The Magazine

Hawthorne's God

The quintessential New Englander was no Puritan.

Jan 2, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 16 • By PATRICK J. WALSH
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From Witchery to Sanctity

The Religious Vicissitudes of the Hawthornes

by Otto Bird and Katharine Bird

St. Augustine, 164 pp., $24

HAWTHORNE HAUNTS ME. HE often comes to mind when I am wandering Boston's streets. He seems always just around the corner.

Once, Nathaniel Hawthorne was stopped in a Boston street by an old woman inquiring "if he were an angel." Biographers say the woman was overwhelmed by Hawthorne's remarkable beauty. But she must have been struck by his otherworldly aspect. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne declared himself a "citizen of somewhere else." For Hawthorne was a kind of liminal being who, in his fiction, sought a place "somewhere between the real world and fairy land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet." His sister-in-law, Elizabeth, compared his blue eyes to "mountain lakes seeking to reflect the heavens."

Hawthorne lived in a secular age in which the old Puritan belief had disappeared while the new faith lay in material progress. He wrote romances, lamenting the difficulty of "writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight." Rejecting the many reformers of his time, Hawthorne turned for consolation to the past. He preferred "the narrow but earnest cushion thumper of puritanical time to the cold lifeless, vaguely liberal clergyman of our day."

Hawthorne also rejected the Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson that was blustering about him in Concord. In Mosses from an Old Manse, he wrote of Emerson's flock of followers: "Never was a poor little country village infested with such a variety of queer strangely-dressed, oddly-behaved mortals, most of whom took upon themselves to be important agents of the world's destiny, yet were simply bores of very intense water." As for Emerson, Hawthorne added, "I sought nothing from him as a philosopher."

Bicentennials for Emerson and Hawthorne were recently celebrated. That Emerson's received more attention says much about the spiritual decline of America. Since 1832, when the Reverend Emerson refused to celebrate the Unitarian service, his gnostic creed has grown apace and is now America's reigning dogma. Flannery O'Connor realized this: "[W]hen Emerson said he could no longer celebrate the Lord's Supper unless the bread and wine were removed, an important step in the vaporization of religion in America had taken place." Randall Stewart likewise regretted Emerson's influence on the American spirit, recognizing his doctrine as radically "anti-Christian." Christians believe that Christ healed the division between the world of spirit and the world of matter and became the bread of life. Emerson's staged refusal was a rejection of the material world of things as unredeemed.

Both Hawthorne and Herman Melville viewed Transcendentalism as a misnomer and fraudulent spirituality. Emerson never transcends to anything. He makes "self" the judge and sole authority of truth. In his Divinity School Address, given at Harvard in 1838, Emerson called for every man to become his own Jesus and to "go forth anew to take possession of the earth." Flannery O'Connor said he trapped himself in a region whose borders are the walls of his own skull. And Melville thought Emerson suffered from a defective sensibility: "A self conceit . . . [and a] blindness proceeding from a defect in the region of the heart."

Emerson, and not Hawthorne, is the father of our introverted modern America, where truth is relative and self-manufactured. This religion of self infects every level of society, ranging from the Self Help sections in bookstores to the slogans of advertisement, from movies to public television, from college curriculums to gum-chewing stars. It penetrates the chambers of the Supreme Court, where Sandra Day O'Connor ruled in Planned Parenthood v. Casey that there is "the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe." All are the offspring of Emerson's gnostic gospel "that the soul makes its own world" and "nothing is sacred but the integrity of your own mind." Yale's Harold Bloom, a professed Gnostic, celebrates this "freedom from nature, time, history, community and other selves" in The American Religion.