Story posted November 11, 2009
Author: William Collins Watterson, Edward Little Professor of English Language and Literature, and Kristina Dahmann ’10
Illustration: Jennifer Dubord
Parker Cleaveland, called the father of American mineralogy, taught chemistry, geology, mathematics, and natural philosophy at Bowdoin from 1805 until his death in 1858. His Elementary Treatise on Mineralogy and Geology (1816), some six-hundred pages in length, proved a ground-breaking work that soon met with international acclaim. It was expanded and reprinted in 1822, when Nathaniel Hawthorne was a sophomore at Bowdoin, and was no doubt much talked about on the local scene. According to Leonard Woods, Cleaveland’s first biographer, this weighty tome soon became “the standard American authority in this branch of science, and was used as a textbook in all the colleges.” During his final year at Bowdoin, Hawthorne studied under Cleaveland, whose notable eccentricities included fear of dogs and the dark, gephyrophobia (fear of bridges) and an even more pathological fear of thunder and lightening. If a storm broke out during class, he would immediately send the students away, run to his home on Federal Street, and hide under the bed until the weather cleared. Hawthorne, rumored to have been enamored of Cleaveland’s maid and perhaps warned off by the professor, satirized him as Doctor Cacaphodel in “The Great Carbuncle” (1837). What Hawthorne remembered most about him twelve years after his graduation from Bowdoin, however, was not Cleaveland’s idiosyncrasies but his excessive zeal for scientific experimentation.
Set in the Crystal Hills in the middle of the seventeenth century, Hawthorne’s tale is a moral allegory which, in a series of thumbnail sketches, skewers various characters’ motives for pursuing an elusive gem or carbuncle. The latter, according to legend, was supposedly protected by an evil spirit, and mysteriously appears and disappears at random in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. This bit of folklore originated with the Indians, but Hawthorne read about it in James Sullivan’s History of the District of Maine (1795) and was intrigued by its susceptibility to didactic treatment. The aptly named Seeker is possessed by a compulsive desire to obtain the unobtainable and is a caricature of relentless ambition. An avaricious New England merchant, Isaiah Pigsnort, wants to sell the stone for an outlandish profit. An unnamed poet hopes to find stylistic inspiration in its beauty, while Lord de Vere, an English cavalier of “earthly pride and vainglory,” covets it as an emblem of his illustrious genealogy. A character identified as the Cynic denies that the carbuncle even exists and persistently attempts to disillusion all the others in their quest. Matthew and Hannah, types of Adam and Eve respectively, ultimately reject the sought-after carbuncle on the grounds that for those of humble heart, the post-lapsarian world, with all its woes, is paradise enough. Doctor Cacaphodel, a chemist who seeks it for the purpose of advancing scientific knowledge, is also made fun of, though he is also the only character who ultimately derives a positive benefit from the rock.
Hawthorne’s fable excoriates vanity and excess, including love of science for its own sake, as personified by the obsessive-compulsive Doctor Cacaphodel. The name seems to have been borrowed from “Cacafogo,” the apothecary in Oliver Goldsmith’s The Citizen of the World (1760-62), and is a composite made up of the Latin “cacare” (to discharge excrement) and the Spanish “fuego” (fire). Hawthorne also knew that the Latin “foedus” can signify a foul stench and derives from a Sanskrit word meaning “smoke” or “fumes,” of the kind sometimes produced by chemical apparatus employing high temperatures. Like Cleaveland, Cacaphodel is also a geologist, so Hawthorne may also have been thinking of the Latin “effodio,” meaning “I dig up _____.”
Established initially as a figure of Faustian curiositas, Cacaphodel can also be seen in light of Hawthorne’s numerous fictional scientists whose presumed faith in material progress compromises their humanity. Such characters, in turn, are also doubtless derived at least in part from the foolish professors deftly lampooned by Swift in the grand Academy of Lagado in Gulliver’s Travels, one of Hawthorne’s favorite books as an undergraduate. Cacaphodel wears a high-crowned hat “shaped like a crucible” and had wilted and dried himself into a mummy stooping over charcoal furnaces, and inhaling unwholesome fumes during his researches in chemistry and alchemy. It was told of him, whether truly or not, that at the commencement of his studies, he had drained his body of all its richest blood, and wasted it, with other inestimable ingredients, in an unsuccessful experiment and had never been a well man since.
A caricature whose medical symptoms are emblematic of his spiritual deficiencies, Cacophodel is the only seeker of the carbuncle to profit from the quest, in what amounts to a brief moment of authorial largesse extended by Hawthorne to his former instructor. Significantly, his interest in stratigraphy leads him to prize the matrix as highly as the precious gem embedded in it:
He returned to his laboratory with a prodigious fragment of granite, which he ground to powder, dissolved in acids, melted in the crucible, and burned with the blow-pipe, and published the results of his experiments in one of the heaviest folios of the day. And for all these purposes, the gem itself could not have answered better than the granite.
The Doctor’s seemingly misguided value judgment clinches the identification of Cleaveland with Cacaphodel. Cleaveland’s treatise correctly classifies granite as a crystalline structure comprised of feldspar, quartz, and mica, but Cleaveland was also embroiled in a creationist debate involving the granite found on the ocean floor. The so-called Plutonists, James Hutton (1726-1797) and his followers, believed, correctly as we now know, that granite was formed by magma from volcanic eruptions which eventually cooled into igneous rock. The Neptunists, on the other hand, among them Cleaveland, championed the idea that granite was formed in the ocean all at once by the hand of God as recounted in Genesis. Identifying Cacaphodel with conservative religious doctrine would obviously have undermined the materialist premise on which Hawthorne built his comic character, so on this point the logic of fiction rightly takes precedence over biographical accuracy.
Historical evidence makes it clear that Cleaveland was not a narrow specialist but a true polymath, so Hawthorne’s own fragile ego played a role in his fashioning of Cacaphodel. When “The Great Carbuncle” appeared in his first collection of short stories, Twice-Told Tales (1837), Hawthorne was thirty-three years old and far short of the literary fame he craved. His only previous book, Fanshawe (1828), was self-published anonymously at the cost of one hundred dollars and was subsequently thought by him to be a total failure. He never told his wife that he was its author, and even asked his friend Horatio Bridge to destroy his copy. In light of the monumental success of Cleaveland’s treatise, the phrase “one of the heaviest folios of the day” seems ambivalent, combining, as it does, both mockery along with a note of grudging admiration. It also smacks a little of the humanist’s envy of science which deals in the certainty of empirical truth.
Then as now, undergraduates often differ widely in their estimation of professors. Longfellow, characteristically more generous of spirit than his sardonic classmate, penned a much later recollection of Cleaveland in the wake of his fiftieth reunion at Bowdoin in 1875. His verses commend Cleaveland for his completeness as a human being while at the same time acknowledging his insularity:
Among the many lives that I have known,
None I remember more serene and sweet,
More rounded in itself and more complete,
Than his who lies beneath this funeral stone.
These pines, that murmur in low monotone,
These walks frequented by scholastic feet,
Were all his world; but in this calm retreat
For him the teacher’s chair became a throne.
Cleaveland, who died in 1858, would doubtless have felt flattered by these elegiac lines, which, however fulsome they may sound to modern ears, serve as an historical antidote to Hawthorne’s acerbic portrait. Cleaveland himself almost certainly read “The Great Carbuncle” at some point, though one imagines only once and without much pleasure. Satire aside, he was probably wise enough to know that instructors, for better or for worse, have little control over the general impression they make on the legions of students who fall briefly under their sway.
Hawthorne, rumored to have been enamored of Cleaveland’s maid and perhaps warned off by the professor, satirized him as Doctor Cacaphodel in “The Great Carbuncle” (1837). What Hawthorne remembered most about him twelve years after his graduation from Bowdoin, however, was not Cleaveland’s idiosyncrasies but his excessive zeal for scientific experimentation.