“The Devil in Manuscript”

This week’s subject of discussion over at the Deep Ones chat on LibraryThing.

Review: “The Devil in Manuscript”, Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1835. 

There is an element of the supernatural in this story, one of Hawthorne’s “Twice-Told Stories”, but it is mainly about the early state of American publishing and the psychology of writers and the act of creation. 

The narrator goes to visit his friend, a lawyer and an author, on a very windy but snowless winter night. 

There are manuscripts piled about in the office of that friend, Oberon. Oberon relates the problems of getting published including that publishers don’t want American authors. But he is also dissatisfied with the quality of his work whether produced in the heat of inspiration or done under cold reflection.

It seems Oberon has been working on something rather Hawthornian, an attempt to “embody the character of a fiend, as represented by our traditions and the written records of witchcraft”.  A “horror was created in my own brain”, he says. It disturbed him, took away his peace. “You remember,” says Oberon,

how the hellish thing used to suck away the happiness of those who, by a simple concession that seemed almost innocent, subjected themselves to his power.

He decides to burn his work. Better that he suffer obscurity than be a writer of bad work.

Something interesting happens when his manuscripts burn: 

They blaze . . .as if I had steeped them in the intensest spirit of genius. There I see my lovers clasped in each other’s arms. How pure the flame that bursts from their glowing hearts! And yonder the features of a villain writhing in the fire that shall torment him to eternity. My holy men, my pious and angelic women, stand like martyrs amid the flames, their mild eyes lifted heavenward. Ring out the bells! A city is on fire. See!—destruction roars through my dark forests, while the lakes boil up in steaming billows, and the mountains are volcanoes, and the sky kindles with a lurid brightness! All elements are but one pervading flame! Ha! The fiend!

And it’s a foreshadowing since the burning papers go up the chimney and start a fire in the town.

This delights Oberon. It seems the claws of the devil may have caught him when he says

The Fiend has gone forth by night, and startled thousands in fear and wonder from their beds! Here I stand,—a triumphant author! Huzza! Huzza! My brain has set the town on fire! 

Literary creation has been displaced by another act of creation – really of destruction: arson. Except Oberon doesn’t seem unhappy. You could look upon Oberon’s statement that his brain has set the town on fire as literarily true via the products of his brain, those manuscripts. Feeble art becomes destructive reality.

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