P.'s Correspondence

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"P.'s Correspondence" is an 1845 short story by the 19th century American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, constituting a pioneering work of alternate history. Some consider it the very first such work in the English language (depending on whether or not Benjamin Disraeli's "Alroy" of 1833 is defined as being alternate history). In any case, it is certainly among the earliest works of this genre in any language and apparently the first to introduce some features which were to become an essential part of it.

It was first published in The United States Magazine and Democratic Review in April 1845 and collected with other Hawthorne stories (not of this genre) in "Mosses from an Old Manse" (1846).

The setting[edit]

The story uses the technique of the false document, common in literature of the period. It purports to transcribe a letter written by a mentally-deranged friend of the writer, identified only by the initial "P." (supposedly to protect his privacy). As presented in the preface, the writer seems to share with the rest of the world the belief that his friend is indeed mad, and publishes the text as an act of kindness rather than out of believing in its veracity.

However, the text attributed to P. seems far from the ravings of a madman. Rather, it appears the product of a rational and sensitive mind placed in the impossible situation of simultaneously perceiving two realities which contradict each other in numerous important details. With no explanation for this phenomenon, the narrator is increasingly unable to decide which is true and which is imaginary:

"More and more I recognize that we dwell in a world of shadows; and, for my part, I hold it hardly worth the trouble to attempt a distinction between shadows in the mind and shadows out of it. If there be any difference, the former are rather the more substantial."

In terms of the later fully developed alternate history genre, the basic premise can be described as two analogues of P. in two alternate timelines being able to communicate mentally and often share each other's consciousness.

The one in our history's 1845 is considered a madman, kept at the insistence of his relatives in a "little whitewashed, iron-grated room" somewhere in New England, where he had been effectively incarcerated and cared for by a keeper for several years. His analogue in an alternate 1845 timeline is visiting London and meeting with various VIPs, and although many prominent people mentioned in the narrative had substantially different lives (and deaths), the general political and social situation is the same (for example, both timelines have essentially the same Queen Victoria).

Hawthorne, however, did not yet possess any of the above terms - though he seems to have intuitively grasped many of the concepts involved. While some alternate history was written before the present story, this seems the first work in which two parallel realities are presented as co-existing and interacting with each other (though not physically).

The writer states in the preface: "Many of his [P.'s] letters are in my possession, some based upon the same vagary as the present one, and others upon hypotheses not a whit short of it in absurdity. The whole form a series of correspondence, which, should fate seasonably remove my poor friend from what is to him a world of moonshine, I promise myself a pious pleasure in editing for the public eye."

This seems to indicate that Hawthorne considered writing further such stories, set in the same alternate reality and/or in a different one. Such additional stories were, however, never published.

The Decay of the Great[edit]

The story does not have a real plot, and essentially consists of a series of detailed descriptions of meetings which P. in the alternate London has with various famous people - mainly the great British Romantic poets and writers - who had long since died in our history but are still alive (though not necessarily well) in the other 1845. In contrast, there are also brief notices of the death there of people (Dickens, Longfellow and several others) who were quite alive in the 1845 which we know, and long afterwards.

The point which Hawthorne tries to make becomes obvious quite soon, and is indeed stated explicitly towards the end of the story: "It may be as well that they have died.(...) The sad truth is that when fate would gently disappoint the world, it takes away the hopefulest mortals in their youth; when it would laugh the world's hopes to scorn, it lets them live." In short: it is better not to mourn too much the death in their prime of such poets as Lord Byron or Shelley; had they lived, their subsequent careers might have proven unworthy or shameful.

The story begins with the alternate Lord Byron, who in this reality did not die at Missolonghi while joining the Greek War of Independence, but returned to England and underwent a total reversion: from a wild radical to a staunch conservative in politics, from one of the most sexually profligate people of his generation to a faithful husband and religious puritan. In 1845 Byron, in his sixties, is monstrously fat, suffers from gout, and is busy re-writing and self-censoring his Don Juan, expurgating everything which does not fit his new political and religious stance.

Shelley has gone through a similar change. The man who was expelled from Oxford University in 1811 for publishing the pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism has "become reconciled with the Anglican Church". More than that, Shelley became a clergyman himself, the bosom friend of the famous India missionary Dr. Reginald Heber, and has just written a "volume of discourses treating of the poetico-philosophical proofs of Christianity on the basis of the Thirty-nine Articles".

For a moment, P. recalls the other reality where Shelley died twenty-three years earlier: "Lost in the Bay of Spezzia, washed ashore near Via Reggio, and burned to ashes on a funeral pyre, with wine, and spices, and frankincense; while Byron stood on the beach and beheld a flame of marvellous beauty rise heavenward from the dead poet's heart, and his fire-purified relics were finally buried near his child in Roman earth" (and Byron himself died short afterwards). Plainly, Hawthorne felt all that to be a much more fitting end for Shelley - which among other things tells where Hawthorne himself stood on the political and religious issues involved.

Afterwards, a whole series of famous people from different walks of life appear one by one onstage, who in this reality outlived themselves and became decrepit or simply senile, and who obviously (in Hawthorne's depiction) would have better died when they did in our history.

First to be shown in such a light is the eighty-seven-year-old, white haired Robert Burns - whose arrival on a rare visit to London is the occasion of a great celebration, but who is no longer capable of understanding even the words of his own Tam O' Shanter.

Then the aged Napoleon Bonaparte is shown - fetched from St. Helena and walking uncomprehendingly in the streets of London. He is accompanied everywhere by two policemen - not because he still poses any kind of threat, but just to prevent thieves from taking advantage of his condition and stealing the valuable star of the Legion of Honour which the ex-emperor is still wearing.

Former British Prime Minister George Canning still makes speeches in Parliament, but "time blunts both point and edge, and does great mischief to men of his order of intellect" - and the agricultural reformer Cobbett "looked as earthy as a real clodhopper, or rather as if he had lain a dozen years beneath the clods". The great Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean still plays at Drury Lane, but "his fame is scarcely traditionary now. His powers are quite gone; he was rather the ghost of himself than the ghost of the Danish king."

A highly horrifying description is given of the senile and completely paralysed Sir Walter Scott:

"There he reclines, on a couch in his library, spending whole hours of every day in dictating tales to an amanuensis,- to an imaginary amanuensis; for it is not deemed worth any one's trouble now to take down what flows from that once brilliant fancy, every image of which was formerly worth gold and capable of being coined. (...) Now and then [there is] a touch of the genius - a striking combination of incident, or a picturesque trait of character, such as no other man alive could have hit off - a glimmer from that ruined mind, as if the sun had suddenly flashed on a half-rusted helmet in the gloom of an ancient hall. But the plots of these romances become inextricably confused; the characters melt into one another; and the tale loses itself like the course of a stream flowing through muddy and marshy ground".

The virtually only (partial) exception to Hawthorne's gloomy parade of ruined greatness: the longer-lived Keats of this timeline remains, like his younger self, a romantic poet and a romantic figure. Deeply hurt by the article in the Quarterly Review which condemned his "Endymion" (and which in the other reality helped bring about his death) Keats has ever since withdrawn from public life. Only occasionally is he seen gliding like a ghost around the streets of London, coughing blood and barely clinging to life.

He has published no more of his poetry, but to a small circle of close friends and admirers he has confided parts of an epic poem which he is writing, with a vast utopian vision of mankind's future. Hawthorne describes in considerable detail the vision of that poem, entitled "Paradise Regained" (with a quite different sense from the one of the Milton poem of the same name).

"Keats has thrown his poem forward into an indefinitely remote futurity. He pictures mankind amid the closing circumstances of the time-long warfare between good and evil. Our race is on the eve of its final triumph. Man is within the last stride of perfection; Woman, redeemed from the thralldom against which our sibyl uplifts so powerful and so sad a remonstrance, stands equal by his side or communes for herself with angels; the Earth, sympathizing with her children's happier state, has clothed herself in such luxuriant and loving beauty as no eye ever witnessed since our first parents saw the sun rise over dewy Eden. Nor then indeed; for this is the fulfillment of what was then but a golden promise. But the picture has its shadows. There remains to mankind another peril,- a last encounter with the evil principle. Should the battle go against us, we sink back into the slime and misery of ages. If we triumph!-But it demands a poet's eye to contemplate the splendor of such a consummation, and not to be dazzled."

Hawthorne closes, however, on a skeptical note: None but some admirers have heard this poem itself, Keats refuses to publish it on the plea that "the world is not ready", and possibly it is not all that good in reality.

An example of "Transatlantic Romanticism"[edit]

"P.'s Correspondence" is a story written by an American, set mostly in England, dealing mainly with famous romantic poets and writers and having the conspicuous point that it is better to be cut off in one's prime than live to an unworthy old age. As such, it was cited by Prof. William Keach of Brown University as an example of Transatlantic Romanticism - i.e.

"Literature in English produced between the American Revolution (1775-83) and the American Civil War (1861-65) [which] was part of a complex transatlantic culture of writing, publication, textual transmission, and influence [and which included], for example, literary texts written in Boston and published in London, texts published almost simultaneously in London and New York, texts that explicitly represented these very processes of culture connection. (...) Influences moved both ways across the Atlantic, [constituting] the cultural dialogue and material interactions between British and American writing" (March 2008 seminar on Transnational Romanticism, as a guest lecturer at the University of Macerata, Italy [1] ).

Significant points[edit]

  • P.'s fictional letter to Hawthorne ends with "Good by! Are you alive or dead? And what are you about? Still scribbling for the Democratic? And do those infernal compositors and proof-readers misprint your unfortunate productions as vilely as ever? It is too bad." It was these compositors and proof-readers who had to deal with this story itself, in its first appearance on the pages of the "Democratic Review".
  • P.'s letter is dated "London, February 29, 1845". However, 1845 was not a leap year, so there was not such a day (at least, not in our reality's timeline).
  • At the very end of his story, Hawthorne makes an intriguing short reference to "an epic on the war between Mexico and Texas" attributed to this reality's Joel Barlow, in which war "machinery contrived on the principle of the steam-engine" is used. This seems an early premonition of mechanized warfare, or perhaps even of the invention of the tank.
  • The story was written when the annexation of Texas to the US, which was to precipitate in the following year the U.S.-Mexican War, was already high on the US public agenda. The war referred to might be either the future war whose outbreak was clearly foreseeable, or a different version of the 1836 war.
  • In a sense, Hawthorne seems to have anticipated George Orwell: "Byron is preparing a new edition of his complete works, carefully corrected, expurgated, and amended, in accordance with his present creed of taste, morals, politics, and religion. (...) Whatever is licentious, whatever disrespectful to the sacred mysteries of our faith, whatever morbidly melancholic or splenetically sportive, whatever assails settled constitutions of government or systems of society, whatever could wound the sensibility of any mortal, except a pagan, a republican, or a dissenter, has been unrelentingly blotted out, and its place supplied by unexceptionable verses in his lordship's later style." This description seems strikingly similar to the way Nineteen Eighty Four describes the treatment meted out to Byron's poetry - as well as to those of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton and Kipling - in the preparation of "definitive editions" fitting with the Party's ideology. Orwell was an omnivorous reader and was interested in American writers, but there is no direct evidence that he ever read Hawthorne's story or that it influenced his own book.

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