“Calvinist imagination, quick to conjure doom”

Simon Schama takes a close look at Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work, and argues that the author was:

….the most luxuriant of the seed-bed sowers of American literature. Though he often shrank snail-like into stay-at-home furtiveness, the town that made him – Salem, Massachusetts – (as any visitor can still see) faces the dark, windy ocean, and it was this Hawthorne would stare at when he worked in its Custom House from 1846-49. Such inward/outward paradox was to be at the heart of his creativity. Unlike his friend Melville, who did go venturing over the seas, Hawthorne was often stuck on its anxious verge; though the explorations he would undertake would be the perilous roadsteads of the human psyche….

If Melville was incomparably the greatest of these literary re-inventors, and Poe the most celebrated in his day (until Mark Twain), then Hawthorne was surely the most creatively tormented, an unhealed casualty in the old tug of war between puritanism and sensuality. “The spirit of my puritan ancestors was mighty on me,” he confessed, as well he might since a great-grandfather Hathorne had been one of the judges in the Salem witch trials, and another had been a ferocious whipper of Quakers.


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