It’s been a couple of decades since I first read The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. With so many newer, more modern and post-modern works to choose from (much less the loads of nonfiction writing on the internet) it’s not often that I go farther back in time in search of stories. It just seems too cumbersome to plod through the complexity and the confusion created by words and phrases we no longer use or hear spoken.
But there’s a very good reason to keep going back to the old stories. There are truths that still remain, and discovery to encounter that feels fresh and new. Although we are travelling around an orbit in our civilization building, rising and falling as a people, living out life cycles and birthing new generations who always think they are the most advanced, returning to something left behind feels like a renewal, the way spring feels new each time we pass that mark around the sun.
If for no other reason, pick up an old story to discover the closeness of our humanity through time and space.
Nathaniel Hawthorne gets me. And I get him.
Opening the first pages of The Scarlet Letter, I am surprised by an introduction that follows his “apologia” for not changing a single word in the second printing. In this introduction, Hawthorne attends to the problem I have in deciding to attempt the writing of memoir. He shines a light on why writers like me are sometimes compelled to share personal stories and to ask questions or seek possibilities in the process of deep introspection. He asserts that the need to write autobiographically is something that “possesses” him. And he knows it’s not very polite or proper to be so indulgent.
And that is what I’m doing by writing my memoir story. On reading my handwritten notebook pages, I realize I’ve become very self indulgent.. As if I’m eating up all the junk food in the cabinet I’ve stored in the back, hidden behind the healthier choices of vegetables and broth and rice. Why am I so greedy in my telling of things that should probably stay hidden? It’s just not right to be so bold.
I was comforted to read this line on the plastic covered flap of my library copy: “Hawthorne was plagued with self-doubt as he struggled to master his chosen craft.”
In The Custom House, (an introductory passage to the novel), he writes:
“The truth seems to be however, that when he casts his leaves forth upon the wind, the author addresses, not the many who will fling aside this volume, or never take it up, but the few who will understand him, better than most of his schoolmates or lifemates. Some authors, indeed, do far more than this, and indulge themselves in such confidential depths of revelation as could fittingly be addressed, only and exclusively, to the one heart and mind, of perfect sympathy; as if the printed book, thrown at large on the wide world, were certain to find out the divided segment of the writer’s own nature, and complete his circle of existence, by bringing him into communion with it. It is scarcely decorous, however, to speak all, even where we speak impersonally…”
And as I read his words, I feel as if I may be the “one heart and mind of perfect sympathy,” which makes me feel special and intimate and chosen. This is another magical aspect of reading wonderful stories. Someone has decided to share something with me, and with all of us. Something deep and beautiful and sacred, or painful and ultimately empowering. A writer gives. A reader receives the blessing of that giving.
And so I write on, in the hopes that the “leaves cast upon the wind” will land in “the one heart and mind of perfect sympathy.” And I will take Hawthorne’s admonishment. There will be an editing process out of respect as I remember Hawthorne’s warning about decorum. I understand that “speaking all” leaves nothing to imply in the reader’s mind, leaves nothing of mystery, leaves not a fertile ground for seeds of curiosity, or growing questions for the reader to ponder, which for me is part of the enjoyment of diving into a great story. I want to be left not knowing it all. And now, on to Hester Prynne.