The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" (1837)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” was written by Nathaniel Hawthorne and first appeared as “The Fountain of Youth” in The Knickerbocker (Jan. 1837). Hawthorne (1804-1864) was one of the two or three most important American writers of fiction in the first half of the nineteenth century.
"Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” is about “that very singular man, old Dr. Heidegger,”1 who invites four of his venerable friends to meet him one night. The four are “all melancholy old creatures, who had been unfortunate in life, and whose greatest misfortune it was that they were not long ago in their graves.”2 Mr. Melbourne had been a rice merchant but was reduced through bad investments to poverty. Colonel Killigrew “had wasted his best years, and his health and substance, in the pursuit of sinful pleasures, which had given birth to a brood of pains.”3 Mr. Gascoigne was a ruined politician who time had made obscure rather than infamous. And the Widow Wycherly was beautiful when younger, but “for a long while past, she had lived in deep seclusion, on account of certain scandalous stories which had prejudiced the gentry of the town against her.”4 The three men had been lovers of Wycherly, years ago, but time had rendered their early rivalries naught. Heidegger brings the four together to conduct a little experiment. He takes the withered remains of a rose (one which had been given to him by his fiancée, she who had taken one of his own prescriptions and died on the night before the wedding) and places it in a vase filled with water. The rose gradually regains its youth and becomes in full bloom. Heidegger’s four guests are dubious, but he explains that a friend of his sent him water from the Fountain of Youth, and so he is going to give his four friends some of the water. He does, and the four gradually regain their youth. Unfortunately, they do not retain any of the wisdom their years and mistakes had taught them, and they quickly fall into their old ways. The three men fight over Wycherly, and in the fight they knock over the vase with the Water of Youth in it, and they see that the rose has reverted to its aged state, and soon enough so do they. Heidegger is content with his experiment and his advanced years, but the four are not, and they “resolved forthwith to make a pilgrimage to Florida, and quaff at morning, noon, and night, from the Fountain of Youth.”5
Readers with only dim memories of Hawthorne from reading him as teenagers will be surprised on reading his work as adults. The tone and language of his stories is surprisingly modern. There is the occasional touch of the old-fashioned in the stories, as in “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” but even there the construction is more arch and witty than awkward and slow. The content itself is also modern; Hawthorne couldn’t be explicit about the sins of the four, but his hints are easy enough to read. There is also a submerged dark humor--Hawthorne almost winks at the reader–which adds a sardonic tone to the story.
Moreover, Hawthorne might be satirizing humanity’s supposed wisdom if given a second chance at youth. More likely, however, is that Hawthorne, in the person of Dr. Heidegger, was satirizing the stereotype of the scientist. As David R. Langford notes, “there is much proleptic satire of the mad-scientist trope in the Laputa section of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726),”6 but the fictional scientists of the last decade of the eighteenth century and the first thirty-seven years of the nineteenth century were a serious lot. Almani, in the Marquis de Sade’s La Nouvelle Justine (1797), St. Leon, in William Godwin’s St. Leon. A Tale of the Sixteenth Century (1799), Frankenstein, in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Dr. Coppelius, in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman” (1817), and Nikkolaus Marggraf, in Jean Paul’s Der Komet oder Nikolaus Marggraf (1820-1821)—all were deadly serious characters. Satirizing them, and scientists in general, as bumbling and accidentally lethal was an innovation on Hawthorne’s part, and if Lawrence E. Scanlon, in “That Very Singular Man, Dr. Heidegger” (Nineteenth-Century Fiction 17, no. 3 [Dec. 1962]: 253-263) is correct, and Dr. Heidegger’s “Fountain of Youth” was only champagne, Hawthorne’s satire deepens.
Whatever the case, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” is a cynical and bittersweet story, more bitter than sweet, and an entertaining one.
Print: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches. New York: Library of America, 1982.
1 Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” Twice-told Tales (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1882), 258.
2 Hawthorne, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” 258.
3 Hawthorne, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” 258.
4 Hawthorne, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” 258.
5 Hawthorne, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” 271.
6 David R. Langford, “Mad Scientist,” The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, accessed Jan. 24, 2019, http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/mad_scientist