1The figure of the artist and the role of art are among The Scarlet Letter’s most prominent concerns, and have as such been the object of a good deal of scholarly attention. The present paper will, however, narrow its focus on Hawthorne’s view of the place of the artist in New England’s culture, both that of seventeenth-century Boston and of the nineteenth-century Salem satirized in “The Custom-House.” It will privilege both a textual and a cultural approach that aims to enhance Hawthorne’s crucial engagement with his nation’s cultural heritage and his underhand yet clear subversion of New England’s view of the artist, who turns out to be, precisely because of his or her identity as an artist, not a ferment of disorder and social disruption but on the contrary the cement of the community.
- 1 All future references to Hawthorne’s work will be to the Centenary Edition, volume I for The Scarle (...)
2Anticipating a motif that will be developed in the main narrative, the prologue underscores nineteenth-century New England’s imperviousness to art. The employees of the Salem customhouse, whose function as national types is hinted at by the “enormous specimen of the American eagle” watching over the entrance to the building, the latter's designation as “Uncle Sam’s brick edifice,” and the recurrent references to “the Republic,” prove to be, to take up Newberry’s general observation, “inimical to writing, to art and cultural values” (Divided Loyalties 162). This is indeed first apparent in a devotion to material concerns which, in keeping with a topos of the age of Carlyle and the Transcendentalists, is at odds with the spiritual ideal explicitly cherished by the romance writer in the preface. While the latter aspires to an altogether immaterial “gold,” the metaphorical one into which he hopes to “find [his] letters turn” upon the page (CE 1: 371), the clerks are eager for a much more substantial reality, the “public gold” that will go into their wages (34). The streets of the formerly thriving harbor, identified as an “old commercial enterprise,” are haunted by the ghosts of “princely merchants” (28) who amassed fortunes in their trade with the Orient. This absorption in the material life is further signified by the preeminence of the body over the soul, as illustrated by the facetious portrait of the “father” and thence paradigmatic figure of the customhouse: he has a “maw” in lieu of a stomach (18), “no soul, no heart, no mind; nothing, as I have already said, but instincts” (18), the “chief tragic event” of his life being “a mishap with a certain goose” (21). He is in short so fully engrossed in the sensual pleasures of food that he has surrendered to his “animal nature” (17), relinquishing all claim to humanity.
3The mutually exclusive relationship between life in the Republic and immaterial, spiritual concerns or activities is also evidenced by the effect of the narrator’s three-year stay at the customhouse which, as has often been noted, has crippled his capacities as a man of letters: “I had ceased to be a writer of tolerably poor tales and essays, and had become a tolerably good Surveyor of the Customs” (38); “there has never been, for me, the genial atmosphere which a literary man requires” (44). A remark vividly dramatizes this incompatibility: “Meanwhile, there I was, a Surveyor of the Revenue . . . . My fellow-officers . . . viewed me in no other light, and probably knew me in no other character. None of them, I presume, had ever read a page of my inditing” (26). The narrator in other terms has a double self, one of which, the private, artistic one, goes unperceived by the members of the customhouse. No wonder then that his expulsion should turn out to be a blessing in disguise, indeed a resurrection, for although his brutal dismissal has decapitated the inspector, it has revived the temporarily disabled man of letters: “I was again a literary man” (34). Released from the prison of the customhouse in which his imagination was held captive, the latter can finally give life to Surveyor Pue’s manuscript and start writing his romance.
4The main narrative shows that another artist, Hester Prynne, experiences a similar alienation among the nation’s Puritan forefathers, who first appear in the prologue in the form of the narrator’s ancestors, William and John Hathorne, both public and therefore representative figures of the first and second generations of Puritan settlers (William was a notable public figure of the first Puritan generation, while his son John presided at the Salem witch trials). Their ghost-like voices express unmitigated indignation at their descendant’s choice of a literary career—it is a crucial passage that bears quoting again:
Doubtless, however, either of these stern and black-browed Puritans would have thought it quite a sufficient retribution for his sins, that, after so long a lapse of years, the old trunk of the family tree, with so much venerable moss upon it, should have borne, as its top-most bough, an idler like myself. No aim, that I ever cherished, would they recognize as laudable; no success of mine—if my life, beyond its domestic scope, had ever been brightened by success—would they deem otherwise than worthless, if not positively disgraceful. “What is he?” murmurs one gray shadow of my forefathers to the other. “A writer of story-books! What kind of a business in life,—what mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in his day and generation,—may that be? Why, the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler!” (10, italics mine).
5The narrator’s dyed-in-the-wool Puritan forefathers heap opprobrium on the “writer of story-books”: there could be no worse “retribution for their sins”; their offshoot is utterly “worthless, if not positively disgraceful”; he cannot even faintly hope to achieve the slightest “laudable” aim, all of which remonstrations are encapsulated in the final infamous adjective, “degenerate.”
6Art is also presented as being deeply suspicious to the Hathornes’ contemporaries, the Puritans of the main narrative. It is significant that Hester's first appearance upon the stage should clearly superimpose the image of the criminal and that of the artist, for while the presence of Pearl on her arm and of the letter A on her bosom emblematize her as a criminal, her splendidly embroidered, pointedly artful badge designate her as an artist: the letter is said to be “artistically” done and to radiate against its “fine” red cloth (it is a “thing of beauty”) the “splendor” of its “fantastic” flourishes—an adjective intimating that Hester is endowed with the artist’s idiosyncratic power of fancy. The two overlapping images thus immediately fuse the two figures of the artist and of the outcast of the community. This will soon be confirmed by Hester's condemnation to wear her letter of infamy for an indeterminate period of time, by her symbolic relegation to “the outskirts of the town” (56), and by the repeated references to the magic circle—implicitly the witch’s, the pariah's circle—which is going to cut her off from the community.
- 2 The women’s “youngest companion” raises, in truth, a dissenting voice, but her concern is not with (...)
7The Puritans of The Scarlet Letter, however, are wary of, if not overtly hostile to, art. They are also unable to understand it, as ironically highlighted in two particular episodes. The first is Hester’s initial exposure on the scaffold. The text on the one hand provides clues for what is here and not coincidentally called the “sensitive observer,” in other terms the decipherer of signs, showing that although Hester outwardly complies with the law, she is in real fact a rebel—a rebel who can convey her dissent through her art: the letter is “of a splendor in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony,” while the attire she has wrought with her own hand “seem[s] to express the attitude of her spirit, the desperate recklessness of her mood, by its wild and picturesque peculiarity” (53). The artist then makes light of rules—she is “reckless”—and has plainly transgressed the law: she has gone “beyond” the colony’s “regulations,” beyond what is “allowed” by the authorities. Yet those who attend the scene—the Puritan community—fail to read into the oblique signs of dissent wrought by her art. There is in truth an exception, that of the outraged matron who cries out, “Why, gossips, what is it but to laugh in the face of our godly magistrates, and make a pride out of what they, worthy gentlemen, meant for a punishment?” (54). But nobody, except for a very young mother,2 takes up her cue, here or later in the narrative, which suggests that her comment is more of a literary device—a hint addressed to the reader who might have missed the irony of the text—than the token that some of the Puritans are perceptive enough to interpret signs, in particular those that are the fruit of artistic elaboration.
- 3 I first analyzed this apparently overlooked episode in an earlier article, “La fin des temps? De l’ (...)
8What is presented in The Scarlet Letter as the Puritans’ imperviousness to art is once again dramatized and slyly derided in the description of the Governor’s (and as such the archetypal Puritan’s) garden.3 The scene is not only the visual, ironic demonstration that the colonists have failed to achieve their dream of founding in the New World the new garden of Eden (the “Utopia” evoked in the first lines of the narrative). It is also a hint at their general failure to perpetuate in New England the sense of beauty cultivated by their English forefathers—to their secret regret and detriment, as we shall see later. Instead of what Hester expects to be a “fair” garden planted with “flowers” (a standard token of beauty and spirituality in Hawthorne’s fiction), flowers “more beautiful” than those to be found in the forest, the young woman discovers a disappointing “rude and immature attempt at shrubbery” and a plot of land whose “hard,” in other terms barren soil, can only grow piteously utilitarian, materialistic productions: humble, plain cabbages and a pumpkin (probably a humorous allusion to Cinderella’s tale from a writer familiar with children’s fiction), which prompts the mocking narratorial comment that this “great lump of vegetable gold was as rich an ornament as New England earth would offer” (106-07). It is in other terms impossible for beauty to thrive on the plantation.
9New England’s negative attitude to art is nevertheless consistently, albeit covertly, challenged and undercut by the prologue and the main narrative, which go to great lengths to disprove its objections.
- 4 Ziff quotes John Roger of Essex in support of his statement: “An idle person must needs have a corr (...)
10The narrator’s ancestors, the mouthpieces of the original Puritan community, condemn their descendant’s choice of a literary career on three grounds: story writing is “no business in life,” no “mode of glorifying God” nor “of being serviceable to mankind.” The three arguments are intertwined, for having a business in life, that is to say being “busy” or “active” or “occupied” with one’s work or calling (the three words were interchangeable), was to the Puritans, together with serving the community, a way of performing their ultimate, sovereign duty: “to glorify the majesty of God,” which was to them “the exclusive purpose of all that happened” (Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism 72). It was “by activity towards majorem dei gloriam that the Christian prov[ed] his state of grace,” Miller also writes (The Puritans 135). All moral imperatives derived from that overriding principle—which explains that, as we shall see, art was not condemned per se; it was legitimate insofar “as the exercise of it [might] shape man’s spirit to a better understanding of the divine purpose” (Miller 61). One of these imperatives was, in the Augustinian tradition, the necessity of keeping oneself “busy,” of performing the calling or sacred task that God had set to each of his creatures, making labor “a means to please God” (Weber 115). Work was besides “the surest proof of regeneration” (Weber 115), and “unwillingness to work […] a symptom of the absence of the state of grace” (Weber 105). It also fulfilled a moral function, as Larzer Ziff further observes: “Diligence in one’s calling also served to fence one from sin because to be busy about one’s work was to put the mind into a channel that was not easily diverted” (8).4 So crucial was the ethic of work to the Puritans that it has been recognized as a fixture of American culture, as evidenced by its central place in such a classic as Franklin’s Autobiography. In his canonical work, the prototypical Yankee (who, Weber insists, was, albeit a deist, his Puritan ancestors’ worthy spiritual heir) ceaselessly harps upon the necessity for “industry,” one of course of his thirteen major virtues, and writes that it motivated his publication of the Almanack, with which he aimed to instruct the poor with “Proverbial sentences […] chiefly such as inculcated Industry and Frugality” (Autobiography 79). In another classic of American literature, The American, Henry James would, a century later, tellingly characterize his emblematic hero, Christopher Newman, as a “good worker” but a “poor loafer.”
- 5 It explains that his guardian, the village parson, would, like the narrator’s ancestors in “The Cus (...)
11Hawthorne had stressed early in his fiction that his ancestors put a premium on work, indeed sanctified it as a religious duty, as the narrator of The Scarlet Letter also points out when he remarks upon the early colonists' “various modes of rugged industry, which, at all other times, seemed of the same piece and material with their religion” (147, italics mine). He had above all dramatized or commented upon the threat it posed upon the artist who, unless he or she should put art in the service of God, was likely to be labelled an idler and excluded from society. An early tale, “Passages from a Relinquished Work” (1831), thus plays on the contrast between the idle artist and the minister. While the minister is God’s—supposedly—exemplary servant and is in charge of authority (the artist’s guardian and therefore father-figure is a parson), the artist is a self-assumed outcast of society, who has decided to “keep aloof from the regular business of life” (italics mine), although he is aware that such a stance “was fatal, in New England,” where people “will not be convinced that any good thing may consist with what they call idleness” (CE 10: 407).5 In “The Old Manse” (1846) the narrator, feigning to endorse his fellow countrymen’s negative view of the man of letters, also calls himself “a writer of idle stories” (CE 10: 4) and pretends that he is unworthy to take up his abode in a place long inhabited by a long lineage of much worthier ministers. “The Artist of the Beautiful” (1844) does not compare the artist and the minister but contains a surprising number of words and remarks stressing that art is work—which is mostly referred to in this tale as “labor” or “toil.”
12The theme re-emerges in The Scarlet Letter with an insistence that has not been fully explored, at least concerning Hester. The prologue has received closer attention.
13The female artist’s often quoted energy and strength is an intrinsic feature of Hawthorne’s view of woman, or rather of one of the two conflicting types to which he was alternately attracted, as many critics, Nina Baym among the foremost, have shown. It may not be coincidental, however, that this energy should also characterize the female artist. The text offers in any case further and compelling evidence that the art of embroidery should be perceived as work.
- 6 It is used without a hyphen on p. 31, when the customhouse inspector discovers the manuscript, but (...)
14It is first significant that Hawthorne should prefer the term “needle-work” over “embroidery,” choosing in addition to spell it with a hyphen that sets off the second word.
6 A similar desire to call attention to the term accounts for the construction of the following sentence, which sharply highlights the word “needle-work” by rejecting it at the end of the sentence and isolating it with a dash: “She possessed an art that sufficed . . . to supply food for her thriving infant and herself. It was the art—then, as now, almost the only one within a woman's grasp—of needle-work” (81). Furthermore, the terms binding up art and work proliferate in all the passages describing Hester’s art. “Handiwork” is thus used twice on the same page in “Hester at Her Needle”: there was “a call for the finer productions of her handiwork;” “her handiwork became . . . the fashion” (82).
15The word “work” is also repeatedly taken up in its participial form, “wrought.” It first crops up when the narrator relates his discovery of the manuscript in the customhouse: the letter “had been wrought . . . with wonderful skill of needlework” (31). When Hester is seen standing on the scaffold, the narrative voice observes that the token displayed on her bosom has been “wrought into her dress” and again that she has “wrought” her attire in prison. In “Hester at Her Needle,” the term is once again used twice at a very short interval: Hester is said to make “painfully wrought bands” for the Puritan leaders (82), who put on garments “that had been wrought by her sinful hands” (83). The synonyms “labor” and “toil” develop the same theme: “Women derive a pleasure, incomprehensible to the other sex, from the delicate toil of the needle”—a word repeated twice in the passage and echoed by the word “labor”: “there was a frequent and characteristic demand for such labor as Hester Prynne could supply” (82).
16The last variant of the term is the Latinate adjective “elaborate.” It appears in the very first sentence depicting the letter, making it a major characteristic of her art: “On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A” (53). It is this singularity that is—ironically, as we shall see—valued by the Puritan rulers: “the taste of the age” demands “whatever was elaborate in compositions of this kind” (82).
- 7 Robert Martin’s article, “Hester Prynne, C’est Moi: Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Anxieties of Gender (...)
- 8 Dearest Beloved, especially Part II, chapter V. Herbert quotes two particularly significant remarks (...)
- 9 The female identity of the artist has been convincingly discussed by many critics, among whom John (...)
17The man of letters in “The Custom-House” also goes to great lengths to disprove possible accusations of idleness, showing that the Puritan suspicion of art had endured into nineteenth-century New England. It had drawn fresh vigor from the then dominant Victorian ideology of the public (male) and private (female) spheres, which put the burden of working and being the family’s support on men, and conditioned in the process the recognition of manliness upon the practice of a professional activity.7 Walter Herbert in particular has shown how central this concern was in Hawthorne’s life and fiction.8 The stake was indeed very high since the artist’s specific qualities, imagination and sympathy, were perceived and presented at the time as distinctively female ones, as emphasized in The Scarlet Letter.9 It all goes to explain why it was essential for Hawthorne to prove that art was work. It was both a way for him to assert his sexual identity in the nineteenth-century context and, as a son of the Puritans, to give evidence of a more general respectability as a true Christian and a full member of the community—to disclaim the two Hathornes’ stigmatization of the writer of story-books as a “worthless” creature.
18The tactic developed in the preface is in part, once again, a negative one: those who are supposed to apply the Republic’s principles, and in particular its work ethic, the employees of the customhouse, are old, decrepit and as a consequence ineffective, in other words idle. It has been observed that they while away their time indolently leaning against some wall, “asleep in their accustomed corners” (14), sunk in “somnolence”; they are “torpid” and lead a “sluggish and dependent mode of life” (16). What is, however, more interesting is that this indolence should be explicitly identified as idleness when the narrator points out that they do not “work for their living” (39), or wonders why they should indeed “toil and moil” (39) when Uncle Sam provides for them. The result is “lack of efficiency for business” (14, italics mine), another very telling term as it exactly repeats the word uttered by the man of letters’ ancestors in their indictment of the artist (story writing is, they say, no “business in life”).
19If, as an inmate of the customhouse, the narrator likewise spent “three years withholding [himself] from toil” (42), he insists on the other hand that, prior to this professional experience, he used to be, in his capacity as a man of letters, a busy, toiling man. Art kept him “active,” a revealing term which, while connoting his manliness, is also meant to refute his ancestors’ charge of idleness for the reader with a philological conscience, as the term “activity” is in Puritan culture but another form of the word “work.” We shall quote for instance this statement by Baxter, the famous Puritan divine, cited by Weber: “It is action, not idleness and indulgence, that serves to increase [God’s] glory” (Weber 105). One should then be fully aware of the value of the word when the narrator declares that “Once in a great while, the thoughts, that had been so vital and so active, yet had been put to rest so quietly, revived again” (27), or when he recalls those moments when he “bestirred [himself] to seek that invigorating charm of Nature, which used to give [him] such freshness and activity of thought” (35, italics mine).
20In its typically indirect, allusive style, the text then undercuts and invalidates the first charge brought by New England Puritan and Victorian culture against artists: they are no idlers—and are as good Christians and citizens as all other active members of the community.
21The Puritan forefathers of the preface also object to their descendant’s choice of a literary career on the general ground that it is no “mode of being serviceable to mankind”—being serviceable to mankind being but another way of glorifying God since mankind was, in their view and idiom, the Church, or the body of Christ. Yet the narrative is once again a methodical refutation of this indictment, going as far as to show, quite ironically, that the artist is more indispensable than anybody else to the community’s final harmony and cohesion.
22One of the most famous scenes in The Scarlet Letter is the passage in “The Custom-House” where the narrator describes the conditions propitious to the writing of romance—sitting at night in one’s parlor surrounded by familiar objects whose significance is suddenly (and ambiguously) unveiled when the white moonlight merges into the gleam of the fireplace, projecting a hitherto hidden reality onto the nearby mirror. This is when the man of letters’ “imaginative faculty” is at long last released. The customhouse had until then transformed his “imagination” into a “tarnished mirror” (34), but he can now “picture forth imaginary scenes.” “The Actual and the Imaginary” may finally “meet” (36). This epiphany is the climactic dramatization of a motif that has been running through the preface, that of the crucial part played in art by imagination, otherwise termed “fancy” (we shall come back to this distinction). The narrator has already been complaining that in becoming a Surveyor of the Revenue, he has stopped being the “man of thought, fancy and sensibility” that he used to be prior to his entrance into the customhouse (26), that “the atmosphere of a Custom-House” is “little adapted to the harvest of fancy and sensibility” required for story writing (34). He makes the same point when he observes that, while rummaging among the documents piled up in the attic of the customhouse, he “exert[ed his] fancy, sluggish with little use, to raise up from these dry bones an image of the old town’s brighter aspect” (29), or when he explains that, having got hold of Surveyor Pue’s documents, he strove to “imagin[e] the motives and modes of passion that influenced the characters who figure in it” (33). He emphasizes the same process when he describes his efforts to draw General Miller’s portrait: “To observe and define his character . . . was as difficult a task as to trace out and build up anew, in imagination, an old fortress, like Ticonderoga, from a view of its gray and broken ruins. . . . But I could imagine, even then, that . . . he was yet capable of flinging off his infirmities like a sick man’s gown. . . . Such an exhibition, however, was but to be pictured in fancy; not to be anticipated, nor desired” (21-22, italics mine).
23Imagination, or fancy, also characterizes Hester’s personality and art. The two passages focusing on the artist, the one describing her initial appearance in the first scaffold scene (52-54), the other her work and its reception among the community in “Hester at Her Needle” (81-84), expatiate upon what is later called “the gorgeous tendencies of her imagination” (102). The first sentence depicting the letter thus enhances its beauty (it is “fine”), its color (it is red), its elaborateness, as already signaled, and its “fantastic”—the adjective derived from the noun “fancy”—ornamentation: “On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A” (53). The adjective is echoed in the next sentence by the noun “fancy”—the badge has been embroidered with “gorgeous luxuriance of fancy”—, a word which is repeated a few lines further in the remark that Hester’s attire “had been modeled much after her own fancy.” It finally crops up again in its adverbial form four lines later when the letter is said to be “fantastically embroidered.”
24“Hester at Her Needle” also highlights the decisive role of imagination in the creative process: “She bore on her breast, in the curiously embroidered letter, a specimen of her delicate and imaginative skill” (81); “the child’s attire . . . was distinguished by a fanciful, or, we might rather say, a fantastic ingenuity” (83), a characteristic which is emphasized yet again in the full description of Pearl’s gown: “Her mother, in contriving the child’s garb, had allowed the gorgeous tendencies of her imagination their full play; arraying her in a crimson velvet tunic, of a peculiar cut, abundantly embroidered with fantasies and flourishes of gold thread” (101-102).
25Yet the imaginative faculty, whose vital role is so sharply foregrounded in regard both to the male and the female artists, is yet another element that alienates the artist from the Puritan community, for whom it has a potentially explosive charge. It is indeed symptomatic that the Puritan leaders should be described early in the narrative as lacking this quality: they have “accomplished so much, precisely because [they] imagined and hoped so little (64, italics mine). This is confirmed by their failing to decipher the subversive but hidden significance of Hester’s embroidery while it stares at them all along the first scaffold scene.
26It is once again necessary to replace the narrative within its cultural context in order to fully grasp what is at stake here, and first stress that Hawthorne could not but be aware of the then widely known distinction between Imagination and Fancy—Coleridge’s Aids to Reflections had been published in Vermont in 1829 and its philosophy absorbed by the Transcendentalists. In the second chapter of Hawthorne’s View of the Artist Millicent Bell argues in this regard that even if Hawthorne was “anti-Romantic” in other respects, principally the ethical one, his “aesthetics” were Romantic, or Transcendentalist. This concerned in particular the notion of Imagination which, as a mode of the Reason, was credited with giving access to the transcendental world of Ideas, while Fancy was relegated to the subordinate category of the Understanding and the world of appearances. The above-quoted famous passage of “The Custom-House” depicting the conditions necessary for the writing of romance is sufficient evidence that Hawthorne did share to a significant extent in this view: gazing into the mirror that reflects the world of phenomena and with his imaginative faculties on the alert, the romance writer peers into a so-far invisible, spiritual reality. The “imaginative faculty” stirred up by the sight of the familiar objects, the moonlight, the glow of the embers, undoubtedly opens onto a higher truth.
27It is not certain, however, that Hawthorne reserved the term “fancy” for the lower faculty, at least in The Scarlet Letter. Bell’s examples are not quite convincing in this regard (they describe the artist’s power, but Hawthorne hardly ever specifies which of the two concepts he is referring to, which suggests that he was not as rigorous as Coleridge in his choice of terms). This may be due to a certain degree of ambivalence in Hawthorne’s view of the artist: if he could on the one hand assert confidence in the power of art, as he does in his first romance, he also chronically had qualms about it: in addition to being haunted by a sense of fear and guilt over the artist’s dangerous, necromantic power of insight into, and possible appropriation of, other people’s intimate self, as many critics have pointed out, he was also tormented by the fear that art was ineffective, derisory, a mere “bubble,” as he would sometimes put it (for instance in The House of the Seven Gables, CE 2:171). Such is indeed the thesis developed in La semblance du vivant by Bruno Monfort, who argues that Hawthorne favored the word and notion of “fancy” as being more apt to convey his view of literature as a resolutely trivial exercise with no claim or right to the slightest “metaphysical pretension” (329).
28The Scarlet Letter makes another case, however. The imaginative faculty, be it called fancy or imagination, is presented as a powerful spiritual as well as (insofar as it is linked up with sympathy, as we shall see later) moral agent. In addition, the romance makes equal use of the two terms, which is here, we think, a deliberate strategy: “imagination” was the more current word in Hawthorne’s time, while their texts show that the Puritans were more prone to use the word “fancy.” We are therefore inclined to see an underhand intention in Hawthorne’s choice of the term: to consider the issue within its cultural context and challenge the Puritans’ point of view on their own ground.
- 10 For an in-depth analysis of the parallel between Hester and Ann Hutchinson, see in particular Micha (...)
29Weber (84), Fiedelson (85), Miller among others all insist that the Puritans emphasized reason and rationality, distrusting whatever had to do with “fancy,” which was to them dangerously close to emotion or passion. “However much deformed by sin and passion,” man was held to be “essentially a rational and responsible being” (Miller 3). The Puritans’ “rational asceticism” (Weber 113) made them hostile to doctrines (those of the Antinomians in particular, like Ann Hutchinson, to whom Hester is compared10) that “subdu[ed] the reason and the intellect to the passions and the emotions” (Miller 11). Hence the store they set by Peter Ramus’s logic (which “became the standard followed by the New England divines in their reasoning and in their sermonizing,” 28) and their style of writing, whose “distinguishing characteristic” was “a hard-driving logic, the analytical and reasoned exposition, the close-knit structure” (66). This did not mean that they rejected any form of fancy. Fancy, as already mentioned, was acceptable as long as it could “help men’s faith” (66), in accordance with the key principle that the purpose of man’s life was to glorify God, as Weber insists. Thus, although they “advocated a prose simple, clear and restrained; fit to satisfy the reason, not charm the fancy; to instruct, not rouse the passions” (64), they allowed that rhetoric might “pass from the fancy to the heart” provided “the apprehension of the simple and earnest should [not] be dazzled” (Miller 67). It explains that they did not condemn art per se but objected to it if it should serve “the creature” to the detriment of God’s glory.
30Fancy then could claim a legitimate place in the Puritan religious scheme, but under the specific condition that it should add to God’s glory. This may indeed be the first reason why the narrative voice insists on the term “fancy,” especially regarding Hester’s art of embroidery, the art of sheer adornment, of the gratuitous. It may be a devious, ironic way to defy the Puritan contention that art should serve a religious purpose, a way to assert on the contrary the legitimacy of art for art’s sake, for beauty’s sake. The second reason for the here pointed use of the term is not incompatible with the first one. It only so happens, happily for a literary text—especially when it relies so much on irony, as is the case with The Scarlet Letter—that the term is doubly connoted in regard to Puritan culture, for fancy was the subject of deep suspicion as being a potential spur to those passions which rationalistic ascetics, as Weber calls the Puritans, could not but dread—“[i]nstinctual conduct of life was the enemy of rational asceticism” (Weber 113). Weber’s extensive references to Baxter, the famous Puritan divine and author of The Christian Directory (“the most comprehensive compendium of Puritan moral theology in existence”), are quite clear: “everything . . . that is against reason is sinful—not just passions, which are sinful in themselves, but all emotions as such which are in any way lacking in purpose or restraint, because they destroy the ‘countenance’ and as things of the flesh distract us from the rational reference of all our action and feeling to God, and insult him” (147).
31Now Hawthorne’s romance shows that while imagination is, in accordance with the Romantic aesthetics, the key opening the door to the spiritual world, it also manifests itself in another potentially, from a Puritan perspective, negative form, ie passion, which explains why it should be the object of their condemnation, a condemnation that Hawthorne partly refutes in regard to the artist, while at the same time endorsing what Millicent Bell calls an “anti-romantic” stance concerning the private individual’s right to assert his or her freedom, the rights of the romantic ego over the law, over the interests of the community.
32Imagination and passion are for the Puritans both antagonistic to reason and the law (the Webster’s defines “fanciful” as “marked by fancy or [my italics] unrestrained imagination rather than reason and experience”) and are as such potentially subversive. The two notions merge in the adjective “wild,” which characterizes Pearl and Hester, who are both passionate and imaginative. The first scaffold scene significantly superimposes the picture of the woman who has transgressed the law out of passion and that of the imaginative artist: the woman bears Pearl, the fruit of her passionate nature, on her arm, while the artist displays the embroidered letter on her bosom, a letter over-determined by the color red, among others the color of passion. This token is in addition adorned with the “fantastic flourishes” devised by her imagination. In the same way, the attire that she has “modeled much after her fancy” has a “wild and picturesque peculiarity” (53). What is hinted at here—that passion and imagination are consubstantial—becomes plain in chapter V, both in view of the immediate context, which has stressed the imaginative dimension of Hester’s needlework, and of the wider context of the preface and narrative, which tie up imagination and art: “She had in her nature a rich, voluptuous, Oriental characteristic,—a taste for the gorgeously beautiful, which, save in the exquisite productions of her needle, found nothing else . . . to exercise itself upon” (83). Sensuous delight is indistinguishable from exquisite beauty, as also suggested by the adjective “gorgeous,” whose etymology—gorge; the throat, and metonymically the bosom—is to be read together with its common meaning as a signifier of the equation of beauty and the passionate, erotic body.
33As a “wild” character, both passionate and imaginative, that is to say potentially disruptive, the artist cannot logically find favor with the Puritans, who value reason and submission to the law, subservience of individual desire to the community’s interest (as summarized by the phrase “being valuable to mankind”) and to social cohesion. Hawthorne’s intention was, however, to prove them wrong, which was all the more important to him as he was simultaneously, and perhaps more critically, reacting to objections that were also voiced in his own time, like those concerning the artist’s supposed idleness:
According to conventional opinion in the first half of the nineteenth century, imaginative fiction, as opposed to literature based on fact, was deeply dangerous, psychologically threatening, and even socially subversive. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, wrote of fiction in 1818 that ‘when this poison infects the mind, it destroys its tone and revolts it against wholesome reading. Reason and fact, plain and unadorned, are rejected. . . . The result is a bloated imagination, sickly judgment, and disgust towards all the real businesses of life’ (Michael Davitt Bell 39).
34Hawthorne’s text challenges and undercuts this view. Instead of being a centrifugal force, the artist is a centripetal one; instead of threatening the integrity of the community with his or her wildness, he or she ultimately brings it together.
35Foremost among the critics who have addressed the issue of law or authority, Bercovitch and Colacurcio have demonstrated, albeit with major qualifications, that as a woman Hester finally complies with the law, rejecting and discrediting, as pointed out in more general terms by earlier critics like Millicent Bell, the Romantic option of the triumph of the ego. To Bercovitch, the outcast renounces the antinomian temptation and becomes a resolute “agent of socialization” (The Office of The Scarlet Letter 12). Colacurcio as for himself makes a distinction between the public and the private spheres: even if she still believes in the ultimate autonomy of the spiritual self, she finally recognizes that “the world’s law validly exists to restrain our disruptive social excesses” (“Footsteps of Ann Hutchinson” 494).
36But Hester is an artist as well as a woman, and it is as the former that she prefers the common good to self-gratification, which is important to this demonstration as it undermines the case against the disruptive effects of the artist’s possibly wild imagination. The first argument is that, contrary to Puritan opinion, art is not a mere outlet for emotions or passion but a means to channel, regulate and rein in the much-dreaded “wildness” of the artist: “Women derive a pleasure, incomprehensible to the other sex, from the delicate toil of the needle. To Hester it might have been a mode of expressing, and therefore soothing, the passion of her life” (83-84). Art “expresses” and in so doing “soothes” the passion that plays havoc in the artist’s heart. It is cathartic. It purges the passions, those of the artist as well as of the audience, or indeed and more aptly here, it sublimates, in the Freudian idiom, and thus defuses the passions’ dangerous potential, making them innocuous to the community. If the artist is more than any other person susceptible to affections, in their milder or more violent forms, he or she also is the one who possesses the means to subdue and transmute them into forms acceptable to society, like the purely formal arabesques of the letter in which the original erotic drive has been dissolved and can only be recognized by the reader “of perfect sympathy.” Art reconciles the instinctive, wild forces of the individual and the demands of the superego or the law; it brings together nature and society, private and public interest.
- 11 I provide a more detailed analysis of the intimate link between sympathy and imagination in my arti (...)
37But artists do not only have the power to contain and control their passions. They can also put them in the active service of the community. This they do through a singular capacity for sympathy (also referred to in the romance as “affection” or “love” or “pity”). It is true that the frontier between what belongs to the person and what belongs to the artist is not absolutely clear-cut here, but the artist is viewed as the one in whom this gift is most developed. For Hawthorne, as for Rousseau or Common-Sense philosophers, sympathy was a quality both of the heart and of the imagination.11 As a quality of the heart, it is often presented in his fiction as a typically female quality, the heart being by nature “uppermost” (166) in the domestic angel. The first and only person who, for example, evinces sympathy for Hester as she stands her excruciating trial on the scaffold is, as already mentioned, a young woman (a mother at that), while the Puritan leaders, the “iron men,” remain adamant. Hester herself shares in this quality as a woman. She has, as has often been observed, “the power to sympathize,” is “self-ordained a Sister of Mercy,” “a well-spring of human tenderness” (161), “the pillow of Affection” (163). She makes garments for the poor, gives “of her little substance to every demand of poverty” (161), and finally counsels and soothes suffering women when she comes back to the colony.
38This female capacity (which accounts for the fact that the narrator of “The Custom-House” is so eager to demonstrate his manliness) is, however, equally that of the artist, in whom it is actually sharpened by the insights of his or her imaginative faculty. The male artist, the storyteller, lays constant stress on this idiosyncratic feature. The often quoted burning heat that he experiences when putting upon his own breast the letter that was once fastened on Hester’s bosom is an early indication of his empathetic power. Another symptom is that he should consistently call the villain of the tale “poor” or “the unfortunate” Chillingworth, refusing to withdraw his sympathy even from the supposedly vilest of human creatures. His general stance is, unlike that of the unsympathetic, Manichaean Puritan leaders typified by Bellingham or Chillingworth himself, to seek whatever “gold” might lie in what Calvin called the “cavern” of the darkest human soul, as he does with Dimmesdale, and show that human nature is a “mesh of good and evil” (64). We might finally quote a very telling detail concerning the above-quoted passage about General Miller in relation to imagination. Very old age has made him speechless; his thoughts and feelings have receded into the depths of his inmost soul. In order to bring them back to life, the romance writer is then thrown back, the narrator observes, upon his two distinctive qualities, imagination, as already mentioned, but also what the latter characteristically calls at the beginning of the paragraph “affection”: “Looking at the old warrior with affection, . . . I could discern the main points of his portrait. . . . I could imagine, even then, that . . . . (21). There is then no romance writer without the precious faculty that binds the community together, sympathy, or love, or pity, or—affection. For the latter term bears a special historical connotation that enhances the point and gives it a particularly ironic twist, dealing a further underhand blow to the Puritans’ condemnation of imaginative art. It is closely connected to the man who was to Hawthorne their exemplary representative, Winthrop, a historical character who, Boudreau has shown after Berlant, “presides most influentially over Hawthorne’s text, for he was the Puritan most concerned with binding his fellow colonists together in ties of mutual affection” (Sympathy in American Literature 53). This is suggested in the second scaffold scene by the narrator’s remark that the townspeople have interpreted the exact concurrence of his death and of the appearance in the sky of the blazing letter A as a token of what they call his “apotheosis” (an oblique sign of his consecration as the ideal moral figure of the narrative). For the informed decipherer of signs also knows that A is the first letter of the term, “affection,” that Winthrop used in his programmatic Modell of Christian Charity to urge upon the colonists the arch Christian virtue that he thought would, in conjugation with the law, keep the community together. We may then assume that the choice of the term to describe the workings of romance in relation to General Miller is intended to be read in light of this later allusion to Winthrop’s ethics of “affection” or Christian love, which is intensely ironic insofar as it implies that the artist is endowed with the very virtue that was extolled by the paradigmatic Puritan. The artist then does not betray the Puritan ideal and is “serviceable to mankind.” He is in truth a better son of his “fathers” than those who would have cast him out as a “worthless” creature.
39Hawthorne actually goes further in his vindication, intimating that the artist is actually indispensable to society.
40Newberry has shown that Hawthorne’s Puritans, who are so deeply suspicious of art, still cannot do without it. His forebears’ “austere Calvinistic heritage” (Divided Loyalties 156) demanded that they give up the values of Merry Old England, “sympathy, charity, gaiety, communal celebration, appreciation of art” (168), but this process of “cultural self-disinheritance” (168) entailed painful spiritual mutilation. The Puritans never fully conquered their unconscious yearning for these “recessive qualities.” This is evidenced for instance by the fact that “they patronize Hester’s art” or that “though they flatter themselves that they have left behind the strict divisions of rank and status, they have instituted their own forms of rank and status” (“Tradition and Disinheritance in The Scarlet Letter” 9-10).
41These contradictions are deeply ironic. It is Bellingham, Winthrop’s antithetic figure, the prototypical iron man who should be as such the enemy of “superfluities” and “vain ostentation,” in particular where “personal adornment, such as style of clothing, was concerned” (Weber 114), who is shown wearing “a dark feather in his hat, a border of embroidery on his cloak, and a black velvet tunic beneath” (64). When he summons Hester to his mansion, it is not only to apprise her that he has decided to withdraw Pearl from her care but also to take possession of “a pair of embroidered gloves” (100). It is the same with the other Puritan leaders. Although they have “cast behind them so many customs that it might seem harder to dispense with,” they invariably call upon the “finer productions” of Hester’s “delicate and imaginative skill” for their “public ceremonies,” for art is actually no less, in the narrator’s own word—and the adjective is fraught with meaning—than “necessary” to the community: “Deep ruffs, painfully wrought bands, and gorgeously embroidered gloves, were all deemed necessary to the official state of men assuming the reins of power” (82). The end of the sentence is devastatingly ironic, for art is not only “necessary,” but “necessary to the official state of men assuming the reins of power.” The “wild,” potentially disruptive embroideress then turns out to be the very one who sustains the law and keeps the community together.
42The nineteenth-century artist, the man of letters, shows that he too can “fill[…] a gap which must otherwise [remain] vacant” (82). This he claims to achieve by what was considered of crucial importance at the time (Bercovitch 33, 42): participating in the construction of a national identity, a task embraced by what Patricia Simonson calls “the nationalistic historiography” or indeed “hagiography” of the time, a task for which the romance writer is, Hawthorne intimates, much better equipped than the historian—be he the Bancroft ironically evoked in “The Old Manse” or his less prestigious avatar, the collector of historical facts portrayed in “The Custom-House,” the servant of the Republic with his stacks of official documents.
43Although he would later, in his preface to The Marble Faun, make the curious claim, considering his previous achievements, that the American man of letters suffered an insurmountable handicap in a country which had no past, no tradition, no social organization, Hawthorne defends the opposite case in his first romance. It is, he intimates in the preface, the romance writer’s special endowment to be able to resurrect the past of the nation and in so doing create a communal memory necessary to the emergence or consolidation of a national identity. This suggestion runs through the description of the discovery of the manuscript in the customhouse, in which the uselessness of the “official documents” recording Salem’s history is contrasted with the few sheets of paper folded up in the red letter that the romance writer will “dress up” and transmute into a romance. The official documents are “rubbish,” “worthless scratchings of the pen”; “it was sorrowful to think how many days, and weeks, and months, and years of toil, had been wasted on these musty papers,” “filled with the dullness of official formalities” (28). They can contribute nothing to the nation’s memory, for they are made up of “public” information, while Pue’s papers “were documents . . . not official, but of a private nature, or, at least, written in [Pue’s] private capacity” (30). Those private papers bear “traces” of the past that the romance writer will “dress up,” elaborate upon thanks to his singular capacity for imagination and sympathy. The narrator thus finds “traces of Mr Pue’s mental part” in his manuscript; the “fine red cloth” of his document bears “traces about it of gold embroidery.” These traces and the past they refer to are most “worthy of consideration” because they relate to people—“forgotten or remembered men, and . . . antique customs” (29)—whom it is the romance writer’s office to bring back to life, as it is his special gift to transform ghosts, namely the people of the past, into characters of flesh—to “exert[…] his fancy . . . to raise up from these dry bones an image of the old town’s brighter aspect” (29), to “warm[…] and render[…] malleable” the “dead corpses” of the past (28) and transform “snow-images into men and women” (36).
44In “warming and rendering malleable” the corpses of the past, the artist thus performs a highly ethical mission. He firstly discharges a “filial duty,” as he insists in the episode relating his dialogue with Surveyor Pue, his “official ancestor” (33). This is enhanced by the facetious parallel drawn with Hamlet, whereby Pue becomes the wronged father and the narrator the heroic avenging son: the “majestic figure” of the “ghostly” Pue meets him in a “deserted chamber” and gravely “exhort[s]” him, “on the sacred consideration” of his “filial duty,” to “bring his . . . lucubrations before the public.” In a brief, solemn hint at the bard, the famous “Will,” the reverent son pledges to discharge his own debt—his “due”—to his official father: “And I said to the ghost of Mr Surveyor Pue—‘I will!’” (33-34).
45A passage from the address delivered in Salem by Rufus Choate, The Importance of Illustrating New England History (1833), sheds light on the importance of being an exemplary son. It is quoted both by Boudreau (49) and by Bercovitch in The Office of The Scarlet Letter as the latter evokes the debate going on in the 1830s about the best way to convey “the truly sacred nature of America's political institutions”:
[The old Puritan character is] inscribed upon all the sides of our religious, political, and literary edifices, legibly and imperishably. But . . . something is wanting yet to give to their character and fortunes a warm, quick interest, a charm for the feelings and imagination, an abiding place in the heart and memory and affections of all the generations of the people to whom they bequeathed these representative governments and this undefiled religion. It is time that literature and the arts should at least cooperate with history. . . . Reminded of our fathers, we [will] remember that we are brethren . . . merged in an expanded, comprehensive, constitutional sentiment . . . reassembling, as it were, the people of America in one vast congregation (Bercovitch 70, italics mine).
46The writer of historical romances then plays a crucial, irreplaceable part in the community. He can, just like Winthrop, “bind an otherwise dispersed nation” (Boudreau 50). As Hawthorne’s teacher of rhetoric had taught him, “in this land of free institutions, he who holds a pen . . . with honest and patriotic motives . . . may become a public benefactor” (Kramer 168)—even when he is called Nathaniel Hawthorne and weaves into his textual tapestry a vastly ironic portrait of his not so worthy ancestors. But isn’t it additional proof of his virtue? If, as in Hester’s case, “the artist of the private must always make her statement covertly by distorting the available forms of expression” (Baym, Shape 132), if his art is that of deception (Michael Davitt Bell) it goes to show that he or she can achieve a tour de force that only adds to his or her worth: to take a critical look at the society around and thus contribute to its moral progress—at least to the progress of the “readers of perfect sympathy”—without raising the general discord that might imperil its unity. This is ultimate evidence that, in Hawthorne’s view, far from being a “fiddler,” a parasite of society, the artist is then its exemplary citizen.