"Legitimate strokes of humor" in Hawthorne's early picaresque tales.
Although Hawthorne and hilarity are not routinely associated with each other, some Hawthorne biographers have alluded to the genuine humor that can be found in his work. Hawthorne's son-in-law George Lathrop, for example, urged late nineteenth-century readers to " [o]bserve now the vital office of humor in Hawthorne's work," a humor that Lathrop claims is operative in Hawthorne's last three romances and elsewhere as "a diffusive medium to temper the rays of tragedy" (306). Arlin Turner, one of Hawthorne's twentieth-century biographers, notes that despite the fact that "humor in Hawthorne's work is not often singled out for comment," at least a touch of humor appears "on virtually every page [Hawthorne] wrote" (118). More recently, twenty-first century biographer Brenda Wineapple alluded to this lighter side of Hawthorne as revealed through his picaresque tales: "Spontaneous, light-hearted, and without responsibility, the picaresque rambler meanders through life, nomadic, easy, and liberated from that 'dull race of money-getting drudges' who couldn't begin to comprehend a creature like him" (80-81). In these early tales, Hawthorne adopts the kind of humor that often accompanies picaresque compositions, giving voice on occasion to "buffoonry" (X:420). These strokes of humor in Hawthorne's early picaresque tales counter the darker elements found in his writing, suggesting that comedy as well as tragedy plays a part in Hawthorne's artistic vision.
First beginning to be published in 1834, Hawthorne's Story Teller tales are his first attempt to create a coherent book-length work of fiction. However, titles such as "Story Teller No. I, "Story Teller No. II," and "Passages from a Relinquished Work," as well as Hawthorne's correspondence with his publisher indicate a date of composition in or about 1831. After The Story Teller was rejected by publishers, many of the individual tales were published piecemeal in literary magazines and in short story collections where they attracted a wide audience of readers. This projected collection gives us a view of Hawthorne's developing methods of storytelling and illustrates how humor functions as a storytelling device in Hawthorne's work. In a long letter to Hawthorne in March 1837 just as Twice Told Tales was being published, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow mentions his "lively recollection" of Hawthorne's picaresque tales, praising Hawthorne's account of a "Travelling Show-man" and asserting that "one of the most life-like things is that wandering Story-teller." (3)
Though fragmented, the various extant Story Teller tales suggest the vague outline of the original work, and scholars have examined these tales for clues of Hawthorne's early literary development.4 While Nelson Adkins, Alfred Weber, and others have ordered these tales according to their geographic location as the narrator moved from one location in New England to another, Nina Baym claims that "it is clear from the opening section that the unifying movement of the work was intended to be psychological, following the defiant flight and chastened return of the narrator-protagonist, Oberon" (42). Given the tales' picaresque form, it seems likely that Hawthorne frames them both geographically and psychologically so that the outward geographic progression of the traveling storyteller mirrors rather than opposes an inward psychological progression.5 While changing geographic locations and psychological alterations play a part in the development of these tales, the narrative role of laughter and humor remains underappreciated. Luther Luedtke aptly notes that these tales are "narratively organic ... to a degree unapproached in his earlier gatherings" of tales (105), and Michael Colacurcio situates these tales as "our most credible metaphor of significant literary intention in Hawthorne's early phase" (496). While these critics have made important contributions to our understanding of Hawthorne's narrative techniques, Hawthorne's use of humor as a narrative device deserves much closer study. Of the tales thought to be part of this collection, "Mr. Higginbotham's Catastrophe" has generated the most discussion. One scholar claims that Hawthorne turned away from "popular humor" after writing this tale, and that this turn indicates that this mode of writing "proved uncongenial to its author's deepest concerns as an imaginative writer" (Brubaker 156). However, Hawthorne's exploration of popular humor in The Story Teller enabled him to tap into the psyche of the reading public. Thomas Inge more convincingly sees in this story the seeds of Hawthorne's use of irony as a narrative technique: "Irony, especially dramatic irony, would become a major mode of expression in his later work and would function in his masterpieces as an essential method of exploring his characteristic themes" (5). Furthermore, as Coleman W. Tharpe points out, "the young storyteller, while worrying about the nuances of his dramatic recitation of 'Mr. Higginbotham's Catastrophe,' reveals the sophisticated nature of his profession--a profession uniting the actor and the Romancer" (206). Tharpe associates the storyteller with the minstrel tradition but offers no analysis of the minstrel's role in society. Hawthorne's storyteller, like a medieval or Renaissance minstrel, plays the part of a wise fool whose jocular humor frequently functions as a constructive critique of human foibles. "The Canterbury Pilgrims," one of the tales thought to be part of The Story Teller and certainly written during the same period (in The Token and Atlantic Souvenir, dated 1833), alludes by its title to Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Like Chaucer, Hawthorne creates a frame narrative for his tales, and his work is filled with stories told orally and staged for particular groups of auditors. Renaissance scholar Charles Koban has argued that Chaucer took seriously "the humanizing role of the poet" but in a manner that incorporated "comedy and irony ... in the art of Chaucerian persuasion" (226). Chaucer drew attention to human foibles and possibilities through his humorous art, and Hawthorne does the same in The Story Teller.
Any interpretation of narrative humor relies implicitly or explicitly upon a theory of humor addressing the question of what it is that humor suggests. After three decades of studying the nature and history of humor, John Morreall contends that all types of humor occur as the result of some sudden, surprising change in mental state, which he calls "a cognitive shift ... that would be disturbing under normal conditions, that is, if we took it seriously. Disengaged from ordinary concerns, however, we take it playfully and enjoy it" (xii). The traveler and the theatre are both used by Hawthorne as mediums for effecting a "cognitive shift" that might be considered more "disturbing" to both the narrator and his audience "under normal circumstances." Morreall delineates particular types of humor, some of which Hawthorne uses in his tales: the therapeutic humor of comic relief, the irrational humor of incongruity, the anti-social humor of superiority, and humor as neutralizer. Neutralizing humor facilitates an agreeable kind of disagreement that falls somewhere between the opposing responses of fight and flight. Hawthorne's use of these differing types of humor suggests that humor is integral to The Story Teller tales.
Humor works in Hawthorne's writing as an artistic device that allows the interplay of the comedy and tragedy that make up human experience. Using humor to lead audiences to accept what they might otherwise reject, Hawthorne displaces conventional and puritanical conceptions of the world. Such destabilization suggests a view of the world in which moments of levity as well as moments of tragedy play a crucial role in coming to terms with the human condition. While humor provides Hawthorne and his storyteller with a means of entry into the human community, satiric humor leads an audience to view itself from a distance but also creates a distance between narrator and audience. As Hawthorne's storyteller observes and experiences himself, such distancing can result in a sense of alienation or isolation even in the midst of community. Like his storyteller-narrator, Hawthorne approaches humor cautiously even while in hard pursuit of the humanizing effects of humor.
Staged Visual Humor: Comedy and Contrast
The performances of Hawthorne's Storyteller allow him to move his audience imaginatively beyond the norms of society and to treat social conventions facetiously through exaggeration and ironic display, always with an eye toward the behaviors or events that may trigger his audience's laughter. These tales develop realistic sketches of a wandering youth who learns to arrange his tales and acts to create humor for his audiences. At times, his use of humor is theatrically staged and relies on incongruous contrasts that neutralize the opposition of those who might otherwise be upset by the narrator's points, leading to unexpected comedic moments. This visual humor is both comedic and conciliatory, since it uses humor as a neutralizing agent and creates visual contrasts to surprise the viewers (sometimes imaginatively) with incongruous images that produce comedy and destabilize accepted ways of seeing the world. Hawthorne's storyteller brings comedy to the stage and to the stories he tells through mirroring effects, situational and dramatic irony, and vivid if sometimes exaggerated contrasts.
In "Passages from a Relinquished Work," Hawthorne uses dramatic irony and exaggeration to create scenes of humor in a sketch that presents the storyteller figure to the world. (6) The merry storyteller-actor travels along the road with an unlikely companion whose grave reticence offsets the storyteller's convivial nature. The narrator's taste for humor quickly becomes obvious as he describes his theatrical performance in a little country village, complemented as it is by an unexpected bit of help: "The success of the piece was incalculably heightened by a stiff queue of horse-hair, which Little Pickle, in the spirit
of that mischief-loving character, had fastened to my collar, where, unknown to me, it kept making the queerest gestures of its own, in correspondence with all mine" (X:420). Several moments of irony coincide here as a result of the uncanny mirroring action of the horse-hair that surprises and delights the audience without the narrator's knowledge of the true cause of their laughter. Further, Little Pickle's actions give the narrator the means whereby he gets the theater company out of the pickle brought about by their previous lackluster performances. The audience's ignorance of big-city theatre productions is matched by the narrator's ignorance of the horse-hair's contribution to his act. The audience is duped, perhaps, by the acting company, which adds the narrator to their repertoire, but the narrator is duped by the audience's response, not knowing that the horse-hair is just as funny to the spectators as he is. They howl in appreciation, which leads to another unplanned bit of humor: "The audience, supposing that some enormous joke was appended to this long tail behind, were ineffably delighted, and gave way to such a tumult of approbation, that, just as the story closed, the benches broke beneath them, and left one whole row of my admirers on the floor. Even in that predicament, they continued their applause" (X:420). The uncanny correspondences add to the pleasure of the theatre audience and to the readers whom the narrator is regaling with an insider's knowledge of what happened, mixing dramatic and situational irony with the exaggerated effects of the horse-hair and the embraced loss of decorum by the cheering spectators whose seats have broken. While the "mischief-loving character" described here is literally "Little Pickle," the attitude of this character is mirrored by that of the Storyteller-narrator and of Hawthorne the writer, though another layer of subtlety is added with each step away from Little Pickle.
In "Mr. Higginbotham's Catastrophe," the storyteller uses lighthearted humor to integrate a folk tale smoothly into the structure of the larger frame story. A black man and an Irish man are said to have conspired against and hanged a miller and stockholder in cotton factories. As Leland Person argues, such a narrative "brings into play attitudes toward the two most significant ethnic groups in nineteenth-century New England and raises interesting questions about race and class conflict" (11). Hawthorne leaves us with no certain conclusion on the darker implications of these sociopolitical attitudes and questions, but his handling of the story suggests that the self-contradicting attitudes of popular opinion bordered on absurdity and thus provided plenty of apparently humorous story material. (7) Dominicus Pike, a self-styled hero and teller of tales (i.e. spreader of rumors) who laughs at the farcical results of his own attempts to be a heroic reporter, ironically becomes a hero by saving the life of an unsuspecting gentleman. When Dominicus's report about the murder of Mr. Higginbotham is exposed as a mistaken rumor, "[t]he mill-men resolved to bestow public honors on Dominicus Pike, only hesitating whether to tar and feather him, ride him on a rail, or refresh him with an ablution at the town-pump, on the top of which he had declared himself the bearer of the news. The selectmen, by advice of the lawyer, spoke of prosecuting him for a misdemeanor, in circulating unfounded reports, to the great disturbance of the peace of the commonwealth" (IX: 115-16). This incident gains Dominicus such infamy that he leaves in disgrace and "the school-boys" throw mud at him: "a ball, of the consistence of hasty-pudding, hit him slap in the mouth, giving him a most grim aspect.... Being a funny rogue, his heart soon cheered up; nor could he refrain from a hearty laugh at the uproar which his story had excited" (IX: 116). The mud-balls paint a grimace on Dominicus's face, but his ability to recognize his own hilarious aspect turns this intended debasement by the school-boys into an extension of Dominicus's dramatic tale-telling. Ironically, he wishes for the treatment initially threatened as a punishment: "His whole person was so bespattered with like filthy missiles, that he had almost a mind to ride back, and supplicate for the threatened ablution at the town pump; for, though not meant in kindness, it would now have been a deed of charity" (IX: 116). He is able to laugh at himself, a trait the narrator admires but finds difficulty achieving to the extent that Dominicus does.
In another touch of irony, Dominicus goes on to investigate the murder tale in spite of its apparent falsehood, and, in the process of doing so, he thwarts the plot to kill Mr. Higginbotham. He realizes that he had overheard the plot before its execution rather than afterward. The plot was foiled, as the storyteller puts it, when "a champion, blindly obeying the call of fate, like the heroes of old romance, appeared in the person of Dominicus Pike" (IX: 120). This hero receives the hand of Dominicus Pike's niece in marriage, the same niece who earlier came to his defense when it was thought that his apparently false report was maliciously motivated. Through all these events, there are recurrent humor-producing "cognitive shifts" as Dominicus moves rapidly and comically from the status of observer to reporter to hero to villain to investigator, and once again to hero. In his brief analysis of the tale, Thomas Inge identifies the effect of Hawthorne's humor in this tale as a kind of comic relief: "The humor comes from the relief we feel at the end when Mr. Higginbotham is narrowly rescued from his catastrophe and our pleasure over the happy outcome for Dominicus Pike who receives a wife, a fortune, and a happy life for his heroic effort" (3). Expectations are constantly reversed, and the tale fairly explodes with ironic surprises and ultimately with an apparently happy ending.
Besides describing theatrical performances, Hawthorne incorporates humor into The Story Teller by focusing on visual contrasts in characters' appearances. The incongruous pairing of characters in these tales produces humor, especially in the opening frames of "Passages." The Story Teller describes himself as "a youth of gay and happy temperament, with an incorrigible levity of spirit, of no vicious propensities, sensible enough, but wayward and fanciful" (X:407). The storyteller's figure contrasts sharply with two other characters in the story, the first of whom is his guardian, Parson Thumpcushion: "What a character was this," the Story Teller says of himself, "to be brought in contact with the stern old Pilgrim spirit of my guardian! We were at variance on a thousand points...." (407). The most obvious contrast between them occurs with regard to the storyteller's chosen "profession," an occupation the old Parson does not consider virtuous or honest labor. The storyteller's staid companion, described as "a slender figure, dressed in black broadcloth, which was none of the finest, nor very fashionably cut" (407), provides a second contrast to the storyteller. On the cusp of his new occupation, the storyteller reflects on the differences between his own lifestyle and that of his pious companion, declaring, "I was fully aware of my own extravagances, while he acted as wildly, and deemed it heavenly wisdom. We were a singular couple, strikingly contrasted, yet curiously assimilated, each of us remarkable enough by himself, and doubly so in the other's company" (415). By making the other look ludicrous through their wildly contrasting characters, these characters contribute to the art and humor of The Story Teller. The grave young preacher speaks to the merry young storyteller at one point "without even smiling at a coincidence which," the storyteller tells us, "made me laugh" (413). In the same conversation, however, the grave youth watches the merry one "to discover," as the storyteller tells us, "whether I smiled" (414). They are speaking by this time of their calling to be figures in the public eye--both of them seeking wisdom.
The narrator hints of his life before becoming a storyteller-dramatist by directly linking "Passages from a Relinquished Work" to an earlier tale, declaring that "[t]he idea of becoming a wandering story teller had been suggested, a year or two before, by an encounter with several merry vagabonds in a showman's wagon, where they and I had sheltered our selves during a summer shower" (X:408). The earlier tale, called "The Seven Vagabonds," serves as a preface for the "Passages" selections, giving the backstory of the narrator as a young man who began "[r] ambling on foot, in the spring of my life and the summer of the year" (IX:350). The storyteller is actively searching for a vocation, and he consistently uses humor as a neutralizing force. Morreall delineates this kind of humor aptly as a gesture of disagreement between fight and flight (xi). Rather than fighting or fleeing when his suitability for travelling with the others is questioned and he finds himself "[d] reading a rejection," he appeals to the "merry damsel" who has already demonstrated her literary appreciation by casting his plea in playful terms to let him join them: "'Mirth,' cried I, most aptly appropriating the words of L'Allegro, 'to thee I sue! Mirth, admit me of thy crew!'" (366). His light-hearted gesture hides his anxiety and enables him to neutralize the situation, rather than fleeing or fighting. He is not disappointed, for this beautiful damsel takes up his cause, saying, "He is never guilty of a sad thought, but a merry one is twin born with it. We will take him with us; and you shall see that he will set us all a laughing ..." (366). The damsel recognizes the storyteller's sometimes combination of tragedy and comedy even though he adopts an outward facetiousness. The narrator's experiences here give him the impetus for his own storytelling escapades later, for here he first declares himself a travelling storyteller, and "with great exhilaration of fancy," he proclaims, "I began to arrange and colour the incidents of a tale, wherewith I proposed to amuse an audience that very evening" (367). Creating humor for his audience is the actor-narrator's goal, and his later experiences as a vagabond of sorts on the road, where he meets diverse individuals and groups, offer numerous incidents in which surprise and laughter could be found. The narrator's experiences give him a wealth of humorous situations that he can exaggerate to neutralize any blame that might come against him for mocking social conventions.
The narrator of "The Seven Vagabonds" also incorporates contrastive humor that stems from cognitive shifts and an attempt to organize and laugh at the incongruities of life rather than being upset by them. He professes his pleasure, for example, at the scene created by the old traveling show-man's mechanical spectacle brought to life by turning the handle of a barrel organ, which replicates the sight of a capering old-world Merry Andrew and the sound of trumpets and prancing horses. The scene by itself is somewhat interesting, but the narrator finds the contrast more humorous than the spectacle itself, declaring that he is "tickled with the old man's gravity as he presided at it, for I had none of that foolish wisdom which reproves every occupation that is not useful in this world of vanities" (IX:352). The grave mien behind this rollicking scene creates an incongruity and seems to strike the narrator more than the details of the scene itself. Just after these multifarious "vagabonds" decide to go to the nearby Samford Camp Meetings, they see a traveling missionary pass by and stop him to ask for news. Like the narrator and his traveling companion in the "Passages" selections, the grave missionary provides a stark contrast to the merry folks making inquiry. Here the grave man is almost made to smile in surprise:
The missionary looked down, in surprise, at as singular a knot of people as could have been selected from all his heterogeneous auditors. Indeed, considering that we might all be classified under the general head of Vagabond, there was great diversity of character among the grave old show man, the sly, prophetic beggar, the fiddling foreigner and his merry damsel, the smart bibliopolist, the sombre Indian, and myself, the itinerant novelist, a slender youth of eighteen. I even fancied, that a smile was endeavouring to disturb the iron gravity of the preacher's mouth. (IX: 368-69)
This wild conglomeration of characters on a forest trail creates a cognitive shift away from the remembered camp meeting that startles the grave comportment of the missionary traveling home. The missionary's announcement that the camp meetings have broken up makes obsolete the Vagabonds' plan for amusement and leaves them to seek other entertainment.
Hawthorne's development of contrasts in The Story Teller relies largely upon what Morreall refers to as incongruous humor, but sometimes even the most striking or curious contrasts reveal the surprising similarities between humans as well as their differences. The theatre works well as a platform for Hawthorne to experiment with a storyteller character who presents contrasts and comedy as storytelling devices. Thus, these tales function as stories about telling stories, giving us a close look at Hawthorne's creative processes and the role humor played in his early works. The humor throughout these tales operates as a fluctuating storytelling device that relies upon shows of comedy or contrasts between characters.
Satiric Humor: The Distance of Critique
While many instances of Hawthorne's humor are gently destabilizing, his humor sometimes strikes a more cutting satiric tone. By explicitly referring to well-known works of satire including Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels and Miguel Cervantes' Don Quixote, Hawthorne makes his use of satire obvious in "The Seven Vagabonds." When the narrator discovers the travelling show-man's covered wagon, he promptly compares it with "Gulliver's portable mansion among the Brobdingnags" and supposes that it has been positioned carefully at the crossroads "to intercept such idle travellers as myself" (IX: 3 50). The old show-man's mechanical spectacle makes a noise that the surprised narrator supposes "might have startled Don Quixote himself" (IX:352). Thus the narrator positions himself as a quixotic character in need of and in search of a clear vision of the world around him and his standing in that world. In The Story Teller, the theatre and the showman's wagon both function as a place where society can be led to laugh at itself, and thus it is not surprising that the humor of stage and story functions as a platform for satire. For Hawthorne, however, such humor can also function as a mode of self-critique. Satire is a double-edged sword which may be turned against the narrator as well as against the audience. The storyteller asks his grave preacher companion if he, himself, might not be aiding the prophets in their work, reminding the preacher youth of a biblical passage: "Sometimes even a stupid ass was their guide. May not I be as good a one?" The preacher simply replies, "I do not know" (X:415), leaving open the possibility that he and his companion may be more unified than their contrasting appearances suggest. While the storyteller's jocular mood contrasts sharply with the preacher's grave one, both of them are satirized in the story.
At the end of "Passages," the storyteller refers to his dramatic presentation of "Mr. Higginbotham's Catastrophe," a comedic tale threatened with tragedy from beginning to end. As he dramatizes this tale, the storyteller gauges the responses of his audience, standing at one remove from them like an observer attempting to cajole them into seeing themselves and their society from a critical distance. "I never knew the 'magic of a name,'" the storyteller tells his readers, "till I used that of Mr. Higginbotham; often as I repeated it, there were louder bursts of merriment, than those which responded to what, in my opinion, were more legitimate strokes of humor" (X:420). In the story of Mr. Higginbotham that follows Hawthorne's description of his storyteller's theatrical delivery of it, the storyteller is used to do two things. First, he invites his readers to adopt the superior attitude of people with more knowledge of big city theatre than his village audience possesses; he also invites them to laugh at the village audience as well as at his story. By this point, the storyteller's distance from the surrounding society is becoming increasingly evident, and this distance creates a strain on his participation in that society. This distance allows him, however, to adopt the role of an indifferent observer who mocks the foibles of society in a comedy of manners built on the premise of what Morreall calls the anti-social humor of superiority.
Self-effacing humor also contributes to tales like "Mr. Higginbotham's Catastrophe." At first, the narrator makes it abundantly clear that a romantic hero must adapt in order to thrive in a changing world. In a stroke of double irony, however, the quixotic old fool who laughed at himself is not an old fool, after all, but is instrumental in saving a person's life, the work of a traditional hero. The storyteller's story depicts another storyteller who is an involved participant in society. The title of this latter tale includes the word "catastrophe," a term generally reserved for tragedy, but in this case the term is reshaped for the purposes of comedy, since tragedy is averted and the threatening catastrophe is prevented. One scholar of tragicomedy draws together tragedy and comedy in terms that describe Hawthorne's tale: "Indeed, much Renaissance tragicomedy is constructed as tragedy 'averted' or 'transcended'" (Foster 23). Hawthorne's use of humor fits with his larger treatment of comedy and tragedy as mixed elements of his fiction.
Hawthorne takes obvious interest in the sensationalist impulse of the popular culture of his period--an impulse which, like humor, tends to exaggerate. Peter West argues that "Mr. Higginbotham's Catastrophe" addresses the problems of sensational journalism and that The Story Teller illustrates that "an expanding journalistic marketplace, fueled by a national addiction for storytelling, was threatening to obliterate the line between fact and fiction forever" (289). Hawthorne, however, regularly blurs this line in his writing, and the greater concern here seems to be the fact that all stories--whether fact or fiction--have consequences. Dominicus Pike's story has consequences for Mr. Higginbotham; Mr. Higginbotham's niece's story has consequences for Dominicus Pike; the storyteller's dramatic stories have consequences for his theatre audience--if only to dump them unceremoniously onto the floor as a result of their uproarious laughter; and the missionary's news of the broken-up prayer meeting at Stamford has consequences for the newly-formed group of vagabonds who part ways as a result of his "story." While Hawthorne's tales often show the consequences of humor, they also emphasize the lack of intentionality and forethought that often lead to such instances of humor. Humor appears to be an accidental yet integral part of human experience.
Hawthorne's Story Teller tales suggest that he is not unaware of the traditional oppositions to humor, but that he thinks humor may play a role in the serious work of a storyteller. Morreall draws attention to medieval and classical examples of opposition to humor by churchmen and ancients who consider it unethical or inappropriate, but he also emphasizes the "minority opinion" of Aristotle and Aquinas, who treat humor as "playful relaxation" (23). In Hawthorne's tales, the storyteller's guardian Parson Thumpcushion is not only adamantly opposed to a life of fancy such as that enjoyed by his young ward, but he is also uncompromisingly humorless. When he receives a letter from his old guardian, the young storyteller cringes: "I seemed to see the puritanic figure of my guardian, standing among the fripperies of the theatre, and pointing to the players,--the fantastic and effeminate men, the painted women, the giddy girl in boy's clothes, merrier than modest,--pointing to these with solemn ridicule, and eyeing me with stern rebuke. His image was a type of the austere duty, and they of the vanities of life" (X:421). Since some of the loudest opposition to laughter in the past came from churchmen like the scholars of the Middle Ages and Hawthorne's own Puritan ancestors, it is fitting that this humorless guardian be a churchman. The other churchman who appears in The Story Teller, the missionary leaving the camp meeting who stops to talk to the seven vagabonds, allows the ghost of a smile "to disturb the iron gravity of the preacher's mouth" (IX:369). Thus, Hawthorne indicates that humor may surprise even those who seem least likely to respond to it, and that a mixture of responses to humor is likely even within the variegated communities found in his work.
Hawthorne's satire of social customs and Parson Thumpcushion, along with his self-satire, enable him to destabilize rigid readings of the world. Neither the comedic storyteller nor the grave parson have yet struck a healthy balance in their interactions with society, which suggests that humor helps individuals come to terms with their role in society. Hawthorne's satiric touches suggest not only the humor of superiority which critiques the foibles of human society but also the self-deprecating humor by which the storyteller-dramatist critiques himself.
Concluding Humor: Laughing with Others
In the closing frame of The Story Teller, "Fragments from the Journal of a Solitary Man," the storyteller, now named Oberon, finally returns home and records his thoughts in a diary being read by a new narrator. Upon observing the local fire company practicing and playfully dousing some of the crowd that has gathered for the event, Oberon joins the laughter, recording in his diary, "I laughed at a distance, and was glad to find myself susceptible, as of old, to the simple mirth of such a scene" (XI: 324). Thus, although the narrator has distanced himself from society and often finds it difficult to laugh without an element of ridicule in his laughter, he remembers how to laugh with the crowd rather than at them. As humor allows him to criticize society from a distance, so it enables him to participate in human society rather than acting merely as an outside observer. Given Hawthorne's penchant for emphasizing the responsibility of the individual to the community, the end of his storyteller's travels makes sense as a return to the community he had critiqued from a distance. Hawthorne's storyteller struggles with the growing realization that his artistic distance sometimes interferes with his ability to identify with the rest of humanity since he always views it from a distance. While satire often entails laughing at others (or at oneself), Hawthorne's Story Teller tales do not end with an aloof satiric tinge but instead strike a conciliatory tone as the wandering Storyteller learns to laugh with others once again.
Hawthorne's use of humor in this closing sketch of The Story Teller underscores the importance he places upon the individual's relation to the larger human community. Oberon the storyteller shows a remarkable degree of self-awareness that is often missing in Hawthorne's characters. Young Robin in Hawthorne's "My Kinsman, Major Molineux," for example, also learns to laugh with others, but his blusteringly insistent laughter indicates his desire to disappear into the crowd and does not represent the more worldly-wise desire of Oberon to rejoin the human community, despite his familiarity with its foibles. In this closing sketch, Oberon retains his satiric critique of society but returns to his earlier enjoyment of surprises that make humans laugh at themselves. He loves the human community in spite of but also because of its foibles. The worst consequence of telling stories is separation from the human community, and so he must return to his home in order to regain his footing in the broader world. By developing this conception of humor's role in the world, Hawthorne emphasizes the humanizing power of humor.
By incorporating picaresque humor like this in The Story Teller, Hawthorne celebrates comedic moments of life as a traveler through the world. In the storyteller's tales, Hawthorne brings together ironic understatement and comic exaggeration, producing elements of humor often occluded by darker moments that threaten to bring the lives or livelihoods of his characters to a tragic end. Although the art of humor is rarely without its dark underside in Hawthorne's work, instances of levity along the path of the storyteller's travels suggest that life should sometimes be enjoyed on its own terms despite its frequent convolutions. From anti-social mockery, or the laughter of superiority, to the more friendly satire that is self-mocking as it exposes absurd human conventions or fickle social structures, Hawthorne's humor always involves some element of social critique that is warmed by a humor not entirely derisive or darkly ironic. Creating humor through contrasts, satire, and conciliatory movements, Hawthorne invites his readers to laugh, draw back, and finally return to laugh again with an increased sense of self-awareness that yet remains jovial. Hawthorne's use of humor represents a fluctuating structural component of his work that may result in guffaws and satire or in tragicomedy but that finally offers humorists the opportunity to (re)connect to society.
The picaresque humor of Hawthorne's Story Teller tales, then, shows a deliberate engagement with an audience and a developing concept of ironic narrative techniques. Such techniques, his picaresque tales suggest, are the marks of a good storyteller as well as a comedian. Hawthorne employs neutralizing, fluctuating storytelling devices such as humor to simultaneously critique and participate in society through his literary art and though the humor of his later fiction is noticeably less comedic, it retains the element of dramatic irony written through the picaresque Story Teller tales of Hawthorne's early writing.
The Story Teller closes with a matured sense of humor that is conciliatory rather than scornful even though it is more cognizant of personal and societal foibles. In earlier tales such as "The Seven Vagabonds" and "Passages from a Relinquished Work," the seeds of this type of humor are apparent in the self-deprecating humor by which the narrator refuses to take himself too seriously. The story of "Mr. Higginbotham's Catastrophe" which the narrator tells also suggests that self-critique is perhaps even more necessary than societal critique if one is to be a productive member of society. In the end, the storyteller recognizes that all humans have foibles that may and often do result in humorous situations that may develop happily rather than tragically. He also learns that self-critique is as important as critiquing society. Further, he comes to see humor as a way to engage with and enter into relations with human society rather than simply critique society from a distance. The storyteller's movement to a more self-aware sense of his relation to the rest of the world does not end in the humor of superiority but blossoms into an enjoyment of humanity on its own terms. In order to have a beneficial effect on its hearers, satire must include "legitimate strokes of humor" as well as societal or individual critique by a speaker who or writer who carefully arranges the stories with an eye to the consequences of telling these stories.
Indiana University East
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(1) Throughout this article, I refer to Hawthorne's texts by indicating their location in the Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, listing volume and page numbers.
(2) Michael Dunne, for example, has taken note of Hawthorne's "Calvinist humor" (1). Similarly, using terms Herman Melville might have approved, Agnes McNeill Donohue has called Hawthorne "Calvin's ironic stepchild" (1). Taking a slightly different tack, R.D. McDonald has suggested that we might think of Hawthorne's humor as "devilish," a kind of humor that is more vindictive than funny (367). None of these examples treat his ironic humor as anything other than dark humor.
(3) This letter is housed in the Phillips Library in Salem, Massachusetts (MSS 68:B2, F31). My thanks to Kathy Flynn and Irene Axelrod for their assistance in locating this letter and others in the Phillips Library collection.
(4) According to Hawthorne's sister-in-law Elizabeth Peabody, Hawthorne told her years later that he "cared little for the stories" when they were displaced from "their original place in the 'Storyteller [where they had] a greater degree of significance" (qtd. in Crowley 494).
(5) For a more complete overview of the various scholarly attempts to reconstruct The Story Teller, see J. Donald Crowley's "Historical Commentary" on Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales in Volume IX of the Centenary Edition. I have tried to highlight the approaches that hinted of the importance of this work to Hawthorne's literary development and that gave at least passing attention to the picaresque mode of writing that characterizes these tales and contributes to Hawthorne's humor.
(6) Hawthorne's accounts of Little Pickle and Mr. Higginbotham, which are given the title "Passages from a Relinquished Work" in Our Old Manse, were first published as companion stories with the title "The Story Teller. No. II." in the November 1834 edition of the New-England Magazine. These two tales were preceded one month earlier in the same periodical by "The Story Teller. No. I," which included "At Home," "A Flight in the Fog," and "A Fellow Traveler."
(7) Person's impressive consideration of the insidiousness of race and class issues in the period of Hawthorne's writing and publication of "Mr. Higginbotham's Catastrophe" suggests a darker view than I am giving Hawthorne's tale. While Person suggests that Patson Thumpcushion is disturbed by his storytelling nephew's possibly "provocative and subversive content" (12), the Storyteller gives a different reason: Parson Thumpcushion was influenced by his nephew's lack of his own "stern old Pilgrim spirit" and his choice of a storyteller's "profession" (407). This appears to be a situation in which humor and subversion work hand in hand.
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|Title Annotation:||Nathaniel Hawthorne|
|Publication:||Nathaniel Hawthorne Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2013|
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