Debating nature : revising pastoral in Hawthorne's America.
Access changed 12/5/17
In 1849, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave Nathaniel Hawthorne a presentation copy of his second edition of the famous essay Nature. Hawthorne’s three American romances composed over the next three years – The Scarlet Letter (1850), The House of the Seven Gables (1851), and The Blithedale Romance (1852) – employ some of the same terminology Emerson uses in his essay. More importantly, Hawthorne’s romances offer differing ways of reimagining the kind of “original relation with the universe” that Emerson advocates while at the same time critiquing Emerson’s blithe comments about unmediated relations between humans, nature, and the divine. Hawthorne shares with Emerson a conviction that nature and spirit are somehow related, but he registers his disagreement with Emerson by incorporating into his romances diverse ways of understanding nature – Puritan allegory, Gothic romance, Native American views of land ownership, and Renaissance pastoral, in addition to Transcendentalist idealism. Thus, the Transcendentalist view of nature functions, for Hawthorne, as one of a variety of ways of knowing nature rather than being the one “true” way, as Emerson imples.
In his investigation of nature, Hawthorne turns from Emerson’s Transcendentalist claims to Renaissance pastoral as the most adequate way of understanding the relations between humans, nature, and the divine. Yet Hawthorne revises the pastoral as well by bringing together diverse views of nature to comprise a syncretic view of nature that he finds closer to the truth than any one of these views by itself. In Renaissance pastoral, the primary approach he adopts even as he revises it, Hawthorne finds a form that breaks down the apparent dichotomies between art and nature, nature and humans, nature and the divine, and humans and the divine so as to indicate that such dichotomies are founded upon a misconstrual of the human condition. By adopting Renaissance pastoral as a critique of more strictly American views of Nature, Hawthorne suggests that older literary forms may yet hold wisdom for the contemporary world – even if those older forms must be modified to respond to a new situation.