Sunday, November 24, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 203: Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Inglefield’s Thanksgiving (#203)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, "John Inglefield’s Thanksgiving" (1840) from Nathaniel Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches:

I've said it before, but Jane Tompkins's Sensational Designs is an excellent antidote to the idea of an eternal canon--or even a consistent aesthetic response. So: we love Hawthorne for his ambiguity, while his contemporaries loved him--when they loved him--for his sentimentality.

So what would they have made of this story? Thanksgiving as a family holiday is ripe for sentimentality: Oh, father, we can finally reconcile! Oh, wandering daughter, no one can replace my dead wife but you! Oh, lordy!

This story has lots of that: a daughter under a nameless sin returns home; literally sits in the chair set aside for John Inglefield's dead wife; shakes hands with her stern minister brother and clasps hands with her still-blooming twin sister; and flirts safely with her father's apprentice, who probably would have married her and given her a stable, acceptable life.

Then the reconciliation just... fizzles out. The sin-marked daughter Prudence(!) can't stay, but has some sinful business to get back to, despite the overtures of her family to stay. And in each previous reconciliation there's been some note of sin: for example, her missionary-to-be brother says he hopes to see them all in Heaven and Prudence notes the improbability of that; and when her sister Mary almost throws herself on Prudence, Prudence begs off having their bosoms touch, since such a gulf of sin separates them now.

And so the sentimentality his contemporaries loved is mixed with that sin-obsessed ambiguity that became his preeminent quality in the early 20th century. Which makes for an odd Thanksgiving story: family, food, and--instead of football--unconquerable sin. As if, for all that we have to give thanks for, there's a whole other realm of human existence that is beyond the possibility of cheer.

In other words, what cosmic horror is to Lovecraft's New England, sin and guilt is to Hawthorne's.

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