Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 78: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Feathertop: A Moralized Legend (#137)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, "Feathertop: A Moralized Legend" (1852) from Nathaniel Hawthorne: Tales & Sketches:

Here's a story that has two lives: on one hand, we have the story of a pumpkin-headed scarecrow that is given life, which is perfectly fine for adaptations--movies, plays, tv movies, comic books like Fables. On the other hand--and this part is pushed heavily by the LoA page and some critics--there's some references to the artificiality of fiction, etc., etc. Frankly, that seems like thin sauce to me, since it focuses on one or two lines where we hear that the scarecrow-given-life is no less real than characters in romances.

But alongside that line, there's dozens of other lines about the role of artificiality in life that fits better with 19th-century issues of sincerity and politeness. For more on that, you need to read Karen Halttunen's Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870. Seriously, there's a lot to do here with fantasy and artificiality, such as when the witch grants the scarecrow with fantastic wealth:
[His wealth] consisted partly of a gold mine in Eldorado, and of ten thousand shares in a broken bubble, and of half a million acres of vineyard at the North Pole, and of a castle in the air, and a chateau in Spain, together with all the rents and income therefrom accruing.
"Chateau in Spain" is another way Hawthorne had of saying "castle in the car"; and as you can see, this has to do with fantasy and artificiality--and nothing to do with the role of the fiction-makers and storytellers like Hawthorne.

As a story, it takes a while to get going, with a lot of time focused on the witch and her creation of Feathertop; only the second half tells the plot itself, of Feathertop's introduction to a young woman (whose own manners are artificial, much as his are) and his eventual confrontation with his own falseness in a mirror. That crisis comes off as a little strange: why is a mirror capable of piercing the illusion? Sure, there's something about seeing your own artificiality, but it still seems a little awkward/convenient. If seeing his own artificiality is dangerous to Feathertop, why isn't it a problem to see his own hands and legs, which are always marked as artificial and mannered in their movements?

Special bonus, though: Hawthorne describes something very much like "the uncanny valley" when noting that "It is the effect of anything completely and consummately artificial, in human shape, that the person impresses us as an unreality" and that that unreality has an element of ghastliness. This really shouldn't surprise us that much; except in Hawthorne's time, the issue of artificial humanity had less to do with computer graphics and more to do with mannequins and automatons.

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