Key Dates: Hawthorne in Context Consider the classic American works published in a five-year period with the United States seventy-five years old: • 1850 – Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter Emerson’s Representative Men • 1851 – Melville’s Moby-Dick • 1852 – Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin • 1854 – Thoreau’s Walden • 1855 – Whitman’s Leaves of Grass
Key Facts about Hawthorne • Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts, on July 4, 1804, into a family that had long been in the area: One ancestor had come over in 1630 and another presided over the Salem witch trials. • In 1825, he graduated from Bowdoin College, where he became friends with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Franklin Pierce (later to become the 14th president of the United States). • After graduation, he spent the next twelve years in his mother’s Salem home developing his literary skills. He called this period his “twelve dark years” in an effort to create a legend of a gloomy, solitary existence. • In truth, he visited friends and frequented local taverns; he took summer tours taking advantage of an uncle’s stage-line business; and he found himself interested in long, sensational murder trials.
Key Facts about Hawthorne • Hawthorne, however, did develop a fascination for introspection, morbidity, and the dark side of existence. Thus, those years were more psychologically than socially dark. • In 1837, Hawthorne published Twice-Told Tales, a collection of short stories that he had published in magazines. Sales were slight. • Beginning in 1839 and until 1849, he worked at the Boston Custom House through political connections. • In 1841, he spent seven months at Brook Farm, the Transcendentalist utopian community. • 1842, he married Sophia Peabody and they settled in Old Manse, the home of Emerson’s ancestors and Emerson himself when he wrote Nature in 1836.
Key Facts about Hawthorne • With sales of his writings still meager, he returned to Salem and took a job as a surveyor in the Custom House in 1846. That same year, he issued a collection of short stories, Mosses from an Old Manse. When the Democrats were defeated in the 1849 election, Hawthorne lost his position in the Custom House. He began work on The Scarlet Letter. • Published in 1850, The Scarlet Letter was an immediate success, bringing Hawthorne fame and profit. • Now at the height of his powers, Hawthorne published major works, The House of the Seven Gables (1851) and The Blithedale Romance (1852).
Key Facts about Hawthorne • In 1852, Hawthorne wrote The Life of Franklin Pierce. When Pierce, his college friend became U.S. president, he rewarded Hawthorne by making him consul at Liverpool (1853-1857). The appointment gave Hawthorne a chance to tour England and Europe. In 1860, Hawthorne published the allegorical novel The Marble Faun, inspired by a year in Italy. • Hawthorne returned home in 1860. His last years were marked by anxiety over financial worries and the Civil War. • Hawthorne died on May 19, 1864 while on a walking tour.
Key Issues: Hawthorne and the Puritans • Hawthorne’s best work was inspired by the Puritans. Consider The Scarlet Letter, “Young Goodman Brown,” “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “The Maypole of Merry Mount,” and “Ethan Brand.” • The Puritans gave Hawthorne artistic material from which he could speculate about the psyche and the effects of the past on the present. • Hawthorne presents the Puritans as dour, gloomy, narrow-minded, and “dismal wretches” (ATIL, p. 1336). • For Hawthorne, the Puritan ethos represented a censorship of the imagination. • Hawthorne’s portrait of the Puritans is harsh and not completely accurate. The Puritans did try to enjoy life; they liked colorful clothes; they took pride in well-kept homes; and they liked to take a drink, although they despised the drunkard.
Key Issues: The Subconscious Mind • Hawthorne is concerned with internal struggles and dilemmas, and what lies beneath the conscious mind. • Internal forces often pull his characters in two directions. • While Emerson calls on individuals to “trust thyself” and listen to their inner voice, Hawthorne seems to respond with a question: which inner voice do I listen to? • In “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” Robin Molineux seems to be looking for his uncle’s residence – and he is. But is he subconsciously trying to subvert this intention? What does Hawthorne mean, for instance, by Robin’s “instinctive antipathy” to authority (ATIL, p. 1303)? • Consider Wakefield who leaves his wife on a “whim-wham” (p. 1321) – remember Emerson’s “whim” in “Self-Reliance” (p. 936). Wakefield’s motives seem inscrutable.
Key Issues: The Journey Within & the Loss of Innocence • Unconsciously, Hawthorne’s characters frequently wander into unfamiliar territories, sometimes representative of inner explorations, as in the allegorical “Young Goodman Brown,” whose journey into the “heart of the solitary woods” can be read as a journey into his own heart. • Consider Goodman Brown’s inner investigation. How does it result in a loss of innocence? • Frequently in Hawthorne, the loss of innocence or an awareness of a sin-ridden world has devastating results. Consider Ethan Brand and Goodman Brown. Why is Robin Molineux more fortunate? • Characters are often confused by their new-found knowledge. Can “Rappaccini’s Daughter” be interpreted with this in mind?
Key Issues: Sin • Hawthorne is interested in the psychological aspects of sin, not the act of sinning or the sin itself. He focuses on the effects of the sin on the sinners and on those close to the sinners. • Hawthorne investigates the effects of inherited sin, hidden sin, and the consequences of exposing sin. • Many Hawthorne characters are obsessed with sin. Consider Ethan Brand, Goodman Brown, Reverend Hooper, John Endicott, and others. • In “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” Beatrice suffers for the sins of her father. • The Scarlet Letter is a novel about sin. Consider the effects of the sin on Hester and Pearl; consider Dimmesdale’s struggle with hidden sin, and the corruption of Chillingworth as he pries into the heart of another in an attempt to expose sin.
Key Issues: Sin • In “Hawthorne and his Mosses,” Melville writes of Hawthorne: Certain it is, however, that this great power of blackness in him derives its force from its appeals to that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always wholly free.
Key Issues: Isolation& Withdrawal • Many of Hawthorne’s characters live in isolation, frequently self-imposed. • Hawthorne’s characters seem afraid of revealing themselves to one another. • Many characters in Hawthorne’s fiction avoid marriage or intimacy: Goodman Brown after his loss of innocence, Rev. Hooper, Ethan Brand, and Aylmer in “The Birthmark.” • His characters replace intimacy with other external concerns.
Key Issues: The Search for Knowledge & Perfection • When Hawthorne’s characters strive for perfection of any sort, the results are devastating for them and their families. • Intellectual pride operates throughout Hawthorne’s fiction: “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” “The Birthmark,” “Young Goodman Brown,” “The Minister’s Black Veil,” and The Scarlet Letter. • Consider “Ethan Brand,” in which the protagonist explains the “unpardonable sin” and its consequences.
Key Issues: Ambiguities • Hawthorne’s fiction is complex. He is intentionally ambiguous as he captures the complexity of existence. • The interplay of light-dark imagery in several works (“Young Goodman Brown,” “Ethan Brand,” “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” in ATIL 11/e, shorter ed.) suggests not only an awareness of polarities but also the realization that polarities cannot always be reconciled. (This is also true of The Scarlet Letter, not included in the volume.) • Very rarely are Hawthorne’s characters completely good or admirable, or completely evil. • Hawthorne’s allegories and parables rarely lend themselves to neat interpretations. Consider “Young Goodman Brown,” “The Minister’s Black Veil.” (This is also true of his complex novel, The Marble Faun.)
Key Issues: Ambiguities • The world and morality are ambiguous in Hawthorne’s fiction, and yet as the laughter indicates at the end of several stories (“Birthmark,” “Molineux”), Hawthorne seems to be comfortable with ambiguity in a way that Melville was not. Hawthorne wrote of his friend: “He can neither believe nor be comfortable in his unbelief” (Journal, November 20, 1856). • Hawthorne seems to demonstrate what John Keats called “negative capability”: “… that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason …” (Keats, letter, December 1817).
Key Issues: Intrusive Narrators & Humor Intrusive Narrators • Even in an era that welcomed intrusive narrators, Hawthorne’s are among the most surprisingly intrusive. Consider the comments on laughter in “Ethan Brand,” for example (ATIL, p. 689). Humor • From time to time, Hawthorne can be humorous. • He can be self-deprecating. Consider “The Custom-House” and his journals (not in this volume). • He can be ironically humorous. Consider the many references to Robin Molineux as “shrewd.” • In their lack of compassion, his characters can demonstrate perhaps a dark sense of humor: Aminadab’s inappropriate laughter in “The Birthmark,” Bartram’s comment at the end of “Ethan Brand,” and the Man in the Moon’s comment at the end of “Molineux.”
Key Issues: “Young Goodman Brown” • Hawthorne wrote “Young Goodman Brown” in 1835. It has become an American classic and, in many ways, is Hawthorne’s representative short story. • In “Goodman Brown” Hawthorne explores his dominant themes, themes that would later find full force in The Scarlet Letter. • Consider Puritanism in “Goodman Brown”: • Goodman Brown appears to be a potential leader of his Puritan community. Consider why he goes into the woods? Could he have been asked to investigate some kind of evil doings? • Is Brown, like many of Hawthorne’s Puritans, preoccupied with the goodness and evil in others and himself? Does he seem morbidly introspective? Is he humorless and joyless?
Key Issues: “Young Goodman Brown” The Subconscious Mind and the Journey Within • Consider the internal forces operating on Brown, which might include doubts about his own goodness and purity. Brown, newly married, is in a transitional state in his life. • Consider the story as an allegory. Could the forest be Brown’s own heart and soul? Note how “in the heart of the dark wilderness” Brown was “the chief horror of the scene” (p. 645) or the reference to “the heart of the solitary woods” (p. 646). • Consider the “sudden appearance of his companion” who bears “a considerable resemblance” to Brown (p. 642). Could he represent a part of Brown himself? The part Brown tries to resist but must yield to in his investigation?
Key Issues: “Young Goodman Brown” The Journey Within, the Loss of Innocence, Isolation and Withdrawal • Consider the following: “The fiend in his own shape is less hideous than when he rages in the breast of man” (p. 646 ). • Brown’s “companion” tells him that all must “penetrate, in every bosom, the deep mystery of sin” (p. 648). Brown then realizes “all that was wicked in his own heart” and that “evil is the nature of mankind” (p. 648). • Brown’s discovery, or self-discovery, leads him to lose his innocent “Faith,” as he “shrank from the bosom of” his wife (p. 649), withdrew from his community, and sank into a solitary and lifelong melancholy.
Key Issues: “Young Goodman Brown” Sin and Perfection • Do Brown and the Puritans seem obsessed with sin in the story? Do they have an implicit belief that near perfection is possible? Ambiguities Light and dark images and shadows suggest distortion, uncertainty, and a lack of clarity. Consider the following: • The “dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees” concealed maybe Indians or maybe the devil (p. 641). • At the time of the journey it was “deep dusk” and much could only be “nearly discerned” (p. 642).
Key Issues: “Young Goodman Brown” • Consider the field, with “red light” and a fire “blazing,” hemmed in by the dark wall,” where “the congregation alternately shone forth, then disappeared in a shadow, and again grew … out of the darkness” (p. 646). • “The four blazing pines … obscurely discovered shapes and visages of horror on the smoke wreaths” (p. 647). • Consider the “lurid light” and the questions about the basin hollowed in the rock (p. 648). • In addition, sounds are unclear, “indistinct” (p. 645). • Ultimately, the story poses a question: had Brown fallen asleep and dreamed his vision or did he witness an actual witch-meeting?
Readings The American Tradition in Literature 11/e • Read the heading and selections for Nathaniel Hawthorne (pp. 626-97) Ariel American • Visit Ariel American and explore the resources on Hawthorne, including an electronic version of “Young Goodman Brown” with hyperlinked notes and a video clip of a dramatization of this classic tale.
Writing Topics Compare Hawthorne’s and Poe’s use of Gothic settings and imagery, dreams and hypnagogic states (the state between sleep and wakefulness). • Consider the hypnagogic state of Goodman Brown (pp. 640-49) with that of the narrator of “The Raven” (pp. 574-77). How because of this state do their surroundings take on different meanings? • Consider the importance of setting to “The Birthmark” (particularly the laboratory) (pp. 657-68) with that of “Ligeia” (pp. 581-91). • Consider the Gothic overtones and the quests of the protagonists of “The Minister’s Black Veil” (pp. 649-57) and “Ethan Brand” (pp. 686-97) with that of “The Fall of the House of Usher” (pp. 597-604)