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March 02, 2004

Twice Told Tales, Told Once More

by Ron Hogan

Yesterday afternoon, the Significant Other asked if I was interested in going to the 92nd Street Y, having scored tickets to a Nathaniel Hawthorne bicentenary celebration rather unexpectedly. As it turns out, I went alone, and it wasn't quite what I expected, but enjoyable nevertheless.

I was under the impression that the evening was to be, or at least to include, a panel discussion about Hawthorne and his continuing influence on American literature. The theme of his influence, though, turned out to be implied in the presence of the featured authors who came out to read works by and about Hawthorne. Brenda Wineapple, author of a new Hawthorne biography, began the evening by noting that despite being a canonical dead white male, his stock had never fallen. (When it was all through, at a small reception afterwards, I asked Wineapple why she, most famous for writing about the lives of 20th-century modernists, was interested in Hawthorne. She returned to a point she'd made during her introductory remarks: "He was a 19th-century man who wrote about women," and brilliantly so.) And then Paul Auster walked on stage to read the short story "Wakefield."

Auster had a generally soft voice, with a hint of gravelly undertone, and the overall effect, especially given the story's subject matter, was that of Miguel Ferrer doing an extended impression of Rod Serling. The story seemed an apt one for Auster, as the attempts of the narrator to create his story out of a half-remembered article might be considered postmodern before there was postmodernism; heck, at some points, it almost felt like Hawthorne was pitching a treatment for a film idea rather than writing a short story.

Next up was Russell Banks, who selected the twelfth chapter of The Scarlet Letter. He explained how Hawthorne had come to write the novel after losing the customs office job he had enjoyed during Franklin Pierce's presidency (which he himself had partially brought about by writing the campaign biography), soon creating "the first work of genius in American literature." The chapter he chose was a masterful probing of Dimmesdale's psychological condition, as well as featuring appearances from all the other major characters, and Banks read it with relish.

Elizabeth Frank discussed the brief friendship of Hawthorne and Melville, then read extracts from Melville's book review "Hawthorne and His Mosses." Finally, Rick Moody read excerpts from "The Minister's Black Veil," holding back the ending in hopes of sending us out to track down the story for ourselves.

At the reception, I chanced upon Willem Dafoe, and asked him what attracted him to Hawthorne. He admitted that he'd actually come to the event for social reasons, to hear his friends Banks and Auster read. "I know The Scarlet Letter, but I know it the way a schoolboy knows it," he said. "But Paul often talks about Hawthorne, and what I've heard tonight makes me want to read more." (I also thought I spotted Harold Bloom seated up front during the reading, but I couldn't quite work up the nerve to verify it.)

The 92nd Street Y isn't done with Hawthorne yet, by the way. On March 8th, they'll host the official world premiere of Hester Prynne at Death, a musical drama composed by Stephen Paulus with a libretto by Terry Quinn. The piece will be sung by soprano Elizabeth Dabney, for whom it was created; she will be accompanied by an ensemble of eight choristers, clarinet, cello, piano and percussion.


Actually Hawthorne was postmodern before postmodernism. Almost all of his books, and many of his stories, including "Wakefield," can be taken as stories about telling stories: stories about how we "read" the world as stories. Your description of the program makes me envious of those of you able to attend such events regularly.

Posted by: Daniel Green at March 2, 2004 05:47 PM
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