"Kicking A-": The Scarlet Letter as Autobiography?

Day 19 of Emerging Genres

"Kicking A-":
The Scarlet Letter as Autobiography?


The use of race as a form of creative nonfiction has had a powerful influence on two generations of African-Americans who did not experience the civil rights movement firsthand and who share a cosmopolitan attitude toward race. In 2001 that attitude found corner-turning expression in “Freestyle,” an exhibition organized at the Studio Museum in Harlem by its director, Thelma Golden. When Ms. Golden and her friend the artist Glenn Ligon called the 28 young American artists “postblack,” it made news....
...the concept of race in America — the fraught fictions of whiteness and blackness— is not going away soon. It is still deep in our system. Whether it is or isn’t in our blood, it’s in our laws, our behavior, our institutions, our sensibilities, our dreams. It’s also in our art, which, at its contrarian and ambiguous best, is always on the job, probing, resisting, questioning and traveling miles ahead down the road.

Speaking of which--I have your papers to return:
especially interested in parallel contrasts developed
between open-ended genres and "endward" ones:
Jessy: comedy, tragedy
Megan: theory, romance
Derrida sneaks up on Louisa one Friday night

NYTimes piece on The Murky Politics of Mind-Body:
If mental illness never ends, which is typically the case, how do you set a standard for coverage equal to that for physical ailments, many of which do end?...if you can cure something, you can treat it and there is a finite quality to that treatment — and its cost. So you may, if you are an insurance company, be a lot more willing to pay for it.

Louisa suggested that Cassy's sassiness scared HBS: had to bring her back in line!
Alex and Hannah went in the opposite direction, both "queering" the category gender

Marina is this week's note-taker/reporter/archivist

Red-letter days at the BCA reveal society's secrets: outlaw sensibility is what drives "The Scarlet Letter." Our secrets and passions, the things we rarely share, make us all outlaws and play as great a hand in shaping us as law, morality, and community.


Is that the case?
Then what do we make of where we left off...
"we may prate of the circumstances that lie around us, and even of ourself, but still keep the inmost Me behind its veil. To this extent and within these limits, an author, methinks, may be autobiographical, without violating either the reader's rights or his own." (Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The Custom House," Introductory to The Scarlet Letter)

What are the rights of the reader?
What are the rights of an author?

What happens to The Scarlet Letter if
we read it as an example of the genre of autobiography?

What are the characteristics/qualities of an autobiography?
How would you identify/recognize one?

In whom/how does Nathaniel Hawthorne represent himself,
as "outlaw sensibility"?



"Hester Prynne"
From "Exposing Scarlet:
A Visual Response to The Scarlet Letter"

Some prompts/passages to focus on--
the characters of Pearl, of Hester, of Dimmesdale, of Chillingworth--
and of the relations between them


"She knew her deed had been evil; she could have no faith, therefore, that its result would be for good....The child could not be made amenable to rules. In giving her existence, a great law had been broken; and the result was a being, whose elements were...all in disorder; or with an order peculiar to themselves....It was as if she had been made afresh, out of new elements, and must perforce be permitted to...be a law unto herself. (Ch. 6, "Pearl," pp. 67-69; Ch. 10, "The Leech and his Patient, p. 99)

Hester was little accustomed, in her long seclusion from society, to measure her ideas of right and wrong by any standard external to herself....her life had turned, in a great measure, from passion and feeling, to thought. Standing alone in the world....she cast away the fragments of a broken chain. The world's law was no law for her mind....Hester Prynne...assumed a freedom of speculation...which our forefathers, had they known of it, would have deemed a deadlier crime than that stigmatized by the scarlet letter...a tendency to speculation...makes her sad. She discerns...such a hopeless task before her....the whole system of society is to be torn down, and built up anew....the very nature of the opposite sex...is to be essentially modified...finally...she herself shall...undergo...a still mightier change....Hester Pryne...wandered without a clew in the dark labyrinth of mind....The scarlet letter had not done its office. (Ch. 13, "Another View of Hester," pp. 116, 119, 120)

IN CONTRAST....

Mr. Dimmesdale was a true priest...with an order of mind that impelled itself powerfully along the track of a creed, and wore its passage continually deeper with the lapse of time....it would always be essential to his peace to feel the pressure of a faith about him, supporting, while it confined him within its iron framework. Not the less, however...did he feel the occasional relief of looking at the universe through the medium of another kind of intellect....It was as if a window were thrown open, admitting a freer atmosphere into the close and stifled study....But the air was too fresh and chill to be long breathed, with comfort...the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale...was haunted either by Satan himself, or Satan's emissary, in the guise of old Roger Chillingworth....the people looked...to see the minister come forth out of the conflict, transfigured with glory. (Ch. 9, "The Leech," pp. 91, 95)

...what was he?--a substance?--or the dimmest of all shadows?...a life so false as his...steals the pith and substance out of whatever realities there are around us....to the untrue man the whole universe is false--it is impalpable--it shrinks to nothing...and he himself...becomes a shadow....The only truth, that continued to give Mr. Dimmesdale a real existence on this earth, was the anguish in his inmost soul....when an individual discovers a revelation, addressed to himself alone...it could only be the symptom of a highly disordered mental state...extended his egotism over the whole expanse of nature, until the firmament itself should appear no more than a fitting page for his soul's history and fate....the minister, looking upward to the zenith...beheld...the letter A (Ch. 11, "The Interior of a Heart," pp. 105, 107, 113)

...as he proceeded, a terrible fascination, a kind of fierce, though still calm, necessity seized the old man....He now dug into the poor clergy man's heart, like a miner searching for gold; or, rather, like a sexton delving into a grave....He groped along as stealthily...as a thief entering a chamber where a man lies only half asleep ... He became...a chief actor, in the poor minister's interior world. He could play upon him as he chose. (Ch. 10, "The Leech and his Patient, pp. 95-96; Ch. 11, "The Interior of a Heart," p. 103)

Now: one way a novel which highlights
these four characters could be read as an autobiography
is to make them all aspects of a single self
(think: ego/superego/id...?)
Some literary/critical theory to help us think together about these passages:
From "Exposing Scarlet:
A Visual Response to The Scarlet Letter"

Cf. Frederic Carpenter, "Scarlet A Minus,"
American Literature and the Dream (1955)
  • orthodox believers say Hester was truly sinful/ her passion fatal flaw that caused tragedy
  • romantic enthusiasts say social determinism caused the disaster: Hester's passions are good, and society is evil for condemning her
  • Carpenter offers the mediation of transcendent idealism: reading the novel with the help of the transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau,
    he argues that there is a higher law beyond tradition or romance,
    that love is not romantically immoral nor blindly rebellious,
    but that Hester sinned in putting romantic love ahead of ideal truth:
    she sacrificed her own integrity by giving everything to her lover

traditional tragedy: result of individual imperfection
romantic tragedy: result of oppression of evil society
transcendental tragedy: result of conflict of values:
Dimmesdale's orthodox morality vs. Hester's dream of freedom

novel deeply confused:
Hawthorne allowed his imagination to create an idealist heroine,
but wouldn't allow his conscious mind to justify her ideals:
damned her for being romantic, immoral
the wilderness is the precondition of a new morality of freedom,
an authentic American dream of a new life,
but Hawthorne got afraid, placated his conscience, couldn't permit such freedom

(like Louisa re: Harriet Beecher Stowe's fear of Cassy!!)


Jonathan Arac on "The Politics of the Scarlet Letter,"
Ideology and Classic American Literature (1986):

the key to understanding the novel is neither psychology or Puritanism,
but the politics of 1850's

two years after writing the novel, Hawthorne published The Life of Franklin Pierce, an unequivocal endorsement of the Democratic candidate for president as an ideal combination of future and stability, "motion and regulation"

the "organization of inaction" of TSL takes its structure
of conflicting values from the political impasse of the 1850s

it makes literature intransitive, useless, harmless

like UTC, TSL is propaganda-> but the instruction is NOT to change your life!
TSL gets hung up on the contradictions between passion and principle
it takes its keynote from Hawthorne's political position, esp. regarding slavery:

"Hawthorne did not favor slavery; he only urged that nothing be done about it....as one of those evils which Providence...will cause to vanish like a dream"...he saw the Civil War as a "horrible convulsion for that which might come by gradual and peaceful change"

action is intolerable; character takes its place
the point of the plot is to erase and undo all action

Dimmesdale's emotional wavering, like Pierce's political "trimming"-->
the politics of issueless patience

So:

in Hawthorne's preface, the novel is an autobiography
in Carpenter's version, it is about the frustrated desire
for transcendental freedom/individual integrity
in Arac's, it's about political inaction...

What do you think??
What intrigues you most about the text?
Which generic category is most helpful to you,
in thinking about what it does and
how it operates?



" Amaryllis,"
From "Exposing Scarlet:
A Visual Response to The Scarlet Letter"