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Canadian Review ofAmerican Studies/Revue canadienne d'etudes amertcaines Volume 29,Number 3, 1999,pp. 27-60 27 Hollywood's Hester Prynne: The Scarlet Letter and Puritanism in the Movies Bruce C. Daniels Whoever would seek the soul of New England has to reckon with the meaning and influence of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tbe Scarlet Letter. More than the sermons of Cotton Mather or the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, more than the poetry of Robert Frost or the histories of Samuel Eliot Morison, Hawthorne's slim tale of adultery and punishment holds the promise of revealing deep truths about God's covenanted people and the nation they helped create. Written in the nineteenth century about the seventeenth century , The Scarlet Letter has been the twentieth century's textbook on Puritanism and the Puritan legacy to America. Nor do its truths stop there. Through Hester and Pearl Prynne, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth, we locate the specific New England soul in a sexuality, psychology , and tragedy that transcends time and space. This is quite a burden for a book that its author called a "romance" and thought was too short to be taken seriously and too gloomy to be popular. Hawthorne first read portions of The Scarlet Letter to his wife, Sophia, who responded by going to bed with "a grievous headache" after hearing the conclusion. Hawthorne considered Sophia's malaise a good sign. "It broke her heart," he wrote, "which I look upon as a triumphant success." The 28 Canadian Review ofAmerican Studies Revue canadienne d'etudes americatnes public and contemporary members of the New England literati reacted nearly as dramatically; sales and reviews immediately made it clear that The Scarlet Letter was no ordinary book. Published March 16, 1850 and containing four pages of advertisements to offset printing costs, the first run of 2500 copies sold out in three days. It created a sensation among critics although the narrative offended a few. Arthur Coxe in The Church Review warned prospective readers that Hester and Dimmesdale were "wallowing in filth;" Orestes Brownson, editor of Brownson 's Quarterly, criticized Hawthorne for making heroes of an adulteress and her accomplice. Both men, however , regretted the unsavory details of the story because they thought the smutty plot might lessen the public's appreciation of Hawthorne's genius Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville were less equivocal; they hailed Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter as the best living American writer and the greatest American novel ever written. Melville wrote that the immensely popular "Washington Irving is but a grasshopper compared to him [Hawthorne]," and that the difference between "Nathaniel of Salem" and "William of Avon" was by no means immeasurable. Hawthorne himsel( who had been writing for over twenty-five years with little recognition before The Scarlet Letter, remained modest in the face of acclaim-"the obscurist man of letters in America", he described himself shortly before his death in 1864.1 Subsequent generations of critics and writers echoed the judgment of Hawthorne's contemporaries. Henry James wrote in his biography of Hawthorne published in 1879 that The Scarlet Letter was the first book Americans could send to Europe "as exquisite in quality as anything that had been received." William Dean Howells, the sonorous arbiter of late nineteenth -century literary tastes, contrasted the emotions and fluidity of The Scarlet Letter to the mechanical twists and turns of Dickens's novels. D.H Lawrence, not known for praising the work of rival authors, wrote that "no other book is so deep ... so complete." In the twentieth century, as literary studies became ensconced in university English departments, The Scarlet Letter provided a "never-ending supply of themes for dissertations." More recent waves of scholars calling themselves Freudians and semiologists love it; so, too, do social and moral critics, deconstructionists, post-modernists, and feminists. Throughout the twentieth century, The Scarlet Letter has been one of the most-perhaps the most-taught novel in high school and uni- Bruce C. Daniels/ 29 versity literature courses. It is hard to imagine many American college graduates who have not read it or cribbed the story outline from one of the handbooks designed to ease their own analysis. The...


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