Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)

    Contributing Editor: Rita K. Gollin

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    Some students find Hawthorne too gloomy, too dense, and too complex. And few understand Puritan beliefs about self, sin, and America's moral mission as they evolved into the antithetical beliefs of transcendentalism. Even fewer recognize how persistently Hawthorne involves the reader in his own efforts to probe such antitheses.

    To address these problems, try approaching Hawthorne as a riddler and wry joker who challenged all authority including his own. Students enjoy recognizing Hawthorne's self-mockery and his various forms of ironic self-presentation. Though self-mockery is most overt in Hawthorne's letters and prefaces (the introduction to "Rappaccini's Daughter," for example), students can quickly discern the skepticism underlying Hawthorne's uses of laughter, his assessments of America's Puritan past and quotidian present, and his anatomization of his major characters. Introduce recurrent patterns of character, theme, image, and so forth, then invite students to identify variations on those patterns within Hawthorne's works.

    Comment on Hawthorne's attempts to mediate between Puritan beliefs and Emerson's, then encourage students to locate how each of his fictions incorporates, accepts, or rejects particular beliefs. Alert them to Hawthorne's assumptions about what human wholeness and happiness require--including the interrelationship of the mind, heart, spirit, will, and imagination, and accommodation though not indulgence of bodily needs.

    One useful strategy is to ask students what a story is "about," then what it is also "about." They soon realize that informed attention yields expanded meaning.

    Current debates about canon formation and absolute literary value provide a useful context for discussing Hawthorne's reputation. Briefly sketch how criteria for judgment have changed over time (for example, after publication of The Scarlet Letter, after Hawthorne's death, during the centenary celebrations of his birth, and during the heyday of New Criticism), and provide some comments about current critical approaches to Hawthorne, including those of feminists and new historicists). Then invite discussion of why Hawthorne has been considered a major writer from the 1830s to the present.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    Hawthorne's major themes and thematic patterns include self-trust versus accommodation to authority; conventional versus unconventional gender roles; obsessiveness versus open-mindedness; hypocrisy versus candor; presumed guilt or innocence; forms of nurturance and destructiveness; the penalties of isolation; crimes against the human heart; patriarchal power; belief in fate or free will; belief in progress (including scientific, technological, social, and political progress) as opposed to nostalgia for the past; the truths available to the mind during dream and reverie; and the impossibility of earthly perfection.

    Historical issues include marketplace facts--for example, where Hawthorne's short stories first appeared (unsigned and low-paid), and which stories he chose to collect in Twice-told Tales and in later anthologies. Related issues include how each book was advertised, how well it sold, how much money Hawthorne earned for it, and how it was reviewed. Students should also know something about the whys and wherefores of Hawthorne's career options during and after college, of his undertaking literary hackwork and children's books, of his interlude at Brook Farm, of his appointments to the Boston Custom House, the Salem Custom House, and the Liverpool consulate, and of his efforts to win reinstatement at the Salem Custom House. Additional historical issues include Puritan versus Whig ideas about the self and the historical past; the political practices and social climate of Jacksonian democracy; and genteel assumptions about women's roles. Still other historical issues concern the particular place and period in which Hawthorne set each story.

    Personal issues include the various ways Hawthorne's family history and specific events in his life informed his writings--most obviously the introduction to "Rappaccini's Daughter" and his letters and journals. Students can easily recognize how "Young Goodman Brown" incorporates facts about his Puritan ancestors, and they are interested in asking such questions as whether the concern with female purity in "Rappaccini's Daughter" and "The Birth-mark" may reflect Hawthorne's anxieties in the aftermath of his marriage, and how Hawthorne's anxieties about his role as an artist are expressed in "The Birth-mark" and "The Artist of the Beautiful." Students might also speculate about how Hawthorne's experiences of intimacy and deprivation in the aftermath of his father's death inform his fiction (for example, Robin's nostalgia for a home that excludes him). Other personal issues that interest students include Hawthorne's relationship to the Mannings' mercantile values, his antipathy to Salem, his experiences at Bowdoin College (including his nonconformity and his friendships with Bridge, Pierce, and Longfellow ), his lifelong strivings to develop his talents and support himself by his pen (during his self-defined "twelve lonely years," during his political appointments, and so forth), his secret engagement, and his identity as doting but fallible husband and father.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    1. Sketch versus tale and short story.

    2. Romance versus novel.

    3. Characters: recurrent "types" and interrelationships; authorial intrusion or objective display; heroism, villainy, and what Hawthorne seems to condemn, admire, or sadly accept.

    4. Image clusters and patterns (for example, dark versus light, natural versus unnatural, sunshine and firelight versus moonlight and reflections, labyrinths).

    5. Subjective vision (including fantasies, reveries, dreams, and narrator's questions about objective "reality.")

    6. Narrative antecedents, including biblical parable, Spenserian romance, allegory (Dante, Bunyan, and others), Gothic horror tales, sentimental love stories, old wives' tales, fairy tales, and so on.

    7. Reworking of notebook entries into fiction, and the relationship between earlier works and later ones.

    8. Hawthorne's open-ended endings.

    9. The relation of prefaces and expository introductions to Hawthorne's plots.

    Original Audience

    For the tales and sketches: students should know something about the gift books and periodicals that published Hawthorne's early work (including the practice of anonymous publication, payment, and other material published in a volume where Hawthorne appeared), and reasons for Hawthorne's difficulty in publishing a collection.

    For the collections: Hawthorne's 1837 letter to Longfellow; Hawthorne's selections and sequence for a particular volume; his publishers; reviews and advertisements.

    For the novels: Hawthorne's aims as expressed in letters, journals, and prefaces and through his narrators; marketing, sales, and reviews; James T. Fields as publisher, editor, banker, and friend--and securer of English copyrights.

    For all the fiction : Hawthorne's challenges to period assumptions about gender roles, parent-child relationships, social and scientific progress, the trustworthiness of sense data ("seeing is believing"), and the importance of the inner life.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Irving: Use of America's past including folktales, popular myths, picturesque and sublime settings

    Poe: Use of Gothic settings, themes, and characters; interest in dreams and other threshold states, and in sensitive individuals' propensities to madness

    Melville: Plumbing of the dark depths of the human mind, antipathy to authority, celebration of individual striving and sympathetic nurturing

    Emerson: Celebration of striving toward self-fulfillment, criticism of hereditary privilege, egalitarian vision

    Stowe and the "damned mob of scribbling women": Celebration of women's capacities for dignity and heroism, religious piety

    James: Sensitive hero/narrator; psychological scrutiny; unresolved questions

    Conrad: Journeys to the heart of darkness; parallel of outer and inner experience

    Jewett: Minute attention to nature and to unheroic characters

    Welty: Comic irony, ambivalence, anti-authoritarianism, densely detailed landscapes

    Flannery O'Connor, Updike, Borges: Queries into the mystifying complexities of human behavior, dark comedy

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing

    Provide some information about books that helped shape Hawthorne's imagination (including historical and scientific writings and the popular literature of his day). Students can better appreciate "Rappaccini's Daughter" after learning about Hawthorne's uses of Milton, Spenser, Dante, and the Bible, his variations on the courtship plot in popular magazines, and his skepticism about contemporary scientific experiments (as well as scientific controversy in Renaissance Padua).

    Students enjoy connecting particular works with subsequent ones-- most obviously, tracing connections of "Mrs. Hutchinson," "Young Goodman Brown," "My Kinsman, Major Molineux," "The Minister's Black Veil," Hawthorne's letters to Fields, and The Scarlet Letter.

    "Cultural" questions that students enjoy addressing include attitudes toward art in general and fiction in particular in nineteenth-century America. (Here they need definitions of such terms as picturesque and sublime.)

    Formal questions that students can ask of each story include a comparison of the first and last views of a particular character; Hawthorne's ambivalent treatment of women, writers, and artists, but also father figures; the questions the narrator raises but leaves unanswered; Hawthorne's use of "preternatural ambiguity"--offering alternative naturalistic explanations for what seems to be supernatural; exposition versus dramatized scene; parallels between inner and outer landscapes; and a story's formal design (symmetries, contrasts, repetitions, suspense, and climax, and so forth.)


    In addition to the secondary works mentioned in the anthology, I would recommend recent books on Hawthorne and his period by Nina Baym, Michael Davitt Bell, Sacvan Bercovitch, Gillian Brown, Laurence Buell, and Philip Fisher, but also books written decades ago by Richard Harter Fogle, Roy R. Male, Leo Marx, and F. O. Matthiessen.