Politics & Policy

Hester Prynne, Feminist Heroine?

Revising Hawthorne.

According to the July 8 New York Times, last week’s National Endowment for the Arts report, “Reading At Risk,” “describes a precipitous downward trend in book consumption by Americans and a particular decline in the reading of fiction, poetry and drama.”

#ad#The Times, though, takes this anemic “consumption” in stride. Since, thanks to technology, people today supposedly “know more than they ever have,” what’s really the worth of all those books? This insouciance fits the new liberal elite’s mistrust of what used to be called “high culture.” But it disguises the major cause for the demise of literature in contemporary society: Schools that teach only with a view to “race, class, and gender”–in other words, only with a view to contemporary fixations rather than to timeless truth and beauty. You can more easily find race, class, and gender in the pages of the New York Times–so who needs a book?

You don’t need to look far for timely examples of the betrayal of literature by its would-be guardians. For example, instead of hanging with the family and watching fireworks on the Cape, this July 4th weekend I traveled to Salem, Mass., to join the Nathaniel Hawthorne Society in celebrating the 200th birthday of America’s first great novelist. In several of his stories, Hawthorne imagines the possibility of discovering a potion or magical means of prolonging life for centuries. If he could see what transpires in his name today, he might have second thoughts.

As a literary dilettante, I presented a journalistic piece on President Bush’s Bioethics Council’s discussion of Hawthorne’s story “The Birth-Mark,” with which the Council began its remarkable deliberations back in 2002. I expected to arrive in Salem and find fellow devotees dressed up like old Nat, reciting his poetic prose rhapsodically. Instead, I ran into a lot of English professors, burnishing their careers with little nuggets from the scholarship mines–and an entire scholarly society that seems suddenly (and strangely late) to have awakened to leftist literary criticism.

The conference’s first full day belonged to that friend of all literary critics, “the other.” (By definition, the oppressed other.) It began with “Questions of Race,” “Hawthorne and Others” (I and II), “Psychoanalytical Approaches,” and a plenary paper happily entitled, “Red Man’s Grave.” But for the rest of the conference, the female other took center stage. Thus we had “Questions of Gender” (also I and II–as one amused onlooker quipped: “Gender II, This Time It’s Personal”), and another plenary paper on “Hawthorne’s Early Tales: Male Authorship, Domestic Violence, and Female Readers.” This last item argued that Hawthorne held off publishing his domestically disturbing tales until his later collections, so as not to scare off readership among the fair sex. When I pointed out that “Wakefield,” published in his first collection (Twice-Told Tales), offers about as chilling an example of marital dissolution and personal cruelty as I can imagine, the presenter responded, “Well, this distinction’s not meant to be scientific.” (Of course not.)

You might think feminist and other countercultural literary critics would take a hard line on an author who loved cigars, acquiesced in slavery, and often poked fun at women in his notebooks and even his published pieces. But Hawthorne gets a pass. He’s a good guy. I suspect that’s due in part to his being a lifelong democrat and strikingly handsome. I even heard one scholar claim that he supported abortion rights. But most of all it’s due to his creation Hester Prynne, she of the scarlet letter. You see, by wearing her brand of shame proudly, as one presenter put it, “She took a stand for all women.” Over lunch I ran the risk of pointing out that Hester did nothing “for women,” that she was an adulteress, that she never repented of her sin, that the supposedly oppressive Boston puritans let her off lightly, and that the novel gives us every reason to suspect that she–like several of the other main characters–dies a damned soul. That’s why it’s dark and gripping. This reading didn’t win me any friends.

The feminist approach also played a large role in the celebration’s climax, the birthday dinner at the Hawthorne Hotel. As at any such party, the relatives showed up, in this case comprising over 20 members of four generations of Hawthorne’s descendants. There was an all-too-brief toast to the author’s memory, and one warm-hearted Hawthornian led the crowd in a bellowing rendition of “Happy Birthday, Nathaniel.”

And there were speeches. The keynote address came from a noted–you guessed it!–feminist interpreter of Hawthorne, whose paper can be summarized thus: The House of the Seven Gables has a protagonist. Her name is Hepzibah Pyncheon. She is, one notes with amazement, a woman. Protagonist–woman: Now put those observations together. Hawthorne made a woman the heroine of his novel! He was undoubtedly an early “friend of women.”

Not everyone at the conference bought into this inanity. I spent much of my time hanging out with the phalanx of Hawthorne scholars from Japan. They betrayed charmingly little interest in post-structuralist, psychoanalytic, or feminist readings of Hawthorne. They did pepper me with questions about the Bioethics Council’s discussion of him–an event few of the American Hawthornians seemed aware of–and they enjoyed talking about their favorite stories. At one point I asked their dean, “I always thought of Japan as a highly rational, scientifically ordered society. What explains Hawthorne’s popularity among you?” He laughed and responded, “Inside, we Japanese have very dark souls. We love Hawthorne.”

It’s good someone does, for otherwise it was pretty hard to feel the love. Besides hosting the conference, the city of Salem–where Hawthorne was born and spent his formative years–did little to fete its most famous son. And on a tour to the original House of Seven Gables, my group was punished for our interest by a jejune guide who snickered at his own dispensations of architectural trivia, and who didn’t even know the location, in the house, of some of the story’s most important events. My fellow tourists learned more than anyone should want to know about 18th-century rich folk and French verdigris paint. But this experience gave them no reason to love or even read the novel.

In this respect, my callow tour guide only sadly aped the more established, professorial trustees of Hawthorne’s legacy. They don’t demonize Hawthorne; they don’t kick him out of the liberal canon. Instead, they poison him with their praise and turn him into nothing but a mouthpiece of contemporary “wisdom”: someone you could imagine tossing out his old books and cuddling up with a fresh copy of the New York Times.

Albert Keith Whitaker is an adjunct assistant professor at Boston College’s philosophy department.

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