Those Puritan Threads
| "THOSE PURITAN THREADS"
The historical Fiction of Nathaniel Hawthorne as a spiritual
biography of 17th Century New England.
I sat at a table in front of a quaint little café on a cobblestone street busy with tourist traffic now and opened my sack of treasures purchased from a near-by gift shop. Just the right size to fit in the palm of my hand was a small wooden well. Maule's Well, it read. Inside the well were several thin cords, better pictured as threads. On the outside
of the well were the words, "Threads of Puritan Past." Caught up in the fantasy, I laid them out in a row, end to end, making a straight line across the table, "A thread, no— a time line," I mused to myself, "Spanning the seventeenth Century."
My eyes wandered down the cobblestone street and traveling through a tunnel of time, a mind journey brought me to an end-over-end halt at the site of a large as life well, identical to the one still pressed into the palm of my hand. Shouts of an angry mob met me as I stood and shook the dust. This mob of drearily clad fellows was leading a man bound as a prisoner up the road. My eyes followed them until they left my sight over the hill-top. Still— their voices rang out. "Don't let "em look into your eye," cried a voice, "Least you want ‘em to cast a spell on you." The shouting continued for a time— yeahs and nays, and then, with their business done, they trudged slowly back down the celebrated hill. Each of these young men, good-fellows all, looked as if they had been visited by ghosts or witches, or maybe— even the devil himself, during a night dream. Solemn and sober they were as they neared and became part of the crowd assembling just ahead of me.
My eyes were drawn on up the cobblestone street to sounds of the clomp clomp of horses's hooves and the clank clank of soldier's swords as they neared. Pulled into the crowd and pressed up the street, I became aware of an overhanging balcony and a platform made of new wooden planks.
A young woman came into focus walking through the crowd. The people seemed to fall away as she passed. She must have been carrying something contagious, even the children who were running and playing were hushed and scooted away by discerning mothers. However, the only thing she was carrying was a small baby wrapped in a blanket. As she neared, she mounted new unfinished steps to the spot above the street overlooking the town common. On a morning such as this the townspeople were usually buying and selling— the doors of the little shops along the street should be banging and clattering and footsteps scurrying in and out. This morning, however, the scurrying feet were still and the little shop doors stood motionless. A matter of grave business was being attended. There were whispers in the crowd— what a shame this handsome young woman was caught in such a heathen act. She walked slowly with head held high. A faint smile masked a wound, an inward pain, drawn unbearably to the surface to form the letter, "A" upon her bosom. The eyes of judgement, bearing down hard, held her captive. What could she possibly have done that was so bad, I wondered?
"Ma am—, are you alright?"
"You've been sitting here for such a long time staring up the street."
I blinked, jolted back to reality. "Oh yes, I'm fine. I must have been browsing too long in the book shop next door. I've been watching a thread unravel."
"Oh I see— I think. Could I get you something else, perhaps an iced coffee?"
"No thank you. I'm fine, really." The sign-post just above me caught my eye. In big bold letters were the words, "Essex Street." The narrow cobblestone street stretched out before me, flanked on both sides with tall square houses very close together and set right next to the street. "Nathaniel Hawthorne, born July 4, 1804," I said out loud. "He walked this same street all those many years ago. I wonder if he played the same mind games I do, jumping back in time— I mean."
The young Reverend George Burroughs stood on Gallows Hill with a noose around his neck. Twice widowed, he was raising several small children. Some young women in Salem Village, caught up in the witch-hunt mania, accused him of making improper advances. He was convicted of witchcraft. He stood, head held high and when asked if he had anything to say, he stated simply, "To confess to evil is to be set free and to hold with innocence is to die" (Video). A young woman hung with George Burroughs was convicted of witchcraft on the evidence of nothing more than the clothing she wore.
The Puritans did not come to this country for the purpose of religious freedom, as we understand religious freedom. They came to America to be ye separate from the world and they were after the freedom to believe as they believed.
"Puritans were intensely conservative— their desire was to lead godly lives and drive out sin from the community" (Fiske p. 145). These were learned people, well acquainted with the scriptures through "earnest and reverent study of the sacred text" (Fiske p. 145) and quite intolerant of the weaker morals of the many. Showing the nakedness of one's arms was considered wicked apparel and unacceptable according to their standards.
When a girl bobbed her hair, or otherwise deformed it to meet the very
latest seventeenth-century fashion, she had to expect not merely her father's
wrath and her mother's tears, but also some public comment from the minister
on the Lord's Day, and a personal visit from the local magistrate (Lawrence. p 15).
17th Century Puritans spent much time and wondering on whether or not they would prove worthy of God's grace or if their sins were too great and their souls too wicked to be chosen for eternal life. Unsure of their election, they lived anxious lives, fearing for their eternal surety.
William Hawthorne came to America in the early 1630's. As a part of John Winthrop's Massachusetts Bay Colony, he took an active part in the Puritan self governing system. His son, John Hawthorne, Nathaniel Hawthorne's grandfather, was one of the judges who condemned George Burroughs to death and to whom a curse was directed, prophesying the downfall of the family line.
By the time of his first written work, Hawthorne was already well acquainted with the manuscripts of the Salem Witch Trials with which he held an avid interest, not to mention the family folklore. He was intensely interested in his family's table talk as he was growing up. The stories of his great-grandfather and his grandfather, his great-aunts and the scarlet letters they wore, and tales of witches and witches' curses flirted and courted him.
As he grew older, the young Hawthorne continued to ponder these tales and legends. "In his lonelier moments, in his solitary walks, in the quiet of his dim bedroom, he was a man communing with himself, attempting to catch a glimpse of his own identity: (Mellow. 95). In this sense, history became his mirror, then he pulled the reflection out for us— to within a finger-tip's reach. As we reach out to touch, Hawthorne steps from behind this mirror which he used as a metaphor for insight into his character and speaks directly to his reader. " . . . To look upon, to analyze, to explain matters to myself, and to comprehend the drama which, for almost two hundred years has been dragging it slow length over the ground where . . . I now tread" (Hawthorne, The House of Seven Gables. 248). He was consciously articulating his life-long search for his own identity. Again and again, through time's open window, he confronted his fears, from first one angle, then another. At the beginning of his writing career, he set the stage with what would become his trademark: writing in shades of light and dark, and right and wrong. He used allegory, finely tuned, to bring forth sin, guilt, and retribution. His emphasis, always, was on the dubious condition of the heart. The human heart that is capable of affection and emotion, the delicate touch of humanity, as opposed to the intellect, the letter of the law. "Indeed, we are but shadows . . . till the heart is touched. That touch creates us— then we begin to be: (Mellow. Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times).
Throughout all of his work, Hawthorne laid open the heart— pulled and pried, examining the interior. There was a lack of heart felt emotion in the Puritan beliefs he ingerited. He must have struggled fiercely with that discrepancy, denying for many years those natural emotions of humankind. When he met Sophia, however, who he later married, the wells of human emotion bubbled over. How he must have struggled with the bitter waters of Maule's Well when the sweet water of love gushed up from within. Accepting the stain of the blood of the innocent hng those generations before, his need for absolution was evident. In one of his letter to Sophia, he alludes to "having to wash his hand," before even opening her letters.
Hawthorne created a circumscripted space for his characters, as in an attempt to mirror the confines of Puritan beliefs. This space was always, between three hills, in the forest, in a house, and often within the depths of our common nature. Always, though, it was limited.
Early on in his career, he wrote, "The Hollow Between Three Hills," depicting sin and the frail young woman's awareness of it. Although his craft wasn't as fine-tuned at this point as it became later in his writing career, he gave us a glimpse at what was to become the controlling agent in his life's writings. He dipped back into his own Puritan roots very effectively. Those roots became his plume-line as he pulled and shaped the colors and shadows of his stories.
Hawthorne eavesdropped in the shadows a Young Goodman Brown was told, "It shall be yours to penetrate, in every bosom, the deep mystery of sin." Goodman as a character shared his awareness of the sinfulness of human nature with Hester who also became "a secret sharer of the hidden guilts and shames of others." Young Goodman had no place to fit what he experienced in the forest into the theology of his forefathers, who lived in strict adherence of the belief that God punishes those who sin. If we belong to Him, we must carry out His justice.
The idea that, "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God," (Rom. 3:23) did not fit in Puritan teachings. The harsh life of the new world coupled with their intellectual zeal produced a staunch, unbending people who "disciplined all passions but love of God: (Hawke. 158).
In "The Minister's Black Veil," Mr. Hooper revealed that "In every heart there is secret sin, and sad mysteries which we hide from our nearest and dearest, and would feign conceal from our own consciousness." This was later to be echoed by Dimmsdale who veiled his guilt with his hand. Hawthorne carried Dimmsdale's guilt a step further. It tore at his very physical being until it was guilt unto death. Dimmsdale was guilty of denying, "The complaint of a human heart, sorrow-laden, perchance guilty, telling its secret, whether of guilt or sorrow, to the great heart of mankind."
" . . . Where is the heart?" Quarried Ethan Brand. He looked the world over until he found the biggest sin of all— in his own heart. So complete was this separation that the quest for knowledge became his only life substance. His heart had ceased to function. In his search for the unpardonable sin, he lost his place among the living, no longer a partaker of our common nature, but an observer only. Young Goodman Brown offered the reader a peek at this search in yet an embryonic form, Ethan Brand perfected it. He was obsessed with a "vast intellectual development which disturbed the counterpoise between his mind and heart: (Arvin. 325). So unfeeling was Brand that he became the personification of what the Puritan faith came to be in New England.
Shortly after his mother's death and a severe illness of his own, there came a time in Hawthorne's life when he began to question his own reason. This was when he wrote his greatest work, The Scarlet Letter. It was a story about three individuals, their sin, and the effect it had on their lives. Those sins, veiled in secrecy, were played out within the pages until we were shown the horrible effects of secret sin. In allegorical terms, we saw the fall of mankind in the personage of Hester and the young minister Arthur Dimmsdale. As the story opened man and woman had fallen from grace. Guilt entered but was masked behind "the hand of healing." The course of the story brought enlightenment to the contemporary reader who realized the Pearl of undeserved grace had been available all along to those with a repentant heart.
Arthur Dimmsdale concealed his sin, hiding that remorseful pain with his hand an dall the while his body withered away, losing its very life's breath. He could have acknowledged his guilt/complicity at any time and checked this deterioration. "As you continue in your rebellion the whole head is sick and the whole heart is faint" (Isa. 1:15). This awful truth is exemplified, also in "The Hollow Between Three Hills." The heroine of the story is thus portrayed, " . . . though pale and troubled, and smitten with an untimely blight in what should have been the fullest bloom of her years." Dimmsdale and the pale and troubled woman both suffered from the same disease, that secret sin that killeth the soul. The graceful and fair lady, pale and troubled, was shown her sin from three different angles. The third vision she was shown was unto death. As a type of Hawthorne, the graceful and fair lady wrestled despairingly with this secret sin. Hester "hid the secret from herself and grew pale whenever it struggled out of her heart, like a serpent from its hole." The secrecy that the young minister Dimmsdale clung to, cried to show itself. From within the pages of Hawthorne's writings, the guilt of his own heart crept through. Did he, after all, use his stories as a mirror or spiritual analogy?
The curious, discerning reader should ask why Hawthorne was so preoccupied and obsessed with sin. What did Nathaniel Hawthorne see when he looked into this mirror? He "was a handsome, sensitive man, with a fierce shyness, as if he were determined neither to relax his guard nor to reveal a weakness" (Mellow. 5). Hawthorne seemed, like the young minister Dimmsdale, a man " . . . who felt himself quite astray and at a loss in the pathway of human existence, and could only be at ease in some seclusion of his own: (Hawthorne. The Scarlet Letter. 12). It was not likely that Hawthorne would discard the veil from his own well-guarded personality.
Like Hester, Hawthorne embroidered a work of art. Also, like Hester, he did not feel a part of the world around him Rather as if operating on senses unknown to humankind, he felt himself an onlooker, a sufferer alone, unattached— and a possessor of " . . . a sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts: (Hawthorne. The Scarlet Letter. 23).
He called Pearl, "an imp of evil, emblem and product of sin." Her mother was "ever dreading to detect some dark and wild peculiarity, that should correspond with the guiltiness to which she owed her being." One might venture to guess that perhaps Hawthorne, using Perl herself as a symbol, was speaking of his won peculiarity.
Hawthorne often used a dwelling place as a symbol of the heart. In The Scarlet Letter, Chillingworth, a symbol of guilt, moved into Dimmsdale's dwelling place to become a permanent fixture.
In The House of the Seven Gables, the heart condition is found in the house itself. He tells us it's "heavy-hearted," that it's "oozy as with the moisture of a heart." It becomes a "dungeon" symbolizing imprisonment of the heart and finally "the gloomy and desolate old house, deserted of life, and with awful Death sitting sternly in its solitude, was the emblem of many a heart, which, nevertheless, is compelled to hear the trill and echo of the world's gaiety around it." The organ grinder attempts to draw out the emotions of the old house, wooing it to open up and show forth its inner heart.
Hawthorne's heart voice wrestled with right and wrong. The other voice, the head voice, showed what wrong could do to the human heart. The struggle between the two was more than just a motif. It was a struggle within himself, manifest. He was all too aware of the destructive aspects of the intellect and pride. Hawthorne was metaphorically the minister who felt a kinship with Hester who had, "A sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts" (Hawthorne. The Scarlet Letter. 23). He wove his tales as only one could who had a deep personal and self-felt kinship with the fallen characters of his stories.
Wakefield decided " . . . to dissever himself from the world— to vanish— to give up his place and privileges with living men, without being admitted among the dead." It was during his secret engagement to Sophia that Hawthorne decided to take an extended trip. He told her that he wouldn't be giving anyone his address and that he might even change his name. He seemed to take pleasure in anonymity, suggesting that if perhaps he were to die, no one would know. This trip took place three years after he wrote, "Wakefield." At the end of his life, almost as if in self-prophesy, he left his family to be alone and died, alone.
In 1883, Hawthorne's son Julian visited Herman Melville in New York City. Melville confided to him that, "He was convinced Hawthorne had all his life concealed some great secret which would, were it known, explain al the mysteries of his career" (Mellow. 589).
Hawthorne wrote out of a psychological need to confront and come to terms with his own secret sin. All his writings became part of that search. He put words to a new tradition at a time when America was toddling to recognition on the literary scene. He took the unfamiliar path of psychological reality where few had gone before, in a time when the work of an outhor was considered frivolous, of little gain, and according to the voice of his forefathers, the work of the devil. With his special gift, that terrible objectivity, he stood afar off, analyzing the heart of man until he became so obsessed with it that he was estranged from the heart within himself.
The threads of a Puritan ancestry continue to haunt the American psyche up to the present time. Hawthorne, more than any other American writer, has given us a glimpse of our Puritan heritage in his writings, especially his historical writings. Life presents us with certain dilemmas, though dressed in different faces, again and again. Hawthorne presents these dilemmas in a Puritan context to show recurring problems of mankind. The reader ultimately has to search his/her own conscience to relate Hawthorne's message to the dilemmas we face in our own time.
Sheryl Hamilton Chaney
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Video. The Witches of Salem: The Horror And The Hope. New World Entertainment.