We’re apt to limit those personal freedoms. Fear does it—the fear that we’ll stand out, which is an unholy terror to many people, enough so that they will forfeit their identity, their very person-ness, and when you do that, shut out the lights, because it’s over. You’re all done, save that you’re still technically alive, but what does that count for and what can it do for you, and what can you do for anyone?
We mold our speech on the speech we hear and see around us, as if the national bird wasn’t good old Mr. Piebald—the eagle—but rather a parrot. We go along to get along in our views, but we’ll complain with the best of them when there isn’t the kind of reform—or basic sanity—we’d like to see, though the devolution of our collective language skills often means that we sputter about with the same dozen words everyone else uses, and repeat the word “literally” as much as possible, as if that will make up the distance between what we think and what we want to convey.
We number ourselves as a member of a political party, espousing the broadest strokes, living our lives in concomitant blotches of red and blue that are as wide as a time zone. Often enough, the political party we belong to is first thing we’ll let someone else know about us, depending on whether or not they’re aware if we’re vaccinated.
Who cares? That could be anyone. What I want to know—and what the literature that truly matters wants us to ask ourselves—is what makes you you?
Most current fiction books pander to lazy expectations—let’s all write the exact same way—born of a prevailing dearth of imagination and an unwillingness—a fear—to work, risk, and just flat out try. To go for it and write something that matters, that has utility to the lives of one’s fellow humans—or, the life of a single other human.
Remove that questing attitude, and along with that spirit also goes the honing process one would need to develop the skills that results in the creation of work that matters, allowing that one had ability or potential with which to work in the first place.
These books would seem to be a part of a niche of a niche of a niche, but they are in reality the standardized norm, and they are boring, so “un-free,” if you will, just like the system that queues them up and sends them off, with its emphasis on who one knows, Twitter followers, and standing in a community of fellow writers that is the least consequential form of community in history, a group that has written itself right out of the margins of society and culture.
You read the first few sentences—or less—of this kind of book or story and you think, “Oh, it’s one of those.” You move on. You don’t care. Why would you?
But when I read Mosses from an Old Manse, I feel like I am bringing the book home—to a central hearth of consequence—just as the book brings a part of myself home to me. And it doesn’t always look as it did the last time. These altered revisits are in part what the best literature is about.
We journey, yes, but those books and stories journey with us. What we see in the mirror—the mirror being the work—regularly changes, as we have changed, and as life does.
A true work of literature is a constant, an absolute, in its essence of what it is; but that doesn’t mean that all is revealed in every instance that we partake of the work. Life takes time and time takes life; the best literature is a form of both. It is flow in all its forms, and it is that which is always waiting for our arrival—our latest arrival.
When we call Hawthorne to mind now, it’s normally 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 applied label.
Typically, a story collection is some assemblage of various—but similar—scraps of inconsequence in which a silver-spooned MFA grad has jammed 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—which is to say, brought out by a publisher—for no other reason than that person’s name is at the top with whatever that name represents to a gaggle of similarly wired and positioned people at a given firm.
This is not the freedom of actual literature. It’s an exercise in ego, which itself is fundamentally an exercise in displayed insecurity, a theme Hawthorne also handles in Mosses with a work called “Egotism; or, the Bosom Serpent.”
Watch that asp—because that asp is gonna get you. The only people fooled by these displays are those reliant on such displays themselves; and even these individuals, for lack of a better term, aren’t so adroit at the game of self-hoodwinking that they don’t know the truth.
The awareness of this truth only makes them more clannish and frightened of anyone who goes where they cannot, and has an independent place of their own, is an independent place of their own. That’s why they seek to rid their system of every last person fitting this bill. Increasingly, there are fewer people in the world who do, and there is less and less worth reading at all, until we get down to bedrock, the bottom layer where we are presently situated. The stars—with the possibility and wonder they contain, which is the reason above all why we might love to read anything—have never been further away.
Mosses avows narrative possibility on every page. 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 me insensible at fifteen and still does, but for different reasons.
Where you arrive is what you are because it helps reveal who you are. We always speak of place as this zone outside of ourselves, but we are a form of place, too. And so are our thoughts, our fears, our hopes, our understanding of self, our misconceptions, and the truths we manage to uncover, which is one thing; and the truths we are able to accept, which is quite another.