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Initial Misgivings: Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter and the Forgery of American Origin
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The gilded shorthand for an unnamed sin, the initial initial of a nation’s literature, and the indefinite article writ large: the scarlet letter is promiscuous of signification. Indeed, what Richard Brodhead recognizes as the cardinal trait of Hawthorne’s tradition—that it “has an enigma for its source”—applies to the famous A itself no less than to the author’s collected works. But it proves easier to talk about an entire narrative than to concentrate on its littlest character, the letter A, so most scholars have focused on the book’s enigmas writ large.

D.H. Lawrence, for instance, remarks on the book’s inner contradictions, its simultaneous espousal of morality and exaltation of sexuality. Chronologically, Lawrence keeps company with other critics who align their claims with one or the other pole of his argument. To either decry The Scarlet Letter’s flawed mores or champion its orthodoxy, after all, became custom immediately upon its publication. Lawrence, therefore, stands as original largely because he challenges this custom by pointing at once both to the novel’s vaunting upright principles and its hidden (and, according to him, accidental) sanction of passionate license. The next generation of critics adopted a more secular approach, taking the book’s religious elements as national allegory. In the middle of the 20th century, for example, R.W.B. Lewis ensconces Dimmesdale in the myth of the American Adam, and Tony Tanner implies that Hawthorne’s novel could suffice as our national book of Genesis. These scholars’ descendants, in turn, contest The Scarlet Letter’s ascension to myth: Sacvan Bercovitch and Michael J. Colacurcio by means of historicism, Jonathan Arac in surveying early reader-response, and Joseph N. Riddel via deconstruction. More recent critics still—John Carlos Rowe and Laurence Buell among them—add to the case against The Scarlet Letter as American myth, emphasizing the book’s often elided transnational origins. Their counterparts, meanwhile, underscore the national origins that The Scarlet Letter elides, from slavery (see Teresa Goddu and Laura Hanft Korobkin) to the wrongs done the tribes indigenous to a territory quickly renamed New England (see Samuel Cottle and Laura Doyle). Taken together, these scholars further trouble the adoption of The Scarlet Letter as an American Genesis, demoting the myth to a fable.

As for what distinguishes The Scarlet Letter’s offices of myth and of fable, it comes down to this. Read as myth, The Scarlet Letter cites an origin—the sudden existence, ex nihilo, of an entirely new thing: America. Such myths leave us nothing to interrogate. They do not narrate cause and effect; rather, they announce a full-sprung, brand new effect, thereby demanding that we take them on faith or leave them. Inasmuch as Hawthorne’s novel is myth, then, it must vouchsafe an untellable first instant. It cannot narrate a national beginning among others. Read as fable, on the other hand, The Scarlet Letter recounts precisely such a beginning. And, whereas origin remains beyond the ken of narrative, every beginning, as Edward Said argues, is a “topos,” a “point of departure.” He continues: “Beginnings inaugurate a deliberately other production of meaning—a gentile (as opposed to a sacred) one. It is ‘other’ because, in writing, this gentile production claims a status alongside other works: it is another work, rather than one in a line of descent from X or Y.” In short, the fable of beginning, unlike the myth of origin, recognizes its antecedents and its probable end, and, as such, may proffer instruction but not unassailable pronouncements.

So should we read The Scarlet Letter as myth or fable? This is, in essence, the quandary that the book’s scholars have concentrated on for the last several decades, although, admittedly, few of them use those labels in coming down on one side of the question or the other. These labels, however, are useful, because on asking the question directly—does The Scarlet Letter belong to mythology or fable?—we can answer it succinctly: no. The book belongs to neither, and this tension at the crux of Hawthorne’s text is identical to the tension that harries American exceptionalism as a whole. Put otherwise: The Scarlet Letter abbreviates...

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