Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter was published on this day in 1850. Garrison Keillor points out that the book lays claim to being the Great American Novel because it was the first big book to sell well, but I would make the statement that it is the Great American Novel for another reason: it actually is the most fundamental work of literature we have produced in this country, the one that reveals the most about ways of thinking common to most of us.
I make the statement with a smile upon my face, meaning I’m willing to argue about it pleasantly, but I really do believe Hawthorne’s book–which I’ve not read in over thirty years–is that book. No other novel has revealed so clearly the liberal spirit at war with the puritanical spirit in this country, or the hypocrisy created when those two spirits are confused with each other. Our urgency to let our human passions and sexual impulses express themselves has always been in conflict with the restraints imposed by our moral codes and religions; and those in the service of those moral codes and religions have always been more than a little hypocritical in attacking what they regard as sin and defending their own behavior. Hawthorne traces the conflict back to the New England colonies, but the attitudes he explores and exposes can be found deeply rooted in the anti-violence movement of the 1970s (which rebelled against even the cartoon-like violence of television series like The Wild Wild West) and in our more contemporary struggles against human trafficking and the abuse of children by the Catholic Church, among other groups.
Hawthorne saw the wild split in us (embodied for me in the manic, mercurial swings of personalities like Elvis Presley and Jimmy Swaggart), but even he couldn’t fathom how deep the fissure goes. We might–might–be able to repair the cracks in our souls if we would choose to be one or the other, secular or religious, but we don’t want to. We either think that we need both secular thought and religious faith, or we believe that the freedom we say we support involves letting the two entities coexist together. Or we could begin to become a less divided society by realizing that secularism has a great deal of faith embedded within it and is even now a powerful force for good on the planet, but the realization of that hope is a long way off, and Hawthorne couldn’t have foreseen its benefits any more than we do.
What Hawthorne did do was hedge his bet. He was not at all sure that The Scarlet Letter was going to be successful. (He knew, just like Melville knew, that he had written a “wicked” book.) If the book was published by itself but did not sell, Hawthorne would be left with nothing. The best chance of ensuring at least some success would be to publish it with some shorter tales, so that is what Hawthorne did. He was aware of the highly-charged sexual theme of the novel, but aware also–because of the conflicts within our own responses to that sexuality–that it had to be handled carefully. This Hawthorne does, in a subtle, even genius-like way. We have not improved on the tale by bringing Hester Prynne’s sexuality to the forefront, as was done in the Demi Moore movie from the 1990s. Hawthorne’s point–that the sacredness of sexuality is best expressed privately–is all the more powerful by being made subtly. Only the novel itself strikes the necessary tone.