A Pilgrim’s Progress: Nathaniel Hawthorne Reconsidered

At first glance, Nathaniel Hawthorne seems the quintessential Yankee, one not at all likely to be claimed or adopted by Southerners. His great, great, great grandfather, William Hathorne, came to America with John Winthrop’s company in 1630. William and his son John were Puritans; they are conspicuous in history books as great persecutors of Quakers and witches. The second Hathorne born in America was a farmer, while the next two heirs, Daniel and Nathaniel (the last, father to the novelist) were shipmasters. So our Nathaniel, who added the “w” to his family’s name in deference to its ancient spelling, was from Salem, Massachusetts, and he descended from old New England stock. To make matters worse for this claim of kinship with Hawthorne, he was married to Sophia Peabody, whose sisters, Elizabeth and Mary, were very active in much of New England’s avant-gardism: Transcendentalism, aboli­tionism, and social and educational reform movements.

Men who have studied Hawthorne’s life and writings have called him a Transcendentalist, a Puritan agnostic, a Puritan, a Christian humanist, a conservative Unitarian, and a pil­grim on his way to Rome. In various stages of his life, and in selected passages from his journals, sketches and fiction, he does evince aspects of all of the above except Puritan agnos­ticism. As far as I know, no one has ever called him a South­ern sympathizer. Yet he can be claimed as a Southern parti­san in view of several of his distinctly Southern attitudes.

Consider his attitude toward the Constitution, abolition­ists, slavery, Providence, and human nature in his campaign biography of Franklin Pierce (1852):

…merely human wisdom and human efforts cannot subvert slavery, except by tearing to pieces the Constitu­tion, breaking the pledges which it sanctions, and sever­ing into distracted fragments that common country which Providence brought into one nation, through a continued miracle of almost two hundred years, . . . The statesman of practical sagacity—who loves his country as it is, and evolves good from things as they exist, and who demands to feel his firm grasp upon a better reality before he quits the one already gained—mil be likely here, with all the greatest statesmen of America, to stand in the attitude of a conservative…. Those North­ern men, therefore, who deem the great cause of human welfare as represented and involved in this present hos­tility against Southern institutions, and who conceive that the world stands still except so far as it goes forward–these, it may be allowed, can scarcely give their sympathy or their confidence to the subject of this memoir. But there is still another view, and probably as wise a one. It looks upon slavery as one of those evils which divine Providence does not leave to be remedied by human contrivances, but which, in its own good time, by some means impossible to be anticipated, but of the simplest and easiest operation, when all its uses shall have been fulfilled, it causes to vanish like a dream. There is no instance, in all history, of the human will and intellect having perfected any great moral reform by methods which it adapted to that end; but the progress of the world, at every step, leaves some evil or wrong on the path behind it, which the wisest of man­kind, of their own set purpose, could never found the way to rectify.

In his journal he claimed to be “more of an abolitionist in feeling than in principle,” and in “Chiefly About War Matters,” originally published in The Atlantic Monthlyin 1862, he expressed doubts as to the wisdom of immediate emancipation of Negroes who would be forced to “fight a hard battle with the world, on very unequal terms.” In this same wartime article, he dissented from the “enlightened” New England views of Whittier, Emerson, Thoreau, Theodore Parker, and Henry Ward Beecher, who thought the terrorist-reformer John Brown an unjustly punished hero, and said, “Nobody was ever more justly hanged.” Emerson’s claim that Brown’s death “made the Gallows as venerable as the Cross” dumbfounded Hawthorne: he doubted New England’s sage could say anything so ridicu­lous about the death of a “bloodstained fanatic.”

Reform movements were plentiful in Hawthorne’s day, and he took a typically Southern approach to many of them. At first he was beguiled by Brook Farm, a reform commu­nity which aspired to regenerate society. He later described his one year there as “my fellowship of toil and impracticable schemes with the dreamy brethren.” He thought “a Re­former untrammelled by his theory” as rare as a beautiful woman without vanity. All too often the reformer bran­dished “his one idea like an iron flail,” as did Hollingsworth in The Blithedale Romance. In his journal, Hawthorne gives this sketch of the “modern reformer” of his day—one given to “extreme doctrines on the subject of slaves, cold water, and other such topics.” “He goes about the streets harangu­ing most eloquently, and is on the point of making many converts, when his labors are suddenly interrupted by the appearance of the keeper of a mad-house, whence he has escaped.”

Reformers are often blind to reality because they have gazed too hard and long at their own idea of system. Haw­thorne detested abstractions and rigid systems of thought. Jorge Luis Borges has correctly observed that Hawthorne, “thought in images, in intuitions, . . . not with a dialectical mechanism.” This disposition of his should endear him to Southerners, who care little for rationalistic systems and dialectical methods of thought but who always like a good story.

Much has been said (and rightly so) about the South­erner’s sense of place, his attachments to the home ground, to his community, to his region. Part and parcel with this sense of place is a concern for history. In this respect Haw­thorne also proves himself Southern-minded. He was a regional man, steeped in the history and life of New England, no cosmopolite. Like the Southern writers described by Louis Simpson, Hawthorne had made a “covenant with memory and history.” So much of what he wrote about was extracted from the human heart. The stage for his dramas was usually his home place, a literary device basic to South­ern writers.

The moral and spiritual world in Hawthorne’s fiction also bears the regional stamp. Now, Hawthorne was not a full-blooded Puritan, but the old faith of his fathers left its mark on him. Because of this mark, he could not freely or com­fortably breathe the genial, optimistic air of William Ellery Channings’ Unitarianism, nor could he tolerate Emerson’s Transcendental flights. For his settings Hawthorne utilized the geography of New England; for a moral and spiritual atmosphere, he drew upon the fundamental faith of old New England.

As a regional man Hawthorne realized that the region— not the Union or the General Government—should be the object of his allegiance, and he allowed every Southerner to have the same loyalty to his state and region. These are his reflections on the matter in the wartime article:

The anomaly of two allegiances (of which that of the State comes nearest home to a man’s feelings, and in­cludes the altar and the hearth, while the General Government claims his devotion only to an airy mode of law, and has no symbol but a flag) is exceedingly mis­chievous . . .; for it has converted crowds of honest people—Southerners—into traitors, who seem to them­selves not merely innocent, but patriotic. … In the vast extent of our country, too vast by far to be taken into one small human heart, we inevitably limit to our own State, or, at farthest, to our own section, that sentiment of physical love for the soil which renders an English­man, for example, so intensely sensitive to the dignity and well being of his little island, that one hostile foot, treading anywhere upon it, would make a bruise on each individual breast. If a man loves his own State, therefore, and is content to be ruined with her, let us shoot him, if we can, but allow him an honorable burial in the soil he fights for.

At the close of his article Hawthorne offered yet another opinion which shows sympathy, even admiration, for the South. He noted that there were, no doubt, Southern spies and sympathizers in Washington. Some men there would have liked to see the North pushed back to the Mason-Dixon line. “It is no wonder,” he said, “and, if we look at the matter generously, no unpardonable crime.”

The text of “Chiefly About War Matters” was so sym­pathetic with the Southern cause that the editor of The Atlantic Monthly cancelled various paragraphs. For those disturbing passages which were not axed, to mollify the edi­tor and his own readers, Hawthorne himself added explana­tory footnotes which appear to issue from a disapproving editor. The tone and the content of the article show an un­usual sympathy toward Southern views.

Hawthorne made more than a few enemies when he wrote the Life of Franklin Pierce. The Southern views therein were intolerable to many Yankee abolitionists, and, it should be remembered, he lived in the thick of them. For example, Hawthorne was acquainted with at least four of the Secret Six, those inspirational and financial backers of John Brown about whom Otto Scott has written in the pages of The Southern Partisan. The wartime article certainly did not win him any new friends in the North. Likewise, when he dedi­cated Our Old Home (1863) to Franklin Pierce, considered a scoundrel by many Northerners, he upset even more Yankees.

The compatibility of Hawthorne’s thinking with the Southern mind is best illustrated when we compare Haw­thorne with his neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson. The record shows that Hawthorne was little influenced by the Transcendentalist movement. Through it all, Hawthorne retained the faith of his fathers.

Emerson was a great foe of Christian orthodoxy, one of America’s most famous nineteenth century anti-Christian heroes. He sought to sever the chains of religious custom, dogma and tradition. He sought to free men from binding links to the past, urging them, in his own phrase, to “enjoy an original relation to the universe.” In “Spiritual Laws” he reveals his blind optimism:

Our young people are diseased with the theological problems of original sin, origin of evil, predestination, and the like. These never presented a practical diffi­culty to any man,–never darkened across any man’s road, who did not got out his way to seek them.

Like the monkey, Emerson pretended to see no evil, speak no evil, and hear no evil. For this reason Allan Tate dubbed him the “Lucifer of Concord.” He was, said Tate, “the light-bearer who could see nothing but light, and was fearfully blind.” There were men of letters in New England who could see the darkness around them. Before he put the lurid glow of hell into his own stories, Herman Melville saw it in Hawthorne’s Mosses from an Old Manse (1846). In his review of Mosses, he wrote that the “great power of blackness” in Hawthorne “derives its force from its appeal to that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or another, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free.”

So while Emerson lectured and wrote essays urging men to trust and obey themselves, to be self-reliant and optimistic, to forget the past, to deny the existence of evil, and to believe that man was both naturally good and a lover of the truth, Hawthorne and later Melville were quietly writing tales and sketches which confounded and contradicted the sage’s philosophy. In “The Birthmark,” Hawthorne writes of Aylmer, a Baconian scientist newly wed to Georgiana. Aylmer hopes to remove the one flaw in his wife’s beauty: a small, crimson, hand-shaped birthmark on her cheek. By means of science and magic (and the two are strangely intermixed in the sorcerer-scientist’s laboratory experiments), Aylmer causes the birthmark to disappear. What price does he pay for his success? The cost of perfection is dear: his wife dies, “and her soul, lingering a moment near her husband, took its heavenward flight.”

Hawthorne describes the birthmark in such a way that there can be no uncertainty as to its significance. It is “the visible mark of earthly imperfection,” a “crimson stain upon the snow.”

A more powerful and appropriate symbol for Original Sin is difficult to find in any literature. Georgiana’s blemish was present at birth as is Original Sin; it was inherited from parents, and it marred beauty. Hawthorne is careful to indicate that it marred spiritual as well as physical beauty. Georgiana complained of the “firm gripe” of the little hand, and Aylmer had clairvoyantly discovered that it was not a superficial flaw, crying out desperately in his sleep: “It is in her heart now; we must have it out.”

In “Earth’s Holocaust,” a similar scheme falls short and shows again that sin is not so easily abolished. The sketch begins with the timeless statement of the fairy tale: “Once upon a time” zealous Romantics convene on a great plain to regenerate the world and usher in the millennium. They intend to accomplish this by means of a universal “busk,” a ceremony of purification in which all the world’s “worn-out trumpery,” all that is associated with the iniquitous past, is destroyed by fire. One by one the symbols of authority which signify distinctions of rank, of office are tossed into the fire; all the spice of life—spirituous liquors, coffee, tea, and tobacco; all implements of war; all instruments used to inflict capital punishment: headmen’s axes, guillotines, and the gallows. Some enlightened antinomians burn their marriage certificates. Others destroy paper money, coin, and credit notes. Some anarchists in the mob, drunk with excitement, longing for the unfettered rule of Reason and Philanthropy, demand that “all written constitutions, set forms of government, legislative acts, statute-books, and everything else on which human invention had endeavored to stamp its arbitrary laws should at once be destroyed, leaving the consummated world as free as the man first created.”

After title deeds and the world’s literature are cast into the hungry flames, the narrator wonders if there is anything left to reform. There is. The last things thrown into the fire are items of religious significance—ministerial garments, crosses, statues, sacramental goblets, relics, baptismal fonts, the simple New England meeting-house pulpits, and finally the Bible. These men, like many in our day, intend to live by bread alone.

When nothing is left to fuel the raging fire, the hangman, the last thief, the last murderer and the last toper gather together and despondently drink the toper’s last bottle of brandy which he has rescued from the flames. They are ready to hang themselves, for a perfect world without evil does not appeal to them. How would they pass the time? Then a “darkvisaged stranger,” with glowing red eyes, joins this desolate party and offers these words of cheer: “Be not so cast down, my dear friends; you shall see good days yet. There’s one thing these wiseacres have forgotten to throw into the fire, and without which all the rest of the conflageration is just nothing at all.”

This one thing is the human heart. “O, take my word for it,” the devil tells them, “it will be the old world yet!” in the same old shapes “or worse ones.”

The narrator, not so naïve now, supplies the theme: “The heart, 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.”

To the new faith in man and his infinite perfectibility (as offered by Emerson) Hawthorne dogmatically said, as Herman Melville so aptly put it, “No, in thunder.” Hawthorne knew—and Emerson did not—that man had been expelled from Paradise, and that Heaven will come to earth only when Christ returns.

At the front and center of Hawthorne’s vision is fallen man, stained by sin and guilt and afflicted with sorrow and evil. At the front and center of Emerson’s vision is divinized man, basking in self-approbation and soaring through Transcendental insight into human and societal perfection. Russell Kirk says that Hawthorne “restored to the American mind that doctrine of sin which Emerson and his school so studiously ignored.” I view this restoration as a significant part of his great achievement and as a compelling argument for Hawthorne’s kinship with the South.
Randall Stewart in his Forward to The Literature of the South and Flannery O’Connor in Mystery and Manners, among others, observe that sin and evil are vital elements of the Southern world view. “Sin is,” says Stewart, “still to be reckoned with” in the South. O’Connor speaks of the Southerner’s “knowledge that evil is not simply a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be endured.”

For the most part, of course, the children of Emerson have carried the day. There is little restraint and less piety left in the modern world, but the old world view can still be found in pockets of orthodoxy and religious conservatism. A remnant of old believers exists in the United States. Many of them live south of the Mason-Dixon line. If I knew these Southerners were reading Nathaniel Hawthorne, I would say they have him to thank for their good sense, but they read their Bibles, and that is better. Yet they would find a kindred spirit in Hawthorne, a Yankee with a Southern soul, a man who told stories well worth listening to.

This piece was originally published in Southern Partisan magazine in 1983.

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