first saw a picture of the Old Man of the Mountain in 1953, when I was studying American literature under one of the great high school English teachers, Royal W. Tritch. Mr. Tritch, who was also the principal of Kendallville (IN) High School, inspired me to make the study of American literature the cornerstone of my own intellectual life — as it has been now for more than 50 years.
But back to the Old Man of the Mountain: Mr. Tritch had visited the New Hampshire shrine, which was older than time itself, and he illustrated our study of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Great Stone Face" with photographs he had taken. In 1962, I took my own family to see the Old Man of the Mountain and made photographs to use when I taught Hawthorne's story.
"The Great Stone Face" is one of the defining stories of an American genre, rich in gentleness, insight, irony, and American lore. Hawthorne wrote it sometime after 1840, along with several other White Mountain tales, following a tour of the region in 1832. It was first published in 1850 in The National Era and then in 1851 in his third and final collection of stories, The Snow Image, and Other Twice Told Tales.
Hawthorne's description of the face is elegant: "The Great Stone Face, then, was a work of Nature in her mood of majestic playfulness, formed on the perpendicular side of a mountain by some immense rocks, which had been thrown together in such a position as, when viewed at a proper distance, precisely to resemble the features of the human countenance." The story is based on a legend, which, before it was told by the Indians, who worshipped the face, was told by the murmuring brooks of the mountain.
The legend was repeated to Ernest, the central character in Hawthorne's story, by his mother, who lived in the valley under the gaze of the face. The legend was a prophecy that some day a person with the face of the Old Man of the Mountain would appear among them and be recognized for his kindness and magnanimity by all of the people. Ernest spends his life in the valley waiting, watching for the mountain image to be fulfilled in a living person.
The first to appear is Mr. Gathergold, an aged Midas, long known in the region and greatly respected because he had such success in becoming wealthy. The people cheered Gathergold and proclaimed him to be the fulfillment. But Ernest, who had studied the stone visage more closely than most, recognized that the face of Gathergold did not come close to that of the mountain image.
Years later, it was announced that Old Blood and Thunder, an heroic military man with a face resembling the Great Stone Face, was to come to the valley. A great festival was planned in his honor, and all of the people shouted when he arrived, proclaiming the warrior to be the fulfillment of the face. But Ernest sighed, "This is not the man of prophecy."
Many years passed when it was announced that Old Stony Phiz, a lawyer renowned for his speech-making, who had even been proposed as President, would be coming through the valley, and the people knew Old Stony Phiz would be the image of the face. A great cavalcade of congressmen, militia officers, and local celebrities announced the arrival of the great lawyer, and the people were certain Old Stony Phiz was indeed the Old Man of the Mountain. But Earnest confessed to his neighbors, "No! I see little likeness."
Ernest, now grown old, still anticipated with his neighbors that they might be fortunate enough to see and celebrate the coming of the living image of the mountain face. With the coming of age came wisdom to Ernest — such that college professors and men from the cities came to the valley to meet him and to discover in him "a tranquil and familiar majesty, as if he had been talking with the angels as his daily friends."
It came to pass that in the quiet years of Ernest's maturity a poet came to the valley to talk with Ernest, "a prophet and a sage as that mild, sweet, thoughtful countenance, with the glory of white hair diffused about it." As the poet and Ernest talked in the shadow of the mountain face, the poet proclaimed, "Behold! Behold! Ernest is himself the likeness of the Great Stone Face!" And surely it was true: the people realized the prophecy was fulfilled in one of their own. But Ernest took the poet's arm, walking homeward, "still hoping that some wiser and better man than himself would by and by appear, bearing a resemblance to the Great Stone Face."
During the night on May 3, 2003, the rocks forming the Old Man of the Mountain tumbled into the valley, and the Great Stone Face is no more. The people of New Hampshire grieve for its destruction, for it was the great landmark of their state. I am saddened by its passing, for it was to those who love American literature a vital landmark of our intellectual heritage.
Return to Caxtonian table of contents
Return to the Caxton Club home page