, or the Gothic mirror that reflects the nature of the characters back at them, whether for bad, or good.

What I'm not sure Magistrale is aware, however, is the exact nature of the literary influences that undergird Hawthorne's use of the Forest motif, and how that influence, in turn, shapes the direction and import of the various fantastical encounters that his characters have in the deep woods.  If Hawthorne is writing about journeys of the self, then I'd suggest that the nature of these quests, while Gothic at their core, are ventures beyond the bounds of the limited, almost deterministic Puritan outlook that Magistrale ascribes to the author.  In other words, Puritanism, its history, and its moral stain on the National Psyche (i.e. America's Original Sin) are the subject matter Hawthorne tackles in his fiction.  It is not the ontological base of the writer's operations.  Instead, at least a clue as to the nature of Hawthorne's ethical vantage point as a writer might be glimpsed by turning to look into the contents of another essay, With a glance of dark meaning, by Andrew Hadfield.  It is his contention that an all too often overlooked source of inspiration for Hawthorne's Gothic can be found in what has to seem a rather surprising source.  It stems from the writings of Renaissance poet and fantasist, Edmund Spenser.

It's an aspect of Hawthorne's writing that I myself remained unaware of for the longest time.  I never clued on to this fact until seeing a reference to the New England writer's enthusiasm for the composer of The Faerie Queene mentioned in passing in an otherwise unrelated essay.  Aside from Hadfield's efforts, Una's Line, by Catherine Nicholson does a more than serviceable job of laying out the extent of Hawthorne's Spenser fandom credentials.  If I had to describe the depth of that liking, and the inspiration that was drawn from it, then perhaps the best comparison to be made is akin to the love which modern fandom has for the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.  That's the type of enthusiasm which still needs little to no explanation as of yet.  Apparently Hawthorne felt much the same way about Spenser.  It's just that back in his day, there were no Hobbits.  The addition of the poetics of Spenser to Hawthorne's toolbox serves to widen the expanse and scope of the latter's artistry.  Rather than totally negating Magistrale's original claims, it both acknowledges and builds on its initial strengths, even if the final critical-aesthetic picture it paints turns out to different than how it originally started out.

The insights that Hadfield can offer us here is an extension of Waggoner's description of the Forest Image as "a symbolic language".  It does so by revealing that the diction is also a landscape, and that the roots of the forest stretch farther back into the realms of enchantment and myth than most readers of Hawthorne have ever known.  Perhaps its the near total obscurity of the writer's use of Spenser which has caused so many of us (present party included) to overlook it in the first place.  I'd argue that if works like The Faerie Queene serve as a key component of Hawthorne's inspiration, then it might not be out of question to ask whether or not Spenser's No. 1 Fan from New England might have gone so far as to see how good he could be at emulating the tropes, topoi, and even a few compositional practices from the Renaissance poet.  Hadfield seems to go a long way toward providing us an answer here.

In his essay, he claims that, "Both writers are canny theorists of surfaces and veils, metamorphoses and masquerades. They offer a pageantry of darkness and light, a phantasmagoria of obscured faces and marked and hybrid bodies, dim objects and shining emblems, mirror- and snow-images and fleeting dream-like figures. They transport historical personages and events into estranged terrains and draw on a shared catalogue of mythological and Biblical figures. They thus subtly explore the complex relationships between ideality and materiality, abstraction and representation, imago and corpora (web)".   Now if we take all this, and apply it to a work like "David Swan", what do we get?  Well, for one thing, Hawthorne's Forest takes on a greater sense of dimension than just the deterministic model ascribed to it by Magistrale.  It's still the sort of place where ghosts and monsters might hide.  Hawthorne, after all, remains a Horror writer to the end of his days.  The difference is that now the woods could also be a place of enchantments and escape, as well as terrors to run away from.  In other words, the Forest can be either positive of negative, depending on who journeys through it.  In the tale of the slumbering Mr. Swan, it looks very much like the author decided to split this difference.

On the one hand, we are presented with the setup of a main character making his way into a Forest.  It's the kind of opening that countless Horror stories are built out of, and it's not incorrect to claim that writer's like Hawthorne are where this particular trope comes from.  He is, in some ways, one of the great grandfathers of movies like The Blair Witch Project.  The fate of Swan, however, seems to be a bit more ambiguous than the three Burkittsville students.  For one thing, he's alive at the end of the story.  What little damage has been done during the course of the narrative is so meagre that it goes unnoticed.  At the same time, much like the Maryland trio, Swan has had a fateful encounter, of sorts.  He has become a participant (however unwitting) in a satirical tableaux that is both American Gothic and Elizabethan by turns.  He becomes the hub around which the main actions of the plot turn.  We're greeted by a series of passing visitors, each of them making various comments based upon their encounters with David.  In turn, each discloses their own minds to the reader.  This allows us a series of unflattering glimpses into aspects of American society that the author wishes to hold up for ridicule.

The way Hawthorn draws the characters makes it easy enough to identify which aspects of U.S. life and thought he's holding up to the satirical mirror.  The rich couple represent the selfish whims of the upper class.  The preacher stands as a clear satire of moral and religious hypocrisy.  Meanwhile, the two other figures in the drama are the ones that draw out the most pause and consideration.  The laborer, as a new character added to the story by the adaptation is an interesting target to choose.  On the one hand, he seems to be very much the flipped inverse of the rich couple who want to make David into their sort of plaything.  This new guy harbors no such illusions.  Instead, he seems to equate David with the exact same kind of people who would try to abuse him for the sake of their own selfish interests.  It's a clear-cut case of mistaken identity and mislabeled blame.  The interesting thing about the laborer is that he almost has the beginnings of a legitimate complaint.  The couple from the original story go a long way toward justifying the criticisms he spits out to whoever will listen.  He just can't tell friend from foe.

It's almost as if the laborer can't make the proper distinctions between oppressor and opressed.  This in turn serves as his major weakness, and it's implied this is also his great failing in what could otherwise have been a legitimate moral complaint.  It's the fact that he can't live up to this potential ideal, that the laborer lets his bitterness stemming from his own implied mistreatment by others blind him to all that's going on around him, rather than channeling his anger into useful solutions to his problem.  This also seems to be what leads him to not paying enough attention to avoid the robbers later on.  It's the classic setup up of the tragic character flaw, and the price that gets paid for it.  Whereas the rich couple and the preacher each are a pair of more straightforward just desserts.  It's the figure of the young girl who is sort of worth the most comment, because out of all the characters who encounter David on the road, she's the one who you can feel the most sympathy for.  There's nothing really bad about her, as such.  She's just this nice Girl Next Door type who is trying to think about what she wants out of the future.

When she spies David, she realizes that the key to her hopes might have just appeared like a granted wish.  Instead of seizing the initiative, and at the very least going and asking if she may try to find the life she wants, she passes up the opportunity and moves on.  This character is interesting in that her failure doesn't stem from any moral fault.  She's not greedy and grasping like the couple, nor crazed and hypocritical like the preacher.  She's just this normal woman who won't take her chances in life.  Unlike the laborer who lets his bitterness cloud his judgment, the girl has a very clear idea of what's going on, and how she can prosper and thrive in life, and yet she decides not to act on this knowledge.  It's interesting because in the adaptation, it's implied that this choice of inaction is what costs her.  The implication seems to be that if she'd been a bit more courageous, then not only would she have gotten the future she longed for, she also might have faired better when it came time to face off against the bandits.  This could have been either by having David along to protect her, or else even by finding the  strength necessary to to stand up for herself in the conflict.  The adaptation therefore seems to showcase the girl as a case of forking paths, and how the poor choice can be the one that makes all the difference.

When you put all these ingredients together, the combined elements of the tableaux seem to point to the need for the youth of this world to find the strength necessary to stand up to all the personal and social corruption that is plaguing American society at large, or else the consequences could be dire.  If Swan and the girl are the closest thing to heroes in the narrative, then they seem to represent the Romantic potential of the future.  Hawthorne is willing to highlight the promise of the young while also making sure to highlight the threats they'll have to face if they ever want to succeed.  The result is a short story with one foot in the same type of Gothic territory as Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find", while the other takes a firm stand on the same Romantic ground as that found in the work of Spenser.  Much like the Renaissance poet, Hawthorne has composed a tableaux that serves as a useful Emblem for both the good and bad, or light and dark aspects of American life.  My one hope in all this is that I haven't made any of this sound dull while trying to excavate the meaning of the story artifact.

I know Hawthorne has become kind of like the scourge of readers everywhere.  However, for some reason, I just wasn't bored at any point during the proceedings.  Instead, the overall impression I get from this short story is that I was reading one of those old Shock and Suspense Horror issues from the EC Comics line (what the die hard fans of Tales from the Crypt refer to with macabre affection as "The Preachies"; stories where the Horror sometimes hit harder than in the straight up supernatural business, because a lot of the atrocities depicted in those panels were drawn from real life).  "David Swan" contains that same identifiable note of moral caution that marked out the best on offer from the pen of EC stalwarts like Graham "Ghastly" Ingles or Flannery O'Connor.  It's not too much of a surprise that the whole thing tends to play out like one of those classic EC Comics issues, or like a particularly Gothic episode of The Twilight Zone for that matter.  Hawthorne is able to generate all the right and balanced amounts of surrealism and dread that you expect from the later Fifth Dimension.

The result makes for a fine and interesting hybrid.  It's a medieval Spenserian tableaux applied to a modern American Gothic setting in with a surprising and therefore gratifying lack of clashing styles.  Instead, the writer gives us a hint of the problems that plague the U.S. social life, and keep it from fulfilling a lot of the promise that it could have, if only we'd clean up our acts.  So it is something of a parable.  Yet it's one with a very effective and Gothic bite.  The kind of short Horror story that weirds you out in all the best ways that this type of work can.  My final thoughts are that any of those rare souls out there who might be thinking of giving the Scourge of High School and College English a chance could do worse than start here.  It's got all the hallmarks of a good introductory text.  The setup and execution are simple to understand, and the best part is how the writer seems willing to hold the readers hand on this one.  I get the impression Hawthorne was eager to please when he composed this short sketch, so he went out of his way to make everything as unobscured as possible.    Instead, it's like a master of ceremonies welcoming you into the confines of his secondary world for the first time.  The result is a fun, old fashioned, American Gothic tale that winds up being well worth a good read.        

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