Saturday, December 30, 2006

What Would Hawthorne Say About Blogging?

From the opening of "The Custom-House":

It is a little remarkable, that--though disinclined to talk overmuch of myself and my affairs at the fireside, and to my personal friends--an autobiographical impulse should twice in my life have taken possession of me. The first time was three or four years since, when I favored the reader--inexcusably, and for no earthly reason, that either the indulgent reader or the intrusive author could imagine--with a description of my way of life in the deep quietude of the Old Manse. And now--because, beyond my deserts, I was happy enough to find a listener or two on the former occasion--I again seize the public by the button, and talk of my three years' experience in a Custom-House. The example of the famous "P.P., Clerk of this Parish," was never more faithfully followed. The truth seems to be, however, that, when he casts his leaves upon the wind, the author addresses, not the many who will fling aside his volume, or never take it up, but the few who will understand him, better than most of his schoolmates and 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. But--as thoughts are frozen and utterance benumbed, unless the speaker stand in some true relation with his audience--it may be pardonable to imagine that a friend, a kind and apprehensive, though not the closest friend, is listening to our talk; and then, a native reserve being thawed by this genial consciousness, we may prate of the circumstances that lie around us, and even of ourself, but still keep the inmost Me behind the veil. To this extent, methinks, an author may be autobiographical, without violating either the reader's rights or his own.

So what do you think? How would Hawthorne have reacted to the predominance of personal blogs in blogoramaville circa 2006? What about the controversies over pseudonymous bloggers? And over outing them? Over sprezzatura-like sock puppetry?

You could make an argument Hawthorne was doing the equivalent of blogging in his time when he published the range of his tales and sketches in the relatively established and newer American magazines and gift books of the 1830s and 1840s, that his editing of the American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge in the 1830s was the equivalent of our blog portaling or link-heavy blogging, that his overtly political writing and editing (such as his editing of his friend Horatio Bridge's Journals of an African Cruiser, his infamous "Custom-House" sketch, his presidential campaign biography for his friend Franklin Pierce, his essay "Chiefly About War Matters," as well as his political correspondence, both official from Boston, Salem, and Liverpool, and personal with Democratic Party friends and allies) was the political blogging of his day, and that his experiments with narratorial perspective in his short stories and with authorial personae in his prefaces to his books prefigure various pseudonymous bloggers' experiments with voice and style today. And you'd probably have a pretty good argument.

When I think of a sketch like "Old News," in which he praises old newspapers for their ability to convey a vivid sense of the past (I'll spare you the quotation for now, only b/c I left my Tales and Sketches Library of America edition in Fukuoka, not out of any abandonment of the value of heavy quotation on my part!), and when you consider newspapers were the new media of his time, I think we'd end up agreeing that despite Hawthorne's critiques of reformers, his skepticism toward Enlightenment notions of progress, and his portraits of new technologies doing more harm than good (in "Fire-Worship" and "The Celestial Rail-road" as much as in the better-known "Rappaccini's Daughter" and "The Birth-mark"), he wouldn't be against blogging simply b/c of its newness, its politicization, or its reliance on technology.

So those of you who blog, whom do you imagine as your audience? What do you hope to accomplish by blogging? What's at stake in blogging for you? What is your sense of your rights as an author, and of your readers' rights? How autobiographical do you get in your blogging, and why? How much do you experiment with voice and style? Are you more confessional or more veiled? What does the opening of "The Custom-House" make you think and ask?

[Update: Turns out John Updike would probably disagree with my take on Hawthorne (h/t: Amardeep Singh).]


Nikeroo said...

Hehe, I just finished blogging on this question. You're welcome to go have a look and add your thoughts!

LK said...

This is very good. (Who cares what John Updike thinks?)

The Constructivist said...

Aaron Barlow has written a book that looks worth following up on this topic....