Inspiration of the Month: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Feathertop”


Illustration (used with permission) by Steve Morrison. Here’s his Web site: and here’s his blog 

Read the story “Feathertop” by Nathaniel Hawthorne here

Before bed each night I’ve started reading a selection from The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales. I seem to always like titles starting with The Oxford Book of—I could probably get some enjoyment out of The Oxford Book of Mushrooms or even The Oxford book of Tax Accounting—I think it simply comes down to stellar editing. Anyway, I can tell already that I’m going to like this volume a lot as I found the second story in the collection, which I’ve just finished, quite delightful: it’s Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Feathertop,” in which an inventive witch decides to animate, via the smoke of a bewitched pipe, a scarecrow she’s just assembled and send it off to romance the town justice’s daughter, Polly. Explaining Hawthorne’s motivation for the story, Tom Quirk (how cool a name is that?) in his book Nothing Abstract: Investigations in the American Literary Imagination says that “in the grotesque figure of Feathertop he purposely fashioned a fit emblem to represent his distaste for the contrived characters of popular fiction.” (p. 72) This meta-level idea is interesting, but I think one can safely take his depreciating depiction of the character’s “illusory magnificence” as a comment about superficial and conventional values in general. The witch herself, when deciding on what to do with her creation muses: “What if I should let him take his chance among the other men of straw and empty fellows who go bustling about the world?” She is not talking about other enchanted scarecrows here!

The outcome of the tale seems to me a warning against trying to breathe life into an inherently lifeless persona, as there is something inherently grotesque in doing so. But grotesque or not, I have some sympathy for the character, who, after all, did not ask to be created, and who finally makes a stand for authenticity when he destroys himself after seeing his true reflection in a well-polished mirror at Polly’s mansion. Am I the only one to feel this way about poor Feathertop? I’d say not: certainly Feathertop’s creator has “motherly affection” for him, and maybe Hawthorne has a little affection for him too:

“To say the truth, whether it were chance, or skill, or downright witchcraft, there was something wonderfully human in this ridiculous shape, bedizened with its tattered finery; and as for the countenance, it appeared to shrivel its yellow surface into a grin–a funny kind of expression betwixt scorn and merriment, as if it understood itself to be a jest at mankind.”

I probably feel for the ungainly Feathertop because I myself have written a story about a strange creature that is living within an illusory world. Don’t we all wonder sometimes if we are not somehow living in the same condition, metaphysically speaking?

Leaving aside whatever the message of the tale might be, style-wise, the comedic tone of “Feathertop” is appealing, and I enjoy the presence of the narrator, who seems apologetic and incredulous about the story he’s telling: “Upon my word, if the legend were not one which I heard on my grandmother’s knee, and which had established its place among things credible before my childish judgment could analyze its probability, I question whether I should have the face to tell it now.”

I also relish the details of the story: the invisible servant “Dickon” who fills and lights the enchanted pipe, the animated “party of demons” that dance around the bowl of said pipe, the eponymous rooster feather in the scarecrow’s hat and the faded embroidery on his waistcoat. Fun!

Plot-wise, I’m also intrigued by the fact that Polly’s father, Master Gookin, knows what Feathertop really is, but is beholden somehow to the witch who created him, and therefore too frightened to alert his gullible daughter about what she’s getting into:

“Gladly would poor Master Gookin have thrust his dangerous guest into the street; but there was a constraint and terror within him. This respectable old gentleman, we fear, at an earlier period of life, had given some pledge or other to the evil principle, and perhaps was now to redeem it by the sacrifice of his daughter.”

It is left to our imaginations what this pledge may have been, which I think is a clever move on Hawthorne’s part; it would, however, be an interesting exercise to write another version of the story starring Master Gookin and his mysterious “pledge.” Hmm . . .

The Only Writing Advice that Truly Matters: Write What You Love

In this early and hopefully theme-setting blog post I would like to champion this most useful idea, raising it several levels above the more commonly heard advice to “write what you know.”

I feel I’ve spent, and sometimes wasted, much of my limited time in this life in the “writing what you know” and/or “writing what seems easy, lucrative, or respectable” camp. Why? I’m not sure. I guess it’s like settling for the wrong, but acceptable, mate: it’s a road more travelled and supposedly more secure. But that road doesn’t lead anywhere interesting or important, and ultimately you (and I) arrive at the wrong place.

So I guess that brings me to what exactly I mean by the potentially trite word “love.” I don’t mean a surface kind of approval, like loving ice cream or silk blouses. When you truly love a piece of writing you’re working on, or have written, it is more like loving a person, and thus it has to go beyond the infatuation phase to come out right. Just as when you really love a person, the relationship isn’t always going to be easy or enjoyable—effort, struggle, disappointment, and sacrifice will invariably be involved. But you hang in there and do the work and spend the time because it’s worth it, because it feels meaningful, important, and deeply gratifying to you.

And often it is the “not knowing” or mysterious element in the work (or the person!) that makes it so worth pursuing. For me this comes in wonderfully strange dream or daydream images, a certain ineffable mood or drifting melody or rhythm that overtakes me, or an idea, usually in the form of a question, that will parade around me, gesticulating like a boisterous child until I pay attention to it.

Not that “writing what you know” and “writing what you love” are mutually exclusive approaches: particularly in non-fiction writing, people tend to research and know a lot about topics that are intensely interesting or dear to them. But even so it’s my contention that if  you have too much “knowing” when you start a writing project, any writing project, what comes out of it is going to be stale. I think the sort of love we need as writers necessitates a quality of genuine unknowing, or what researcher and writer Rosemary Anderson calls “auspicious bewilderment.” This writerly love embodies curiosity, fascination, and respect for the place from which the rich, unexpected material arises, which is not the confined quarters of the everyday conscious mind but the other, expansive realm of mind parallel to it, the one depth psychologists in their more staid language call “the unconscious” and in their more fanciful turns of phrase call “the imaginal.” Fiction and poetry writers probably draw more from that region, but all writers must rely on it to a great extent.

So let this be the season of Writing What We Love, as an end in itself, and Loving What We Write as a brave act of devotion (not narcissism). Carry on!