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The Great Stone Face, and Other Tales of the White Mountains

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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   This is a collection of three short stories, plus an essay, so the review will be short also! The edition from Project Gutenberg, was first published in 1882, but the individual stories were published much earlier. Hawthorne had toured Vermont and New Hampshire beginning in 1832. He was touring the White Mountains in New Hampshire in 1864 when he died in his sleep.
   Interestingly enough, there is a subtle or not-subtle theme of death in these stories, and there is also the theme of long-held dreams that do not come true. These stories are short but powerful, set in the magnificent and dangerous White Mountains, where one wrong move could lead to death. The essay at the end seems to be a study, perhaps of possible themes to explore in the stories. I have not been able to find much reference to it anywhere.
   The first story, The Great Stone Face, is built on an actual geological formation of stone, which, from a distance does indeed look like a face, and is known as The Old Man of the Mountain, called Stone Face by the Abenaki people. It was a cultural icon and landmark in New Hampshire until 2003, when it collapsed. Wikipedia has a photo of "before and after," and fortunately there are numerous photos of "before." There are also numerous interesting articles on it. Here are two:
12 Solid Facts About New Hampshire's Old Man of the Mountain from Mental Floss, and this one from New
The Old Man of the Mountain Memorial: Remembering a Legend
   The story begins describing the people and landscape around the Stone Face, but the main character is a little boy named Ernest, who takes the face seriously. As he chats with his mother, she tells him the story.

  "Mother," said he, while the Titanic visage smiled on him, "I wish that it could speak, for it looks so very kindly that its voice must needs be pleasant. If I were to see a man with such a face, I should love him dearly." "If an old prophecy should come to pass," answered his mother, "we may see a man, some time or other, with exactly such a face as that." "What prophecy do you mean, dear mother?" eagerly inquired Ernest. "Pray tell me all about it!"
  So his mother told him a story that her own mother had told to her, when she herself was younger than little Ernest; a story, not of things that were past, but of what was yet to come; a story, nevertheless, so very old, that even the Indians, who formerly inhabited this valley, had heard it from their forefathers, to whom, as they affirmed, it had been murmured by the mountain streams, and whispered by the wind among the tree-tops. The purport was, that, at some future day, a child should be born hereabouts, who was destined to become the greatest and noblest personage of his time, and whose countenance, in manhood, should bear an exact resemblance to the Great Stone Face. Not a few old-fashioned people, and young ones likewise, in the ardor of their hopes, still cherished an enduring faith in this old prophecy. But others, who had seen more of the world, had watched and waited till they were weary, and had beheld no man with such a face, nor any man that proved to be much greater or nobler than his neighbors, concluded it to be nothing but an idle tale. At all events, the great man of the prophecy had not yet appeared.

   Ah, little does young Ernest know! He never forgets the legend, even as he grows older, and he still holds the man in the mountain in reverence, waiting, watching for him to appear in person. Meanwhile, he grows up to be an uncommonly fine young man, mild and quiet, yet very intelligent. As the years pass, there are a number of people who move through his village, each one seeming, at first, to be the great personage symbolized in the mountain, beginning with Mr. Gathergold. As one might guess, he turns out to be a phony, interested in his financial wealth, which does not imply greatness of character, in fact, is usually the opposite.
   The next is an old veteran whom people swear is the image of the stone face. He passes through the village amidst a great celebration, but he too, proves to be a phony, at least to Ernest. The stone face whispers to him, "fear not, Ernest; he will come." This excitement and letdown continues with others the people believe will fulfill the prophesy, and in the end, do not.
   Meanwhile, Ernest continues to grow into an exceptionally fine, honest and honorable man, respected by those around him. Well, I will say no more, but you can probably guess who the Great Stone Face proves to be. This is absolutely a tender and beautiful story! The Good Readers at Goodreads think so, too. Below are two images of the mountain before it collapsed.

The Old Man of the Mountain

The Old Man of the Mountain

   The next story, The Ambitious Guest, was first published much earlier, in 1835. It is about a family who lives in a deserted part of the White Mountains, known as a "notch," or pass through a mountain range. Often they take in travelers—they have a little tavern, or what seems to be a "bed and breakfast" dwelling. On this blustery night, the mother and father, the children, including a young lady of seventeen, and an aged grandmother who sits knitting, are the picture of happiness. A traveler enters, a young man from Burlington, Vermont. He is despondent, but cheers up at the sight of the family. As they begin to converse, he tells them he cannot die without achieving his destiny. They all begin to speak of their secret yearnings.
   Meanwhile, the mountain hurls stones, during which they hold their breath, telling the young visitor they have a safe place if there is a slide. Well, there is a slide and they all run outside, to be crushed by it. The cottage, however, is untouched. This story is based on a true event that happened at the Willey House. Here is a quote from Wikipedia. Below is a photo of it.

  The basis of the story is the Willey tragedy of Crawford Notch, New Hampshire. On August 28, 1826, a family living in the Notch of the White Mountains was killed by an avalanche as they rushed from their home attempting to seek safety. The home they fled, however, was unharmed. Hawthorne visited the area four years later. He was also inspired by a trip beginning in September 1832 that took him through New Hampshire and Vermont.

Willey House

   The third story is The Great Carbuncle: A Mystery of the White Mountains. No, it is not referring to a skin abscess!, but to a valuable red stone, which is often a garnet. Here we meet a strange lot of pilgrims, all determined to be the one to capture this elusive gem, all for very different reasons. The Native legend, however, is that anyone who has it within their grasp will die. The journey is treacherous, both physically and superstitiously. The story was first published in 1837.
   There are six men on this quest, plus a young couple. Here is Wikipedia's list of them.

The Seeker: a 60-year-old man who has sought the Carbuncle his entire life, and who plans to die alongside it once he finds it.
Doctor Cacaphodel: a European chemist, who intends to analyze the Carbuncle and publish his findings.
Master Ichabod Pigsnort: a merchant, who wishes to sell the Carbuncle to the highest bidder.
The Cynic: a bespectacled man with a constant sneer. He considers the hopes of the other adventurers futile and makes derisive comments about them. His goal is to prove that the Carbuncle does not exist by searching everywhere for it.
The Poet: a man who hopes the Carbuncle will bring him inspiration.
Lord de Vere: a wealthy prince, who wants to use the Carbuncle's brilliance as a symbol of his family's greatness for posterity.
Matthew and Hannah: newlyweds, who wish to use the gem as a light in their household and as a conversation piece.

   These are not nice people, and we don't wish them well, with the exception of the young couple who are simple and humble. Needless to say, it is they who reach their goal, but upon seeing the magnificent stone, decide, rightfully, to leave it where it is.
   The last piece in this collection is more like an essay called Sketches from Memory: The Notch of the White Mountains. Here Hawthorne describes the people he met and socialized with on his visit in 1832, and the terrain they cover. No doubt this journey probably supplied ideas he used for the other stories of the collection.
   In all this is very pleasant and entertaining reading, and would be a nice collection for children, too, especially since it contains historical and geographical information. You may read all my Nathaniel Hawthorne reviews on his Index Page.

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