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Lectures and Articles Related to Hawthorne and Good and Evil

Lectures and Articles Related to Hawthorne and Good and Evil

Adam & Eve Fireback at the House of the Seven Gables Historic Site
Adam & Eve Fireback at the House of the Seven Gables Historic Site (courtesy of The House of the Seven Gables Historic Site)

Full text of 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)

"Christian Imagery in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter," by Dr. John W. Stuart, prepared for the Hawthorne in Salem Website, November 2002

"Thomas Morton and 'The May-Pole of Merry Mount,'" by Professor William R. Heath
Mount Saint Mary's College, 1997. Introduction by Hawthorne in Salem Website Contributor John W. Stuart, Ph.D.

Professor William Heath's 1997 essay "Thomas Morton and 'The May-Pole of Merry Mount'" provides insight into Hawthorne's use of the New England past for the imaginative world of his fiction, and it examines Hawthorne's ambiguities in regard to Puritanism that are evident in the short story "The Maypole of Merry Mount" and more fully developed in the novel The Scarlet Letter.

Heath vividly chronicles the history of Thomas Morton, the cavalier settler who erected a maypole and termed its location "Meriemounte" on the outskirts of Separatist Plymouth Colony. Morton's defiant actions against the Calvinists earned him multiple imprisonments and banishments, and Heath remarks with some surprise that Hawthorne chose to ignore this colorful individual entirely and replace him in the story with a vague priest with the acknowledged misnomer of Blackstone. Perhaps Morton's character was simply more complicated than the figure of unbridled merriment that Hawthorne envisioned for his "sort of allegory."

As Heath observes, Hawthorne shows an overriding interest in the conflict between Puritanical humorlessness and the joys inherent in holiday festivities that trace their origins to the earliest human communities. When the story's narrator observes, "Unfortunately, there were men in the new world of a sterner faith than these Maypole worshippers," he seems to speak from a very different side of his mouth than when he concludes, "They went heavenward, supporting each other along the difficult path which it was their lot to tread, and never wasted one regretful thought on the vanities of Merry Mount." Just as The Scarlet Letter's Hester Prynne embodies both heroine and fallen woman, the revelers of Merry Mount represent the paradox of joy in the face of grim reality, well paired by Heath with the ancestor of ancient Greek tragedy, the frenzied Dionysian rites of comus. As in The Scarlet Letter, "The Maypole of Merry Mount" voices some Puritan ideals while confounding them by the evidence of the narrative. Heath further enlightens by exploring these contradictions with Freudian analysis.

Heath understates Hawthorne’s negative depiction of Puritans, however, when he observes, “The revelers can only sing and dance, while the Puritans can only work and pray.” In fact, readers will find little if any work or prayer in the story’s Puritans. A more accurate summary of their actions would conclude, “The Puritans can only punish and destroy.” Heath overstates Hawthorne’s animus toward pagans, moreover, when he characterizes the story as “a meditation on the danger of ‘merriment’ out of control.” Although Hawthorne suggests faults in the extremes of both paganism and Puritanism, in the end he simply champions love, interestingly the essence, many would contend, of the entire Christian message, and much farther from the harsh theocracy imposed by Puritans than the sort of “Golden Age” revisited in Merry Mount.

In fact, Hawthorne’s Merry Mount revelers are lighthearted, tolerant, and mutually supportive, in sharp contrast with the story’s malevolent Puritans, whose Governor Endicott so strikingly resembles the savage characterization of Cotton Mather in Hawthorne’s “The Duston Family”: “an old hardhearted, pedantic bigot.” Even when Endicott seemingly softens toward “The May-pole of Merry Mount’s” captured newlyweds, he makes clear that he will spare them of punishments only because they could prove useful to their captors. Initially enemies to the Puritans, the newlyweds exhibit such a deep love that they can accept Puritan indoctrination without complaint as long as they remain together.

Despite ambiguous elements in Hawthorne’s fiction, therefore, readers should not permit the “trees” of faulty hedonism to obscure the “forest” of Puritan cruelty, which clearly outweighs any foibles found in Merry Mount.

“The Ideal Identity: Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Loss of Native American Culture,” paper delivered by Greg Stone, Dept. of English, University of Tulsa, at the conference of the Nathaniel Hawthorne Society, in Concord, MA, June 12, 2010.

Page citation: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/11437/

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