July 6, 2009KR BlogKR

All Possible and Impossible Matters

A not-quite-Mark-Sanford-sized confession: I’ve fallen in love with a book. And with that book’s introduction. Twice in the past week I’ve had reason to take a short trip, and on each trip I’ve listened to Paul Auster introduce and then read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twenty Days with Julian & Little Bunny by Papa. Auster begins by saying that Twenty Days is “one of the least-known works by a well-known writer in all of literature.” Written in Lenox, Massachusetts, between July 28 and August 16, 1851, the fifty-page narrative — or notebook excerpt, really — describes the nearly three weeks that Hawthorne spent caring for his five-year-old son Julian while his wife and two daughters were away. Not much happens — the father and son walk to the lake, check on the mail, fetch the milk. But in more important ways, everything happens. Hawthorne observes — with accuracy, with delicacy — both the Western Massachusetts landscape and his own heart. Arriving at the end of the book, I’m in tears.

It helps, of course, to be living in the town where the book was written. Last night, at Tanglewood, I realized I was only a short hike from the “Little Red House” where Hawthorne and his family stayed in the early 1850s. In Twenty Days, Hawthorne disparages the house (“The truth is, our house is too small, and we have not proper accommodations for the excellent Bunny, for whom I have a great regard, but whose habits do not exactly fit him to be a constant occupant of the sitting room”) almost as much as he disparages the weather:

This is a horrible, most hor-ri-ble climate; one knows not, for ten minutes together, whether he is too cool or too warm; but he is always one or the other; and the constant result is a miserable disturbance of the system. I detest it! I detest it!! I de-test it!!! I hate Berkshire with my whole soul, and would joyfully see its mountains laid flat.

He’s even more contemptuous of the Shaker establishment in nearby Hancock, writing that “the sooner the sect is extinct the better — a consummation which, I am happy to hear, is thought to be not a great many years distant.” Before returning to Lenox, Hawthorne encourages Julian to treat the village grounds as a sort of open-air loo:

All through this outlandish village went our little man hopping and dancing, in excellent spirits; nor had he been long there when he desired to confer with himself — neither was I unwilling that he should bestow such a mark of his consideration (being the one of which they were most worthy) on the system and establishment of these foolish Shakers.

At other points in the narrative Hawthorne gathers cat-tails, eats currants, and confers with Herman Melville:

After supper, I put Julian to bed; and Melville and I had a talk about time and eternity, things of this world and of the next, and books, and publishers, and all possible and impossible matters, that lasted pretty deep into the night; and if truth must be told, we smoked cigars even within the sacred precincts of the sitting-room.

And he pays close attention: to the rabbit Hindlegs; to the morning clouds; to the shifting enthusiasms of Julian. Generally playing the besieged grump, he occasionally drops the pose, to radiant effect:

At bed-time, I indulged him in what he likes better than almost anything else — a rampageous sham-battle — before undressing him; and at seven o’clock, he was finally stowed away. Let me say outright, for once, that he is a sweet and lovely little boy, and worthy of all the love that I am capable of giving him. Thank God! God bless him! God bless Phoebe for giving him to me! God bless her as the best wife and mother in the world! God bless Una, whom I long to see again! God bless little Rosebud! God bless me, for Phoebe’s and all their sakes! No other man has so good a wife; nobody has better children! Would I were worthier of her and them!

My evenings are all dreary, alone, and without books that I am in the mood to read; and this evening was like the rest. So I went to bed at about nine, and longed for Phoebe.

Hawthorne was forty-seven years old in the summer of ’51; he would live only another dozen years. His major writing was behind him. The children would go on to have difficult lives: Rose married a drunkard; Una died at thirty-three; Julian served a prison term for embezzlement. As someone somewhere said, You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. But all week, in Lenox and beyond, I’ve been thinking about Hawthorne. I’ve been trying to see the present, and even the future, through his eyes. At the end of Twenty Days, in a passage Auster calls “a brief and inadvertent ars poetica,” Hawthorne and Julian spend the afternoon by the lake.

I have before now experienced, that the best way to get a vivid impression and feeling of a landscape, is to sit down before it and read, or become otherwise absorbed in thought; for then, when your eyes happen to be attracted to the landscape, you seem to catch Nature at unawares, and see her before she has time to change her aspect. The effect lasts but for a single instant, and passes away almost as soon as you are conscious of it; but it is real, for that moment. It is as if you could overhear and understand what the trees are whispering to one another; as if you caught a glimpse of a face unveiled, which veils itself from every willful glance. The mystery is revealed, and after a breath or two, becomes just as much a mystery as before.

I suspect I’ll hear those sentences for a long time. And — thanks to the Nathaniel Hawthorne Audio Collection — I’ll hear them in Auster’s voice. I’ll also hear (how could I not?) this passage, from Auster’s introduction:

As with landscapes, so with people, especially little people in the flush of childhood. All is change with them, all is movement, and you can grasp their essence only “at unawares,” at moments when you are not consciously looking for it. That is the beauty of Hawthorne’s little piece of notebook-writing. Throughout all the drudgery and tedium of his constant companionship with the five-year-old boy, Hawthorne was able to glance at him often enough to capture something of his essence, to bring him to life in words. A century and a half later, we are still trying to discover our children, but these days we do it by taking snapshots and following them around with video cameras. But words are better, I think, if only because they don’t fade with time. It takes more effort to write a truthful sentence than to focus a lens and push a button, of course, but words go deeper than pictures do — which can rarely record anything more than the surfaces of things, whether landscapes or the faces of children. In all but the best or luckiest photographs, the soul is missing. That is why Twenty Days with Julian & Little Bunny merits our attention. In his modest, deadpan way, Hawthorne managed to accomplish what every parent dreams of doing: to keep his child alive forever.