Tall, mysterious, and handsome, Nathaniel Hawthorne was known for walking silently by himself. He was a writer and creator who could not bear the indignities of small talk. He was lost in worlds of his own making on strolls through the New England woods. Perhaps, if you had happened upon him, you might have thought him rude. Perhaps he was.
But while those walks—friend to many a plot-stricken narrator—may not have deepened the man’s social graces, they did allow him to create scenes and characters still with us, still beguiling us with their Gothic beauty. Hester Prynne, the fallen star of The Scarlet Letter, was the first literary creation of the battle-scarred republic to achieve international recognition. Her tale of sin, tragedy, and limited redemption announced the ascendancy of American letters in the antebellum 19th century.
Restless Heir of Puritan Worldview
It is tempting to view Hawthorne in this modern era as one whose stories—featuring such taboo topics as adultery and deception—helped divest post-Puritan New England from its spiritual conscience, its theological legacy. The jeremiads of former days had fallen silent, and with them the larger-than-life preachers who ruled the conscience. It is undoubtedly true that Hawthorne broke with Puritan theology and mores. He flirted with Transcendentalism (though he was never much of a joiner) and his funeral was held in a Unitarian church. He had no stomach for the wrath of God, and the concept of damnation set his teeth on edge even when a boy.
But in Hawthorne’s writings, as in New England society more broadly, we see too that there was no immediate flight from Puritanism to secular humanism. Hawthorne wrestled mightily with spiritual and theological themes, with guilt and sin playing major roles in his body of work. The author was an “old soul” of the kind that still proliferates in his beloved region. He wrote critically and with great insight about the marching pace of technology and science, yet he distrusted each and saw early on that neither could fill the role of the displaced Puritan God.
He is a complicated figure, one who rejected both of the warring theologies of his 19th-century context: evangelical Congregationalism and deistic Unitarianism. In Hawthorne, we gain perspective into the changing world of antebellum New England, and beyond it, America. We see a figure breaking with tradition, and glad of it.
Hawthorne’s Early Life
The birth of Nathaniel Hawthorne was portentous: he entered the world on July 4, 1804, in Salem, Massachusetts. It’s tempting to see both past significance and also foreshadowing here. Hawthorne, after all, was born in the most spiritually conflicted New England city on the day announcing the triumph of self-made American identity.
He drew from both wells.
Hawthorne’s family was similarly riven between the freshly heretical and the stoically orthodox. His mother, Betsy Hathorne, was reared in Unitarianism, while Captain Nathaniel Hathorne came from Trinitarian Congregationalist stock (his great-grandfather participated in the Salem witch trials). This was a heady time for theological disputation in the region. In 1805, Henry Ware would take the young nation’s most prestigious divinity post, the Hollis Chair of Divinity at Harvard College. Ware was an avowed Unitarian, meaning he denied the doctrine of the Trinity. The appointment caused a doctrinal earthquake. Harvard never returned to its orthodox roots, paving the way for the spread of Unitarianism in once-sound Congregationalist churches. On the other side, fledgling works like Park Street Church (1809) and Andover Theological Seminary (1807) sprung up even as evangelical leaders like Timothy Dwight, Edward Dorr Griffin (recently treated in the PhD thesis of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School graduate Mark Rogers), and Edwards Amasa Park sought to counter the drift and extend gospel influence through the region.
Nathaniel loved reading and soon emerged as a literary talent. He was sent by family and patrons to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, a Congregationalist school founded to train pastors. He fell in with a gifted set of classmates, including future American president Franklin Pierce, writer-statesman Horatio Bridge, and poet laureate Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (all class of 1825). Also at the college in this time was John Brown Russwurm, the third African American college graduate in all the nation (class of 1826) and future governor of Liberia. Hawthorne read the college’s required texts with interest—Locke on reason, Paley on evidentialist Christianity, and Herodotus on history—but according to biographer Brenda Wineapple found equal pleasure in his status as “a charter member of the secret Pot-8-O Club, dedicated to weekly poems” and no small amount of illicit alcohol.
Perambulating: Or, a Writer’s Existence
We might think that Hawthorne, with his contemporary eminence (a journal has been devoted to him), went from strength to strength as a literary auteur. In reality, over the next four decades, Hawthorne lived a rambling existence not uncommon to writers. With his wife, Sophia, and three children (Una, Julian, and Rose), he traveled to find work, living for a time in Salem (he worked as a surveyor) and a spell in Liverpool, England (appointed by President Pierce as consul) before settling in Concord, Massachusetts. He rarely had much money, seemed to genuinely enjoy his daily employment, and always itched to write, sometimes carving out time to do so in his governmental posts.
He published Twice-Told Tales in 1837, and the collection of short stories announced the arrival of a dazzling if somewhat impenetrable writer. The mind of Hawthorne, it seemed then and later, was something like the Salem namesake of his 1851 book, The House of the Seven Gables. It was magisterial and mysterious, filled with many rooms, open for contemplation yet not eager for tenants. The Blithedale Romance followed in 1852, The Marble Faun in 1860. These were augmented by several short-story collections and numerous essays.
In his corpus, Hawthorne specialized in the intricacies of a conflicted psychology, one wrestling as previously noted with the duties of morality and the innate—and often frustrated—desire for human fulfillment. Here is how philosopher Wilfred McClay summarized the author’s body of work:
Hawthorne’s elaborately wrought fictions seem designed to reconnect us with a great mythic narrative at the foundation of the Western intellectual and moral tradition: the ultimate cautionary tale of how the acquisition of worldly power beyond one’s ken, and the transgression of venerable taboos and ancient boundaries, will surely lead to physical and moral ruin . . . like all the greatest fictions, their reach far exceeds the particularities in which, and for which, they were composed. They offer us today profound and prescient warnings about the many moral perils entailed in human efforts to gain mastery over the terms of human existence.
Those who delve into Hawthorne’s writings will find themselves in the presence of a careful craftsman, one attuned to the complexities of human character, who never seemed to resolve his own internal tension. He loved beauty but never yielded to the God of truth, goodness, and the same; he prized innocence but was aware that his own was lost; he hungered for ultimate satisfaction but walled himself off from its source.
Man of Shadows
Whatever you conclude about Hawthorne, he is a figure worthy of study and contemplation. No mere scion of an enlightened age, he seemed to embrace the life of a post-Puritan while shrinking back from the proudly liberated character of this age. Not for him the triumphal narcissism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the warming glow of Transcendentalist devotees. Hawthorne preferred the shadows.
I find it poignant that he loved to walk by himself in the wild (I have walked the same woods and find them enchanting). But there’s another reason for this poignancy. A century before Hawthorne, another genius roamed the Berkshire Mountains. He too was lost in thought; like the novelist, he too would have had few words for fellow passers-by.
Jonathan Edwards was also a post-Puritan, but only in terms of chronology. He was, as some have said, the last of the Puritans. He did not find in their religion and soteriology an offensive doctrine, though; he realized that the great and terrible God the Puritans set forth in their pulpits was also good, and gracious, the savior of the morally conflicted. Edwards’s grand pulpit offered the words of life to such travelers, and many savingly received them. The revival of interest in Edwards in the current day—and with it, neo-Edwardsean preaching and evangelism–suggests that the old light of past days has not died out.
Hawthorne and his ilk may have lost their way in those woods, but the old paths are still good, and still lead to eternal rest.
If this limited engagement with Hawthorne interests you, and if you enjoy thinking deeply about theology, history, and the Christian heritage of New England, consider Southern Seminary’s New England Expedition, taking place from May 19 to 26, 2013. Professors Greg Wills, Michael Haykin, and myself will be teaching numerous classes on theology and church history, including one I’m offering on “The New England Mind” that will look more closely at Hawthorne.
In fact, we’ll talk about this great American novelist on the steps of his home, even as we discuss Edwards in Princeton, George Whitefield in Newburyport (his burial site), and Timothy Dwight at Yale. You can get up to nine hours of course credit from SBTS, or you can come simply to hear the lectures, see the sights, and eat some delicious lobster.
SBTS will be hosting another expedition, this one to the UK in July 2013. It’s led by Dan DeWitt, a C. S. Lewis scholar and dean of Boyce College. The trip will visit The Kilns, Lewis’s home, the gravesite of Charles Darwin, and Spurgeon’s famous church. Registration is now open (see also the December 2013 Israel trip).