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Synopsis

First published in 1846, Hawthornes second collection includes 26 stories, most of them written after the publication of the second (1842) edition of Twice-Told Tales, as well as Young Goodman Brown and Roger Malvins Burial, two great tales from the 1830s that were inexplicably left out of the earlier book.

The only new piece (that is, the only one not previously published in a periodical) is the opening sketch, which took Hawthorne nearly a year to write; it is a leisurely tour of the old Manse, his newly acquired historical estate in Concord and Emersons childhood home. Interesting mostly from a biographical perspective, the essay tries hard--but largely fails--to share with the reader Hawthornes enthusiasm for his new home. The rest of the volume, fortunately, is filled with grand, eerie, humorous, and memorable allegories. Every reader and critic has his or her own favorites, but a few stand out for their uniqueness.

A Select Party recounts a dinner hosted by a Man of Fancy in one of his castles in the air; the guests are such improbable personages as an incorruptible Patriot; a Scholar without pedantry; a Priest without world ambition, and a Beautiful Woman without pride or coquetry. The thoughts and desires of the partygoers are as ethereal as the clouds they inhabit. In a similar vein, The Intelligence Office is a comic pre-Kafkaesque allegory of a parade of customers who seek the whereabouts (and the worth) of their long-lost desires; only a man seeking Truth unveils the Intelligencer as merely delusive, a bureaucrat who makes wishes come true by simply acknowledging, not fulfilling, them. The Celestial Rail-road, the full implications of which I appreciated only after a second reading, is a retelling of Pilgrims Progress, in which devilishly clever entrepreneurs have repackaged Christians journey through the Valley of the Shadow of Death and to the Celestial City as a Disneyland-style theme park and tourist attraction.

Some of the stories can be read as prototypes in the genres of horror and science fiction. In the futuristic Earths Holocaust, a great bonfire is lit to consume every human and divine appendage of our mortal state: medicine, liquor, literature, weapons, money, art, jewelry, scriptures--so that there is far less both of good and evil. The Artist of the Beautiful pits Owen, a watchmaker who struggles to create a true-to-life mechanical butterfly, against a powerful village blacksmith; both contenders vie for the attentions of a beautiful woman in a classic struggle of intelligence and beauty versus technology and brute strength.

Two of Hawthornes most well-known tales--The Birth-mark and Rappaccinis Daughter--are unsettling in their macabre Poe-like finales. Both feature scientists whose quest for what can be discovered override moral considerations of whether something should be done: the alchemist in the first story concocts a method to remove a birthmark from his wifes cheek; the second tale pits two rivals who conduct their academic warfare with potions and antidotes, using ones daughter and the others apprentice as unwitting intermediaries. Their similar endings, while predictable, are disturbingly bleak visions of modernity.

When this collection was reissued in 1854, Hawthorne wrote that he no longer understood the point he was making in some of these blasted allegories, but I remember that I always had a meaning--or, at least, thought I had. In spite of his protests, obvious themes do emerge: Hawthornes mistrust of progress, his disdain for moral absolutism and his Puritan heritage, and his fascination with the elusive nature of evil. What will strike readers willing to wade through Hawthornes intricate, highly wrought prose is how modern and relevant many of these stories still seem.

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