The fiction of Hawthorne and Melville reappears in superb new editions; Nathaniel Hawthorne: Novels, edited with chronology and notes by Millicent Bell. New York: The Library of America (distributed by the Viking Press). 1,272 pp. $ 25. Herman Melville: Redburn, White-Jacket, and Moby-Dick, edited with chronology and notes by G. Thomas Tanselle. New York: The Library of America (distributed by the Viking Press). 1,437 pp. $25.
Since its first four volumes appeared last spring, the Library of America has , with almost unseemly rapidity, made itself into something very like a national institution. Some 125,000 copies of Whitman, Twain, London, and others have been purchased, and I hear people talking about hoping to ''keep up'' with all the volumes as they're issued.Skip to next paragraph
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It's heartening to see such enthusiastic approval of this enterprise, which is, after all, a letter-perfect example of what we like to think of as American initiative. And it's likely that volumes nine and 10 may be met with even greater enthusiasm. For here the highlights are two of American fiction's undisputed masterpieces. Nathaniel Hawthorne's ''The Scarlet Letter'' arrived in our literature as if in reply to Emerson's appeal (in his 1837 ''American Scholar'' address) for a new native literature not dependent on British models. Hawthorne's probing analysis of the Puritan temperament brought refreshing, rational skepticism to bear on an element of the American self-image long taken for granted. Herman Melville's ''Moby-Dick'' was a different kind of innovation. A vast synthesis of drama, characterization, scene-painting, and philosophy, it was the first American novel to rival the ambitious fictions of Scott and Dickens and their continental-European counterparts.
The series format remains classically simple. There are no critical forewords , or afterwords - only a brief chronology of each author's life, an essay explaining the choice of texts, and minimal textual notes. Editor Millicent Bell has provided her Hawthorne volume with an elegantly compact, informative six-page chronology, that should serve as a model for subsequent series editors. The texts are those of the Centenary Edition of Hawthorne's works, based on his original manuscripts or the books' first editions.
Hawthorne's first novel, ''Fanshawe'' (1828), will find few contemporary readers. It's a flaccid, sentimental romance about a student's intellectual agonies, frustrated romance, and early death. It's worth remembering largely for its collegiate setting, which was probably sketched from Hawthorne's memories of Bowdoin College. Hawthorne paid to have it published, and later bought up existing copies in order to destroy them.
It seems all the more amazing, therefore, that this feeble debut was followed by ''The Scarlet Letter'' (1850). Written years later - after family tragedies and burgeoning disillusionments had left their mark on Hawthorne - it is the most fully plotted and vivid of his books, and the profoundest exploration anywhere in his work of the ambiguities of sin and guilt, moral absolutism, and Christian forbearance. The characters of Hester Prynne, her ''love-child'' Pearl , the self-torturing Dimmesdale, and the vengeful Chillingworth are allegorical personae, yet also boldly dramatic flesh-and-blood figures. It's a book whose greatness has never been questioned, and it made Hawthorne's reputation.
None of his later novels comes close to matching it, though ''The House of the Seven Gables'' (1851) wrestles fairly successfully once again with the theme of Puritanical intolerance. ''The Blithedale Romance'' (1852), a thinly disguised account of Hawthorne's participation in Bronson Alcott's ''Utopian community'' at Brook Farm, is usually dismissed as the weakest of his novels, an awkward mixture of melodrama, social satire, and veiled political argument. It has, however, many amusing passages, and, in its climactic scene - the recovery of the drowned woman's body - one of Hawthorne's truly unforgettable dramatic moments.