Christianity and Literature Vol. 52, No. 2 (Winter 2003), 215-232.
Hawthorne and Sin
[This solicited essay is published with the kind permission of its author, Henry James Professor of English and American Letters and University Professor at New York University, who presented it on 29 December 2002 at a session in his honor arranged by the Conference on Christianity and Literature for the 118th MLA Annual Convention. On the preceding day CCL recognized Professor Donoghue with its Lifetime Achievement Award, as described in the "News and Announcements" section of this issue.—Ed.]
When I first read The Scarlet Letter, I found it bewildering. That impression has not entirely receded, but I think I understand how it came about and why it has to some extent persisted. The title of the book implied a story about sin, a scarlet woman, and indeed the book often refers to sin and sinfulness; none of the characters, however, has a convinced sense of sin. Nathaniel Hawthorne seems to equivocate among the values he brings forward. I acknowledge, without regarding the acknowledgment as a major concession, that my understanding of sin is the one I was taught in Catholic elementary and secondary schools in Northern Ireland. In the Christian Brothers School in Newry, where I was a day pupil, I was instructed that a sin is "any thought, word, or deed contrary to the Law of God." A mortal sin is "a thought, word, or deed which violates one of the essential prescriptions of God's law, and results in the loss of His friendship and of sanctifying grace" (Kelly 25). By committing a grave sin I break my relation to God, which remains ideal, an axiom of faith, till it is activated by prayer and the sacraments, especially penance and the Eucharist. I estrange myself from God in the most drastic way by committing a mortal sin. Three conditions are required that a sin be mortal: "grave matter, full advertence to what one is doing (perfect knowledge), and full consent of the will" (Kelly 26).
When I left secondary school, I went to Dublin as an undergraduate student at University College. There I exacerbated my sense of sin by reading with notable intensity the novels of James Joyce, Graham Greene, Francois Mauriac, and Georges Bernanos. I had not yet read Andre Dubus's "Adultery," a story that might have had much the same excruciating effect on me. I recall with particular clarity The Diary of a Country Priest and the conviction of sin it exposed. Joyce was even closer to home. In the fourth chapter of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus is pondering the priest's suggestion that he might have a vocation to the priesthood, but he reflects at the same time that the priest's appeal has not really touched him:
[...] He was destined to learn his own wisdom apart from others or to learn the wisdom of others himself wandering among the snares of the world.
The snares of the world were its ways of sin. He would fall. He had not yet fallen but he would fall silently, in an instant. Not to fall was too hard, too hard; and he felt the silent lapse of his soul, as it would be at some instant to come, falling, falling but not yet fallen, still unfallen but about to fall. (188)
Those sentences had for me the true scholastic clarity. They enforced a sense of sin that survives every urge on Stephen's part to make it yield to the aesthetic swoon of syllables, "falling but not yet fallen." The snares of the world were not merely figurative, as if fulfilling the logic of "wandering"; they waited to trap you into sin.
When I read Greene's The Heart of the Matter, I found Scobie's sense of sin so acute, unbeliever as in many respects he is, that I could even understand the moment in which he feels as temptation the possibility of doing the right thing: giving up his mistress, going to confession, and taking communion. His mistress Helen Rolt is so blank that she can't appreciate what it means for Scobie to be doomed to believe that he is in a state of sin:
"Well then," she said triumphantly, "be hung for a sheep. You are in—what do you call it?—mortal sin?—now. What difference does it make?"
He thought: pious people, I suppose, would call this the devil speaking, but he knew that evil never spoke in these crude answerable terms: that was innocence. He said, "There is a difference—a big difference. It's not easy to explain. Now I'm just putting our love above—well, my safety. But the other—the other's really evil. It's like the Black Mass, the man who steals the sacrament to desecrate it. It's striking God when he's down—in my power." (186-87)
Scobie can't bring himself to name the other sin he's referring to. It's blasphemy, as my Catholic education made clear, a sin against the Holy Ghost, far worse than the adultery Scobie has committed so often with Helen. When he goes to Mass with his wife and takes communion, he knows what he has done. He says to Helen:
I believe that I'm damned for all eternity—unless a miracle happens. [...] What I've done is far worse than murder—that's an act, a blow, a stab, a shot: it's over and done, but I'm carrying my corruption around with me. It's the coating of my stomach. (206)
I had no problem understanding Scobie. I found it more difficult to understand Helen's assured secular blackness, her inability to imagine what it would be to sin.
When I read The Scarlet Letter, I could not avoid feeling that Hawthorne, speaking of sin and sinfulness, had in view nothing as specific as Scobie's adultery and blasphemy. When he referred to sin, he seemed to assume a force of evil so pervasive that it did not need to be embodied in anyone or in any particular action. It was all general and vague, though it might be found consequential in families and generations, as in The House of the Seven Gables. The primary assumption was that God did not come into it: the soul's relation to God was not an issue. Neither Hester Prynne nor Arthur Dimmesdale acknowledges that adultery is a sin and that they stand in danger of eternal damnation: they have not repented, confessed their sin, or prayed for forgiveness. As late as Chapter 18, after the scene in the forest, Dimmesdale resolves to accept Hester's plan, abandon the community, and make a new life with Hester and Pearl in Europe. There is not a hint of remorse, contrition, or confession. Hester throws away the scarlet letter and lets her hair fall over her shoulders. "See! With this symbol, I undo it all, and make it as it had never been!" (145). The chapter is called "A Flood of Sunshine," and the sun comes out to rejoice that the lovers are together again now and for the apparent future:
Such was the sympathy of Nature—that wild, heathen Nature of the forest, never subjugated by human law, nor illumined by higher truth—with the bliss of these two spirits! Love, whether newly born, or aroused from a deathlike slumber, must always create a sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance, that it overflows upon the outward world. (145-46)
It overflows, too, apparently, upon the sin these lovers have committed and intend to commit again. The narrator—we may call this figure Hawthorne—seems to insist that love and nature are insuperable values, that morality has nothing to say to them. When Dimmesdale agrees to Hester's plan, Hawthorne writes:
[...] The decision once made, a glow of strange enjoyment threw its flickering brightness over the trouble of his breast. It was the exhilarating effect— upon a prisoner just escaped from the dungeon of his own heart—of breathing the wild, free atmosphere of an unredeemed, unchristianized, lawless region. His spirit rose, as it were, with a bound, and attained a nearer prospect of the sky, than throughout all the misery which had kept him grovelling on the earth. Of a deeply religious temperament, there was inevitably a tinge of the devotional in his mood.
"Do I feel joy again?" cried he, wondering at himself. "Methought the germ of it was dead in me! O Hester, thou art my better angel! I seem to have flung myself—sick, sin-stained, and sorrow-blackened—down upon these forest-leaves, and to have risen up all made anew, and with new powers to glorify Him that hath been merciful? This is already the better life! Why did we not find it sooner? (144-45)
All that Dimmesdale and Hester have done is to spend some hours in the forest rather than in the town, and enact a little pastoral of life without law, but that is enough. They have invoked the authority of the natural world and repudiated the Puritan law of their community, the settlement, the town. I do not claim it as a sufficient explanation that Hawthorne suffered from the disability of not being an Irish Catholic. In The Scarlet Letter, however, he invented two characters, Hester and Arthur, who do not believe that what they had done was a sin. On the contrary. "What we did had a consecration of its own," Hester says to Dimmesdale. "We felt it so! We said so to each other. Hast thou forgotten it?" and even though Dimmesdale subdues her intensity—"Hush, Hester!"—he also says, "No; I have not forgotten!" (140). That leaves open the question of Hawthorne's ability to imagine what it would be—or what it meant in the New England of the mid-seventeenth century—to commit a mortal sin. The sexual character of the relation between Hester and Dimmesdale is so vaguely rendered that only the existence of Pearl as a consequence of it makes it credible. Even if we add our own erotic imagination to Hawthorne's caution, it is still the case that he conceives of sin as a social transgression only, an act by which I isolate myself from the community to which I belong. That was not a consideration in Newry. I was taught to respect "the communion of saints," the spiritual solidarity that binds together the faithful on earth, the souls in purgatory, and the saints in heaven in the organic unity of the mystical body under Christ its head, but by committing a sin I was not conscious of offending the communion of saints—I was offending God alone. My relation to God was mediated by priests and the Church, not by any community to which I belonged. In Hawthorne, the terms of reference and rebuke are entirely social. The transgression is committed against the Puritan community. It is an act of pride, and it becomes even more scandalous if, like Dimmesdale, I keep it secret.
The community takes the place of God, according to the practice of a people "amongst whom religion and law," as Hawthorne says, "were almost identical" (41). The forms of authority in New England during the years of the story—1642 to 1649—"were felt to possess the sacredness of divine institutions" (51), but the understanding of "sacredness" and "divine" in that community was already, it appears, diminished, beginning to dwindle into a habit of social and civic life. If religion and law were almost one and the same, that one was almost entirely law. The sense of evil was moving from theology and morality to politics. Evil was incorrigible because no social institution could accommodate it. The Puritan community as Hawthorne depicts it was strikingly impoverished in ritual and symbolism, in its sense of the sacred, the transcendent, the numinous. The world according to Puritanism was ceasing to be sacred.
Hawthorne had no trouble imagining universal evil, Original Sin, without the theology of it. In "Earth's Holocaust" he attributes evil to a defect of "the Heart—there was the little, yet boundless sphere, wherein existed the original wrong, of which the crime and misery of this outward world were merely types." Purify that inner sphere, the narrator of "Earth's Holocaust" says, "and the many shapes of evil that haunt the outward, and which now seem almost our only realities, will turn to shadowy phantoms, and vanish of their own accord" (Tales 906). In Chapter 42 of The Marble Faun, Hilda and Kenyon talk about the possibly fortunate aspects of the Fall—the paradoxical felix culpa—and Miriam comes back to the question in conversation with Donatello and Kenyon in Chapter 47, but in the end Hawthorne lets the possibility drift out of sight. If a defect of "the Heart" accounts for "the original wrong," Hawthorne seems to have no capacity to imagine actual sin, the guilt of it, and the hope of forgiveness. He could imagine the Devil but not his works, their manifestation in particular acts. If you compare Hawthorne's sense of sin with the Puritan Thomas Hooker's, as in the sermon on "A True Sight of Sin," you find that Hooker's understanding of it is far more acute:
Now by sin we jostle the law out of its place and the Lord out of His glorious sovereignty, pluck the crown from His head and the scepter out of His hand; and we say and profess by our practice, there is not authority and power there to govern, nor wisdom to guide, nor good to content me, but I will be swayed by mine own will and led by mine own deluded reason and satisfied with my own lusts. (156)
Those are sentences of almost Catholic particularity. The worst that Hawthorne can say of sin in The Scarlet Letter is that it is psychologically damaging to the sinner and that the damage cannot be repaired. Hester knows why she has been ostracized: she has incurred social disgrace and the punishment of being for a time cast aside. She does not feel guilty, however. Nor does Dimmesdale: his actions are occluded by his hypocrisy. Even in his last hours he convicts himself not of actual sin but of sharing the universal sinfulness of mankind. In the conclusion to the book the narrator reports that according to certain "highly respectable witnesses" Dimmesdale "had desired, by yielding up his breath in the arms of that fallen woman, to express to the world how utterly nugatory is the choicest of man's own righteousness." It is a moral lesson so general that no particular soul need tremble on learning it After exhausting life "in his efforts for mankind's spiritual good, Dimmesdale had made the manner of his death a parable, in order to impress on his admirers the mighty and mournful lesson, that, in the view of Infinite Purity, we are sinners all alike" (182). That is for Infinite Purity, not Dimmesdale, to say.
In "The Minister's Black Veil" Hooper's most memorable sermon is on secret sin "and those sad mysteries which we hide from our nearest and dearest, and would fain conceal from our own consciousness, even forgetting that the Omniscient can detect them" (Tales 373). However, the fact that the Omniscient can detect my sins is no strong reason for me to broadcast them to the neighborhood. "If I hide my face for sorrow," Hooper says, "there is cause enough. [...] And if I cover it for secret sin, what mortal might not do the same?" This may be true, or it may not:
"Why do you tremble at me alone?" cried he, turning his veiled face round the circle of pale spectators. "Tremble also at each other! Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil? What, by the mystery which it obscurely typifies, has made this piece of crape so awful? When the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend; the lover to his best-beloved; when man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin; then deem me a monster, for the symbol beneath which I have lived, and die! I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!" (Tales 383-84)
At that moment Hooper should not be looking around him or comparing his black veil with other black veils that should be there. Besides, the parable is specious. Despite the view attributed to Infinite Purity, we are not sinners all alike: Charles Manson is not the same as Mother Teresa; Chillingworth is not the same as Hester and Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale knows this, at least on one occasion: "We are not, Hester, the worst sinners in the world. There is one worse than even the polluted priest! That old man's revenge has been blacker than my sin. He has violated, in cold blood, the sanctity of a human heart. Thou and I, Hester, never did so!" (140). The theology of Original Sin does not hold that in our actual sins we are sinners indistinguishable from one another.
To Hawthorne, it appears that a sin is an act, a condition, a state of consciousness, such that I will not reveal it to my community—or indeed to anyone. The sin consists in my refusal to come clean and to tell the neighbors what I have done. It is Ethan Brand's unpardonable sin. It is also Hooper's, because he refuses to disclose himself to his community, least of all to his fiancée Elizabeth. In The Marble Faun Hilda goes to confession, though she is not a Catholic, but the confession is a travesty: what she has to tell the priest is not her own sin but Miriam's. When the priest asks her, with just asperity, what she thinks she is doing in the confessional, Hilda grasps at the nearest excuse: "It seemed as if I made the awful guilt my own, by keeping it hidden in my heart" (359). Dimmesdale reveals his sin at the last moment, saved by his dying from the punishment that should follow the confession. He is redeemed, in a sense, but he does not suffer punishment in the communal terms in which he committed the sin—except for the consideration, grave indeed, that the community will not remember him as a saint. In a modern retelling of the story of The Scarlet Letter—the film The Crime of Padre Amaro—the priest keeps his secret from the community and gets away with it, even to the extent of continuing to be revered as a holy man. Hawthorne's Hester is punished by the community she has offended: she has not been able to keep her secret, Pearl being the evidence of her sin. According to Hawthorne, the concealment is more lethal than the sin concealed, because it undermines the community and makes it impossible, even for the individual, to know which of his faces is the true one—if any of them can be true, given the concealment. As Hawthorne writes in The Scarlet Letter, "No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true" (154). What Hooper's sin is, or has been, there is no telling. Hawthorne does not say, nor is it necessary to say. Secrecy completes the sin in the only form that matters. Hawthorne is apparently unable or unwilling to imagine a sin in any other terms.
Two possible interpretations suggest themselves. One is that Hawthorne was fully capable of imagining actual sin but, in presenting Hester and Dimmesdale, chose not to. According to this view, the main nuance of the book consists in the fact that the sinful characters—or rather one of them, Hester, since Dimmesdale's public confession is made too late to affect the course of things—are condemned by the community to which they belong but that they are not guilty in their own eyes. As in the forest, they appeal beyond culture to nature. The second possibility is that Hawthorne was indeed incapable of imagining an actual sin as distinct from universal—and universally vague—evil, Adam's curse falling indiscriminately on the entire human race. It is worth noting how often in Hawthorne's fiction a character who might be thought to have committed a sin appeals beyond the deed to the incorrigible action of Fate. In The Marble Faun the evil specter that haunts Miriam tells her that they are bound together by fate: "But, Miriam, believe me, it is not your fate to die, while there remains so much to be sinned and suffered in the world. We have a destiny, which we must needs fulfill together" (94). In The Scarlet Letter Hester begs Chillingworth to forgive her and Dimmesdale:
"Peace, Hester, peace!" replied the old man, with gloomy sternness. "It is not granted me to pardon. I have no such power as thou tellest me of. My old faith, long forgotten, comes back to me, and explains all that we do, and all we suffer. By that first step awry, thou didst plant the germ of evil; but, since that moment, it has all been a dark necessity. Ye that have wronged me are not sinful, save in a kind of typical illusion; neither am I fiend-like, who have snatched a fiend's office from his hands. It is our fate. Let the black flower blossom as it may! (126)
Chillingworth recites this version of Calvinism in his own favor, even though he offers it equally to Hester and Dimmesdale, who have not asked for it.
In the years since I first read The Scarlet Letter, I have noted a few accounts of Hawthorne that propose to explain why his sense of universal evil was far more pronounced than his sense of actual sin. Two of these call for particular consideration. In his monograph on Hawthorne, Henry James claims that "the Puritan strain in his blood ran clear" and that, to Hawthorne as to his ancestors, "the consciousness of sin was the most importunate fact of life" (325-26). James comes back to that emphasis forty pages later when he speaks of the purity, spontaneity, and naturalness of Hawthorne's fancy. It is interesting, James says, to see how "the imagination, in this capital son of the old Puritans, reflected the hue of the purely moral part, of the dusky, overshadowed conscience." That conscience, "by no fault of its own, in every genuine offshoot of that sombre lineage, lay under the shadow of the sense of sin" (362). As he takes up the theme, however, James nearly removes the shadow of the sense of sin by arguing that it formed merely one of the conditions of Hawthorne's art and that, within limits, Hawthorne was free to act upon it as he wished. It turns out that among the possible ways of acting upon it Hawthorne's was the best, for "he contrived, by an exquisite process, best known to himself, to transmute this heavy moral burden into the very substance of the imagination, to make it evaporate in the light and charming fumes of artistic production." Nothing is more curious and interesting, James claims, than "this almost exclusively imported character of the sense of sin in Hawthorne's mind; it seems to exist there merely for an artistic or literary purpose." Hawthorne's relation to his inheritance, the Puritan conscience, was "only, as one may say, intellectual; it was not moral and theological." He played with it:
He was not discomposed, disturbed, haunted by it, in the manner of its usual and regular victims, who had not the little postern door of fancy to slip through, to the other side of the wall. It was, indeed, to his imaginative vision, the great fact of man's nature; the light element that had been mingled with his own composition always clung to this rugged prominence of moral responsibility, like the mist that hovers about the mountain. (363)
In this strange monograph James is determined to present Hawthorne's genius as light and airy, and to say that it is beautiful to the degree of its playfulness. He speaks of Hawthorne's imagination as taking license to amuse itself, even to the extent of converting the principle of the Puritan conscience into one of his toys. "When he was lightest at heart, he was most creative," James claims. Hawthorne judged "the old Puritan moral sense, the consciousness of sin and hell, of the fearful nature of our responsibilities and the savage character of our Taskmaster," from the poetic and aesthetic point of view, which James describes in this case dismissively as "the point of view of entertainment and irony." The absence of conviction, James says, "makes the difference; but the difference is great" (365). It shows itself in "Young Goodman Brown," a magnificent romance that "evidently means nothing as regards Hawthorne's own state of mind, his conviction of human depravity and his consequent melancholy; for the simple reason that if it meant anything, it would mean too much" (396). James does not say that Hawthorne's imagination was cynical, but he allows us to infer that it was and that the airy quality of his mind was consistent with his decision to acknowledge his inherited burdens mainly by taking them lightly and putting them aside. His Puritan precursors, in James's spirited account of them, were "a handful of half-starved fanatics." That they played a part in "laying the foundations of a mighty empire" (368) is true enough and demands to be acknowledged in their favor, but the truth once acknowledged is sufficiently attested: it is not necessary to keep on thanking them. Hawthorne, according to James, saw no reason to be forever afflicted by the New England to which he felt himself natively bound. James is even prepared to include Hawthorne's recourse to romance, allegory, and symbolism in the list of devices for lightness. It was as if Hawthorne released himself from the burdens of realism—of living up to the responsibilities of that genre—by turning to romance, allegory, and symbolism, which James regards as among the lighter resolves of literature. Readers who like those forms of fiction, James maintains, enjoy having a story told "as if it were another and a very different story" (366). Hawthorne is made to appear almost debonair.
It is not surprising that James condescended to Hawthorne and thought of him as a first draft of what a major American novelist might be. It is hard to avoid the conclusion, reading James's monograph, that it was Hawthorne's highest honor that he was superseded, in every respect that mattered, by Henry James. This is the implication, apparently, of Hawthorne's recourse to the poetic and aesthetic devices: they delivered him from heavy matters into charming instances of weightlessness. This interpretation has proved persuasive to some readers, including Q. D. Leavis who thinks it splendid, apparently, that Hawthorne escaped from religion into a deeper psychology. Writing of "Young Goodman Brown," she says:
Hawthorne has imaginatively recreated for the reader that Calvinist sense of sin, that theory which did in actuality shape the early social and spiritual history of New England. But in Hawthorne, by a wonderful feat of transmutation, it has no religious significance[;] it is as a psychological state that it is explored. Young Goodman Brown's Faith is not faith in Christ but faith in human beings, and losing it he is doomed to isolation forever. (45)
To move with such ease from a reference to the Calvinist sense of sin to a representation of it as a theory is to appreciate that Mrs. Leavis took a light view of it in any designation. The move from religion into psychology is to be seen as self-evidently a triumph.
James's reading of Hawthorne, however, has not been found decisive. We are inclined to read Hawthorne's fictions differently and to have "Young Goodman Brown" mean too much rather than that it should mean nothing. Nevertheless, the charge of an absence of conviction on Hawthorne's part is hard to refute—that is, if it is a charge rather than, as James seems to hold, merely an engaging trait. If we think of it in cultural and historical terms, it makes a difference of two hundred years during which the American sense of sin nearly disappeared in the Unitarianism that was as much of Christianity as Hawthorne was prepared to maintain. Hawthorne makes this clear in a passage from "Main Street." He has been referring to the earliest settlement in New England and praising his good fortune that he did not have to live there:
Happy are we, if for nothing else, yet because we did not live in those days. In truth, when the first novelty and stir of spirit had subsided,—when the new settlement, between the forest-border and the sea, had become actually a little town,—its daily life must have trudged onward with hardly anything to diversify and enliven it, while also its rigidity could not fail to cause miserable distortions of the moral nature. Such a life was sinister to the intellect, and sinister to the heart; especially when one generation had bequeathed its religious gloom, and the counterfeit of its religious ardor, to the next; for these characteristics, as was inevitable, assumed the form both of hypocrisy and exaggeration, by being inherited from the example and precept of other human beings, and not from an original and spiritual source. (Tales 1038)
Hawthorne's reference to "the counterfeit of its religious ardor" shows more malice than one would have anticipated. He seems to think, in those last sentences, that everyone should invent a new religion every morning, which is probably what Hawthorne deduced from Ralph Waldo Emerson's conversations. He rounds out his reflection this way:
The sons and grandchildren of the first settlers were a race of lower and narrower souls than their progenitors had been. The latter were stern, severe, intolerant, but not superstitious, not even fanatical; and endowed, if any men of that age were, with a far-seeing worldly sagacity. But it was impossible for the succeeding race to grow up, in Heaven's freedom, beneath the discipline which their gloomy energy of character had established; nor, it may be, have we even yet thrown off all the unfavorable influences which, among many good ones, were bequeathed to us by our Puritan forefathers. Let us thank God 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. (Tales 1038-39)
The God who is to be thanked, apparently, might just as well be called "the march of ages" or the Zeitgeist.
A second explanation for Hawthorne's equivocal sense of sin is implicit in Allen Tate's essay on Emily Dickinson, especially in the form in which it was expanded and in some details modified by R. P. Blackmur's essay on that poet. Together their argument amounts to a brisk reading of American literary history in the persons of Hawthorne, Emerson, Dickinson, and James. The gist of the case is that Dickinson came at a time that may have been dangerous to her soul but was enabling on many occasions to her poems— a time when the theocracy of New England had nearly collapsed but was still felt as sufficiently in force to be interrogated and challenged, mocked as often as respected. While it lasted, contends Tate, and whether we approve of its having lasted or not, the theocracy had "an immense, incalculable value for literature: it dramatized the human soul." It gave meaning to life, "the life of pious and impious, of learned and vulgar alike" (283). Tate notes that Puritanism could not be to Dickinson "what it had been to the generation of Cotton Mather—a body of absolute truths; it was an unconscious discipline timed to the pulse of her life" (294). Blackmur veers somewhat from Tate at this point: he does not believe that Puritanism was for Dickinson an unconscious discipline or that the timing was right for her pulse:
Spiritual meaning and psychic stability were no longer the unconscious look and deep gesture worn and rehearsed life-long; they required the agony of doubt and the trial of deliberate expression in specifically, willfully objective form. Faith was sophisticated, freed, and terrified—but still lived; imagination had suddenly to do all the work of embodying faith formerly done by habit, and to embody it with the old machinery so far as it could be used. (Selected Essays 178)
In such conditions, faith—in the hands of the individual and while the institutions of faith are crumbling—"becomes an imaginative experiment of which all the elements are open to new and even blasphemous combinations, and which is subject to the addition of new insights." It was as if Dickinson lived in the doldrums but could remember a time when the winds of doctrine blew with enough force to compel behavior, and as if in some degree she still felt the winds blowing, though not compellingly. Puritanism was no longer much good as doctrine, insight, or received wisdom, but it was good enough to be teased, provoked, interrogated. The theocracy was still there as machinery, though feeble for any more personal purpose. As a result, Dickinson could have only an experimental relation to it, but that was what she needed, her sensibility being as it was. She came at the most fortunate moment for the poetry she had to write, "the poetry of sophisticated, eccentric vision," as Blackmur calls it (Selected Essays 195). It had to be eccentric because it did not issue from a living and central tradition of faith and practice, but it had nearly commensurate advantages. Summing up a good deal of detail, Blackmur claims that "the great advantage for a poet to come at a time of disintegrating culture is [that] the actuality of what we are and what we believe is suddenly seen to be nearly meaningless as habit, and must, to be adequately known, be translated to the terms and modes of the imagination" (Selected Essays 179). Not every poet can make the most of these conditions. Some poets wither when they find that the imagination has to do all the work for itself.
Emerson, according to this emphasis in Tate and Blackmur, hardly knew what he was doing, but he ended up removing any tragic possibilities from the culture he addressed. The effect of Emerson's doctrine of individualism is that "there is no drama in human character because there is no tragic fault" (Tate 285). There is no sin, no action for which anyone would think of seeking forgiveness. "Hawthorne alone in his time," Tate says, "kept pure, in the primitive terms, the primitive vision; he brings the [P]uritan tragedy to its climax." Man, "measured by a great idea outside himself, is found wanting" (Tate 284). The only evidence of this purity of vision, however, is that Hawthorne kept looking back at a cultural milieu in nearly every respect intractable. Tate and Blackmur did not take Hawthorne as lightly as James did nor did they think of the aesthetic project as removing his burdens. It must count for something that he kept looking back, across a gap of two hundred years, and that his historical sense was more or less adequate to the looking. Blackmur thought that Hawthorne's devices enabled him to see a lot and to circumvent what he did not want to engage with directly: "Some say Hawthorne was a great student of evil; I think rather he studied how to avoid and ignore it by interposing the frames of his tales between evil and the experience of it" (Outsider 272). Perhaps that is to say that Hawthorne saw evil as omnivorous but diffuse and that his imagination was not willing to identify evil with its local manifestations. There had to be more evil at large than he could specify. If Hawthorne rejected the world, however, it was not done lightheartedly. Tate says:
Mastery of the world by rejecting the world was the doctrine, even if it was not always the practice, of Jonathan Edwards and Cotton Mather. It is the meaning of fate in Hawthorne: his people are fated to withdraw from the world and to be destroyed. And it is one of the great themes of Henry James.
Still, the theme was much diminished by the time it reached James:
Between Hawthorne and James lies an epoch. The temptation to sin, in Hawthorne, is, in James, transformed into the temptation not to do the "decent thing." A whole world-scheme, a complete cosmic background, has shrunk to the dimensions of the individual conscience. (287)
Tate does not go on to say that the individual conscience finds it possible to reduce spiritual doubt to misgiving, morality to successive judgments of taste, and the question of salvation to the achievement of a personal style in the world. Nor does Tate say, as M. H. Abrams does in Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature, that in later nineteenth-century and some twentieth-century writers the religious paradigms are remembered while their content and the conviction that sustained them lapsed, as we see if we go from reading William Wordsworth to reading Wallace Stevens. In Stevens' "Sunday Morning" the machinery is still there, though the poem derides it: it is Christianity, "the grave of Jesus, where he lay," but the dominant speaker of the poem walks away from the grave, remarking merely that "We live in an old chaos of the sun" (8). The situation is the one that G. W. F. Hegel anticipated in the preface to Phenomenology of Spirit when he claimed that one's sensory power is "so fast rooted in earthly things" that it requires force to raise it: "The Spirit shows itself as so impoverished that, like a wanderer in the desert craving a mere mouthful of water, it seems to crave for its refreshment only the bare feeling of the divine in general. By the little which now satisfies Spirit, we can measure the extent of its loss" (5). Perhaps Hawthorne, too, decided that the Puritan theocracy, whatever its values were, was such that it must fail and must survive only in the equivocal lore of its early history. Or that it must take a secular, worldly form— Franklinism, we call it—if it were to be invoked for what it once was. In 1937 T. S. Eliot wrote:
In the Puritan morality that I remember, it was tacitly assumed that if one was thrifty, enterprising, intelligent, practical and prudent in not violating social conventions, one ought to have a happy and 'successful' life. Failure was due to some weakness or perversity peculiar to the individual; but the decent man need have no nightmares. It is now rather more common to assume that all individual misery is the fault of 'society', and is remediable by alterations from without. Fundamentally, the two philosophies, however different they may appear in operation, are the same. It seems to me that all of us, so far as we attach ourselves to created objects and surrender our wills to temporal ends, are eaten by the same worm. (xii-xiii)
Hawthorne would not have put the case in those terms. He might not even have viewed such developments with Eliot's mixture of dismay and contempt. Not that Hawthorne had a good word to say of New England Puritanism. In "The May-Pole of Merry Mount," "Endicott and the Red Cross," "Dr. Bullivant," "Main Street," and other stories and sketches, he associates it with unremitting joylessness and gloom, the Puritan sermons being "cruel torturings and twistings of trite ideas, disgusting by the wearisome ingenuity which constitutes their only merit" (Tales 34-35). Hawthorne's operative values are nonetheless predicated on the community that received those ideas. It is as if he dreamed that a culture that thought of religion and law as one and the same might one day replace law with far more genial practices, resulting in what Emile Durkheim called "effervescence," the free vitality of people when they come together as a community. In "The May-Pole of Merry Mount" such a community is imagined in the festive practice of dance and freedom, nature and culture at one, religion incorporating for the day its emblems of the heathen carnival, including "an English priest, canonically dressed, yet decked with flowers, in heathen fashion, and wearing a chaplet of the native vine leaves." "By the riot of his rolling eye," Hawthorne reports, "and the pagan decorations of his holy garb, he seemed the wildest monster there, and the very Comus of the crew" (Tales 362). However, when the Puritans discover these mummeries, that Shakespearean comedy of the green world, their governor John Endicott destroys the festival and punishes the revelers. Hawthorne writes, in terms similar to those of The Scarlet Letter:
The future complexion of New England was involved in this important quarrel. Should the grisly saints establish their jurisdiction over the gay sinners, then would their spirits darken all the clime, and make it a land of clouded visages, of hard toil, of sermon and psalm, forever. But should the banner-staff of Merry Mount be fortunate, sunshine would break upon the hills, and flowers would beautify the forest, and late posterity do homage to the May-Pole! (Tales 366)
Still, it is an imported carnival, as the reference to Comus makes clear; it is not indigenous to its culture. What goes on in the midnight forest of "Young Goodman Brown" is a malign fiesta equal and opposite to the dances at Merry Mount, and even if we think, with Blackmur, that "the Devil is in the Forest, but the forest is within and the devil is ourselves" (Outsider 274), the values to which Hawthorne appeals are communal and the questions remain the same ones: What makes a good society? Can any society accommodate one's nightmares, Goodman Brown's most appalling fears and desires?
Two forces it cannot accommodate: secrecy and egotism. It hardly matters what Reverend Hooper has done, in comparison with the insistence of his secrecy. Secrecy makes the social definition of life a sham. As for egotism, Hawthorne gives it a story to itself, according to which Roderick Elliston is brought to say: "'Could I, for one instant, forget myself, the serpent might not abide within me. It is my diseased self-contemplation that has engendered and nourished him!'" (Tales 793). Before his protagonist reaches this degree of wisdom, however, Hawthorne makes a psychological generalization: "All persons, chronically diseased, are egotists, whether the disease be of the mind or body; whether it be sin, sorrow, or merely the more tolerable calamity of some endless pain, or mischief among the cords of mortal life. Such individuals are made acutely conscious of a self, by the torture in which it dwells" (Tales 785). The only release for Roderick is in his wife's voice: "Then forget yourself, my husband [...] forget yourself in the idea of another!" (Tales 793).
If in Hawthorne's fiction, as I have been arguing, God has been replaced by the idea of community, how does Hawthorne find it possible to give the idea of community such privilege? Communities easily if not always turn to crowds, crowds into monsters, Nuremberg rallies, marches on Rome. Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough and Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power should be enough to make anyone skeptical about the sentimentalizing of a community. Durkheim thought that religion was the origin of society and societies developed their own vital energy, which might take various forms, genial or violent. His sociology of "effervescence" is based on that vision. In 1936, however, his associate Marcel Mauss worried that Durkheim and his pupils—Mauss included—had not sufficiently taken into account the communal forces that made Fascism possible and perhaps inevitable (see Ramp 145). One could not take the harm out of Fascism and Nazism by calling them effervescent. In "My Kinsman, Major Molyneux" the contagion of the crowd makes Robin join in the laughter mocking his kinsman, an old Englishman driven through the town in tar and feathers, humiliated, a spectacle. This may be a prophecy of the American War of Independence, and Robin's laughter may be a sign of the effervescence of colonial America. However we interpret the story, Robin learns that he has become a stranger to himself, bewildered among his surroundings. He may stay in town and make his fortune without the patronage of his kinsman, but he has lost his innocence: the crowd has taken it from him. Perhaps it is a blessing, or may in time come to appear such, but it is also a painful lesson about individuals and communities.
I said at the beginning that Hawthorne equivocates among his values. Blackmur settles for thinking that the allegory, even of The Scarlet Letter, is reductive, making a contrast with Dante's:
In Dante's allegory every adventure is met[,] and what is met signifies further than had been known or intended, in prospect endlessly. Dante commands us what to bring by the authority of what is there. Hawthorne allows us to put in what we will at our own or a lesser level. Dante's allegory gives force to our own words—and thus to our thoughts as they find words—that they never previously had. Hawthorne's allegory lets our words seem good enough as they are, so that at best they only pass for thought. Dante's allegory is constructive, Hawthorne's allegory is reductive. Even the allegory of The Scarlet Letter is reductive of the values concerned; it is in the twilit limbo of virtue and knowledge—virtute e conoscenza—not in the light and dark of the continuing enterprise.
I would add only a remark, that equivocation and reductiveness amount to much the same thing, the same predicament. Neither of them can be in prospect endless. It appears that Hawthorne could not make up his mind whether the sense of community was good enough to live by at full stretch or only to fall back on. It was all he had, once he had replaced God with community and dissolved religion in psychology. Nor could he decide whether a sin was a fierce and willful act of the individual soul or merely a symptom, a shadow, of universal evil. Either way, he could not work his values or drive his allegory with force, like Dante's, not merely personal. Blackmur lets him rest on what he could do:
We cannot always be about mastering life; it is altogether sweet to put life off and give it the lie, and it is altogether proper to reduce life to a little less than our own size by the pretense either that we are bigger than life or that we are outcast. Hawthorne is an excellent help to these refuges, the more so if his language and conventions differ from ours. It is like saying, "I love you," in French; it is not so very different and, the first time, much more charming. (Outsider 275)
The collocation here of "sweet" and "charming," however, makes Blackmur's Hawthorne indistinguishable from James's; it also makes us think the Hester's and Dimmesdale's sins are only social misdemeanors. If that were true, The Scarlet Letter would not be worth comparing, as I think it should be compared, with Wuthering Heights.
There are crucial differences. In Wuthering Heights there is the life re presented by Thrushcross Grange, and there is the more pervasive life proceeding in place and time—the apple-picking, the harvest, Linton's crocuses, Mrs. Dean sweeping the hearth, the sound of Gimmerton's chapel bells, the ousels. The surge of energy between Catherine and Heathcliff is to be felt in relation to those ordinary, seasonal activities, the lives that go along with other lives. There is nothing convincingly realized to compare with that in The Scarlet Letter. Even the great romantic gestures, such as Hester's claim of consecration, are mild by comparison with Catherine's claim in her conversation with Nelly:
It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff, now; so he shall never know how I love him; and that, not because he's handsome, Nelly, but because he's more myself than I am . . . My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods. Time will change it, I'm well aware, as winter changes the trees—my love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath—a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff—he's always, always in my mind—not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself—but, as my own being. (80-81)
The violence of the revenge play of Heathcliff, Catherine, and Linton is voided in The Scarlet Letter by having the relation between Hester and Chillingworth cold from the start, and Hester's relation to Dimmesdale a thing apart, separate from Chillingworth's enmity toward Dimmesdale. By comparison with Emily Bronte's audacity, her extremity and reach of desire, Hawthorne is almost genteel. He seems to ask us to write some of the book on his behalf by inferring the limits to which he is not quite willing to go, but he gives us enough to make us willing to infer the rest.
New York University
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