Musings from an old manse

By

LIKE Nathaniel Hawthorne, I live in an old manse. Out front my country-style mailbox reads ``Our Savior Lutheran Church.'' Yet no pastor has lived here in the rectory for 15 years, and the church next door has become a recreation hall for our condominium neighbors. With something of the great novelist's love of privacy I have never painted over the old sacerdotal name. The postman is used to it, and I like sitting on my porch and looking down the drive at the imposture.

My wife says I'm trying to influence the literary Fates, hoping for symbolism. ``Allegory even!'' she adds, banging the screen door.

It's true. I'm quite taken with this slim and arrogant correspondence to the Great Romancer. In my youth, I admired the stories of Hemingway, and in college Joycean stream-of-consciousness. But the succeeding vogue for explicit, close-up realism has left me high and dry. In settled Connecticut middle age I am haunted by the old allegorist. I delight in my house as he did in his Concord parsonage.

Recommended: Nathaniel Hawthorne: 10 quotes on his birthday

In the first 50 pages of ``Mosses from an Old Manse,'' Hawthorne tells us of this happiness: some of the best prose he ever wrote. Rising early to fish for breem and perch, he would sit after breakfast in the upstairs study from where he could see his sunny orchard and garden.

In the winter there was skating on the river and welcome solitude for weeks at a time. In the spring the rains sometimes lasted all day long, the water splashing from the eaves, ``bubbling and foaming into the tubs beneath the spouts.''

On such a day, Hawthorne explored the Manse's shadowy garret, where lay crumbling tomes of theology, including a long dissertation on the book of Job -- ``which only Job himself could have the patience to read.''

He later recreated this scene for the introduction of ``The Scarlet Letter,'' converting his attic into the upper floor of the Salem Customhouse but keeping the rain.

I remember as a child being puzzled by this personal chitchat, wondering why all the palaver before the spectral entrance of Hester and Dimmesdale and Chillingworth in dark single file. No one explained to me about aesthetic distance.

No one showed me how that whole wandering evocation of the customs office, the gray sand on the floor, and the nodding sea captains boring each other with thousand-times repeated stories prepared me for the moment when the narrator opens the packet of foolscap and presses the embroidered letter to his breast.

``I experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, as of burning heat, and as if the letter were not red cloth, but red-hot iron. I shuddered, and involuntarily let it fall upon the floor.''

For all this apparently ``personal'' talk, ``The Scarlet Letter,'' like the rest of Hawthorne's fiction, is notoriously independent of its author. His stories are ``allegories of the heart,'' illustrations of general moral truths, deliberate artifices.

``I take forth a roll of manuscript,'' he wrote, ``and intreat the reader to lend his attention to the following tales.'' Hawthorne never would, nor could, tell us very much about himself. He always needed a veil.

I like to think he would approve of my false mailbox.

I see Mrs. Beeching standing there now, looking through our letters. She leans gracefully against the post in the broken light. If I squint a little, her dress seems to lengthen and the style of her hair changes.

Rising from my porch chair, I walk around to the very back of the yard where I can take in the whole scene: the vegetable plot and the fruit trees and the old, unpruned lilacs along the side lawn, and my wife standing at the mailbox. In the amber autumn sunlight and from this aesthetic distance, I can see all the way to the road, a vista filled with that ``dreamy innuendo'' which Poe said was at the heart of Hawthorne's works.

Momentarily the prospect looks strangely like his moonlit chamber floor ``a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairyland, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet . . . ghosts might enter here.''

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