The Magazine

Land of Hope and Fear

Nathaniel Hawthorne and the American past.

Aug 16, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 46 • By WILFRED M. MCCLAY
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Hawthorne in Concord

by Philip McFarland

Grove, 341 pp., $26


A Life

by Brenda Wineapple

Random House, 512 pp., $16.95

OF ALL THE COMPLAINTS leveled at the canon of nineteenth-century American books, the hardest to credit is the charge that they are conventional and comfortable--like picturesque little pleasure boats plying the sunny surface of American life.

How then does one account for the unsettling preoccupations of those authors: the desperate God-grappling of Herman Melville, the macabre fixations of Edgar Allan Poe, the fevered omnisexuality of Walt Whitman, the nature-intoxicated anarchism of Henry David Thoreau? This doesn't sound like the stuff of which genteel outings at the lake are made. In fact, such a list makes one wonder whether there has ever been a great national literature more full of craziness and inflationary excess, more indifferent to measure and proportion, more riddled with anxiety and self-doubt.

Americans seem generally unaware of their literature's disquieting features. Take, for example, the exalted status accorded The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 masterpiece, the first indisputably great work of American literature. For much of the twentieth century, an acquaintance with The Scarlet Letter was considered an essential part of American education. But it's hard to imagine a more bizarre candidate for a literary rite of passage--or one better calculated to establish a permanent aversion to classic literature.

This seems especially true for students who've grown up in the age of Bill and Monica. What they find in The Scarlet Letter is the story of a minister and a married woman who had a love affair and feel bad about it afterward--especially the man, a sensitive fellow who also turns out to be a hypocrite and a bit of a coward. The woman, an impressively resilient spirit who bore a love-child out of that furtive encounter, is publicly humiliated. The minister chooses to conceal his part in the matter, although profound feelings of guilt gnaw away at him. The cuckolded husband schemes to get even, while degenerating into an ever-more loathsome monster in the process. In the end, everyone lives (or dies) unhappily ever after. Pretty depressing stuff, when you consider how much better off everyone would have been, if they could just have . . . well, gotten over it and moved on.

It's hard to improve on what one of my students said during a class discussion of Whittaker Chambers's passionate and gloomy autobiography, Witness. "The dude just needed to chill," he murmured, gazing down at his fingertips, a tiny smile playing upon his lips--affectless contempt expressed in perfect twenty-first-century pitch. The other students nodded agreement.

They say the same, and then some, about Nathaniel Hawthorne and his characters. Leaving aside the spidery intricacies of the prose in The Scarlet Letter, and the lack of action in its plot, what really dooms the novel for present-day readers is the alien intensity of its moral universe. Part of Hawthorne's message makes sense to them, the part they've been trained to hear--that the Puritan religious and social code (as he understood it) was excessive, cruel, sexist, and inhuman, that it wrung all beauty and joy from life, and that the actions of the avenging husband, Roger Chillingworth, though he was technically the wronged party, were ultimately far more sinister than those of the unconfessed adulterer, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, and his near-blameless lover, Hester Prynne.

BUT WHAT THEY CAN'T COMPREHEND is what all the fuss is about--why Dimmesdale felt so guilty, why he couldn't confess, why what he and Hester did was in fact a grievous sin, why our sins and the sins of our forebears are inseparable from who we are, why those sins must be paid for, why it is almost impossible to pay for them fully, and yet why sins that remain unacknowledged and unconfessed and unpaid will surely destroy our souls. The central premise in Hawthorne's imaginative world--his insistence that the weight of the sinful human past, in one's own life, in the life of one's family, and in the life of one's city and country, can never be denied or wished away--is completely lost on a generation raised on smug therapeutic platitudes.