Words of Wisdom from Nathaniel Hawthorne

Monday, February 15, 2016

It’s been decades since I read The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne, so I decided it was time to read it again. The first thing in the book to pique my interest was not the story, however. It was Hawthorne’s preface, where he gives several insights into his writing philosophy.

When I first started attending writers’ critique groups, I was struck by the number of people who rejected suggestions for enlivening their fiction simply because “it didn’t happen that way.” I wanted to scream, “It’s fiction! It doesn’t have to have happened that way!”

Hawthorne must have felt as I do. In the following passage, he defines “romance” and “novel” differently than we do today, and his 1851 language needs careful reading. Still, the point is clear: it’s okay to depart from the truth if it makes the story more interesting.

When a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume had he professed to be writing a Novel. The latter form of composition is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience. The former—while, as a work of art, it must rigidly subject itself to laws, and while it sins unpardonably so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart—has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation. If he think fit, also, he may so manage his atmospherical medium as to bring out or mellow the lights and deepen and enrich the shadows of the picture. He will be wise, no doubt, to make a very moderate use of the privileges here stated, and, especially, to mingle the Marvelous rather as a slight, delicate, and evanescent flavor, than as any portion of the actual substance of the dish offered to the public. He can hardly be said, however, to commit a literary crime even if he disregard this caution.

In my opinion, another mistake that many authors make is to shout their moral at readers. I ignore the shouts and pay the most attention to the whispers. It’s okay to be explicitly Christian or anti-war or environmentalist, but you don’t need to tell me that in every other sentence. Again, Hawthorne must have felt the same way.

When romances do really teach anything, or produce any effective operation, it is usually through a far more subtle process than the ostensible one. The author [Hawthorne] has considered it hardly worth his while, therefore, relentlessly to impale the story with its moral as with an iron rod,—or, rather, as by sticking a pin through a butterfly,—thus at once depriving it of life, and causing it to stiffen in an ungainly and unnatural attitude. A high truth, indeed, fairly, finely, and skilfully wrought out, brightening at every step, and crowning the final development of a work of fiction, may add an artistic glory, but is never any truer, and seldom any more evident, at the last page than at the first.

We can always learn from the writers who came before us, and Hawthorne is no exception.


The photograph of Nathaniel Hawthorne was taken by Matthew Brady in the early 1860s. It is in the public domain because of its age.

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