The Scarlet Thread
From Witchery to Sanctity: The Religious Vicissitudes Of the Hawthorne's
reviewed by Franklin Freeman
The history of the Hawthornes, more than that of most New England families of the period, focuses on religion. It concerns the vicissitudes of the Christian faith as believed, practiced, and lived by succeeding generations of an extraordinary family.” Thus write Otto and Katharine Bird in the prologue to their new book.
The great merit of this book is the importance with which it treats religion—to be expected from Otto Bird, who worked with Mortimer Adler on the Great Books Program—but something modern academic studies often comment upon with condescending incredulity, if not malice.
A large section consists of well-done plot summaries helpful to those unfamiliar with Hawthorne’s stories and novels. But, unfortunately, in too many places typographical errors, awkward sentence structures, and non-sequiturs mar the telling of this fascinating story.
The Mystery of Sin
The first part of the book portrays the Hathornes, as they spelled their name at that time, during the Puritan days. As the Puritan community began to be surrounded and infiltrated by what they considered ungodly influences, ministers such as Cotton Mather sounded the alarm about Satan’s attacks against them, attacks that included the practice of witchcraft. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great-great-grandfather, John Hathorne, rose up to defend his community against witchery and presided over several hangings of those accused of witchery.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, note the authors, “pays special attention to the victims and persecutors in the witchcraft trials of late 17th-century Salem. . . . The author obviously was fascinated as well as horrified by the madness over witchery,” and the effect can be seen in his writing, especially in the novels The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, and in the tale “Alice Doane’s Appeal.”
In a chapter titled “The Puritan Relapse to Unitarianism,” the authors show how Unitarianism, beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, watered down Puritanism to the same gnostic mishmash to which religious liberalism always strives to reduce traditionalism. The first basic doctrine challenged and denied, enough to cause schism, was “the doctrine of original sin and the innate depravity of human nature.”
Yet the mystery of sin was one of Hawthorne’s main themes. Part 2 of the book discusses Hawthorne and the role of religion in his writings as he looked back at the history of his family (which included the persecution of Quakers as well as the witch trials). It concludes that the writer, although very anti-clerical as a rule, and no believer in any institutional religion, was on the side of the Puritans on the question of original sin.
Especially notable is The House of the Seven Gables, which “carries as a principal theme the inheritance of sin and guilt and its disastrous effects,” a courageous stand to take, the Birds note, when the intellectual leaders of the day, men like Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Channing, “objected strongly to sin being inherited from one generation to the next.”
An Act of Charity
The last section of the book tells the story of Rose Hawthorne, the novelist’s daughter who converted to Catholicism and became a nun, Mother Alphonsa, whose cause for sainthood is now being promoted in Rome. She thought that the best passage in any of Hawthorne’s books concerned a visit he made to a Liverpool workhouse where he was followed by an orphan, a “little sickly humor-eaten fright,” in Hawthorne’s words, who lifted his arms to be picked up by the writer.
Hawthorne did so, and this seems to have helped inspire his daughter to devote her life to works of charity. She started an order of nuns who still today care for impoverished and incurable cancer patients.
Though Hawthorne wrote of inherited guilt, in this case, an act of charity was passed from one generation to the next through a piece of writing. As Flannery O’Connor wrote, “There is a direct line” between Hawthorne’s charity and the charitable work of his daughter.
As she (a Catholic) put it: “This action by which charity grows invisibly among us, entwining the living and the dead, is called by the Church the Communion of the Saints. It is a communion created upon human imperfection, created from what we make of our grotesque state.”
It is Hawthorne’s recognition of our grotesque state, unfashionable even when he wrote, that brings us back to his works when those of his peers have faded.
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“The Scarlet Thread” first appeared in the November 2006 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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