Friday, June 24, 2011

Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864)
From Nathaniel Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches

Five years after Hawthorne’s Twice-told Tales appeared in 1837, Edgar Allan Poe (hardly the easiest of critics to please) reviewed the collection and declared, “emphatically, that they belong to the highest region of Art.” Poe had initially been skeptical, wary of the nineteenth-century equivalent of literary hype that had greeted Hawthorne’s debut: “We had supposed, with good reason for supposing, that he had been thrust into his present position by one of the impudent cliques which beset our literature; but we have been most agreeably mistaken.”

One of the stories Poe singled out was “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” which he found “exceedingly well imagined and executed with surpassing ability. The artist breathes in every line of it.” One supposes that the story’s fantastical and Gothic elements especially appealed to Poe, but decades later Henry James, who cast a slightly more jaundiced eye at the collection, also praised this story as one of several that shows “the ingenuity and felicity of Hawthorne’s analogies and correspondences.”

“Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” (originally published anonymously as “The Fountain of Youth,” Hawthorne’s first contribution to The Knickerbocker Magazine) brings together two themes that appear in a number of his works: the hubris of science and the idea of eternal youth. Although, as Janice L. Wilms acknowledges, the intent of Dr. Heidegger’s experiment is “benign,” there is “a hint of the sinister in the setting”: the skeleton in the closet, the oversized book of magic, the long-ago death of his fiancĂ©e under questionable circumstances. The archetype of the demented scientist appears in other stories by Hawthorne, including two of his most famous, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” and “The Birth-Mark,” but here the theme straddles the boundary between the disconcerting and the comic. Similarly, the idea of an elixir of life or a fountain of youth, notes biographer Edwin Haviland Miller, fascinated the skeptical author throughout most of his career, from “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” which he wrote at the age of thirty-three, to“The Dolliver Romance,” the unfinished novel he was writing at his death, just shy of sixty.

Notes: The footnote on page 470, which Hawthorne added to the story in 1860, discusses Memoirs of a Physician: Joseph Balsamo (1846–1848), a novel by Alexandre Dumas written a full decade after Hawthorne first published his story. On page 471, folios, quartos, and duodecimos refer to common book formats, with folios being the largest (usually 9.5 x 12 inches).

This week’s story was suggested to us by Jay R. of State College, Pennsylvania. We encourage you to offer your own suggestion—a story, essay, narrative poem, or article from any Library of America volume (which can be found listed here)—along with two or three sentences noting anything that might be of related interest to our readers: a current event, a commemoration, a new publication, etc. Send your recommendation to with the subject line, “Story of the Week idea.” If we use your suggestion, we’ll send you a free Library of America volume of your choice and (with your permission) acknowledge you in the introduction.

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That very singular man, old Dr. Heidegger, once invited four venerable friends to meet him in his study. There were three white-bearded gentlemen, Mr. Medbourne, Colonel Killigrew, and Mr. Gascoigne, and a withered gentlewoman, whose name was the Widow Wycherly. They were all melancholy old creatures, . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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