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“The Ideal Identity: Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Loss of Native American Culture”

by Dr. Greg Stone
Department of English
University of Tulsa

Tulsa, OK

Portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood, 1840
Portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood, 1840 (courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA, Gift of Professor Richard C. Manning, Acc#121459)
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On the website Hawthorne in Salem, Cathy Eaton and Joseph Modugno remind us that, unlike many other writers of the early to mid-nineteenth century, Nathaniel Hawthorne “generally resisted the popular subject of the American Indian in his writing…[his] settings and themes [being] more concerned with English than Indian lives and history.” They go on to write, “More often, in fact, Hawthorne uses Indians to highlight the sins of his English characters rather than to explore directly the American Indian perspective or experience.” Perhaps this is why few scholars have considered Hawthorne’s treatment of Native Americans, but as Native American studies continues to flourish as a discipline, and in light of the consideration of nativism and primitivism in ecocritical and post-colonial studies, I believe that an examination of Hawthorne’s treatment of Native Americans and American Indian imagery continues to be warranted. Though I am at the beginning of this project, I hope in the short time available here to explore the possibility that Hawthorne indeed was concerned about the loss of Native American culture in the nineteenth century by examining Native American tropes and themes found in several of the tales and sketches collected in Mosses from an Old Manse. In her book The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Moore writes that “Hawthorne made more use of the Indians than is generally acknowledged, even by him” (129), and I hope to show that this fact extends beyond Hawthorne’s Salem roots to the years that he spent living—and writing—in Concord.

To begin, let’s consider the literary vogue of Native American imagery present in nineteenth-century American fiction. In her essay “A Redder Shade of Pale,” Sherry Sullivan challenges long-standing assumptions about the uses of Native American imagery in nineteenth-century literature, arguing that a more complete understanding of those uses reveals that “in the nineteenth-century quest for national identity, the Indian's symbolic function was two-fold: not only as an anti-image against which Americans distinguished themselves, but also as a positive image with which they sought to be associated” (57). Through a close reading of several texts, including James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels, Sullivan identifies the more complex purposes of the American Indian vogue:

cultural nationalism and Romanticism to be sure, and the quest for national identity on a deeper level; guilt and concern over the destruction of Indian culture, in conjunction with a conscious commitment to the idea of civilization; and finally, vague feelings of discontent and disillusionment in this age of progress and manifest destiny, feelings for which the loss of the Indian was a powerful metaphor. (57)
Sullivan counts 71 novels published between 1820 and 1850 that deal with Indian characters, 44 of which are sympathetic to the plight of the Indian and 27 that are “distinctly antagonistic, or antiprimitivist….Of 38 contemporary [collections] of short fiction containing at least [one] Indian story, 22 are sympathetic and 16 are antiprimitivist, and of 15 Indian tales published in The Token and The Atlantic Souvenir, 12 are sympathetic and 3 are antiprimitivist” (57-58). This interest in the American Indian extends beyond Indian characters themselves, Sullivan points out. Many white American characters presented in the literature of the period underwent a process of “Indianization”:
In work after work, representative American heroes and heroines are closely and dramatically associated with the Indian in one of three ways: they are related to Indians by ties of blood or marriage; they are adopted by Indians as captives or refugees from white society; or they are bound by reciprocal ties of affection and respect to a special Indian friend” (59).
Such close associations with Indians helped to identify Americans with the Romantic ideal of the natural man, “the physical beauty and strength, the pride and independence, and the pure and simple virtues of a life lived close to nature,” characteristics that helped to distinguish white Americans from their counterparts in “older, decaying civilizations of Europe. They comprised a kind of spiritual identity at the very heart of the American national being” (Sullivan 64). The image of the American Indian also served several subversive purposes, as well. In his book Beneath the American Renaissance, David Reynolds writes that Hawthorne and many of his contemporaries managed to lift nineteenth-century Subversive literature from “its growing perversity and crassness.” “Subversive literature in its crude popular state was a politicized, exaggerated product of the democratic impulse that impelled other adventure novelists to look for native settings and characters,” Reynolds writes. “The same democratic spirit that drove other writers to seek out native literary arenas prompted the Subversives’ deep sympathy for various oppressed groups [including] Native Americans, maltreated throughout American history” (199).

We are left to wonder, then, why Hawthorne, who during the same years struggled for artistic recognition, did not more fully embrace this literary vogue, for the marketplace certainly demanded more tales of Native Americans, and the opportunities for literary success in this genre seemed abundant. Hawthorne admits in “Sketches from Memory” (first published in 1835 and later in the 1854 edition of Mosses) that those Indians lost to history “were too distinct from those of their successors to find much real sympathy.” But his lack of sympathy is immediately followed by a pang of regret that he is not more attuned to Native American literary impulses. He writes:

It has often been a matter of regret to me, that I was shut out from the most peculiar field of American fiction, by an inability to see any romance, or poetry, or grandeur, or beauty in the Indian character, at least, till such traits were pointed out by others. I do abhor an Indian story. Yet no writer can be more secure of a permanent place in our literature, than the biographer of the Indian chiefs. His subject, as referring to the tribes which have mostly vanished from the earth, gives him a right to be placed on a classic shelf, apart from the merits which will sustain him there. (343)
It is plausible to think that Hawthorne was, at least at some level, interested in matters of Native American identity since the search for identity presents itself as a theme persistent in Hawthorne’s work. The “divided image of the Indian” (Sullivan 64), like the divided image of Hawthorne’s Puritan ancestors, was an evocative one. In the nineteenth century, Sullivan argues, the Indian “represented both the opposite of the civilized ideal America was moving toward, and the embodiment of an idealized state of nature it was in danger of losing. These two conflicting functions, as positive and negative poles of white identity, reflect an irreconcilable split in the American mind and a paradox in national identity” (64).

So the question remains: Why does Hawthorne write that he abhors stories about Indians? It is an interesting question to ponder, especially when we consider that Native American imagery and even some Indian characters appear in most of his collections of tales and sketches as well as in some of Hawthorne’s romances. Are these elements simply evidence of the historical context in which Hawthorne created these texts? I think, in part, this is the case, but what Hawthorne abhors seems to be not so much a text concerned with Indians but rather the ways that his contemporaries constructed stories about Indians and how those stories were made to become so profitable. For his own sake, Hawthorne utilizes his knowledge and personal experiences with Indians to comment on America’s colonial and post-revolutionary struggle to form a national identity and to recognize the place of the Indian in his own formulation of the ideal Romantic.

Hawthorne’s knowledge about the Indians of New England has been fairly well documented, in particular his knowledge of those native peoples who lived near Salem, a town once on the fringes of the seventeenth-century Indian wars. In her book The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret B. Moore writes of possible encounters that a young and impressionable Hawthorne likely had with Indians traveling through Salem as well as the colorful local history he learned during childhood. Two chiefs of the Penobscot tribe famously visited Salem in February 1818, and if Hawthorne did not see them personally, he certainly heard all about them from neighbors and friends. Moore points out that several influential Salemites had close connections with missionary societies that ministered to the Indians, and an article from the Boston Monthly, “The Aborigines of New England,” was popularly reprinted in the Salem Gazette in 1826. Lydia Maria Child’s novel Hobomok (1824) told the story of an Indian in Salem, and King Philip continued to hold the imagination of readers, thanks in part to a popular 1827 history for young people (Moore 129).

Early in his career Hawthorne begins to comment on Native American issues and record his observations of the Indians that he encounters. An entry in his American Notebooks, dated August 19, 1838 (while Hawthorne resided in Salem) recounts a visit to a neighboring farm and a stop at a local tavern, where he encounters a variety of men (Hawthorne makes careful sketches of each one), including:

an ostler, with Indian blood in him, and the straight black hair, something of the tawny skin, and the quick shining eye of the Indian. He seems reserved; but is not ill-natured when spoken to. There is so much of the white in him, that he gives the impression of belonging to a civilized race—which gives the more strange sensation, on discovering that he has a wild lineage. (Notebooks 122)
On December 6, 1837 Hawthorne records several ideas for tales and sketches in his journal, among them this: “Our Indian races having reared no monuments, like the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, when they have disappeared from the earth, their history will appear a fable, and they misty phantoms” (Notebooksi 169). A more notable mention of American Indians, though, comes on September 1, 1842, only a few months after the newly married Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne moved to the Old Manse here in Concord and the day after Henry David Thoreau came for dinner. Hawthorne describes Thoreau as “a singular character—a young man with much of wild original nature still remaining in him; and so far as he is sophisticated, it is in a way and method of his own” (Notebooks 353). Hawthorne identifies what he believes to be the source of Thoreau’s “keen and delicate” observance of nature: Thoreau’s knowledge of the Indians who once lived in what would become the town of Concord and its environs. “It is a characteristic trait,” Hawthorne writes, “that he has a great regard for the memory of the Indian tribes, whose wild life would have suited him so well; and strange to say, he seldom walks over a ploughed field without picking up an arrow-point, a spear-head, or other relic of the red men—as if their spirits willed him to be the inheritor of their simple wealth” (Notebooks 354). Thoreau’s knowledge of the American Indians of Massachusetts is widely known, and we can assume that some of Hawthorne’s knowledge of local Indian history came from his friend and neighbor Thoreau. That evening after dinner, Hawthorne records, he and Thoreau went to the banks of the Concord River, which “slumbers between broad prairies, kissing the long meadow-grass, and [bathing] the overhanging boughs of elder-bushes and willows” (Hawthorne, “The Old Manse” 1126), and climbed into Thoreau’s boat, the Musketaquid (the boat in which Thoreau and his brother John take their remarkable journey in Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers [1849]). “Mr. Thorow [Thoreau] managed the boat so perfectly, either with two paddles or with one,” Hawthorne writes, “that it seemed instinct with his own will, and to require no physical effort to guide it. He said that, when some Indians visited Concord a few years since, he found that he had acquired, without a teacher, their precise method of propelling and steering a canoe” (Notebooks 355-6). Walking along the banks, Thoreau likely would have shared with his new friend some of the history of the river, recounting the tribes that once settled along its shores and in the nearby meadows, long before European colonists extended their settlements away from the coast and into the wildness of the forests.

But what to do with this knowledge of Native American history, of the arrowheads and fragments that Hawthorne finds in the soil near the Old Manse? While Hawthorne never seeks to make strong statements about the Indian, this knowledge, imparted by Thoreau and informed by his own experiences in both Salem and Concord, is imparted into the tales and sketches Hawthorne wrote and revised during his years living in the Old Manse, and it is to a few of these texts that I wish now to turn.

The preface that Hawthorne wrote to the 1846 edition of Mosses from an Old Manse provides additional examples of Hawthorne’s use of the Indian trope, deriving clearly from the notations he made after his excursions with Thoreau. In “The Old Manse” Hawthorne describes what appears to be his first impressions of the house he and his new bride Sophia come to inhabit, the former home of the Rev. Ezra Ripley and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The Manse and its surrounding landscapes hold significance for Hawthorne, not just as a new resident of Concord but as an artist, a creator, for this hallowed ground not only remembers the initial colonial rebellion against the British but also the earlier tragic history of the Native Americans who once dwelt there. Important to this act of remembrance is the Concord River itself, which lies only a few hundred yards behind the Old Manse. Hawthorne writes that the river is “a symbol that the earthliest human soul has an infinite spiritual capacity, and may contain the better world within its depths” (1127), and we can apply such a mythic symbol not only to the colonial revolutionaries who stood their ground at the Old North Bridge but also to the Native Americans who left behind the remnants of their race in fragments for Thoreau and Hawthorne to find along the shores.

In “The Old Manse” Hawthorne recounts how Thoreau, “who has a strange faculty of finding what the Indians have left behind them,” introduced him to the pastime of locating Indian artifacts, arrowheads and spear points, shards of pottery and fragments left behind from centuries past. “There is an exquisite delight, too, in picking up, for one’s self, an arrow-head that was dropt centuries ago, and has never been handled since,” he writes. “Such an incident builds up again the Indian village, amid its encircling forest, and recalls to life the painted chiefs and warriors, the squaws at their household toil, and the children sporting among the wigwams.” While Hawthorne, like most Americans of his day, did not see the Indian as being yet civilized (Moore 130), he does have great admiration and reveals almost a whimsical sense of longing for the simpler, more native and primal era of the Indian. “It can hardly be told,” he continues, “whether it is a joy or a pain, after such a momentary vision, to gaze around in the broad daylight of reality, and see stone-fences, white houses, potatoe-fields, and men doggedly hoeing, in their shirt-sleeves and homespun pantaloons.” Hawthorne immediately calls this line of thinking nonsense, claiming, “The old Manse is better than a thousand wigwam” (1130), but we cannot so easily dismiss the sense of longing that Hawthorne has just revealed through this glimpse into his historical imagination. He goes so far in “The Old Manse” as to create a parallel experience with the Indians who once lived along the river. Recalling a fishing excursion with his friend Ellery Channing, Hawthorne writes of the “happy times…when we cast aside all irksome forms and straight-laced habitudes, and delivered ourselves up to the free air, to live like the Indians or any less conventional race, during one bright semi-circle of the sun” (1138). This trip down the river transcends the historical restrictions of time and engages Hawthorne’s historical imagination, for suddenly he realizes, “The painted Indian, who paddled his canoe along the Assabeth [Concord River], three hundred years ago, could hardly have seen a wilder gentleness, displayed upon its banks and reflected in its bosom, than we did. Nor could the same Indian have prepared his noontide meal with more simplicity” (1140). Hawthorne, then, is able to position himself symbolically as one of the Indians, “amid sunshine and shadow,” bridging the vast years between their two civilizations and finding common experiences that enables him to explore the impetus for national identity and the Romantic ideal man that so many of Hawthorne’s contemporaries explore in their own texts.

Arguably the most famous (and certainly the most anthologized) of Hawthorne’s tales is “Young Goodman Brown,” written in 1835 and first printed in New-England Magazine but later collected in the first edition of Mosses from an Old Manse (1846). Because of the tale’s connection to this collection of Concord stories, I wish to consider the Indian trope found within it as a part of my analysis.

Hawthorne engages his historical imagination about Indians early in “Young Goodman Brown.” As Goodman Brown takes leave of his wife Faith, he takes to “a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest, which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through, and closed immediately behind” (276-77), emphasizing the solitude of this dark and dreary forest path and reminding the reader that “the traveler knows not who may be concealed by the innumerable trunks and the thick boughs overhead.” Aware of the dangers that lurk nearby, Brown warns himself, “There may be a devilish Indian behind every tree….What if the devil himself should be at my very elbow!” (277). The devil, of course, is close at hand, emerging from the woods to join Brown and to remind the young man of his long relationship to Brown’s family: how he helped Brown’s grandfather publicly whip a Quaker woman; how he brought Brown’s father “a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip’s war” (278). The devil, described by Margaret Moore as “Hawthorne’s Black Man,” is related not to the dark skin of the native African but rather to the dark skin of the Native American (143-44), and this connection between the Evil One and the Indian persists throughout the story. After encountering Goody Cloyse, Deacon Gookin, and the minister, Brown parts company with his dark companion and proceeds deep into the wood alone. When he encounters one of Faith’s pink ribbons and hears what he believes to be her voice, Brown flies deeper into the forest, filled with “grief, rage, and terror” (283). He roars to himself, “Think not to frighten me with your deviltry! Come witch, come wizard, come Indian powwow, come devil himself! And here comes Goodman Brown. You may as well fear him as he fear you!” (284). Again, Hawthorne aligns the forces of evil with the Native Americans that Brown’s neighbors and acquaintances believe to be lurking in the forest. In his classic discussion of the story, Richard H. Fogle examines its contrasting symbols and images and offers a notable reading of the final forest scene, in which Brown faces the temptation of baptism into the communion of human sin:

The broad antitheses of day against night, the town against the forest, which signify in general a sharp dualism of Good and Evil, are supplemented by a color-contrast of red-and-black at the witch-meeting, by the swift transition of the forest scene from leaping flame to damp and chill, and by the consistent cleavage between outward decorum and inner corruption in the characters. (458)
But I argue that the red-and-black imagery is also important because it signifies the pattern of association between the devil and the Indians. Not only does Hawthorne construct the Indians as inhabitants of the wicked forest, but also he describes them physically through the color contrast that Fogle identifies. Hawthorne’s narrator carefully mentions the “black pines” of the forest, the “grave and dark-clad company” of strangers who gather around the “sheet of flame” and the altar filled with a “liquid flame” (284-287). “Night and the Forest are the domains of the Evil One, symbols of doubt and wandering, where the dark subterraneous forces of the human spirit riot unchecked,” Fogle notes (458). Clearly the Indians are leading these “subterraneous forces of the human spirit,” for they have been fixtures in the forest setting from the beginning of the story. However, it is important to remember that Hawthorne portrays these wicked Indians through the perspective of Brown and the story’s narrator who, as members of this puritanical community, should be subjected to careful scrutiny due to their cultural bias against the Indians. Fogle reminds us, “By the dramatic necessities of the plot Brown is a larger figure in the Forest of Evil, and as a chief actor at the witch-meeting, than within the safe bounds of the town” (458). Hawthorne often reflects on the history of the American Indians by considering how their native civilization has been affected by European settlers.1 If the narrator of this tale is a member of the Salem community of the seventeenth century, then that community’s prejudicial attitudes about the Indians certainly informs his association of wickedness and evil with the American Indian. How much of this attitude remains in the nineteenth century remains debatable.

What does a closer reading of Hawthorne’s texts in order to identify Indian tropes offer to Hawthorne scholars and enthusiasts? For one, such a reading explicitly places Hawthorne more firmly in the cultural and political context of the early- to mid-nineteenth century search for national identity. Secondly, it provides an opportunity for ecocritical and post-colonial readings of these texts in light of Native American studies. Finally, it expands our understanding that Hawthorne’s historical imagination was impacted not only by the puritanical influences of his native Salem but also by the Native American peoples those ancestors helped to displace.

Works Cited

  • Eaton, Cathy and Joseph Modugno. “Hawthorne and Native Americans: Introduction.” Hawthorne in Salem. North Shore Community College, Danvers, MA. Web. 1 Nov. 2009.
  • Fogle, Richard H. “Ambiguity and Clarity in Hawthorne’s ‘Young Goodman Brown.’” The New England Quarterly 18.4 (Dec. 1945): 448-465. JSTOR. Web. 28 November 2009.
  • Hawthorne, Nathaniel. American Notebooks: The Centenary Edition. Ed. Claude M. Simpson. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1973.
  • ---. “The Old Manse.” Tales and Sketches 1123-1149.
  • ---. “Sketches from Memory.” Tales and Sketches 338-351.
  • ---. Tales and Sketches. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1982. Print. The Library of America.
  • ---. “Young Goodman Brown.” Tales and Sketches 276-289.
  • Moore, Margaret B. The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1998. Print.
  • Reynolds, David S. Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989.
  • Sullivan, Sherry. “A Redder Shade of Pale: The Indianization of Heroes and Heroines in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction.” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 20.1 (Spring 1987): 57-75. JSTOR. Web. 27 November 2009.

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