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Excerpt from essay on Hawthorne's Mosses from an Old Manse and the Fourth of July

Wednesday 6/22/22

Most books work this way now, pandering to lazy ass expectations. They’re part of a niche of a niche of a niche, and they are so boring, so “un-free,” if you will. You read the first few sentences—or less—and you think, “Oh, it’s one of those.” You move on. You don’t care. On the Fourth of July, I feel like I am bringing Mosses from an Old Manse home, just as it brings a part of myself home to me. When we think of Hawthorne now, it’s because we read The Scarlet Letter in high school, the original American cancel culture work. What you will note, though, if you go further with his writings, is the modern sensibility. How “current” Hawthorne reads in his language. The prose is bracing and a bolt of the new; there’s nothing old-fashioned about it.


“Young Goodman Brown” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter” are the more famous tales in the book, emphasis on that last word. Mosses is a book in the sense of a cohesive work, that functions as only the best books can. It’s not truly a story collection, though that’s the label applied to it. Typically, a story collection is some assemblage of piffle in which a silver-spooned MFA grad jams together nine stories that no one really wants to read that were workshopped to death with other people just like them, with the same life experiences, and justified as belonging together for no other reason than that person’s name is at the top and they have the right agent. This is not the freedom of true literature. It’s an exercise in ego, which Hawthorne also handles in Mosses with a work called “Egotism; or, the Bosom Serpent.” Watch that asp—because that asp is gonna get you.


Mosses avows narrative possibility in everything. One feels that walking out his door, strolling along the banks of the Concord, Hawthorne would have been gifted with story, just by keeping his eyes and ears open, and tapping the freedom of his imagination. The book defies classification. Read it as you wish—straight through. Hop around. Dial in on “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” which scared the shit out of me at fifteen and still does. The San Francisco rock band Black Rebel Motorcycle Club has a lyric that goes, “I won’t waste my love on a nation.” It’s not hard to imagine people coming for you after you cite such a line, wishing to have your head on a pike, because their family member served in our armed forces, or whatever the reason, be it one well-thought out, or simply on account that they have an American flag shirt they wear to NASCAR races.


But the bigger point that the lyric is getting at, and which Mosses embodies in literature that doubles as life experience, is true freedom ultimately comes down to you, and what you locate inside, and how you maximize what you’ve found and developed. We have this default mode of thinking now, we’re we first ask ourselves what others would think about what we claim—and often pretend—to think. We’re conditioned to view the world as though weighing how our views on a subject might play if we express them on Twitter. Will we find favor and rack up those “likes,” or will we have to ponder scrubbing the tweet? The first impulse should always be, “What do I think? Why do I think it? And what should I think next about this thing I think so that I might think in a more effective manner about it?”


Without that, nothing means anything, and one does not weather evenly, as the USS Constitution has for so many years. Mosses from an Old Manse is the book as party of one, meant to be partaken of by others who understand and extol the freedom it embodies. Hawthorne’s pal, Herman Melville, cited the Concordian’s penchant for playing “upon the edges of thunder clouds.” The author of the exceedingly stormy Moby-Dick also made sure to note the dappled qualities of Hawthorne’s stories; in other words, they rang with a creative freedom true to life, when the shadow and all it represents—doubt, fear, a questioning of one’s worth—may be proximate to the sun’s ray and all it, too, symbolizes—the new day, a fresh vantage point, hope.


That is the guts and the life force of true literature and art. The body needs be put in motion, or else we have but the cadaver on the table, and I see that hulking monstrosity so regularly now in our America. In the hackneyed, predictable, disposable books of this country, delivered still-born; in the way we go about “debates,” which is really a hunkering down inside of a perishable, flaking idea we’ve not vetted all that much, that we have no legitimate belief in; in our language, with its reliance on whatever the clichés and recycled quips are favored during that season. (“Tell me you haven’t read Hawthorne without telling me you haven’t read Hawthorne!”; eh; cool it, stooges and boobs.) Hawthorne, in his time, would not give anyone the then-current versions of these things; to do so was to play a part in a shackling.


A second edition of Mosses came out in 1854. By then, Hawthorne had published The Scarlet Letter (1850), The House of the Seven Gables (1851), and The Blithedale Romance (1852). To paraphrase the old song: He was still fairly young, but he was daily growing. Writing to his publisher, Hawthorne confessed that he wasn’t sure if the man he had become was a man who understood those earlier stories. I think that is in part their essence—they chart a moving forward. Hawthorne’s proclamation doesn’t mean that Mosses fails in the execution of its artistic vision. I’ve read it enough over years and periods of my own life to know that it does what it needed and needs to do. What it means is that person who created it tapped into its same freedoms, and thus had no need to remain unquestionably by its side. That is a huge component of freedom, and we can lose sight of that when draped in a flag, or singing along to an anthem, and maybe not realizing—and being grateful—for the humanistic ideology that undergirds it all. It is there that I plant my flag.


Niche of a niche of a niche? Mere story collection? Pish. Mosses from an Old Manse is a book that has always asked me a primary question which I’ve done my best to answer: What about the party of you? Conformity for conformity’s sake—love of country, as it’s so often put, like that’s the ultimate marching order to be a good American, whatever that means—or contrarianism for contrarianism's sake, obscure the individual. There’s a different manner of Declaration of Independence we’d be wise to focus on, and this Declaration of Independence doubles as a note to self. I think about that on my private Fourth of July mornings, reading the words that Hawthorne wrote within view of the window he looked through as he wrote them. The window, and the window. The best windows are reminders: they give us pause that windows are not just for peering outwards; they’re how we look into ourselves. Sometimes we just need to wipe them clean first. A rag and a little spit can take you far.