Hawthorne in Salem Search Hawthorne in Salem

Facebook Page

Why We Still Read Hawthorne 150 Years Later

Why We Still Read Hawthorne 150 Years Later

by Dr. Pierre A. Walker, Salem State College

Dr. Pierre A. Walker, Associate Professor of English, Salem State College, Salem, MA
Dr. Pierre A. Walker, Associate Professor of English, Salem State College, Salem, MA (photography by Lou Procopio)

Why, as the title of my talk asks, do we still read Hawthorne 199 years after his birth and 139 years after his death? Why do teachers every year ask—some would say force—countless high school and college students to read The Scarlet Letter, "Young Goodman Brown," "Rappaccini's Daughter," and other fiction by Hawthorne? Why are there so many different editions of The Scarlet Letter or The House of the Seven Gables in print today? Those of you who remember reading these books know as well as I do that they are not page turners. So what, in short, is the big deal about Hawthorne; what makes him so great?

Some people might think that the answer is obvious: Hawthorne was a genius; that makes him one of the greatest United States fiction writers ever; and we should read and study and publish the greatest authors. This answer, I would argue, doesn't really answer the question, what makes Hawthorne so great, because it doesn't explain how we know that his fiction was the work of a genius. In fact, some historians of literary taste argue that the concept of "genius" is artificial. The label, "genius," as we use it today, only came into existence about two centuries ago, with the rise of Romanticism and Romanticism's particular vision of artistic creativity, that is to say about the time when Hawthorne was born. Around two hundred years ago happens also to be the time when individuality (at least in the Western world) began to take the almost sacred form it has for us today. It is the time during which the notion of the divine right of kings began to fall apart, during which established churches began to lose first secular and then spiritual control, during which Romantic artists, musicians, and authors who believed in spontaneous creative inspiration became prominent. It is the time when the sorts of eccentric artists who still today best personify our modern idea of genius flourished: the tortured souls like Beethoven (whom most of us would have found an unbearable person), the half-mad eccentrics like Gerard de Nerval (he's the French poet who would walk his pet lobster on a leash through the streets of Paris), the crackpot pseudo-visionaries like Leo Tolstoy, or Vincent Van Gogh, who was all those things put together: tortured to the point of self-mutilation, eccentric to the point of insanity, and who definitely saw the world differently from the ordinary mortal.

Genius, the argument of today's historians of literary taste goes, is not something that exists before the fact but is a consequence.1 It is not a cause but an apparent result, a label we attach to certain people because we have been taught to recognize certain kinds of behavior and certain artistic features as the markers of genius. In other words, genius, so the argument goes, doesn't really exist. For the most part, I agree with this argument, and I think that what makes Hawthorne so great is not some quality that Hawthorne was born with or that his fiction has always contained. Rather, I believe that all the art that we come to think of as "great" happens to be the art in which every generation of readers, listeners, viewers, and spectators is able to find its own most characteristic concerns.

Let me explain what I mean by taking the example of Shakespeare's Hamlet, the play that only a young T. S. Eliot would dare argue isn't the greatest work of English-language literature. Norman Holland's 1964 book, The Shakespearean Imagination,2 includes a chapter about Hamlet which describes how the leading actors of each generation played the role of Hamlet, and what it shows is quite remarkable: from generation to generation the leading interpreters of Hamlet played the character not only in different ways but in ways that reflected what made each generation different from others. They never played the "real Hamlet," if we could say that there ever was such a thing as the "real Hamlet" (and we can't, since short of inventing a time machine we will never know how Shakespeare's own Hamlet was performed); they played their Hamlet.

What this shows is that each generation of actors found what interested them in the character of Hamlet. The Hamlet that gets performed, if you will, reflects not so much the Hamlet Shakespeare envisioned in his mind as the interests of the generation that performs him. The same is true of Hawthorne's fiction, and this, I am arguing, is what makes us read Hawthorne's fiction today. If you like, think of it this way: rather than holding up The Scarlet Letter in order to see Hawthorne's Hester Prynne, we hold up The Scarlet Letter in order to see ourselves. We deem the great works of art to be great because they are to us like mirrors in which we see ourselves more clearly.

If we look at the history of Hawthorne interpretation over the last half century or so we see what I mean. It's quite striking, as one reads some of the better-known interpretations of tales like "Rappaccini's Daughter" or "Young Goodman Brown," to see the evolving trends over the years in the interpretations of these tales. At one time, these tales were supposed to be about religion, then, since religion is easily seen as being symbolic of things psychological, they were understood to be about psychology. Since psychology is all about sex, the tales then turned out to be about sexuality. Someone then remembered that Hawthorne set much of his fiction in the past—in his past—and guess what? Hawthorne's fiction turned out to be about history. But that's not all: first it was about the past that was historical to Hawthorne, and then, when people started emphasizing the contemporary politics, the fiction started being about our past, the past that was contemporary to Hawthorne. Now, some critics are telling us, this fiction is quite simply about the past in general in the sense that it is about the importance of the role history plays in the present.

What I've just given you is but a very brief outline, and I've left out some important strands in the recent history of Hawthorne interpretation. For instance, critics have argued especially in the last 25 years that Hawthorne's work is about gender, about what it means to be a man or a woman. But suffice it to say that, by and large, we're currently in the period of politico-historical interpretations of Hawthorne's fiction. This fiction, the critics tell us these days, is about the most influential political and cultural issues of Hawthorne's day: slavery, women's rights (or lack thereof), domesticity, utopian movements, the advance of technology. We have studies of Hawthorne and slavery and abolition, Hawthorne and gender, and Hawthorne and national identity. We see studies, too, of Hawthorne and mesmerism, which was popular in Hawthorne's day and which figures prominently in The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance, and of Hawthorne and daguerreotype photography, which came into existence during Hawthorne's life and plays an important role in The House of the Seven Gables.

Let me turn to a specific example. "Young Goodman Brown"; I'm sure you all remember this story about young Brown, "Goody Two Shoes," as Herman Melville called him;3 Mr. average Joe, as we would call him today. The fellow leaves his home in today's Danvers (the Salem Village just before 1692) on some mysterious errand. He insists on going on this errand even though his wife, whose name happens to be Faith, urges him to spend the night with her. The errand turns out to be a meeting with the devil, who brings Brown, our Mr. average Joe, to a Black Sabbath deep in the woods where, it turns out, both he and his wife, Faith, are to be baptized into the "communion" of "evil" (74).4 Just as the diabolical baptism is about to take place, Brown calls out to Faith to "look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one" (74) and magically everyone vanishes and Brown finds himself in the middle of a damp, quiet clearing in the woods. A final paragraph then tells us that the rest of Brown's life was very unhappy.

Readers and critics as far back as Edgar Allan Poe in 1847 and Henry James in 1879 have recognized that "Young Goodman Brown" was allegorical.5 Allegory, by the way, means a blatantly symbolic story. Obvious examples of literary allegories are Spenser's The Fairie Queen, Dante's Divine Comedy, or the most famous allegory in the English language, John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (first published in 1678), which, by the way, was the book, after the Bible, that one was most likely to find in an average American home in the nineteenth century.

Obviously symbolic names are a dead giveaway that we're reading an allegory. In The Pilgrim's Progress, for instance, the hero, Christian, doesn't just happen to be named Christian; he stands for all good Christians trying to stay on the straight and narrow path. This is obvious from the fact that the people who help him have obviously symbolic names, too, like Evangelist, Faithful, and Hopeful (thus what helps the good Christian stay on the straight and narrow path are the Evangelical books of the Bible and faith and hope). And the people and places that make Christian's journey difficult have names like Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Giant Despair, the Slough of Despond, the Valley of Humiliation, the Valley of Death, Vanity Fair, and Doubting Castle. In "Young Goodman Brown," the name of Brown's wife—Faith--is the most obvious clue that Hawthorne's story is an allegory: when the devil scolds Brown for being late for their meeting, Brown replies: "'Faith kept me back a while'" (66), meaning both that his wife, Faith, delayed his departure by talking to him and also that his own feelings of Christian faith made him delay. Or at the Black Sabbath ceremony in the woods, when Brown calls out to "his Faith" to "resist the wicked one" (74), lo and behold, because the Faith he invokes is both his wife and his feeling of faith, the wicked one, the devil, vanishes.

Everyone agrees that "Young Goodman Brown" is an allegory; people vary widely as to what it is an allegory of. A 1976 bibliography of secondary literature on "Young Goodman Brown" listed more than 400 entries.6

In the 1950's, interpretations of "Young Goodman Brown" tended to argue that the story was an allegory about religion. A typical example would be the view of Paul Miller, for whom the story illustrates the hypocrisy implicit in Puritanism's rigorously narrow beliefs.7 Another example would be Thomas E. Connolly's article, "Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown': An Attack on Puritanic Calvinism," the title of which makes perfectly clear what Connolly thinks is the point of the story: that Puritan doctrine is to blame for Brown's becoming the hateful man the story's last paragraph describes.8

Hawthorne criticism in the 1960's and 1970's was heavily influenced by one book, Frederick Crews's The Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne's Psychological Themes, published in 1966.9 This book is neither the only nor the first psychoanalytical interpretation of Hawthorne's fiction, but it was certainly the most influential. In The Sins of the Fathers, Crews provides blatantly Freudian interpretations of all of Hawthorne's romances and best-known tales. When we re-read this book from our perspective almost forty years later, we may be tempted to find almost laughable the inevitable turn in Crews's interpretation of each tale and romance to Freud's Oedipus complex; perhaps that's because that reduction of each of Hawthorne's fictions to an Oedipal tension quickly becomes predictable: after reading just a few chapters, we come to expect the invocation of the Oedipus complex.

Needless to say, Crews finds each of Hawthorne's tales and romances to be about sex and Oedipal tensions. Just as Freud and other pioneering psychoanalysts believed that the people in one's dreams represent not those people in real life but what ever it is in the dreamer's psyche that those people symbolize, so too Crews argues that "Brown is facing embodiments of his own thoughts in the characters he meets in the forest" (100). Thus the devil, Faith, and the rest of the characters each stand for a tendency within Brown himself.

Therefore, when Faith, at the very beginning of the story, tries to persuade Brown not to depart on his nocturnal errand but rather to "put off your journey [...] and sleep in your own bed to-night" (65)—his own bed being, of course, Faith's bed too—Crews argues that there is "a distinctly sensual overtone" in Faith's plea (100). This means that what Faith and Brown's resistance to her plea to share her bed represent are Brown's own doubts about the appropriateness of sex--remember that at the beginning of the story, Brown and Faith are "'but three months married,'" so clearly sex, or the absence of it, has to be on someone's mind (65). The problem, Crews argues, is that like so many of Freud's own patients, Brown is both attracted to and repulsed by the idea of sex. The sin, the evil, that Brown can learn about during his night in the forest with the devil and at the Black Sabbath is really the knowledge of sex, and Brown's problem, according to Crews, is that he is, on the one hand, unable "to accept the place of sexuality in married love" and, on the other hand, attracted by the "vicarious and lurid sexual adventure" that his "forest journey, in fact, amounts to" (102).

But Brown's problem, continues Crews, isn't just that he is having trouble accepting "the place of sexuality in married love" but that "parental, not wifely, sexuality is [...] the true object of his prurience" (103). In other words, what Brown has trouble accepting is that all people, including the people of his parents' generation that he admired and his parents themselves, must have, as Iago put it in Shakespeare's Othello, made "the beast with two backs" (1. 1. 116-17).

This is where Crews's interpretation of Brown's problems becomes blatantly Freudian, for in many of Freud's case studies, the patient's psychological problems turn out to be the result of a traumatic experience, and that traumatic experience usually turns out to be the patient's exposure at an early age to some form of evidence of older people's sexuality, a forbidden childhood glimpse, for instance, of the parents engaged in sexual intercourse. This is precisely what has happened to Brown, argues Crews. When he goes in to the woods to meet the devil, in Crews's view, Brown is really embarking on an exploration of his own sexuality. When he sees that his minister, his deacon, and his catechism teacher are all headed to the same Black Sabbath meeting to which he is headed, in Crews's view, this means that Brown is horrified at the idea that his adult role models are equally curious about sexuality. Brown's investigation of sexuality is ambivalent: he's both curious and repulsed, and his reaction to evidence of his elders' involvement is classically Oedipal in being equally ambivalent. According to Crews Brown's recognition "in his elders of the very [sexual] impulses that filial respect has inhibited in himself [...] follows the classic Oedipal pattern: resentment of paternal authority is conjoined with ambiguous sexual temptation" (104). In sum, for Crews, the point of "Young Goodman Brown" is that a person who denies his sexual nature as Brown does condemns himself to the unhappy life that the final paragraph of the story tells us that Brown lives.

Crews actually later renounced his psychological interpretations in The Sins of the Fathers, but that hasn't stopped the interpretations in this book of "Young Goodman Brown" and other Hawthorne texts from being so influential that no doubt many teachers of the story still rely at least to some extent on it. But Crews's Freudian interpretation omits a number of important points. Hawthorne very specifically set the story in Salem Village (modern-day Danvers) some time between 1689 and 1692—that is to say at the very time and place where the Salem witch hysteria began--and not in the Vienna in which Sigmund Freud practiced. Therefore, while the story may well be an allegory, it is also historically very specific. Rather than neglecting the historical references, as Crews does, most Hawthorne interpreters since the late 1970's have emphasized history in his fiction. This is why, as I said earlier, Hawthorne interpretation in recent years—indeed in recent decades—has, largely, been historicist.

One school of historicist Hawthorne interpretation has emphasized what Hawthorne's historical fiction says about the time period in the past in which the tales and romances are set. A classic example of this sort of interpretation is Michael Colacurcio's article, first published in 1974 in the Essex Institute Historical Collections (I have to make a plug for the host institution!), entitled "Visible Sanctity and Specter Evidence: The Moral World of Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown.'"10 Colacurcio's point about "Young Goodman Brown" is essentially that the story presents Hawthorne's interpretation of the dynamics of Puritanism, especially as practiced in Salem Village, and how those dynamics led inevitably to the horrendous and misguided application of religious zeal in the Salem witch trials. To demonstrate his point, Colacurcio explains how certain details about Brown make it clear that he is a third generation Puritan—the story makes it clear that both his father and his grandfather were Salem Puritans. As a result, Brown finds himself in the special position of being from so religiously devoted a family that everyone—including Brown himself—would have assumed that he was going to become one of the elect.

This may seem like a minor detail to us about Brown, but it would have been extremely important to everyone in the Salem colony in 1689-1692, and more importantly it says something very significant about the role that presumptiveness played in the witch trial events that followed immediately after the time when "Young Goodman Brown" takes place.

Most of you know that the Salem Puritans believed in the doctrine of election. Election in this doctrine has nothing to do with voting, it has to do with being one of the elect—one of God's chosen, a "fully professed saint" (391). In the Puritan congregation, only the elect, the "saints," could take communion and were considered full church members; everyone else attended church but did not get to sit in the special seats and could not take communion. When someone made an open declaration of faith, of conversion, then the full members would determine whether that declaration was authentic, i. e. truly and divinely inspired, and if the full members determined that yes, it was, then the person was granted full membership. The profession of faith, therefore, was the way that people knew whether someone had indeed been selected—elected—by God; it was how they knew who was a "saint," and who, therefore, was predestined to go to Heaven.

The Puritans originally believed that only God knew who would become elect, but as the generations of Puritans flourished in New England, the elect began to have a hard time believing that their own children would not also prove to be elect. This then led in 1662 in the Massachusetts church to a new doctrine, that of the "Half-Way Covenant," which allowed the children of the "visible saints" to take communion, on the presumption that they were going to be revealed, eventually, as one of the elect, but not to be, until the profession of faith, full church members.

The way this would have worked in the Brown family would have gone something like this: Grandfather Brown was one of the original settlers; he made his profession of faith and was accepted by the other elect members of the church as a full member, a "living saint." His son, a generation later, did the same. But when his son, Hawthorne's protagonist, started to grow up, the Browns had a hard time believing that young Brown wouldn't have his moment of divine revelation, make his declaration of faith, and be accepted into the church as a full member. In fact they went a step further and, thanks to the doctrine of the Half-Way Convenant, presumed that he would do so. So young Brown would have been raised to presume the same thing himself and in fact to presume even more: that it was just a matter of time before he would have his revelation and that it would become obvious that he had always already been saved. In effect, then, he could presume that he was saved, even though he hadn't yet been divinely inspired to make his profession of faith. Therefore he didn't need to worry about the danger of sin; he could go off into the forest at night, meet the devil, explore the nature of sin or of sexuality, or of whatever you want to call it, secure in the belief that God had chosen him for Heaven and would sooner or later make that clear to everyone by inspiring Brown to make his declaration of faith. After all, what God chooses, no man, no action, could change.

Colacurcio's point is that one individual's presumption and his family's presumption on his behalf about what God would eventually reveal are first steps towards the terrible consequences of the collective presumption of the Puritan judges in the witch trials, for when the judges condemned the Salem Village residents who didn't confess to the accusation that they were in league with the devil to death by hanging or by being crushed under a pile of large rocks, they were presuming that they were carrying out God's will.

Thus Colacurcio's interpretation of the story, while requiring a detailed knowledge of the specific historical moment—around 1692—and place—Salem Village—leads to a conclusion not too distant from the typical interpretations of the 1950's about the story being about the hypocrisy of Puritan religion, the most important difference being that those 1950's interpretations were making a claim about the general hypocrisy of overly zealous religions whereas Colacurcio's interpretation is a critique of the specific religious hypocrisy of the Salem Puritans and a suggestion that the witch trials were the specific historical result of that hypocrisy.

In the late 1980's and early 1990's, Hawthorne interpreters began to argue more and more that while history was extremely relevant to Hawthorne's fiction, it wasn't so much the history of the centuries before Hawthorne's birth that mattered as the history of Hawthorne's own day. Certainly the most influential work in this respect is Sacvan Bercovitch's The Office of the "Scarlet Letter".11 This 1991 book is not about Hawthorne's tales, but its influence on the current generation of Hawthorne interpreters equals that Crews's The Sins of the Fathers had on an earlier generation of interpreters.

Bercovitch argues that The Scarlet Letter is primarily about the prevailing political issues in the United States in the 1850's—not the 1650's—especially slavery. According to Bercovitch, The Scarlet Letter critiques the kinds of radicalisms that existed in Hawthorne's day, especially the most prominent radicalism of the time period: the movement to abolish slavery. Hawthorne, it is no secret, was a friend and college classmate of Franklin Pierce, the fourteenth president of the United States (he held office from 1853 to 1857). Pierce was against the abolition of slavery, and Hawthorne wrote his campaign biography. Both the campaign biography and The Scarlet Letter, Bercovitch's book tells us, express a preference for a gradualistic approach to "solving" national problems. In the case of The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne, its heroine, starts out as a radical outrage to social custom—she is an acknowledged adulteress at the beginning--and ends up a conformist who nonetheless makes her small contribution to bettering the lives of her fellow Bostonians. What this shows, according to Bercovitch, is that rocking the boat was a far less effective means of bringing about change than a gradual one. In terms of slavery, this means that the solution was not immediate and total abolition but rather time; in fact Hawthorne was simply expressing the view of the majority of Americans before 1850 that with time and patience the problem of slavery would gradually go away all by itself.12

An interpretation of "Young Goodman Brown" along the lines that Bercovitch laid out--one that I do not believe has been published but which an ex-colleague of mine used to teach to his classes--would start by equating the concept of sin in the story with the abolitionists' notion that slavery was the great national sin. Therefore, when Brown goes into the forest to face the nature of evil, Hawthorne is really presenting an allegory for the nation's need to face the nature of its own evil: the harboring of an institution, slavery, that contradicts the principles of equality and freedom at the heart of the U. S. constitution. And when Brown's attempt to face the nature of evil proves a failure at the end of the story, the text is in fact dramatizing for its readers the very real threat that the nation was failing to face successfully the nature of its own national evil.

I hope you can see how typical interpretations of "Young Goodman Brown" have varied widely over the decades. In order to show you that this is not an isolated example, let me try very briefly to show you how something very similar has happened with typical interpretations of another of Hawthorne's best-known stories: "Rappaccini's Daughter."

This tale involves four characters: the obsessed Padua scientist, Rappaccini; his daughter Beatrice, who is the only person who can survive exposure to the poisonous plants her father has bred as a part of his experiments; Rappaccini's rival, Dr. Baglioni, who is a professor of medicine at the university; and Baglioni's student, Giovanni, who befriends and then falls in love with Beatrice only to find that he has in the process developed the same immunity as Beatrice to Rappaccini's poisonous plants. When Giovanni comes to Padua to take up his studies, he happens to take a room overlooking the garden where Rappaccini raises his plants; Giovanni becomes attracted to Beatrice, whom he sees in the garden. They begin to spend time together and then become attached to each other. Baglioni gets wind of this and tells Giovanni that he has become a victim of an experiment of Rappaccini's. This seems to have become true, for Giovanni realizes that his breath has become just as poisonous to other creatures as Beatrice's already was. Rappaccini, therefore, seems to have gradually exposed Giovanni's constitution to Beatrice's, which has altered it to the point where it has become like hers. Rappaccini admits as much when, at the very end of the story, he tells his daughter that he has created in the altered Giovanni a companion for her. Baglioni convinces Giovanni to accept an antidote that he has prepared; Giovanni gives this antidote to Beatrice, who swallows it and dies.

Like "Young Goodman Brown," "Rappaccini's Daughter" has lent itself to varying religious, psychological, and historical interpretations. For the purposes of time, I won't give you as detailed an account of these interpretations as I did with "Young Goodman Brown." Instead, here is what one well-known Hawthorne critic, Nina Baym, said about "Rappaccini's Daughter" in her 1976 book, The Shape of Hawthorne's Career: "this is one of the richest stories in the canon,[...] It offers itself as an allegory of faith, an allegory of science, and an allegory of sex all at once" (428).13 As "an allegory of faith," the story shows that if Giovanni had continued to believe in Beatrice, she never would have seemed poisonous to him or to herself, and in so doing, the story leads to the conclusion that belief requires persistence, and "not merely that one must persist without evidence" but that "one must persist in belief despite evidence" (428-29). That's a pretty profound definition of what faith is: the ability to continue to believe in something even when evidence suggests you shouldn't.

As an allegory of science, the tale, according to Baym, is a critique of scientific obsessiveness, a classic example of the "mad scientist" theme with which we have become so familiar since Hawthorne's time. Science is supposed to be about reason, but what this tale shows, according to Baym, is that the scientists in it—Rappaccini, Baglioni, and Giovanni—"are not men of reason but visionary fanatics" (429), and therefore what the tale could be seen as dramatizing is the danger of their fanaticism.

As "an allegory of sex," the tale raises the same question that Crews's interpretation of "Young Goodman Brown" raised: "whether this sex is real and good or horrible but [...] delusory" (429). Like Crews's Brown, caught between his curiosity and horror of sexuality, the Giovanni of Baym's allegory of sex "is a type of the sexually confused Victorian male, struggling between his wish to accept sex as a beneficent part of life and his strong conviction that it is unnatural and evil" (429).

There's little here to choose between the allegories of faith and of sex that Baym sketches for us and the 1950's religious and 1960's psychoanalytical interpretations that I sketched for you in respect to "Young Goodman Brown." And guess what, if we look more closely at the 1950's and 1960's history of interpretation of "Rappaccini's Daughter," we find examples of the same kinds of religious and psychoanalytical interpretations. Crews argues that before him "The most favored reading of the tale [...] is religious: by adopting the skepticism of Rappaccini's rival, Baglioni, Giovanni renders himself unworthy of the Christian redemption embodied in Beatrice" (117-18). Instead, Crews proposes an interpretation that takes Beatrice's "poisonousness" to be symbolic of "her sexuality" (119), and Giovanni's problem is that he "displays an abject terror before the whole phenomenon of female sexuality" (122) at the same time that "he fears exactly what he desires" (119). This leads Crews, inevitably—you just knew that it would come to this—to conclude that: "The situation is metaphorically an Oedipal one" (134).14

Predictably "Rappaccini's Daughter" also has its Colacurcio-like historicist interpreters, perhaps most famously Carol Bensick's book (an entire book devoted to "Rappaccini's Daughter"!), La Nouvelle Beatrice: Renaissance and Romance in "Rappaccini's Daughter," "a tour de force in the Colacurcio mode," as one commentator has called it,15 that invokes the opposed arguments of the leading medical schools, especially as represented at the University of Padua, at the very time in which the story is set, and goes on to demonstrate quite convincingly that Giovanni has syphilis.

Curiously, there aren't the kinds of parallel political-historical interpretations of "Rappaccini's Daughter" that you'd expect from my account of interpretations of "Young Goodman Brown." The facts that the tale is set in Italy and not in the United States and does not involve New England Puritans might account for this.

But while a decade ago critics were discovering that Hawthorne's Puritan fiction was all about American national ambivalence about slavery and the lack of national consensus required for the new nation to forge an identity, now—if I may hazard a prediction based on a few examples of work in progress on Hawthorne's fiction that I have read lately—now we shall begin to see that Hawthorne's fiction is about history itself: about how at the same time we cannot avoid the consequences of our history and cannot, because we are distanced from it, fully know our history, which in turn accounts for the apparent obsession in Hawthorne's writing with history.

So there you are: Hawthorne is about religious hypocrisy, about the nature of faith and belief, about Christian redemption, about sex and Oedipal conflicts, about Hawthorne's and our historical past, about our historical past and his present, about slavery and national identity,16 and about history itself. If I had a couple of more hours, I could show you that his fiction is about some other things too. Literary texts that can be about all of these things have to be "great," right?

Or maybe not. I've given you this detailed account of the varying interpretations over the years of two of Hawthorne's better-known tales, and you may be thinking, OK, fine, there's not a whole lot of consistency in how interpreters over the last 50 years have understood these texts. But still, you might say, we can't avoid the fact that they were all penned by the same man, a man who really lived, and worked, you might add, not very far from where we are right at this moment. Surely that fact should lead us to find something stable and unchanging in this author? I mean, isn't Hawthorne Hawthorne, after all? That's precisely what one of my graduate school professors tried to argue after hearing a talk by Jane Tompkins. Tompkins argued in the 1980's that Hawthorne's reputation as a great author came at the expense of the reputations of novelists like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Susan Warner and was not the natural result of the supposedly inherent value in his fiction as much as the result of the efforts on behalf of his reputation that admiring editors, scholars, critics, and other authors have made over the decades. What Tompkins wanted to show was basically what I've been trying to show this evening: that "great" authors don't just naturally exist; they are made to seem great. And what my graduate school professor was trying to say was that at the root of it all is still good old Nathaniel, who grew up at 12 Herbert Street, and that that's indisputable.

You can read Tompkins's response in her influential book, Sentimental Designs: predictably, for Tompkins, who Hawthorne was has always been in dispute. In other words, not only have Hawthorne's tales and romances meant different things to different readers and interpreters in different generations but Hawthorne himself has been a different person to different generations of biographers. Tompkins, in a wonderful passage, cites two examples of biographical descriptions of Hawthorne, each taken from the introduction to the section on Hawthorne in an anthology of American literature. The first example comes from a 1932 anthology, called Century Readings in American Literature, whose editor, Fred Lewis Pattee, describes Hawthorne as follows: "'shy and solitary,' 'writing, dreaming, wandering about the city at night,' a writer whose Puritanism was a 'pale night flower' that bloomed amidst the 'old decay and ruin' of a town whose moldering docks conveyed a sense of 'glory departed.'"17 The second example comes from the introduction to the Hawthorne section by Hershel Parker, one of the editors of the 1979 edition of The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Parker, according to Tompkins, "gives us the 'healthy' Hawthorne of Randall Stewart's revisionist biography, the Hawthorne who loved 'tramping,' drinking, smoking, and cardplaying, who socialized, flirted, and traveled 'as far as Detroit.'"18

Hawthorne can be many things to many people, but he can't at the same time be a "'shy and solitary [...] pale night flower'" and "'tramp,'" drink, smoke, cardplay, socialize, and flirt his way from Salem to Detroit. Of course you can question the accuracy of Pattee's and Parker's different depictions of Hawthorne, and you can argue that who Hawthorne really was is a matter of interpretation. But that's just the point: who Hawthorne was and what his fiction means are matters of interpretation; they always have been and always will be. Even to his own contemporaries, to the people he knew and met, Hawthorne, like anyone, was a matter of interpretation.

I said near the beginning of my talk that the "great" art is the art that serves us like a mirror: when we look at it what we see is ourselves. So given my survey of interpretation of Hawthorne's tales, what kind of selves have we been seeing in them? This is a much harder question to answer than my original question, why do we still read Hawthorne? It's easy to put together a survey of the varied interpretations over the years of Hawthorne's fiction and then to draw the conclusion: look how much what Hawthorne's work means has changed over time. It's quite another matter to try to say what characteristics of each generation of interpreters these changing interpretations reveal. That's because of two things: 1) there is a great deal of generalization and therefore a great deal more interpretation involved in trying to characterize the interests of a generation, and 2) trying to understand ourselves is perhaps the hardest thing of all. So, to close my talk, I am going to offer a few brief hypotheses about what the different schools of Hawthorne interpretation might reveal as characteristic of that particular generation of interpreters.

First, the 1950's readings of "Young Goodman Brown" as being about the hypocrisy of Puritanism. These interpretations emphasize the hypocrisy that Hawthorne's historical tales about the period of the most notorious witch trials in American colonial history reveal, and it is no surprise that this view of the stories would strike a responsive chord during the period of the most notorious witch trials in United States history. In other words, it makes sense that the religious hypocrisy of the Puritans would stand out to literary critics living in the McCarthy era. The Puritan mission was originally an idealistic one; it was supposed to establish something that at first glance, at least, looks all good: a perfectly harmonious religious community. What the Salem witch trials show is that even the best of intentions can lead to the greatest of evils. By the same token, the 1950's hunters of communists in government and in the American culture industry may have thought they had the best intentions, but they certainly caused a great deal of harm. In both cases, a power that claims to act for good shows that it sometimes can't help acting for the worst, a lesson we are still tempted to forget.

The psychological readings of the 1960's and early 1970's make sense too if we consider them in the context of the contemporary American cultural scene and in two respects that I can think of: 1) Crews and the other Freudian interpreters of Hawthorne were writing right after the introduction of the contraceptive pill and therefore during the sexual liberation that the pill helped to make happen. Therefore there should be little surprise that sex was on people's minds and that Crews and others would see Hawthorne's fiction as being about repressed sexuality. 2) It is in the 1960's that it finally becomes possible to talk openly about psychoanalysis. In the movies of John Ford, John Huston, or Alfred Hitchcock (with the exception, of course, of Spellbound or Psycho, and there we're talking about severely deranged people), characters don't have regular visits with their therapists, and if they did, they wouldn't talk about it. But in the movies of Woody Allen, the characters not only visit their therapists regularly and talk about it openly, they positively boast about it. There was a sea change, one result of which was that the stigma of being a patient in psychoanalysis disappeared. Therefore it makes sense that at the same time, interpreters of Hawthorne would be open to interpreting his stories in psychoanalytic terms.

The hardest phase in Hawthorne interpretation to characterize in terms of its contemporary context is the historicist criticism of the last 25 years. That's because I think we are still, at least to a certain extent, living in that contemporary context and therefore haven't yet got the historical distance necessary to be able to bring the period into focus. But let me take a shot, with, of course, the caveat that this is a hypothesis that remains to be proven.

It seems to me that the return to history in Hawthorne interpretation reflects just how fundamentally contested our own American history has been for at least the last twenty-five years. The sound and fury that today surrounds issues such as invading foreign countries, abortion, environmental protection, capital punishment, military budgets, gun control, etc. tends to obscure an equally significant debate over which decade to perceive as a model for American democracy: the 1950's or the 1960's. Are the pre-Great Society, Eisenhower years the moment in American history when the American Dream came closest to being realized? Or are the achievements of the Civil Rights and the anti-war movements of the 1960's the moment when our nation came closest to realizing its egalitarian ideals? These questions about our history hotly divide people today at different points on the American political spectrum, and our views about these questions are integrally related to our views both about all kinds of other current issues and about other historical controversies. How we view the historical controversies influences how we view the current issues, and vice versa.

For instance, who do you think were the greatest U. S. presidents of the twentieth century? Franklin Roosevelt? John Kennedy? Ronald Reagan? Your answer to that question, I believe, is both an expression of how you view American history and of how you view the political situation today. Who's your idea of a great, twentieth-century American hero? George Patton? Oliver North? Martin Luther King? Daniel Ellsworth? Rosa Parks? Obviously not everyone will agree, but one can certainly argue that Patton and North on the one hand or King, Parks, and Ellsworth on the other were great figures who took extraordinary individual initiatives in the name of all that is supposed to be good in our world and, as a result, either brought about or at least attempted to bring about positive change. But I submit to you that whatever your answers to these questions may be, they reflect your bias about current American politics at the same time that your current bias grows out of your view of American history.

In other words, the past is just as contested as the present, and that's because how we view our past is integrally connected with how we understand our current needs. In our more distant past, and I hope you'll forgive me for oversimplifying in order to save time—in our more distant past, what is the most salient fact in American history? That a group of middle-class and well-off white men established a new nation on the basis of shared and stated principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and as an expression of those principles created the second most successful constitution in the history of the world? Or that for 90 years that new nation condoned the institution of slavery, which by virtue of its very existence gave the lie to the principles so sacred to that wonderful constitution, and then, for another 100 years, winked at pseudo-official practices whose single aim was to maintain as much of the institution of slavery as possible? Or, to take much more recent history: was the Vietnam War the ultimate expression of the arrogance of American belief in our own "manifest destiny" or a war in defense of freedom that was undercut by the treachery of unpatriotic "peaceniks" back home?

I submit to you that the person who winks at the history of American slavery and racial segregation and who doesn't see the Vietnam War as a travesty of American values is at the same time not very likely to prefer King, Parks, and Ellsworth to Patton and North as exemplary Americans. And that person's historical preferences are both a product of and an influence upon his or her current political outlook.

What I'm saying is that how we view our history is incredibly important to us today, and that this explains why in the last twenty-five years, Hawthorne's interpreters have decided, first, that his fiction is about Hawthorne's historical past, then, that his fiction is about our own historical past (and Hawthorne's contemporary situation), and are now arguing that his fiction is about history itself.

But this is why Hawthorne is great and why we still read him two centuries after his birth: because whatever we talk about that is important to us, we are able to figure out ways to make him appropriate to the discussion. Thus just like the generations of great actors who turned the role of Hamlet into expressions of themselves, so too have we made Hawthorne's fiction into expressions of ourselves. Is the "genius" required to do so ours or Hawthorne's? I don't know. But I do know this: we readers can't develop the "genius" to do so unless we read Hawthorne in the first place, and I suppose that's as good an explanation as any as to why we still have to read Hawthorne 150 years later.


1 See Donald E. Pease, "Author," in Critical Terms for Literary Study, ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McGlaughlin (Chicago: U. Chicago P., 1990), 105-17, esp. 108-12, 115-16; Michel Foucault, "What is an Author?" in Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, ed. Josué Harari (Ithaca NY: Cornell UP, 1979), 141-60, esp. 158-60.

2 Norman Holland, The Shakespearean Imagination (New York: Macmillan, 1964).

3 Herman Melville, "Hawthorne and His Mosses," Pierre: or, The Ambiguities; Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile; The Piazza Tales; The Confidence Man: His Masquerade; Uncollected Prose; Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative), ed. Harrison Hayford (New York: Library of America, 1984), 1154-71, esp. 1168.

4 All quotes from Hawthorne's stories are taken from Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tales, ed. James McIntosh (New York: Norton, 1987).

5 Edgar Allan Poe, "Tale Writing—Nathaniel Hawthorne," Godey's Lady's Book 35 (November 1847): 252-56; extract rpt. in James McIntosh, ed., Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tales, 332-35; Henry James, Hawthorne, Literary Criticism: Essays on Literature, American Writers, English Writers, ed. Leon Edel and Mark Wilson (New York: Library of America, 1984), 315-457, esp. 366.

6 Robert Stanton, "Secondary Studies on Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown,' 1845-1975: A Bibliography," Bulletin of Bibliography 33 (1976): 32-44, 52.

7 Paul W. Miller, "Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown': Cynicism or Meliorism?" Nineteenth-Century Fiction 14 (1959): 255-64.

8 Thomas E. Connolly, "Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown': An Attack on Puritanic Calvinism," American Literature 28 (1956): 370-75.

9 Frederick C. Crews, The Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne's Psychological Themes (New York: Oxford UP, 1966); all subsequent references to this book are given in parentheses in the text.

10 Michael J. Colacurcio, "Visible Sanctity and Specter Evidence: The Moral World of Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown,'" Essex Institute Historical Collections 110 (1974): 259-99; reprinted in The Province of Piety: Moral History in Hawthorne's Early Tales (Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 1984): 283-313; reprinted in Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tales, ed. James McIntosh (New York: Norton, 1987): 389-404; all references to this article taken from this last reprint of the article.

11 Sacvan Bercovitch, The Office of the "Scarlet Letter," (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1991).

12 Bercovitch's influence is reflected in three other books that I've listed on my works cited page: those by Jean Fagan Yellin, Nancy Bentley, and Lauren Berlant. Yellin's and Bentley's books focus on slavery, and Berlant's argues that Hawthorne's fiction is about the subtleties of achieving or imposing a sense of national identity, the greatest obstacle to which, in Hawthorne's day, was the problem of slavery. Jean Fagan Yellin, The Antislavery Feminists in American Culture (New Haven CT: Yale UP, 1989); Nancy Bentley, The Ethnography of Manners: Hawthorne, James, Wharton (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995); Lauren Berlant, The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1991).

13 Nina Baym, The Shape of Hawthorne's Career (Ithaca NY: Cornell UP, 1976); parenthetic references refer to the extract from chapter 3 of this book reprinted in Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tales, James McIntosh, ed. (New York: Norton, 1987), 427-32.

14 Crews's Oedipal reading isn't too far removed at least in its conclusions from John N. Miller's much more recent biographical interpretation, in "Fideism vs. Allegory in 'Rappaccini's Daughter'" (Nineteenth-Century Literature [1991]: 223-44), according to which Beatrice as sexual/poisonous at the same time that she's pure and innocent resembles the different ways Hawthorne himself, in his letters to her, presented his fiancée and then wife, Sophia Peabody, as a madonna-whore figure, and Giovanni's ambivalence about Beatrice finds its reflection in Hawthorne's own internal conflict towards how, as a man, to approach his madonna-whore wife.

15 Leland S. Person, "Bibliographical Essay: Hawthorne and History," A Historical Guide to Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed. Larry J. Reynolds (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001), 194; Carol Marie Bensick, La Nouvelle Beatrice: Renaissance and Romance in "Rappaccini's Daughter" (New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers UP, 1985).

16 For Hawthorne and national identity see footnote 12, above, and Lauren Berlant's The Anatomy of National Fantasy.

17 Fred Lewis Pattee, ed., Century Readings in American Literature, 4th ed. (New York: Century, 1932), 343; quoted in Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860 (New York: Oxford UP, 1985), 196.

18 Hershel Parker, "Nathaniel Hawthorne," The Norton Anthology of American Literature, ed. Ronald Gottesman et al, 1st ed., Vol. 1 (New York: Norton, 1979), 875; quoted in Tompkins, 197.

Page citation: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/11790/

About US Privacy Policy Copyright Credits Site Map Site Help