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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Gothic Undercurrents Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)

[1549] T. H. Matteson, The Trial of George Jacobs, August 5, 1692 (1855), courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts.

Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts, a descendant of the first Puritan colonists, including one of the judges of the Salem witchcraft trials, an ancestry that would haunt him throughout his life and provide a tormented inspiration for much of his writing. He graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine, where he had become friends with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Franklin Pierce, who later became president of the United States. Hawthorne had already begun writing at this point, acting as writer, editor, printer, and publisher of his own newspaper. In 1828 he published his first novel, Fanshawe, at his own expense. Soon thereafter, however, in a gesture of repudiation that he would later repeat with a collection of short stories, he tried to have all copies of the novel destroyed. In 1840 he joined the socialist-utopian commune of Brook Farm, but was unhappy with the drudgery of farm life and left after six months.

Hawthorne returned to Salem as Surveyor of the Custom House in 1846 and continued to write. His early endeavors were mostly short stories, which appeared anonymously in magazines and literary annuals. Only when he published these stories in collections, as in Twice-Told Tales (1837) and Mosses from an Old Manse (1846), did Hawthorne become a recognized literary force. In 1842 he married Sophia Peabody of Salem and began to focus on his new family, eventually moving them from Salem. His masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter, appeared in 1850 to international acclaim, with critics in Great Britain and the United States proclaiming Hawthorne America’s finest romance writer. His philosophy of literature appears in that novel’s introduction: “a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairyland, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other.” His works explore the construction of reality through subjective perception, the past’s inevitable and often malevolent hold on the present, and the agonizing ethical dilemmas encountered by individuals in society. Hawthorne frequently requires the reader to make a moral judgment, rather than passively receive a ready-made one. Hawthorne’s other novels include The House of the Seven Gables (1851), The Blithedale Romance (1852), and The Marble Faun(1860).

Teaching Tips

  • To help your students contextualize “Young Goodman Brown,” supply excerpts from Puritan writings–for example, one of Cotton Mather’s trial descriptions in Wonders of the Invisible World–and ask them to determine exactly what in Puritanism Hawthorne seems to be criticizing (e.g., rigidity, right-and-wrong thinking, moral arbitrariness).
  • For “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” have the students discuss current ethical issues of science and “progress.” Is Rappaccini a twisted and perverted emblem of the scientific method or does he stand for a general ethical failure of science?
  • Highlight the idea of “the beginning” in The Scarlet Letter both in terms of “The Custom-House” (i.e., how the frame narrative affects our understanding of Hester Prynne’s story) and in terms of the novel as a foundation for American literary identity (i.e., how we might see it as establishing an American literary tradition).

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What happens to Goodman Brown in the forest? Why does Hawthorne leave it up to the reader to decide whether the entire experience of Brown is a dream or real? To what extent does it matter that we decide one way or another?
  2. Context: Read the land deed documenting Penn’s purchase of land from Machaloha, a member of the Delaware tribe, included in the archival material. What assumptions underwrite this legal document? Why do you think Penn decided to codify his purchase of Native American land in this way? How does the deed compare to the wampum belt included in the archival materials?
  3. Context: What does “Young Goodman Brown” seem to be saying about the ethics of American Puritanism? Hawthorne struggled with his own ancestors’ roles in prosecuting the 1692 Salem witchcraft trials; what does the ironic revelation of “evil” hidden behind a facade of “good” suggest about Hawthorne’s judgment of the Puritan worldview?
  4. Context: Notice how the rational and objective pursuit of scientific truth blurs into the obsessive and personal pursuit of individual desire in “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (this is true in different ways for all three of the male characters, Giovanni, Rappaccini, and Baglioni). Why might Hawthorne deliberately challenge the distinction between science and passion in this story?
  5. Context: What are we to make of Rappaccini’s final justification to Beatrice of his perverse experiment: “‘Wouldst thou, then, have preferred the condition of a weak woman, exposed to all evil, and capable of none?'” Why does it matter that Beatrice is a woman? How would the story be different if Rappaccini had endowed a male child with the venomous powers of the poison plant? How can you relate this story to the nineteenth-century “cult of true womanhood” discussed in the Core Context “The Spirit Is Willing: The Occult and Women in the Nineteenth Century”?
  6. Exploration: The Scarlet Letter has connections to both “Young Goodman Brown” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” Like the former, The Scarlet Letter deals with the wrenching implications of Puritan conceptions of sin; like the latter, it concerns the torments of gender inequality. Consider the representation of the human body in each of these texts to develop a theory that links these two themes. What, according to Hawthorne, is the relationship between the female body and sin?

Selected Archive Items

[1029] Wilfred A. French, The Old Manse (n.d.), from F. B. Sanborn, Emerson and His Friends in Concord (1890), 
courtesy of Cornell University Library, Making of America Digital Collection
Ralph Waldo Emerson loaned his home at the Old Manse to Nathaniel Hawthorne for three years.

[1544] E. Percy Moran, A Fair Puritan (1897), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-4290]. 
A young woman stands in the snow with a bundle of ivy. Hawthorne found inspiration in his Puritan ancestors for a number of his works, many of which explored the inescapable and often malign influence of the past upon the present.

[1549] T. H. Matteson, The Trial of George Jacobs, August 5, 1692 (1855), 
courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts. 
Painted 163 years after the trial, this painting depicts Salem girls fainting, screaming, and attempting to fly as George Jacobs is convicted and sentenced to death for practicing witchcraft.

[2106] Thomas Phillibrown, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1851), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-93807]. 
This portrait was used as the frontispiece of the 1851 edition of Twice-Told Tales, a collection of Hawthorne’s short stories that was originally published in 1837.

[7241] Eric Muller, Custom House, South Front and East Side (1958),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Historic American Buildings Survey [HABS, MASS, 5-SAL, 48-1]. 
This brick Custom House in Salem, Massachusetts, is an example of the Federal style of architecture. Much of Salem’s wealth in the early nineteenth century was in the maritime trade.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6