A collection of short stories launched the career of New England's literary legend. Here is how it happened.
TWICE TOLD TALES, The, was the earliest published work of Nathaniel Hawthorne with the exception of a juvenile romance, ‘Fanshawe.’ After his graduation from Bowdoin College in 1825 Hawthorne lived a secluded life at his mother's modest home in Salem, and wrote and rewrote many tales. No publisher would accept a collection of these, but S. C. Goodrich brought out a number of them in his annual, The Token, and a few of them appeared in other places. It was not until 1837, when a college friend secretly gave the publisher a guarantee against loss, that these were collected and issued in book form. The title chosen calls attention to the fact that they had been printed before. An enlarged edition of the ‘Twice Told Tales’ appeared in 1842.
The volume of 1837 was the first work of Hawthorne to bear his name, and it did something toward introducing him to the public; but it was not until the success of his romances directed attention to these earlier works that their value was fully perceived; and the author could still refer to himself as “the obscurest man of letters in America.” The ‘Twice Told Tales’ occupy an important place in the development of the short story in America, and the best of them show all the distinctive qualities of Hawthorne's work. While he had no definite and preconceived theory of the short story, Hawthorne's feeling for form and proportion led him to produce stories that marked a great advance on those of his predecessors.
It was in his reviews of the ‘Twice Told Tales’ that Poe first formulated his dicta regarding the short story which have since been accepted by almost every critic of that literary form. Among the characteristics of Hawthorne seen in the ‘Tales’ are his fondness for old New England settings, as in the four “Tales of the Province House,” “The Gray Champion” and many more; his interest in psychological studies, and especially in those which involve the effect of some sin or ambition on the soul, as in “Wakefield,” “The Minister's Black Veil,” “Lady Eleanor's Mantle,” etc.; his habit of centring his tales about a material object, as in the “The May-Pole of Merry Mount,” “Endicott and the Red Cross” and others already named; and his use of an elusive but powerful suggestiveness, which varies from a passing hint like the falling of the withered rose-leaves in “The May-Pole of Merry Mount” to the carefully elaborated ending of “The White Old Maid.”
The volume also contains a few pieces like “Sights from a Steeple” and “Sunday at Home,” which are in no sense tales, but which illustrate the author's power of interesting the reader in a quiet account of slight and seemingly unimportant details. Even in the tales proper, the plots, judged according to standards developed by later writers, are not especially elaborate or ingenious. The portrayal of character is not always vivid, though the reader is rarely conscious of any notable deficiency in this respect. The author excels in the representation of ordinary human beings in situations that produce mental or moral stress, in the creation of an effective atmosphere or tone and in so weaving his incidents and foreshadowing their outcome as to produce a perfect impression of unity. Those who wish to make a careful study of one of the tales for the sake of Hawthorne's technique can do no better than to choose “The Ambitious Guest.”