The Magazine

The Secret Society

Hawthorne as chronicler of the American unconscious.

Mar 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 27 • By MICAH MATTIX
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Nathaniel Hawthorne is an enigma. 

Demi Moore as Hester Prynne in ‘The Scarlet Letter’ (1995)

Demi Moore as Hester Prynne in ‘The Scarlet Letter’ (1995)

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In the heady days of Amos Bronson Alcott’s progressive schooling experiment, Margaret Fuller’s proto-feminist Memoirs, and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s call to self-reliance, Hawthorne wrote short stories and “romances” peopled with characters plagued by original sin. The independent, sexual women of The Scarlet Letter and The Blithedale Romance end life either alone or dead, and characters who show Emersonian self-reliance, such as Aylmer in “The Birth-Mark” or Robin in “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” become monsters. In a three-part lecture on “The Times,” Emerson argued that while the conservative defends “the actual state of things, good and bad .  .  . the project of innovation is the best possible state of things.” But for Hawthorne, those who pursue such a project ruin both themselves and society. 

Hawthorne’s belief in original sin might suggest a man of a particular religious conviction, but he seems to have differed little from his fellow Unitarian New Englanders with regard to his views on God. That there was a divine being who providentially ruled the world, Hawthorne had little doubt. What he did doubt was that Jesus Christ was God incarnate, whose suffering had redeemed that world. For Hawthorne, we must suffer for our own sins, like Reuben in “Roger Malvin’s Burial,” with redemption being no sure thing.

Why would a man who rejected those aspects of orthodox Christian belief that seem irrational—the trinity, the virgin birth, the divinity of Christ—hold on to the idea of original sin? Philip Rahv expressed in a 1941 essay what has become the standard take: Hawthorne continued to believe in sin because of an unconscious attachment to the vestiges of a “moribund religious tradition.” He was, in Rahv’s words, “unable to free himself from the perception of human destiny in terms of sin and redemption, sacrilege and consecration.”

In this new biography of the American romancer, Robert Milder reminds us that, unlike so many of his contemporaries, Hawthorne was not just unable, but “unwilling” to reject the idea that we have an innate and universal disposition towards evil. “Sin,” Milder writes, “was his conduit to experiential meaning, to cosmic order, to God’s Providence, and to the immortality of the soul. Without the reality of sin, there was no transcendent dimension to human affairs, only the anarchic play of desire and circumstance.”

Paying particular attention to Hawthorne’s conception of sin, Hawthorne’s Habitations examines his work in the context of the four central places of his life: Salem, where Hawthorne was born and spent much of his early life, including 10 years following his graduation from Bowdoin College in 1825; Concord, where he lived with his young wife, Sophia Peabody, at Emerson’s grandfather’s “Old Manse” from 1842 to 1845; Liverpool, England, where he served as consul; and Rome, where he lived for a year with his wife and family.

As Milder progresses, he encounters two Hawthornes: There is the “naturalist” of his journals and notebooks and the “idealist” in his stories and novels. In his journals, Milder writes, Hawthorne viewed experiences as “secular, material, finite, and shaped by social and psychological forces apart from anything supernatural.” But in his fiction, we have the Hawthorne of “Young Goodman Brown”—in which the main character goes into the woods one night to meet with the devil—and of the poisonous “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” Milder suggest that Hawthorne’s romances served as “a refuge against the threefold horrors of naturalism: the horror of universal meaninglessness; the horror of death and oblivion; and the horror of enthrallment of bodily drives, particularly the sexual.” But as Milder’s own analysis proves, it was more than a mere refuge. Hawthorne’s creative work was an extended argument against naturalism and progressivism and their respective rejections of the reality of evil. This is the thrust of almost all of his work.

So how did Hawthorne become convinced of the reality of evil? In a word, experience. In his notebooks, Milder writes, Hawthorne often referred to his room in Salem as his “dismal and squalid chamber.” Editing his notebooks after his death, Hawthorne’s wife struck the word “squalid” from the passage—perhaps because, as Milder suggests, the term still had carried the secondary meanings of “impure, morally polluted, [or] morally shameful.” Herman Melville told Hawthorne’s son, Julian, that he was convinced that there was a “secret” in Hawthorne’s life which “had never been revealed, and which accounted for the gloomy passages in his books.” Critics have wondered about Hawthorne’s relationship to his beautiful, dark-haired sister, Ebe.