Dark Romantics: Hawthorne and Poe

Dark Romantics: Hawthorne and Poe

face-to-face.1 They never shook hands or even sat in the same room together. They did,

however, maintain a casual occasional correspondence and commented on one another’s

work. More importantly, however, the two writers are inseparably linked because of the

Portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles

style of their works. Both Hawthorne and Poe wrote about the human condition and

Osgood, 1840 (courtesy ofPeabody Essex

Museum, Salem, MA, Gift of Professor Richard

human nature in a way that few other writers of the time period did. To both Hawthorne

C. Manning, Acc#121459)

and Poe, humanity was an evil creature, perpetually plagued with sin, guilt, and

morbidity. As Hawthorne wrote in “Young Goodman Brown”: “Evil is the nature of

mankind.” This is the dark side of the Romantic movement in literature; I will argue that

Hawthorne and Poe are the Dark Romantics.

The first time we can prove that one author was aware of the other was fairly late in both

of their careers.2 The April 1842 issue of Philadelphia’sGraham’s Magazine included a

teaser of sorts: Poe offered a few sentences of review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales,

with a promise that more was to come. Coincidentally, that same issue of Graham’s

included the first publication of Poe’s story “Life in Death” – later renamed “The Oval

Portrait”3 – but, more on that later.

The book Poe was reviewing collected several of Hawthorne’s short stories – Hawthorne

hadn’t yet written his major novels. 4 That was a good thing to Poe. His preliminary

review begins, “We have always regarded the Tale... as affording the best prose

opportunity for display of the highest talent.”5 It helped, of course, that Poe was a tale-
writer himself. That is significant, of course: few of the other contemporary American

writers who survive into collective memory in modern times were known for their short

prose; most everyone else is remembered as poets, essayists, and novelists. Later, Poe

would write an important essay expounding his theory that there was no such thing as

a “good” long work like a novel because it was impossible to sustain what he called the

“unity of effect.”6

As for Hawthorne, Poe writes: “We have seen no prose composition by any American

which can compare with some of these articles... while there is not a single piece which

would do dishonor to the best of British essayists.” Gushing praise from Poe is almost

entirely unheard of, especially for a New England-based writer, but he approaches just

that. He goes on: “The style of Mr. Hawthorne is purity itself. His tone is singularly

effective – wild, plaintive, thoughtful, and in full accordance with his themes... Upon

the whole we look upon him as one of the few men of indisputable genius to whom our

country has as yet given birth.”7

That was just Poe’s preliminary review. The next month, the May 1842 issue of Graham’s

Magazine included Poe’s full review of Hawthorne – nearly 3,000 words (though he

still apologized it was too brief). The article is a mix of review and a personal essay

on literary theory. Though it is not all laudatory, the article has plenty of praise for

Hawthorne. “Of Mr. Hawthorne’s Tales,” Poe writes, “we would say, emphatically,

that they belong to the highest region of Art – an Art subservient to genius of a very

lofty order.” He notes that Hawthorne’s work pulls him outside the typical “cliques” of

American writing and he sums up: “As Americans, we feel proud of the book.” He notes

in particular a fondness for works like “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” “The Minister’s

Black Veil,” and especially “Wakefield” – which Poe notes is powerful because of its focus

on “the analysis of the motives” of the character.8 What makes the character do what

he does? Poe explored similar questions about motivations in his own works, including

“The Imp of the Perverse” and, in a different way, “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Poe also

comments that Hawthorne is not being paid what he’s worth. He writes in August 1845:

“Hawthorne, it appears to us, has fulfilled all the conditions which should secure success,

and yet he has reaped but a scanty harvest.”9 It is, of course, easy for Poe to sympathize

because he was also struggling to be financially successful