Hawthorne’s Habitations by Robert Milder

Hawthorne's Habitations: A Literary Life Cover

Milder writes how, in the middle of his life, Nathaniel Hawthorne became homesick for England. I think of second, third and fourth generation immigrant Americans I have known who feel nostalgic for their ancestral homeland. A friend in his 70’s told me that the first time he stood on Swedish soil, in his late 60’s, he felt he had come home. Another man, a Christian professor of the Hebrew Bible, told me that he wept when as an adult a tour guide showed him the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.  The stories, legends, mythologies and daydreams that fill our minds shape the landscape of our true homelands. Hawthorne wrote of a character in his story “Etheredge”:

He began to feel the deep yearning which a sensitive American-his mind full of English thoughts, his imagination of English poetry, his heart of English character and feeling-cannot fail to be influenced by, the yearning of the blood within his veins for that from which it has been estranged.

Milder analyzes some of the “private and idiosyncratic in Hawthorne…” but the larger question Hawthorne and other giants of his generation faced was, according to Milder, how to find a basis for a morality and a spirituality apart from European Cbristianity. There seemed to have been two choices:

In some fashion, nearly all of Hawthorne’s major literary contemporaries found themselves poised between a naturalism that simultaneously attracted and repelled them and a supernaturalism they could neither assent to in traditional terms nor affectively renounce. On fundamental matters of God’s existence and the nature of the soul, they were ambivalent, perplexed, vacillating, and self-contradictory, with the consequence that their literary attitudes are often provisional, inconstant, or indeterminate.

There’s so much of interest, including Nathaniel Hawthorne as the literary father of John Updike, who wrote of his ancestor-in-shyness that Hawthorne could live a public life in “Maskenfreihet, the freedom conferred by masks”.

John Updike

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