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Claudia Durst Johnson
  Introduction Lecture

"The Secular Calling and the Protestant Ethic in The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables

by Claudia Durst Johnson
Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Alabama

Claudia Durst Johnson, Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Alabama
Claudia Durst Johnson, Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Alabama (photography by Lou Procopio)

Hawthorne’s ancestors brought a powerful idea to the New World called the doctrine of secular calling which had an immense impact on seventeenth-century society. Later, as sociologist Max Weber has written, the doctrine of secular calling paved the way in the nineteenth century for what has been dubbed the Protestant Ethic. Both the secular calling and the Protestant Ethic had a profound influence on Hawthorne and provide a useful way of studying and teaching his work. Such a study is not only a window on Hawthorne’s age but also a useful way to explore a relevant connection between Hawthorne and the concerns of contemporary students, reading him for the first time.

I intend to look 1) at a definition of the two terms, secular calling and Protestant Ethic, 2) to note briefly the way the subjects arise in Hawthorne’s tales and 3) to note how important topics relative to the calling and economics suggest that The House of the Seven Gables is less romantic than crassly economic.

Defining “Secular Calling”

Simply put, the Puritans believed that God had chosen a particular work and place in this world for every human being. It was each person’s duty to discover what work God intended for him or her and then to work diligently and hard in the proper calling. However, work was only one part of secular calling. One’s gender and the social-economic position into which one was born also dictated one’s calling within society. For example, every woman was called to be a wife and mother and to be subservient to men. People born into lower social classes were intended to stay subserviently in the stations God had given them and not try to do or be something fitted for an upper-class person. Thus, one could be called to be a farmer (by trade), a peasant (by station) and a son, brother, husband, or father (by relationship). To find one’s proper work and acquiesce to one’s proper social station was to be in harmony with the universe, to obey God, and to begin to reach spiritual fulfillment. Conversely, to deny one’s God-intended work or social station was high sacrilege.

How, one might ask, did one determine one’s God-intended calling? The answer was that four considerations came into play. First, one considered his or her own talents, then one’s preferences, then the social station into which one was born, and, finally, whether the chosen calling was of benefit to society and glorified God.

Obvious problems developed in reference to the doctrine. What if God gave you talents and inclinations to follow a career which was unsuitable to the social station to which you were born? One example: John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress, born in the lowest possible social station in English society, felt called by God to write and preach. He was arrested and spent several years in jail for attempting to follow a calling above his station.

There was another problem. Some callings were deemed suitable and some intolerable. Obviously a lawless calling, like thievery, was intolerable, even though one might feel drawn to and talented to be a cat burglar. Many religious Americans in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries believed that most careers in the arts were undesirable, or even intolerable, because it was impossible to glorify God or benefit man through a career as an actor, for example, or, even as a writer of fiction or poetry. The problem came when God gave one talents and inclination for a career that was considered “unwarrantable” -- for example, a calling to be a writer, like Nathaniel Hawthorne. A fiction writer, by definition, rarely glorified God. His work was more often than not sacrilegious. He wrote untruths, (if it’s fiction, it’s not true, right?), often about what religious people regarded as immoral acts, and pretended to God-like power by creating his own world (the fictional setting) and his own people (his characters). Nor did a fiction writer benefit man. It was believed that fiction often encouraged people to be immoral or dissatisfied with their lots in life. Reading romances often caused young wives to become sullen or even run away. Even the best fiction encouraged others to be idle, in that people would rather sit around reading fascinating tales, than work. Hawthorne points specifically to these two arguments in “The Custom-House,” when he has his Puritan ancestors appear to him in imagination to challenge his fiction writing: “what mode of glorifying God or being serviceable to mankind” is that?, they ask.

Secular Calling and The Scarlet Letter

The secular calling is explored extensively in The Scarlet Letter. “The Custom-House” is Hawthorne’s narrative of an occasion when he turned his back on his own rightful calling as an artist -- a calling which was neither rewarded nor approved by his society. Instead, he records taking on the more approved and monetarily rewarding work in the business world of the Custom-House. In short, as he writes, he sold his soul for gold. Each of the three main characters in the novel that follows “The Custom-House” are identified with their callings to perform work in the world: Hester as seamstress, Dimmesdale as minister, Chillingworth as scientist. Each, whether God intended it or not, has taken the calling of mother or husband or father. Each is also following the calling of artist in a special sense. Like Hawthorne, Hester, as an artist (with her needle rather than a pen), feels guilty about taking pleasure in her work. Chillingworth’s scientific calling is referred to repeatedly as one of the “black arts.” He uses his calling as a scientist chiefly to avenge himself (just as Hawthorne does in “The Custom House” and The House of the Seven Gables.) Dimmesdale is a sinner for denying his calling as father, as Hawthorne denies his artistic calling in the Custom-House. Dimmesdale also exhibits too much ambition in his calling as minister. He too is an artist, not only of the spoken word but the written one as well -- Hawthorne’s own art. “A” stands not only for adultery but also for concepts linked to the callings of the characters: “art,” “ambition, ” and “avenge.”

The Protestant Ethic

As Puritanism waned and industrialism grew, the calling lost more and more of its spiritual meaning and became more and more secularized. Two basic conditions of the secular calling came to be emphasized: the admonition to work hard and successfully in a proper career and the insistence on staying in your social station. (The last was used to keep workers from protesting against their employers and the system) The easiest way to measure success in one’s career of hard work was by how much money one made as a farmer, a merchant, an importer, or craftsman (to name a few). The older fathers had insisted that the secular or worldly calling be secondary to spiritual calling. But, in the nineteenth century, the doctrine became increasingly secularized. Financial success came to be a greater indicator -- not only of success in the secular calling, but in the spiritual calling as well. If a man did well in business and was comfortable and respected, then obviously God must love him. The more money and comfort he had, the better person he must be. So we find Andrew Carnegie at the close of the century telling his Sunday School class that the greatest glory to God was a multimillionaire.

Conversely, a person was poor because God, Himself, placed him in a lower socioeconomic class. But he was also poor, it was argued, because he wasn’t working hard enough. Otherwise, he’d have money! So we see that the doctrine of secular calling paved the way for the development of what we call the Protestant Ethic with its union of religion and economics.

These matters touching secular calling and the Protestant Ethic are central to Hawthorne’s work. He refers profusely to the vocations of men, identifying his characters and building them from a foundation of the work they do. Specific kinds of labor seemed to be very suggestive for him in the same way that striking details or images were. Particular professions and trades were prods to his imagination, often serving as a starting point, places from which he could "trace out and build up...in the imagination," (as he writes in "The Custom-House,") a full character and the narrative in which that character appeared. Scientists, clergymen, and artists of all sorts especially fired his imagination, but the range of trades and professions of all kinds, practiced by his characters, is amazingly wide, constituting a full tableau of colonial and nineteenth-century society: merchants, seamstresses, nurses, teachers, farmers, soldiers, blacksmiths, watch-makers, politicians, apothecaries, book sellers, peddlers, actors, lawyers, professional reformers, journalists, tavern-keepers, clerks, and sea captains.

Furthermore, the work that a character does is always intrinsic, not just incidental, to who he or she is. For instance, the iron in the blacksmith's trade, shared by Robert Danforth in “The Artist of the Beautiful” and The Blithedale Romance’s Hollingsworth, goes to the "joints and sinews" of their forceful characters just as a vein of marble runs through the cool heart of The Marble Faun’s Kenyon, the sculptor. Yet Hawthorne's references to vocation accomplish far more than the setting up of character types. The tensions of his fictions are markedly intrinsic to vocation. Dimmesdale's single-minded ambition to be the perfect, even saintly, clergyman, for example, leads him to sacrifice love and truth to sustain a reputation and self-image of purity and piety which he finds suitable for his calling. Baglioni's ambition as a science professor leads him to compete with Rappaccini for the bright young protégé, Giovanni, and to thwart his rival's experiment at the expense of a young woman's life. Coverdale's aspiration to be a transcendental poet leads him to think he can coldly disengage himself from everything that he doesn't regard as spiritual.

Hawthorne’s tales consistently affirm a divinely ordained socioeconomic scheme in which individuals submit themselves to the whole social unit, whether it be the family or the village. The individual and society are somehow soothed, quieted, when all within it are acting in accord with the doctrine of secular calling. One might say that chaos is kept at bay. In one impossible idyllic moment, when people are busy in their proper vocations, they can simulate a world where work is not a curse, but a blessing, a world in which the mundane and the heavenly are united and given meaning.

Hawthorne's street scenes, comprised of villagers at their various callings, would, on the surface, seem to be images of the harmony and activity to be found in a system of commercial exchange. A good example can be found in "Sights From a Steeple," where the village wharf is alive with sailors, clerks, and merchants of all types. Of the town, the Paul Pry narrator writes, "How various are the situations of the people covered by the roofs beneath me, and how diversified are the events at this moment befalling them!" (46). Similar scenes occur in "Little Annie's Ramble," "The Procession of Life," "Ethan Brand," "Main Street," "The Village Uncle," "The Seven Vagabonds," and other tales. Here citizens bring together their varied talents for a common cause. In "The Haunted Mind," "Peter Goldthwaite's Treasure," and the romance, The House of the Seven Gables, communal landscapes are sometimes correctives for egocentricity and isolation as, for example, when old Peter Goldthwaite, having been closed up in his house for days, suddenly opens a window onto the street: "It is one great advantage of a gregarious mode of life, that each person rectifies his mind by other minds, and squares his conduct to that of his neighbours, so as seldom to be lost in eccentricity" (400).

The Protestant Ethic as a Source of Apprehension

Such settings would appear to be idyllic. Yet into these seeming merry, little village scenes, where God and capitalism have delegated each citizen to a happy labor and relationship, the serpent of doubt makes its appearance. The happy productivity does not bear up under scrutiny. Chaos inevitably intrudes: in the figure of a dog chasing its tail in "Ethan Brand," or a monkey collecting coins and “calling the tune” in The House of the Seven Gables, or the intrusion of death in "The Procession of Life."

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. It is clear, for example, that he was not blind to the real economic vicissitudes he felt so intensely himself and which he repeatedly dramatizes through the characters in his tales: the ship owner and yeoman escaping to the Canterbury Shaker settlement (as Hawthorne himself had thought to escape to Brookfarm); the ruined merchant in "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment"; the characters, Peter Goldthwaite, William Pepperell, and the once-young couple in "The Shaker Bridal" who, many years before their story begins, had sought economic survival in the Shaker community.

Slippage in the Drawn Battle Lines

Even in Hawthorne's early tales, which allegorize the conflict between the Protestant Ethic and the search for calling, specifically between art and capitalism, between the artist/dreamer and the businessman/pragmatist, the frequency with which his categories shift and slide undermines the easy moral dichotomies. Superficially, the tales recommend an easy morality in the language of commercial and sexual interchange, warning against self-consumption and isolation, and insisting on exchange and payment. Beneath the surface, however, the easy morality is being undercut.

The "Romance"

In The House of the Seven Gables, a novel introduced by a deceptive Preface, Hawthorne's vengeance leads him to attack the political/clerical/business men of Salem, not only through creation of character but in undermining the system which they built, represented, and gave them power. Still sporting his double-A for Avenging Author, Hawthorne tackles the economic imperative of the Protestant Ethic head on, examining living and working in a capitalistic system which both repelled and attracted him.

Hawthorne knew the influential men of Salem as both religious leaders and as his former employers, in short, perfect representatives of the Protestant Ethic. It is not difficult to make a case for The House of the Seven Gables as a comment on the religiously-sanctioned capitalism and work with which he associated the town's patriarchs. The central idea of this novel is money in all its permutations. Its topics are business, property, inheritance, greed, and poverty. The novel's exposition, its plot, the identification and motivation of its characters, its social context, its theoretical musings, its metaphors are economic. And the imperative that moves plot and characters is economic. Despite the author's claim on romance and spiritualizing, The House of the Seven Gables is fundamentally pragmatic and materialistic in a way that makes this one of his least rather than most romantic fictions. The conclusion, which Hawthorne readers for a century have found impossibly "golden" and romantic, is anything but romantic. It is as crass and cold-blooded as old Judge Pyncheon himself.

The Subject is Money

The exposition is the account of a land grab, from which deed everything follows: the charge of witchcraft, the subsequent hanging of Matthew Maule, the poverty of the Maules and the continuing influence of most of the Pyncheons. Early chapter headings establish the novel's economic concerns: "The Little Shop-Window," "The First Customer," and "A Day Behind the Counter." The cent shop, built by a pre-Revolutionary-War Pyncheon who found himself in embarrassing financial circumstances is worth lingering over. From the first chapter the shop is in opposition to romance. The narrator says that its existence "may damage any picturesque and romantic impression" (II, 28), and the readers' entry into the fiction is, the author insists, through the shop door, "the threshold of our story" (31). As the story opens simultaneously with the opening of the shop, it closes as the shop is closed. The shop is that commercial reality, a very shameful appendage, that can't be denied, that belies the romance of rank and the past. It is a reminder that "In this republican country, amid the fluctuating waves of our social life, somebody is always at the drowning point" (II, 38).

Every character is initially described in terms of economic circumstances, just as the plot and characters are put in motion largely by an economic imperative. The Judge's suspicions that his uncle is leaving his money to Clifford leads him to allow Clifford to be imprisoned on a false charge of murder. Hepzibah's need for money to support Clifford causes her to open the cent shop. Phoebe's need for money brings her to the House of the Seven Gables. Holgrave's chronic "narrow circumstances" determine how he lives and the causes he supports. The Judge's greed has made his life comfortable and powerful and motivates him to bedevil Clifford about the deed to more land in Maine. Uncle Venner's poverty directs his self-sufficient but marginal existence and his anticipation of the poor farm. All the other walk-on or one-line characters are also described by their involvement in commerce or trade: the various cent-shop customers, the men and women plying their trade in the street, and the two laborers who appear as a chorus throughout the story.

The language of crass commerce is also pervasive in this romance. The refrain with which the shop is greeted by one of the town's laborers and which is repeated in the course of the story is, "Poor business!...Poor Business!" An adjustment is made on the last page of the story to "Pretty good business! ...Pretty good business!" A few other instances of capitalistic language are worthy of note. Uncle Venner, for example, marks himself as a very poor Richard, liberally dispensing advice on the running of Hepzibah's business enterprise: "'Give no credit!' -- these were some of his golden maxims -- 'Never take paper-money! Look well to your change! Ring the silver on the four-pound weight! Shove back all English half-pence and base copper-tokens...'" (65). Phoebe's suggestions for improving business in Hepzibah's shop sound like an elementary textbook on business: She considers "various methods whereby the influx of trade might be increased, and rendered profitable, without a hazardous outlay of capital" (II, 79). The busy commerce in the street, that is so compelling and so dangerous for Clifford is described in great detail, as are Judge Pyncheon's business transactions: "his real estate..., his railroad, bank, and insurance shares, his United States Stock" (II, 270); and their bachelor uncle's foreign investments: "familiar enough to capitalists" (234). Clifford's disquisition on false ownership of property includes the opinion that bank robbers are different from bankers only in preferring "to transact business at midnight, rather than 'Change-hours" (265).

Hepzibah, like many other poor genteel women, is having to assume a vocation inappropriate, she thinks, to her rank as a lady and definitely out of keeping with her talents. The narrator chides her for her snobbishness at the same time that he concedes that a shop keeper she will never be, no matter how hard she tries. A vocation such as this might bring another such isolated character into the community, "the business of life." But, while Hepzibah's sympathies are engaged a tittle, her work is a joke. She is not up to it; it doesn't broaden or enrich her life significantly. Furthermore, she can no more cook, clean, or garden than she can manage the shop. Clifford, of course, never has a vocation; even though Holgrave is frequently referred to by his work ("The Daguerreotypist"), he has had many vocations, no one of which is more important to him than another. Holgrave is rootless, not having, wanting or approving of a "place" in the scheme of things. At the novel's conclusion, no mention is made of a vocation as part of his or anyone else's future. Uncle Venner, a kind of primitive businessman who lives by exchanges, seems to have taken on wisdom by refusing to play the game by society's rules. The Judge (also referred to by vocation rather than name) is the one character who labors successfully and diligently in a calling. He is also from the first despicable and, at the end, dead and forgotten. So much for finding a divine mission and immortality through a calling.

The narrator has discoursed in the Preface and first chapter on the evils of "ill-gotten gold, or real estate,” especially when it is passed down from one generation to the next. And Holgrave has explained his economic theories that recommend against inherited wealth as represented by buildings constructed of brick or stone. Clifford and Hepzibah have been too long in their respective prisons for the reader to be convinced that they will ever emerge. Their isolation is relieved only by the world's activity on their busy street. Now, in an instant, all this is undone -- the narrator's moral, Hepzibah's new found realities, Holgrave's economic theories, Clifford's urge to join the world. Discarding their old ghosts with the ease of taking off a shoe, they move out on the edge of town in a mansion built from Pyncheon greed, a house which Holgrave, now instantly conservative, plans to face in stone. What, one may ask, is going on? It doesn't appear to have anything to do with metaphysical certitude or moral regeneration. What causes these characters to turn around on a dime? Actually the answer may be in the figure. They turn around on a little more than a dime. The explanation of the chorus, who find it hard to see this as the work of Providence, is, "Pretty good business!" And they are right; the answer is money--pure and simple, the cumulatively tainted Pyncheon money.

It is not what the narrator's preface has led his readers to expect, but things do tend to fall into place. In looking back at the beginning of the story, we note again that the sympathetic characters are largely motivated by want of funds. Now, they have what will set things right. Morality and theories and laws and eternal verities and Providence be damned. Something else has "provided," coming to them as a role of the dice. It is what they needed. It is their salvation. Hawthorne, who only two years before was out of his political job, funds running low, only now beginning to eke out a meager living from his writing, would have believed that all his characters needed for their resolution was some capital. Furthermore, in dispelling the poverty of his characters, romance might do the same for him that it did for them. By formulating what the casual reader would take to be a popular entertainment, he might boost his career and eventually his capital.

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