In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

MichaelJ. Colacurcio Woman’s Heart, Woman’s Choice: The “History’’of The Scarlet Letter The point is often ignored by criticsand common readers alike, but the fact remains: The Scarlet Letterisa serious historical novel.Once it was easy to regard its author as an isolated man whose brooding imagination carried him far away from the socialquestionsof the late Republicanand then the Antebellum Period-into a region of escape called simply “The Past.”This “neutral territory”’ looked something like Puritan Massachusetts, to be sure, but the idea that Hawthorne had strong reasons for engaging the issues of that time and place took a long time to develop; sodid a proper grasp of the contemporaneous questions that found their source or analog in that particular epoch. But now the caseseemsclear:not onlydoes TheScarletLettergrowoutof a deepand determined reading of some important texts from the Puritan past, but it has powerful “presentist” reason for pursuing its historical interest. The liberal theory of dissenting (or deviant) rights had to develop against the background of a “social covenant” whose rules, once assented to, were binding without personal exception. A conservative view of the moral nature and social place of women, a staple of early-modern societies,had encountered an exemplary challenge in a controversy that wrackedJohn Winthrop’s “Cityset upon a Hill”at the outset.And the general habit of learning to live with difference, hoping for future agreementpolitics , American style-may have its roots in the way a Puritan commonwealth preserved itself through certain rituals of consensus. All this we now take as a given.* What may call for comment are the reasons why Hawthorne went back, in 1849,to the material that had been a regular subject of his writing in the 1820sand 1830s.Then it was assumed that “thematter of the Puritans”was an essentialsubject for an emergent American Literature; and stories like “The Gentle Boy,”‘YoungGoodman Brown,” “TheMinister’sBlackVeil,”and “TheMay-poleof Merry Mount” (among others) responded to that well-advertisedcultural need. But after completing (in 1838), his “Legends of the Province House,” which theorize the “Puritan Origins of the American Revolution,”Hawthorne had turned to more contemporary themes, so that the tales composed in the 1840s-appearing in Mossesfrom an Old Manse (1846)-bear all the marks of the man who had been livingin Emerson’sConcord and wanted to commenton “Idealismas itappears in 1842.”9A stintin the Salemcustomhouse buried Hawthorne in a routine with which he was not comfortable, but toward the unhappy end of his tenure there he composed an ironic sketch of his ancestral Salem called “Main-street”that led him back to his Puritan subject: how are we to feel about having had “such ancestor^"?^ And it may be that, as he thought of moving from the tale to the novel, he gravitated to materials with which he felt comfortable . Or it may be that some insistent issue of the 1840s reminded the developing social critic of something the moral historian already knew. By the time Hawthorne’s friend Herman Melvillewrote “BenitoCereno” (in 1855), no one could doubt that the “abolition”of Negro slavery had become the political question that crowded out all others. But the matter had not always been soclear.The authors of the MissouriCompromise (1820) might have predicted the long-term effect of their temporizing enactment; and certainlyWilliam Lloyd Gamson seemed to knowwhatwascomingwhenhe began topublish the Liberutwin1831, the same year as the slave revolt of Nat Turner. But other problems plagued the Jacksonian Era as well-the relocation of Native Americans, the Woman’sHeart. Woman’sChoice 105 extensionof thefranchise,the class-based issuesof currencyand banking.Americansmay have been repressing race, but they were not yet obsessing slavery.Theodore Parker seemedprescientwhen, in 1840,he moved his post-Unitarian preaching into Boston’sMusic Hall, there to hammer home the need for abolition; but George Ripley, the other great reformercontemporary of Emerson, clearly felt called otherwise when, the next year, he and fellowvisionarieswent out to BrookFarm, hoping to practice cooperation rather than competition and to provide all willing participants an equal access to culture. Hawthorne may not have agreedthat thiswas “Christ’sIdeaof S~ciety,”~ but evidently he thought well enough of the experiment tojoin it at the outset...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 104-114
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.