The Nathaniel Hawthorne Audio Collection

“Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”

My Review

“Solitude was his natural element,” says Paul Auster (author) in the one hour introduction Hawthorne at Home that gives tribute to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writing life as well as a glimpse into his family and friendship with Herman Melville.

Portrait of Nathanial Hawthorne in my book review.The emphasis though is not on the writer of The Scarlet Letter or The House of the Seven Gables but on the more personal side witnessed within his journals.

This Hawthorne collection features journal writings titled Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny, by Papa and three short stories: Young Goodman Brown, The Minister’s Black Veil and Rappaccini”s Daughter.

Worthy of your Listening Time

Auster’s voice is relaxed, honest and comfortable to listen to as he continues with Twenty Days reading Hawthorne’s “account of a man taking care of his child by himself”. Hawthorne wrote about his interactions and observations of his five year old son Julian during a three week period in 1851 while his wife and daughter were away visiting. Auster says the notebook was for Hawthorne’s wife Sophia so she could read about what they did while she was away.

A portion of Twenty Days was first published in another volume of Hawthorne’s work but it never appeared in its entirety. According to Auster, Hawthorne has accomplished what every parent wishes, “to keep his child alive forever”.

Hawthorne’s reflections are almost reminiscent of Michael Keaton in Mr. Mom. They are light, loving and believable. In-depth descriptions of their activities, meetings, power struggles, walks and meals have a familiar quality to them.

Children in the mid 1800′s are quite similar with children of today. Julian, whom Papa affectionately refers to as Little man, is a bundle of energy until the full stop occurs. He is inquisitive with endless questions for his daddy. Within a few days we see Hawthorne already showing shortness of patience with Julian but is quickly renewed with a new day. Other notable similarities arise like when he and Julian were having a fine day with themselves and uninvited guests appeared. There was no food to provide and they hadn’t the time to tidy. Hawthorn termed the visitors, “invaders” and wished for his wife’s presence to do the entertaining. They were also not without their own routines. He was to bed by 9 and usually up by 6 and liked to look “over the paper before bed”. The similarities between then and now are amusing.

His journal is full of scenic descriptions, character studies and lessons to Julian. Bits of Hawthorne’s personality bleed into the diary. Like his penchant for paranoia shown by his need to deliver a letter to the post himself. He wrote a letter to Phoebe (nickname for his wife Sophia) and handed it over to a visitor who was also going to post. He later “regretted it” and promised to post another himself because there was no guarantee whether it would be posted. Hawthorne’s love of nature is also apparent in his recurring descriptions of their daily walks.

Following Hawthorne’s diary entries are three strange, dark stories narrated by James Naughton (actor). I was left wondering why they were compiled with the light cheery reflections of Hawthorne’s journal. The transition from one reader to another was also unnerving and awkward.

The first story, Young Goodman Brown begins with a young married man (Goodman Brown) saying goodbye to his new bride Faith despite her begging him not to go. At the beginning of his journey he meets up with a strange man and they walk along a wilderness path (something Nathanial did daily according to Twenty Days). The path seems to be a metaphor for evil. The old man talks about knowing Goodman’s father and grandfather and his relationship to the other villagers. There are a few play on words like his wife’s name is Faith and at one point he screams, “I have lost my Faith!” having obvious double meaning. If it’s yet not obvious to you what this story is about it is because it wasn’t clear to me either but I gather it has something to do with one man’s struggle with his conscious good and evil both real and imagined.

The second story, The Minister’s Black Veil is also full of metaphors. Again we see the involvement of the townspeople in this story that’s supposed to be “a parody”. One day Mr Hopper, a minister, walks about town with a black veil covering his eyes but his mouth and chin remain exposed. All want to know “the mystery concealed behind it”. The town folk are upset by this change in their friendly minister who even wears the veil during his service causing the folks to read more into his sermon than usual. A man they’ve known well has suddenly become a man they feel they don’t know at all. During the story he attends a funeral, church service and wedding. It’s an interesting moral tale.

The final story, Rappaccini’s Daughter is equally as dark. A bored young, Italian writer named Giovanni becomes distracted by a luscious garden and fountain outside the window of the room he rents and most importantly the daughter of the plants’ caretaker, Beatrice. This is a strange tale about a girl raised in seclusion by her scientist father among poisonous plants and who has become a poison herself. Slow to start but has a twisted unsuspecting outcome.

I thoroughly enjoyed Hawthorne’s Twenty Day’s Diary and was slow to warm up to the short stories mostly because I was expecting them to have the same flair as the journal. Both create different moods but are worthy of your listening time.

This review was originally published on Linear Reflections in 2005.

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