Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Veil of Sin

“What is this secret sin; this untold tale. That art cannot extract, not penance cleanse?  Horace Walpole, 1768

On that bright, crisp Wednesday morning, there was the lingering smell of gingerbread and spruce in the air. Thirty-seven students dressed in black silk robes borrowed from the neighboring clergy, walked to a platform constructed near a grove of pines and fir.

Among the graduates of the Bowdoin class of 1825 would be a renowned clergyman, the African American governor of Liberia, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and a future President of the United States, Franklin Pierce.

And there was a shy student who three months earlier had been reprimanded by the college president for his frequent absences and banned from speaking at the commencement. His name was Nathaniel Hawthorne.

In his first year at Bowdoin, the same college President, the Reverend William Allen had written Hawthorne’s mother to ask her “to induce your son faithfully observe the laws of this institution.”

According to Brenda Wineapple, the author of Hawthorne, A Life — the restless Nathaniel “resented regulations stipulating how far a student could walk on the Sabbath and that forbade smoking a “seegar” on the street or consuming alcohol.”

Over the past 186 years, Hawthorne has emerged from wayward student to a writer forever doomed to the “required” reading lists of students. The Scarlet Letter, The House of Seven Gables, and The Marble Faun. For some enthusiasts, the wish is that required became “desired” reading list.

I spent nearly a year walking the same pine-strewed paths at Bowdoin College as Hawthorne. It gave me an unwavering appreciation for a writer who was unfathomable to his closest friends and even to his wife Sophie.

After his death in May of 1864, his sister Elizabeth told Hawthorne’s son Julian, “Your father kept his very existence a secret, as far as possible.”

The classic biographer’s gem has been Julian’s visit with Herman Melville in 1883.  For years, Melville has been in decline and held “a secure but ignominious job as an outdoors custom inspector.”

According to Julian, Melville, “… said several interesting things; among which the most remarkable was that he was convinced Hawthorne had all his life concealed some great secret; which would, if known would explain all the mysteries of his career.”

Hawthorne’s secret.

In the post-Freudian era, it has been like Eve’s apple to biographers and scholars.  Philip Young makes the case for incest (With his sister Elizabeth) in Hawthorne’s Secret, An Untold Tale.

Other proposed but unsubstantiated secrets include molestation from his Uncle Robert with whom he shared a room in Salem for many years. For a literary detective there’s a trove of evidence in Hawthorne’s own oeuvre — from the story “Alice Doane’s Appeal” to the Scarlet Letter.

In Hawthorne’s work there is much light and perhaps even more darkness.  He used his darker imaginings so effectively that Henry James believed his “darkness” to be a mere fanciful playing, with evil and pain used simply as counters in his fictional game.”

As a lover of 19th Century literature (Melville, Hawthorne, Twain, Poe and Dickens), I believe that the further removed from context and time, the more we need the nuggets of literary biography as back story.

In Twain, for example, we do not need to know his life to appreciate or enjoy his writings.  But as one explores the world of Samuel Clemens, you realize the impact that a black slave named Uncle Daniel had on his story telling sense and his ability to mimic dialects.

Or how the death of Twain’s younger brother in a steamship accident created a consciousness of guilt for the young Clemens.

So, what is it about sin and Hawthorne?  The black and white of his life?  How do you explain the gossamer like veil between Hawthorne and his family?

In the next issue of BakerMuse, I explore one of his darker stories from “Twice Told Tales” — it is called The Minister’s Black Veil. (1836)

It’s a story of a reverend who curiously dons a veil that covers his features except for the mouth and chin.  This veil confounds his congregation and his friends and acts as a parable — that the reverend’s  perception of the human condition and his willingness to expose it — leads to his isolation.

“What other dungeon is so dark as one’s own heart! What jailer so inexorable as one’s self !”  Nathaniel Hawthorne