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  • Misreading The Scarlet Letter:Race, Sentimental Pedagogy, and Antebellum Indian Literacy
  • Sophie Bell (bio)

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, characters misread, cannot read, refuse to read, and pretend to read the letter A, written in red on a white woman’s body. The novel’s mistrust of reading is deeply colorful. The child Pearl – often equated with the letter her mother wears – is constantly changing color, and she appears to contradict the whiteness implied by her name. Her complexion and behavior have “nothing of the calm, white, unimpassioned lustre that would be indicated by the comparison” to a pearl, instead exhibiting “a certain depth of hue.”1 A Puritan elder suggests she is misnamed, exclaiming, “Pearl? – Ruby, rather! – or Coral! – or Red Rose, at the very least, judging from thy hue!” (97). She is many shades of red. This essay looks at the connections The Scarlet Letter builds among childhood play, reading, writing, and color, holding that Hawthorne uses these connections to rewire sentimental investments of his day in affective pedagogical bonds between white guardians and infantilized people of color placed in their care. A children’s author himself, and also brother-in-law of educational reformers Horace Mann, Mary Peabody Mann, and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Hawthorne was a notable participant in what Richard Brodhead calls the “domestic-tutelary complex” – the constellation of antebellum social institutions disseminating sentimental texts and practices.2 However, even as Lesley Ginsberg describes Hawthorne’s authorial identity as “formed in relation to an intellectual atmosphere saturated with interest in the transformative forces of pedagogy,” she finds that Hawthorne “attempted to keep his distance from the impulse toward reform and its concomitant didactic pressure on literature.”3 [End Page 1] This essay holds that the troublesome nature of sentimental bonds in The Scarlet Letter begins with Hawthorne’s linking of his own authorship to Pearl’s racialized misreadings of elementary sentimental education.

Further, The Scarlet Letter’s preoccupation with the color red, and its proliferation of scenes of playful misreading, articulate Hawthorne’s ambivalence toward Indians, and, more specifically, his ambivalence toward Indian literacy after massive Indian Removal in the 1830s. This essay engages the possibility that the persistence and curiosity of Indian readers in the text respond to the vibrant, contested role of Indian literacy at the time of the novel’s writing. The novel’s curious and deliberate rewiring of antebellum sentimental pedagogy, and its highly ambivalent depictions of Indian readers, open an unexpected view into innovative reading and writing practices in post-Removal Native American communities, perhaps while trying to foreclose such a vantage point. By doing so, the novel invites critical misreadings modeled on those of Pearl and the novel’s Indians, misreadings that place the text’s peculiar Indian readers – and its making of reading itself “red” – at the center of their analysis.

Hawthorne describes strange engagements with letters by Pearl, other Puritans, and the Indians surrounding colonial Boston at a time when the effectiveness of Cherokee literacy had become an international sensation. This essay argues that the novel acknowledges, and even depends upon, Indian literacy, but also misrepresents and erases it. To understand this peculiar relation to Indian literacy, this essay holds that that the most effective critical reading of The Scarlet Letter is a strategic misreading – that is, a reading of the novel that draws out dimensions of the text that at first seem insignificant, but when strung together, open up a new understanding of the racial dynamics of Hawthorne’s text.

At first blush, The Scarlet Letter seems to resist what Laura Wexler calls “the expansive, imperial project of sentimentalism.”4 Illustrating how sentimentalism extends beyond the realm of literature to practices of both global imperialism and assimilationist education in the late nineteenth century, Wexler focuses on large-scale institutions for people of color that dispensed domestic training to African Americans, Indigenous people, and immigrants “not as the future householders and sentimental parents they were ostensibly supposed to become but as future domestic servants . . . in the homes of others.”5 My essay situates The Scarlet Letter in the literary and educational pre-history of this imperialist sentimental pedagogy, looking at The Scarlet Letter and Indian literacy...


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