Fifty years after his death, Hawthorne is already a classic. For even Mr. Brownell allows him one masterpiece, and one masterpiece means an immortality. I suppose it is generally agreed that "The Scarlet Letter" is his chef-d'œuvre. Certainly it is his most intensely conceived work, the most thoroughly fused and logically developed; and is free from those elements of fantasy, mystery, and unreality which enter into his other romances. But its unrelieved gloom, and the author's unrelaxing grasp upon his theme, make it less characteristic than some of his inferior works; and I think he was right in preferring "The House of the Seven Gables," as more fully representing all sides of his genius. The difference between the two is the difference between tragedy and romance. While we are riding the high horse of criticism and feeling virtuous, we will concede the superiority of the former genre; but when we give our literary conscience the slip, we yield ourselves again to the fascination of the haunted twilight.
The antique gabled mansion in its quiet back street has the charm of the still-life sketches in the early books, such as "Sights from a Steeple," "A Rill from the Town Pump," "Sunday at Home," and "The Toll-gatherer's Day." All manner of quaint figures, known to childhood, pass along that visionary street: the scissors grinder, town crier, baker's cart, lumbering stage-coach, charcoal vender, hand-organ man and monkey, a drove of cattle, a military parade-the "trainers," as we used to call them. Hawthorne had no love for his fellow citizens and took little part in the modern society of Salem. But he had struck deep roots into the soil of the old witch town, his birthplace and the home of generations of his ancestors. Does the reader know this ancient seaport, with its decayed shipping and mouldering wharves, its silted up harbor and idle custom-house, where Hawthorne served three years as surveyor of the port? Imposing still are the great houses around the square, built by retired merchants and shipmasters whose fortunes were made in the East India trade: with dark old drawing-rooms smelling of sandalwood and filled with cabinets of Oriental curiosities. Hawthorne had little to do with the aristocracy of Salem. But something of the life of these old families may be read in Mrs. Stoddard's novel "The Morgesons,"-a book which I am perpetually recommending to my friends, and they as perpetually refusing to read, returning my copy after a superficial perusal, with uncomplimentary comments upon my taste in fiction.
Hawthorne's academic connections are of particular interest. It is wonderful that he and Longfellow should have been classmates at Bowdoin. Equally wonderful that Emerson's "Nature" and Hawthorne's "Mosses" should have been written in the same little room in the Old Manse at Concord. It gives one a sense of how small New England was then, and in how narrow a runway genius went. Bowdoin College in those days was a little country school on the edge of the Maine wilderness, only twenty years old, its few buildings almost literally planted down among the pine stumps. Hawthorne's class-1825-graduated but thirty-seven strong. And yet Hawthorne and Longfellow were not intimate in college but belonged to different sets. And twelve years afterward, when Longfellow wrote a friendly review of "Twice-Told Tales" in The North American Review, his quondam classmate addressed him in a somewhat formal letter of thanks as "Dear Sir." Later the relations of the two became closer, though never perhaps intimate. It was Hawthorne who handed over to Longfellow that story of the dispersion of the Acadian exiles of Grandpré, which became "Evangeline": a story which his friend Conolly had suggested to Hawthorne, as mentioned in "The American Note Books." The point which arrested Hawthorne's attention was the incident in the Bayou Teche, where Gabriel's boat passes in the night within a few feet of the bank on which Evangeline and her company are sleeping.
This was one of those tricks of destiny that so often engaged Hawthorne's imagination: like the tale of "David Swan" the farmer's boy who, on his way to try his fortune in the city, falls asleep by a wayside spring. A rich and childless old couple stop to water their horse, are taken by his appearance and talk of adopting him, but drive away on hearing someone approaching. A young girl comes by and falls so much in love with his handsome face that she is tempted to waken him with a kiss, but she too is startled and goes on. Then a pair of tramps arrive and are about to murder him for his money, when they in turn are frightened off. Thus riches and love and death have passed him in his sleep; and he, all unconscious of the brush of the wings of fate, awakens and goes his way. Again, our romancer had read the common historical accounts of the great landslide which buried the inn in the Notch of the White Mountains. The names were known of all who had been there that night and had consequently perished-with one exception. One stranger had been present, who was never identified: Hawthorne's fancy played with this curious problem, and he made out of it his story of "The Ambitious Guest," a youth just starting on a brilliant career, entertaining the company around the fire, with excited descriptions of his hopes and plans; and then snuffed out utterly by ironic fate, and not even numbered among the missing.