The likeness of Nathaniel Hawthorne hanging in the AmLit museum resembles the shadowy, fading portrait of a distinguished ancestor. Yet, to my mind, The Scarlet Letter remains one of the three indispensable American novels of the nineteenth century, along with Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Now, biographer Brenda Wineapple, who tackled Leo and Gertrude Stein and Janet Flanner previously, has given us a scrupulous biography of Hawthorne that does a good deal to restore his portrait’s original colors, while guiding readers back to the novels (The House of the Seven Gables, The Blithedale Romance, The Marble Faun) and short stories (for example, “Young Goodman Brown,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” “Ethan Brand,” “The Birth-mark”) that shouldn’t be left to gather dust. Wineapple has crafted a smart, revelatory portrait of a complex, contradictory, secretive man, an Adamic figure in American literature.
Hawthorne was one of the great conservatives of the national letters. In Wineapple’s picture, the traits are there: skepticism of human motives; strong sense of sin; distrust of utopias and reformers; belief in what today’s think-tank conservatives preach as the “law of unintended consequences” (government actions never turn out as planned; for example, the Iraq war); and, most important, obsession with the past.
Indeed, anyone who has read “The Custom-House,” Hawthorne’s preface to The Scarlet Letter, knows well his obsession with the sins of his actual forefathers. The founding Hathorne, as it was then spelled, Nathaniel’s great-great-grandfather, William, settled in Salem, Massachusetts, in the 1630s. A landowner, selectman and magistrate of the growing port town, he did the Lord’s work as a scourge of heretical Quakers, one of whom, Ann Coleman, he ordered to be whipped around the streets half-naked.
Nathaniel’s great-grandfather, Col. John Hathorne, was another pillar of rectitude. As a judge in the 1692 witch trials, he sent scores of alleged Satanists to Gallows Hill. Family legend had it that one victim placed a curse on him. “Let us thank God,” Nathaniel Hawthorne once observed, “for having given us such ancestors and let each successive generation thank him, not less fervently, for being one step further from them in the march of ages.”
Although they repelled him, Hawthorne’s repressive forefathers seem to have been more alive in his psyche than the memory of his own father, also named Nathaniel, a sea captain who died when his son was only 3. Obsessed with the long reach of the past, he became something of an antiquarian as a young man, burrowing into dusty Salem annals and court reports alive with bygone sinners. As Wineapple writes, “The terrible conflict between past and present–the nostalgic pull of one, despite its darkness and doom, and the noisy, liberating tug of the other–is Hawthorne’s great subject.”
In The House of the Seven Gables Hawthorne writes about the ancestor-haunted Pyncheons, also living under a family curse (for cheating a man out of his land): “The wrong-doing of one generation lives into the successive ones, and, divesting itself of every temporary advantage, becomes a pure and uncontrollable mischief.” Holgrave, the boarder, a nineteenth-century techie (a daguerreotypist), speaks for the modern world when he cries, “Shall we never, never get rid of this Past?”
Breaking with the oppressive Puritan superego, setting the imagination free and countering rigid dogma with psychological insight and compassion–those were Hawthorne’s achievements as an author. In The Scarlet Letter he exposes the Puritan theocracy through his greatest creation, Hester Prynne, the first good-bad girl of our literature–“both sinning and sinned against, a woman able to love, to yearn, and to endure the consequences of her offense,” Wineapple writes. Prynne toughens under the blows of censure, becoming an independent soul. “The world’s law was no law for her mind,” Hawthorne writes. “She assumed a freedom of speculation, then common enough on the other side of the Atlantic, but which our forefathers, had they known of it, would have held to be a deadlier crime than that stigmatized by the scarlet letter.” She is in her mind only a visionary radical who wants to free men by freeing women.