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Critical Commentary Relating to Hawthorne's Relationship to Religion, Faith, and Providence

Critical Commentary Relating to A Framework of Faith

Charter Street Burying Point, established 1637; oldest cemetery in Salem
Charter Street Burying Point, established 1637; oldest cemetery in Salem (photography by Bruce Hibbard)

It may well be that Hawthorne's reluctance to subscribe to any single religious doctrine emanated from the fact the he grew up in the shadow of Gallows Hill, the location where in 1692 those accused of witchcraft were hung. Hawthorne's ancestor, John Hathorne, appears to have been an enthusiastic persecutor of the Salem "witches" and Hawthorne may well have acquired a keen sense of how aggressive self-righteousness can lead to calamity.

  • Excerpt from Margaret Moore's The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne (courtesy of the University of Missouri Press)
    Moore presents Hawthorne in this passage as reluctant to ascribe to any particular faith, but certainly not out of ignorance. His wife, Sophia, was, apparently active in religious activities and thought, as were those around him. Hawthorne would have known what the various religious thinkers in Salem were saying. Apparently, he chose to subscribe to no single idea.

  • Excerpt from Margaret Moore, unpublished manuscript (courtesy of Margaret Moore)
    As this passage suggests, the Salem in which Hawthorne grew up was immensely rich in religious thinking and in religious controversy. It would have been nearly impossible for any educated, literate person to fail to be influenced by this ambience.

  • Excerpt from The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne by Margaret Moore (courtesy of University of Missouri Press)
    Margaret Moore powerfully suggests that while Hawthorne avoided any specific religious affiliation, his prose and his thinking were permeated with religious ideas.

  • Excerpt from The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne by Margaret Moore (courtesy of University of Missouri Press)
    Margaret Moore makes it clear that while Hawthorne was steeped in religious thinking, he never ascribed to any single sect nor did he spurn religion altogether. He remained a man of faith, but of some indeterminate faith.

  • Excerpt from Anthony Trollope's article "The Genius of Nathaniel Hawthorne," The North American Review. Volume 129, Issue 274, September 1879 (courtesy of Library of Congress and Cornell University Library; the American Memory Project)
    British novelist Anthony Trollope finds a quiet drollery even in the darkest passages of Hawthorne's work and suggests that even our deepest sufferings are not so important as to elevate us above others. If Trollope is correct, this might be due to Hawthorne's modest unwillingness to exalt anything, even sin and its suffering, to a place where it might invite pride.
    Full text of the article is available online at: American Memory Project

  • Excerpt from lecture, "Hawthorne and Melville" by David B. Kesterson, delivered in Salem, Massachusetts on September 23, 2000
    Here David Kesterson comments upon the fact that it was Hawthorne's fascination with and exploration of the idea of evil that so captivated the younger Herman Melville. In Melville's comments, Kesterson captures Melville's idea that no "deeply thinking mind" is ever completely free from a consideration of evil.

  • Excerpt from lecture, "Figurations of Salem in 'Young Goodman Brown' and 'The Custom-House,'" by Rita K. Gollin, delivered at Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum on September 23, 2000.
    In this passage Rita Gollin emphasizes the way in which Hawthorne had internalized the shameful events of Salem's history in which his ancestors played critical roles. For her, Young Goodman Brown's journey into the dark forest serves as a metaphor for Hawthorne's own dark introspections.

  • Excerpts from pages 5-9 of Chapter One, "The Doctrinal Foundation of Colonial Life" from Claudia Durst Johnson's 2002 book entitled Daily Life in Colonial New England (courtesy of Greenwood Press)
    Professor Johnson's Daily Life in Colonial New England offers useful insight into the beliefs of the Puritans. This foundation proves essential in understanding Nathaniel Hawthorne's torn feelings about both his family heritage and his worldly career in letters. Grasping the Puritan mindset sheds light upon the hypocrisy of such fictional characters as Hawthorne's tortured pastor in the The Scarlet Letter, Arthur Dimmesdale of Boston, and his corrupt icon in The House of the Seven Gables, Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon of Salem. Not only does Johnson clarify the Doctrine of Original Sin as the Calvinistic explanation of human evil, but, just as with her lecture "Work and Money in Hawthorne's Fiction," she elaborates upon Puritan thinking in terms of covenants or contracts, thus helping to account for both the sect's famous character strength of industry and its notorious tragic flaw of intolerance.

  • Excerpts from Claudia Durst Johnson lecture, "The Secular Calling and the Protestant Ethic in The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables" Dr. Johnson's lecture was delivered at The House of the Seven Gables Historic Site on October 20. 2000. (Used with permission of author)
    Despite the observation Claudia Johnson makes that “Qualifications, contradictions and disjunctions intimate that Hawthorne has not been completely successful in idealizing the commercial, work ethic of his day, that he often seemed to favor,” she also presents us with an idea of how the world might look to Hawthorne if his idea of virtue were ever to truly take hold. There is in Hawthorne a vision of harmony growing from humility that attracts him even as he may understand that it is impossible in real life.

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