The Transcendentalist Experience of Beauty in "The Artist of the Beautiful"

Criticism: The Transcendentalist Experience of Beauty in "The Artist of the Beautiful"
Mariana Mussetta and Andrea Vartalitis, Universidad Nacional de Villa María, Argentina (2010)

Transcendentalism represented a complex answer to the democratization of American life, the growth of science and technology, and a new kind of industrialism--to the whole question, in short, of the redefinition of the relationship between man and nature and other men that was being demanded by the course of history. The U.S. was experiencing the decline of rigid Calvinist principles and the growing secularization of modern thought under the impact of numerous scientific and technological advances, which in turn gave momentum to an increasing industrialism. On the other hand, Unitarians tried to reconcile Locke's empiricism with Christianity, emphasizing what happened "outside the individual conscience" more than what happened in the realm of the mind, giving prominence to the material over the spiritual sphere in the formation of the mind. This made their early liberalism turn, in Emerson's words, into "a new orthodoxy of smug social conformity that denied the spiritual and emotional depths of experience - 'corpse-cold Unitarianism" (1). In this way, Transcendentalists used the term idealism as an instrument of moral and social criticism against the materialism underlying the Unitarian alliance of commercial and religious interests, which Emerson called "the establishment," highlighting their static nature against the Transcendentalist movement, a term that suggested dynamism and novelty.

Alluding to the Platonic triad, Emerson spoke of the oversoul (2), eternal source of beauty, truth, and good, and exhorted men to search for that spirit or fundamental principle that rules nature and of which men partake. The quest for this spiritual state that "transcends" the physical and empirical world is only possible through intuition and the subordination of men to the eloquence of nature, and not through established religious doctrines or through reason or sensory experience alone (3). Thus, the exaltation of nature and the contempt for conformism and imitation in favor of individual independence and self reliance(4) are deemed necessary to achieve this "original relation with the universe."(5)

According to Emerson, even though all human beings are called to a profound communion with nature in their search for the oversoul, the artists are the ones to fulfill this search by giving new forms to beauty in nature, beauty being "the herald" of the triad (6). Thus, art is the "result or expression of nature, in miniature, a nature passed through the alembic of man" (7). Then, the more artists submit and lend themselves to be interpreters of this superior principle manifest in nature, the closer they are to truth, good, and beauty combined in the work of art. In a search which is strictly personal, artists pursue independence, faith in themselves, and self reliance, and endeavor to achieve the best version of the self in communion with the superior and transcendental Being, the divinity that lies in every natural fact and in every individual, believing in the need of establishing an intimate relationship between the self and the universe in terms of a search both for self-knowledge and knowledge of the world.

The present paper aims at analyzing the short story "The Artist of the Beautiful," (8) by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Though Hawthorne cannot be considered a Transcendentalist author (9), in his story he creates an artist who embodies this quest for the self through the creation of his work of art, exploring the Transcendentalist experience of beauty as a way of resisting the materialistic and utilitarian New England society in the first decades of the nineteenth century.

In the short story, Owen Warland is a young man who, after working as a watchmaker apprentice, is left in charge of his master's clock shop when he retires. As a young boy, Owen spends a long time in nature to create little and delicate forms of birds and insects, but when he grows up, the efforts made to put his talent to practical and useful purposes prove futile, since his only wish is to make the clocks he is entrusted with more beautiful, disregarding the precision of their machinery. Driven by a deep love for Annie, his master's daughter, he starts creating a strange and extremely fragile mechanism which imitates a butterfly. His attempts at putting "the very spirit of beauty into form and give it motion" are often frustrated, especially when he is visited by his former master Hovenden, Annie, and Peter Stanforth, a blacksmith whom Annie eventually marries. Nevertheless, nature always succeeds in inspiring him again, until he finally achieves his goal and presents Annie and her family with the butterfly of his creation. Everybody is surprised at the sight of the beautiful work of art, which seems to have a life of its own, but fails to comprehend the magnitude of the meaning of years of hard work. However, Owen remains undisturbed, even when Annie's baby crushes the mechanism: the butterfly is a mere "symbol" of everything he has achieved when experiencing beauty in the process of creation.

When Owen finds inspiration in nature to create with "delicate ingenuity" little figures of flowers and birds, such talent seems "aimed at the mysteries of the hidden mechanisms" that give life to them. The choice of the words "mysteries" and "hidden" undeniably allude to that mystical mission of the artist to find in nature--and only in it--the secret of the beautiful, which is both the principle and the explanation of all things and the whole of humanity, the spirit that flows without a beginning or an end through the various manifestations of the Universe. The narrator says of Owen that people suppose he means to "imitate the beautiful movements of nature, exemplified in the flight of birds or the activity of small animals." It is to be noted that this "new development of the love for the beautiful" does not highlight forms or colors, not even that which delights the senses; instead it is based on the exploration of the ultimate principle that begets movement and activity: the spirit which gives life.

Owen, a clear recreation of the Transcendentalist artist, is not contented with the "inward enjoyment of the beautiful" but strives to capture its mysterious and elusive essence with "material grasp" when giving it material form in a work of art, guided by his intuition. The Transcendentalist artist follows his intuition and relies on his inner self to grow in his search for the beautiful. Nevertheless, he is imbued with the oversoul, so he is not alone; the universe conspires so that this search leads the artist to fulfill his goal when he submits completely. From this perspective, in his artistic being Owen embodies the concept of genius which lies at the basis of Transcendentalist aesthetics, rooted in the Romantic tradition. In his The Critique of Judgment, (10) Kant defines genius as the "innate mental disposition through which nature gives rule to art." In other words, just as it happens to Owen, the spirit present in nature at a meta-sensory level literally inspires him, and informs him with the rules through which he will give form to his work of art. However, such rules cannot be explained, taught, or learnt methodologically because to produce art the artist cannot do it at will but only be guided by intuition to let himself be imbued by the creative genius. Hawthorne's artist embodies Emerson's conception of artistic inspiration. Following the Romantics, Emerson insists that art cannot be apprehended systematically, rationalized, or explained but--as he declares in his essay "The Poet"(11)--in solitude and in intimate contact with nature: "Thou shall leave the World, and know the muse only."

Even though Owen seems to be fragile and vulnerable, Hawthorne, faithful to his allegorical style, meaningfully names his character Owen Warland, who becomes the locus where a long and arduous process of search takes place: a battlefield where he is made to confront conflicting feelings and forces which make him doubt whether to give up or to keep resisting, to abandon himself to mediocrity by submitting to the norms of society or to pursue his transcendental destiny, with the strong conviction that he will only attain fulfillment in self reliance.

For that aim, Owen counts on "the innate disposition of his soul," which "accumulates renewed vigor during its apparent idleness" and takes him back to the forest where he eagerly studies the movement of the butterflies and other insects. Together with Owen, Hawthorne explores the obstacles in this thorny process. Gradually, Owen Warland becomes spiritually stronger to overcome the difficulties that arise. His genius must gather strength to rise above failure and start again. He goes through obscure phases, becomes dispirited, and suffers. He feels misunderstood but that does not stop him. He knows, as the man described by Emerson in "Self Reliance," that he should be a "nonconformist," that "imitation is suicide," and that he must blindly rely on himself and accept his destiny although it may entail effort and pain.

In her study of the alchemic discourse in Romantic philosophy and literature, Brocious (12) distinguishes the exoteric from the esoteric alchemy in Hawthorne´s narrative: exoteric alchemy refers to the infusion of spirituality into material things, whereas esoteric alchemy refers to the transmutation the artist also undergoes, the transformation which takes place in their selves, the character and spiritual growth that comes when the artist experiences beauty. In all agreement with the Romantics, Transcendentalists also regard the work of art as a living organism: "It is not meters, but a meter-making argument, that makes a poem-a thought so passionate and alive that like the spirit of a plant or an animal it has an architecture of its own." (13)

In this short story, Hawthorne takes this idea to its highest expression, for, when achieved, the butterfly "has gone forth out of thy [Owen's] master's heart. There is no return for thee;" the work of art has to fly on its own, is alive and independent. On the other hand, from an alchemic reading, the artist´s transformation is a process in search of the oversoul, source of truth, beauty and good. Such process becomes so relevant as to give significance to the very experience of beauty over the final product, the work of art itself. "When the artist raised high enough to achieve the beautiful, the symbol by which he made it perceptible to mortal senses became of little value in his eyes while his spirit possessed itself in the enjoyment of the reality." This is how the allegory of the butterfly attains its true dimension: the artist, as his butterfly, has suffered a metamorphosis, a key concept for the understanding of the artistic process. The artist´s surrender to the creative genius turns him into Emerson's "alembic," through which the spirit of nature infuses life into the work of art and illuminates the artist´s own transformation.

Hawthorne's decision to place Owen in a clock shop, from where the artist resists a materialistic and a utilitarian society, is not a random choice, for the clock shop is the symbol of the transition of the U.S. from an agricultural country to an industrial nation. Towards the middle of the nineteenth century, the mobile parts system applied to the clock industry would turn New England into the cradle of world pioneers in the use of automatic machines in the mass production of clocks with interchangeable parts. With the development of railroads, the steam engine, and the textile industry, New England was rushing into what was later called the Second Industrial Revolution, and its rural profile would give way to the development of big, prosper, and modern metropolis which celebrated the new scientific, technological, and economic developments that promised progress. Added to all this, the belief in the Manifest Destiny urged the young nation to expand geographically and to define its national identity as a thriving country, free from the old ties that had kept it attached to Europe. Although they supported the optimism and self-determination of the new nation, the Transcendentalists held ideas which were against this exacerbated materialism. Thoreau would say: "Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life are not only not indispensable but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind," and would denounce that "men have become tools of their tools." (14)

In Hawthorne's short story, the clocks become the metaphor of the machine as the artificial mechanism that intends to regulate time from the material and utilitarian world of a man who, in his yearnings of material progress, has broken up his connection with nature and its times, a man who distances himself from nature and denies the spirit that guides the natural flow of time in connection with what is transcendental. Instead, this man measures and conceives time in terms of what is useful, practical, and concrete, self-imposing an order which is different from the natural order. Only when the readers have advanced in the reading of the story do they understand why in the description of the clock shop in the first paragraph it seems that "all the clocks turned from the streets," as if they wanted to show their indifference to the world outside and let a different kind of power guide them. This is why Owen "forgot or despised the grand object of a watchmaker's business, and cared no more for the measurement of time than if it had merged into eternity." Every time Owen overcomes one of his obscure and unproductive phases, he goes back to his work. As a watchmaker, Owen is known for spoiling "the accuracy of some of the best watches in my [Hovenden's] shop" and was, according to his neighbors, useless "to lead old blind Father Time along his daily course." Being ironic, Hawthorne refers to the fact that the closer the artist is to the spirit of nature that inspires him, the closer he is to experiencing beauty, but the more useless he seems to be in the eyes of the world. Nevertheless, what Owen intends to do is not to direct "blind Father Time" along his daily course: on the contrary; the artist intends to let wise Nature's time guide him, as represented in the artistic cycles to which Owen seems to submit, and which are incomprehensible for his community. In his severe criticism of Owen, Hovenden happily asserts that Owen's genius is luckily not enough for him to create more than a simple toy, since if he did possess more talent, "he would turn the sun out of its orbit and derange the whole course of time." Indeed, Owen proves to have an invaluable gift, but he uses this talent by surrendering to the natural flow of time and not to the time his utilitarian society conceives. The irony is further stretched in his community's reproachful attitude towards Owen, who is unable to fulfill his duties as a watchmaker. Their assertion that "time is not to be trifled with" turns out to be Owen's own conviction, only that he does not agree with the concept of time the rest of the community has, which also explains the artist's disdain for the perpetual movement, as he believes that, should he ever attain the perpetual movement, the world would swiftly use it for practical ends.

Faithful to the Romantic poet-prophet tradition, the Transcendentalist artist is a natural optimist, who believes in human kind and in its potential, in his being called to share his own experience of the beautiful with the world, and in his mission to illuminate the world with his discovery. Owen must go back to his community and, once his butterfly is finished, he offers his work of art to the community in hope that they "know, and see, and touch, and possess the secret." The artist is aware that he cannot explain beauty, but that he can only make it available for others to experience it. Nevertheless, in this materialistic society where Annie and her family are immersed, the experience of the beautiful is for them cut short, thwarted: without intuition, without a spiritual search, it is not possible to comprehend beauty. However, Owen, transformed by his profound artistic experience, is no longer disturbed when he confirms that he is not understood; he knows that the butterfly is a simple symbol of his own transformation, and that "the reward of all high performance must be sought within itself, or sought in vain." Therefore, and contrary to what some critics assert (15), the end of this short story is far from being tragic, given the fact that what is really important for Owen is his own transformation after his Transcendentalist experience of beauty, and it is from here that, fortified, he is able to resist a hostile materialistic and utilitarian society.

Although Nathaniel Hawthorne's relationship with Transcendentalism was not always friendly (16), it is clear that in "The Artist of the Beautiful" he endorses the Transcendentalist position that asserts the individual search for the spiritual dimension of all men and nature. Hawthorne explores the Transcendentalist search for beauty and the individual self in the artistic creation, and presents it as the locus where the artist resists the materialism and utilitarianism of the New England of his time. In the same way that Owen Warland makes use of his artistic experience to resist those who try to disturb him, Hawthorne turns "The Artist of the Beautiful" into an instrument to oppose modern trends and beliefs which, while promising progress, urge men to deny their own spiritual essence.

1. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals, May 1846.

2.Ralph Waldo Emerson would publish a famous essay of the same name in 1841, where he defined this concept as "that Unity, that Over-soul, within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart."

3. These crucial ideas provided the basis for the principles of Transcendentalism, and were developed by Emerson in many essays like "Transcendentalism" (1842); addresses like "The American Scholar" (1837) and "The Divinity School Address" (1838); and lectures such as "The Transcendentalist" (1842), from where the name of the movement came to be known.

4.4. Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self Reliance," Essays First Series, 1841.

5. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, 1836.

6. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, 1836.

7. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, 1836.

8. Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The Artist of the Beautiful," in Twice Told Tales, 1844.

9. Hawthorne is widely considered to be a Dark Romantic author together with Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville. According to the American critic G. R. Thompson, Dark Romantics differ from Transcendentalists in three different ways. First, these writers questioned the idea of perfection and inherent human value, exulting the tendency of all individuals to sin and self-destruction. Second, although they acknowledged the influence of nature as a powerful source, they asserted it could be a sinister power and not always a benevolent and universal mediator between humankind and God. Finally, while Transcendentalists were optimistic about social reforms which would eventually elevate all individuals, Dark Romantics tended to give life to characters who failed in their attempts to overcome their weaknesses. (Introduction: Romanticism and the Gothic Tradition. Gothic Imagination: Essays in Dark Romanticism. Pullman Wa: Washington State University Press, 1974).
For further reading on Hawthorne's work and its relationship with Transcendentalism, see John Erskine, "Transcendental Doctrines in Hawthorne: Self Reliance, Compensation, Circles." Columbia University. Retrieved from:

10. Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement, 1890.

11. Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The Poet" in Essays Second Series, 1844.

12. Elizabeth Brocious. Transcendental Exchange: Alchemical Discourse in Romantic Philosophy and Literature. A thesis submitted to the Faculty of Brigham Young University in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts. Department of English Brigham Young University. April 2008.

13. Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The Poet" in Essays Second Series, 1844.

14. Henry David Thoreau. Walden, 1854.

15. For criticism that depicts Owen as a Transcendentalist failure, see Nina Baym, The Shape of Hawthorne's Career. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1976; Millicent Bell, Hawthorne's View of the Artist. New York: State U of New York P, 1962; Nicholas K Bromwell, "'The Bloody Hand' of Labor: Work, Class, and Gender in Three Stories by Hawthorne." American Quarterly 42 (1990): 542-564; David V Urban, "Evasion of the Finite in Hawthorne's 'The Artist of the Beautiful.'" Christianity and Literature 54 (2005): 343-357.

16. His critical attitude towards Transcendentalism can be seen, for instance, in the description of his "Giant Transcendentalist," in his allegorical short story "The Celestial Railroad," first published in Mosses from an Old Manse (1843): "He is German by birth, and is called Giant Transcendentalist, but as to his form, his features, his substance, and his nature generally, it is the chief peculiarity of this huge miscreant that neither he for himself nor anybody for him has ever been able to describe them. As we rushed by the cavern's mouth we caught a hasty glimpse of him, looking somewhat like an ill-proportioned figure but considerably more like a heap of fog and duskiness. He shouted after us, but in so strange a phraseology that we knew not what he meant, nor whether to be encouraged or affrighted." Moreover, after his own experience at Brook Farm, a Transcendentalist communitarian experiment, he would express his scepticism towards his neighbors' optimism in his The Blithedale Romance, 1852.