Anybody want to defend Nathaniel Hawthorne to me? I've always hated him (and I've read his three major novels--The Scarlet Letter, House of the Seven Gables, and The Blithedale Romance).
When I described my loathing to Dr. Boudreau, the graduate coordinator of UGA's English department, she asked if I'd read The Scarlet Letter since high school. I sheepishly admitted that I had not. "Give it another try," she said. "You need to read that book when you're old enough to imagine your life falling apart."
And so here I am, plowing through the book again. I do like it more than I liked it eight years ago--but I still don't connect with it the way I connect with Hawthorne's contemporary Herman Melville, who is frustrating in a totally different way. Melville's problem, as I've discussed elsewhere, is that he's a mess; his books never seemed planned at all, but instead they're Darwinist approaches to literature. He tosses everything in by chance and the cream of each reader's crop rises to the surface.
Hawthorne, on the other hand, seems to have planned every comma of The Scarlett Letter. It's masterfully controlled, but it seems to me as though that control has suffocated the book. I'm so aware of Hawthorne's intentions and his artistry that the characters can't breathe, and he won't allow me to really feel anything for them. Do any of you have a similar experience? Meredith, aren't you a Hawthorne fan?
Meanwhile, the latest trend seems to be to question John Steinbeck's place in the literary canon. In an interesting and personal piece for the Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley wrestles with the ghost of old Tom Joad, finally coming down on neither side of the love-him-or-hate-him fence. A few thoughts on that article:
- Yardley notes that the Nobel Prize committee privileges "political orthodoxy" over "literary distinction." No kidding. Take a look at this list of Nobel Prize winners for literature; you've never heard of most of them. Look at the reasons the committees give for their choices; they will not out-and-out state that "we like this person's opinions rather than their art," but that's the subtext behind phrases like "lofty idealism" and "spiritual perception." The Prize was originally meant to go to "the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency," and if the World Wars killed that notion, the committee still loves "correct" opinions.
- He also says that his love for Steinbeck abated at about the same time his love for Faulkner grew. I've always been told that's a natural progression--Steinbeck and Faulkner are never in vogue at the same time, taking as they did completely opposite (political vs. impressionistic) attitudes toward what was essentially the same mileau: poor people in the 1920s and '30s. I wonder if we'll see a rash of Faulkner-bashing ten years from now when Steinbeck re-enters the Academy.