Saturday, May 25, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 32: Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Ambitious Guest (#106)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The Ambitious Guest" (1835) from Nathaniel Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches:

The great Sensational Designs by Jane Tompkins points out that we mostly teach Hawthorne these days as the guy who wrote character-centered pieces about sin, with Puritans a-go-go; but in his own time, Hawthorne was more celebrated as a sketch-writer and otherwise. Here's a story that doesn't really fit in with our idea of Hawthorne's greatness but might fit better with his contemporaries' view of him. In fact, this story might comfortably sit with Edgar Allan Poe's in some of its movements.

The story here is: a family gathers in their crossroads inn, a guest comes to talk about ambition and his hopes that he won't be forgotten, then there's a landslide that kills them all without leaving any trace of the visitor. Sad trombone sound.

Where this Hawthorne story reminds us of its 19th-century roots is in its aggressively omniscient POV, as when the narrator fast-forwards the story of how the guest and the family become close: "Let us now suppose the stranger to have finished his supper of bear's meat...".(Also: "bear meat"! Rim shot!) Or when the landslide threatens to destroy their home and they run outside to the shelter they had prepared: "Alas! they had quitted their security, and fled right into the pathway of destruction." Well, that doesn't leave a lot of room for ambiguity now, does it?

For a generation of people raised on the idea that Hawthorne is all about ambiguity and sin, it may be strange to read this story with its focus on pure happenstance leading to an ironic end about remembrance and monuments.

Is there something to take away from this for today's fiction author? I have my doubts for today--could an author sell a story with such an aggressively omniscient 3rd person narrator?

No comments:

Post a Comment