Nov 24, 2009

Nathaniel Hawthorne, American Heritage

I’m pretty sure it’s not cool to like nineteenth American art, but in my last two visits to the art museum, I wandered into those rooms and was taken by much of what I saw. More and more often in looking at history, I think, “These are my ancestors. What do we have in common?”

My sense of connection also arises partly because of Hawthorne’s story, “Ethan Brand,” which has popped up in conversation a couple of times lately; his unflattering portrait of New England villagers intrigues me.

Ethan Brand left his town eighteen years before the story begins. Now he’s back, and the town’s atwitter about his return. We learn that he left in order to discover “The Unpardonable Sin,” and, guess what, he found it. It’s the sin of pride that causes someone to set himself apart from, and therefore above, “the brotherhood of man.” By seeking the Unpardonable Sin, Ethan Brand commits it. He knows it, and says he would do it again.

Labeling the seeker, the rebel, the iconoclast an “unpardonable” sinner—that sounds like a pretty democratic and reasonable value system, right? But when we meet Ethan Brand’s fellow citizens, we’d consider lighting out for the territory too. They tend to be drunk, ugly, and uninteresting, except that they’re sort of weird, sort of a traveling circus that doesn’t travel.

So are we supposed to identify with the arrogant “intellectual” and title character, who says he's not repentant for his self-imposed exile, which amounts to self-exaltation? Are we up to it, that kind of defiance, solitude, and acceptance of responsibility? Or should we see ourselves as one of the tedious, unattractive Everymen of the village? At least the motley crew in the town square have each other—right? Is that what we’re supposed to say, out of a sense of modesty and a need for others, a sense of ourselves as herd animals? The townsfolk are the only alternatives to Ethan Brand in the world of the story; so to play fair, those are our choices.

“Ethan Brand” is my favorite Hawthorne story, along with “My Kinsman, Major Molineaux.” I think both pieces ask more complex and subtle questions than most of his work does.

So when I saw the paintings, which are roughly contemporary with Hawthorne, I couldn’t help but see the rag-tag bumpkins of those two stories, or the pious folks of Salem who render Young Goodman Brown an isolated cynic in one of Hawthorne’s other famous stories.

If the humans in these paintings are our norm, the best or only prospects for fellowship, how do we respond? To which male would you hand over your daughter? Which female looks like the best candidate for interesting talk over coffee? Or is coffee not the point? If these are our predecessors, who are we?

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Jeff M said...

If you get a chance, Banjo, take a trip to Cleveland Museum of Art. They have wonderful selections of 19th Century art, as well as an Asian collection that is considered one of the finest in the world (though it may be under renovation).

Banjo52 said...

Thanks, Jeff. That's not out of the question. I've also heard the Toledo museum is way beyond what you'd expect from a city that size.

Slowmo said...

Love the pictures, the way you've laid them out. Just think, some future generations will look at us and label us all bumpkins. Perhaps we should want to be portrayed by nearly indecipherable Picassoesque painters.

Banjo52 said...

Thanks, Slomo, tho' the thought you offer about the future is as troubling as it is interesting. Also, I hope I didn't sound too harsh toward bumpkins; those who try to rise above bumpkinhood, those who think they are somebody, well . . . read the stories. Or practically ANY story.

PJ said...

The traveling circus that doesn't travel? Do you know my family?

My favorite classes in college were art history. I think I derived most of my aesthetic values from them and I also think they were one of the best investments I ever made. In that context, any art period is cool and anyone who excludes some period for being uncool is, well, not cool, especially if you consider that someone in those paintings could very well be a distant relative.

My taste in literature is up for grabs but reading about bumpkins seems more interesting than any well-known author who writes about a modern day serial killer, unless of course they're a 19th century serial killer, then I'm most definitely interested. I'm thinking of something like "A Spectacle of Corruption", not really literature or 19th century, and not really about a serial killer, but the peek into the workings of the justice system was fascinating and I like the language. I guess you can tell I never studied Hawthorne. Oh, and I've always been an unintentional iconoclast so there's really nothing for me to say about that subject.

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