Perhaps you love Nathaniel Hawthorne, perhaps you loathe him, perhaps you've never heard of him. He was a fascinating man, a great author, and I'm an ardent admirer of his work (read: "big fan"). This paper is rather long, so I'm posting it in several parts. Hopefully you'll read it and gain a new appreciation for the mystery, beauty, and depth of Hawthorne's classic literature!
Being True: Sin, Guilt, and Hypocrisy in Hawthorne’s Writings
Nathaniel Hawthorne was an American author who could be described as a dark romantic, an examiner of the human soul, a master of Gothic literature, or simply a pessimist. At a time in history when American writers were discovering their own potential, finding God in nature, extolling the pioneer spirit, and anticipating a golden age for the United States, Hawthorne was a voice calling out in the wilderness, reminding the world of the darker elements beneath it. In his classic novel The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne states that the “founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison” (Scarlet Letter 20). Hawthorne seemed to be reminding Americans of something they would like to forget: sin, like death, is an inevitable part of the human experience. Hawthorne wrote more than 80 novels and short stories, and many analyze the legacy of America’s Puritan fathers and delve deeply into Hawthorne’s own beliefs about sin, hypocrisy, guilt and the truth. Two of his novels, The Scarlet Letter, and The House of the Seven Gables, as well as the short story “Young Goodman Brown” deal with these key issues, and by studying the author and sociohistorical context of these works, as well as their major themes and intimate details, one gains a unique perspective on the subjects which weighed upon Hawthorne’s mind. His consciousness of sin and the need for truth became a major element of American Gothic literature, and continues to influence authors and readers today.
The man we now know as Nathaniel Hawthorne could have easily made another surname famous. His parents did not christen him “Nathaniel Hawthorne,” and his fellow students at Bowdoin College did not call him “Nathaniel Hawthorne.” His great-great-great grandfather who came to America from England was not a “Hawthorne,” nor was Nathaniel’s great-great-grandfather, John, a respected Puritan judge, nor Nathaniel’s sea-captain father who died when he was four. They were in fact “Hathornes”—strong, moral, upright, committed to God and man and an illustrious history. But Nathaniel did not want to be a Hathorne, with good reason.
Nathaniel Hathorne was born on July 4, 1804 in Salem Massachusetts. When his father died of yellow fever in Suriname, Nathaniel was raised by his mother and two sisters in reduced circumstances. His mother, Elizabeth, was stricken with grief and took to eating her meals in her bedroom, away from the children, and her young son grew quite used to the introspective seclusion that he would be known for his entire life. Hathorne went to college unwillingly, and called himself “an idle student, negligent of college rules and the Procrustean details of academic life, rather choosing to nurse my own fancies than to dig into Greek roots… (Grandfather’s Chair viii). After graduation, he returned to his mother’s house and became a veritable recluse for twelve years as he served out his “apprenticeship” as an author. He read, wrote, and strove to become a literary success.
It was during this time that he delved into the history of his own family, uncovering the roots of his family tree, and this is when he altered his surname, adding a “w” to spell “Hawthorne.” Perhaps he simply wished to ease pronunciation, or it may have been a blatant attempt to distance himself from the family lineage that he had discovered. The Hathorne family was in fact stained with the blood of falsely accused men and women, a legacy of Judge John Hathorne’s involvement in the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Judge Hathorne was one of those men who sat in judgment of accused witches in 1692-3, passing death sentences without concrete evidence. While “others later repented their participation in those dark affairs, John Hathorne never did” (Morrison, Schultz 261). The fact of his ancestor’s black deeds shines a light on Nathaniel’s choice to change his surname, a move that at once distanced him from the rest of his family, acknowledged the sins of the past, and established a new identity for the aspiring author.
After years of writing and waiting to be read—and after his friend put up money to cover any losses—a publisher finally agreed to print Hawthorne’s short story collection Twice-Told Tales. The book was hailed with enthusiastic reviews from such critics as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Edgar Allen Poe, and the author emerged from his seclusion into a world where the skills honed in solitude would soon be celebrated by millions.
|Good looking fellow, isn't he?|
The America of Hawthorne’s day had come a long way from its Puritanical heritage. What began as a settlement of deeply religious Englishmen and women had evolved by the mid-19th century into a country of growing secularism, idealistic Utopias, nationalist fervor, and a pervasive spirit of optimism. The stern doctrine of the Puritans which emphasized human depravity and moral requirements had given way to a burgeoning Transcendentalist movement, and a new and enlightened American ideal began to emerge. As a young man, Hawthorne seemed to slip into the current of his times, befriending such Transcendentalist legends as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and even sinking one thousand dollars into the Utopian commune of Brook Farm, a place that sought to combine farm work with enlightened philosophy. This affinity was not to last, however, and Hawthorne would soon become disenchanted with the “cosmic optimism, typified by Transcendentalism, in which the sense of sin had evaporated and nature was ‘all beauty and commodity’” (Gura 304). Perhaps it was Hawthorne’s guilt-stained family legacy which could not allow him to believe in innate human goodness.
Hawthorne’s detachment, discoveries, and disenchantment all molded him into an author who was uniquely equipped to see his country from an angle that everyone else seemed to ignore. The consciousness of his ancestor’s sin—which weighed on Hawthorne’s mind almost as if it had been his own—opened his eyes to the sin not only of the Puritans, but of humanity as a whole. In the years to come, Hawthorne would plumb the depths of sin and its consequences, reawakening America to its past and present offenses, and initiating what might be called a “literature of guilt.”
To be Continued...