Nathanial Hawthorne and the Scarlet Letter

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Beth MaGee
12-06-10
Prof. Sheehan
Amer. Lit.

Nathanial Hawthorne and the Scarlet Letter
If you were able to attend any one of thousands of high schools across the United States, it is inevitable that sooner or later, on almost every English and literature reading list, you would be required to read Nathanial Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. Why is Hawthorne considered to be a great American writer? What makes The Scarlet Letter so pivotal to American literature? What is the significance of the ideas put forth in The Scarlet Letter and are they still relevant for today’s readers? Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is famous for presenting some of the greatest interpretive difficulties in all of American literature, and is frequently regarded as the greatest novel in American literary history. The Scarlet Letter attained an immediate and lasting success because it addressed spiritual, cultural, and moral issues from a uniquely American standpoint. This novel represents the height of Hawthorne's literary genius and remains relevant for its philosophical and psychological depth, which is why it continues to be read as a classic tale on a universal theme. One of the first mass-produced books in America, it sold 2,500 volumes within ten days and earned Hawthorne $1,500 over 14 years. The book became an immediate best-seller in the United States and it initiated Hawthorne’s most lucrative period as a writer. 20th century writer D. H. Lawrence said “there could be no more perfect work of the American imagination than The Scarlet Letter.” Nathanial Hawthorne published The Scarlet Letter in mid-March 1850. This novel is considered his most famous novel and the first quintessentially American novel in style, theme, and language. Set in seventeenth-century Puritan Massachusetts, the novel centers around the travails of Hester Prynne, who gives birth to a daughter after an adulterous affair. Hawthorne's novel is concerned with the effects of the affair rather than the affair itself, using Hester's public shaming as a springboard to explore the lingering taboos of Puritan New England in contemporary society. The Scarlet Letter is famous for presenting some of the greatest interpretive difficulties in all of American literature. Hawthorne worried that his writings “do not, nor ever will, appeal to the broadest class of sympathies,” and this, he was convinced, meant they would “not attain a very wide popularity.” In this estimation he was far too modest, for his work has been at the center of the American canon since the first copies of The Scarlet Letter came off the press. So while not recognized by Hawthorne himself as his most important work, the novel is regarded not only as his greatest accomplishment, but frequently as the greatest novel in American literary history. After it was published in 1850, critics hailed it as initiating a distinctive American literary tradition. The Scarlet Letter was an immediate success for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the United States was still a relatively new society, less than one hundred years old at the time of the novel’s publication. Indeed, still tied to Britain in its cultural formation, Hawthorne's novel offered a uniquely American style, language, set of characters, and--most importantly--a uniquely American central dilemma. Besides entertainment, then, Hawthorne's novel had the possibility of goading change, since it addressed a topic that was still relatively controversial, even taboo. Certainly, Puritan values had eased somewhat by 1850, but not enough to make the novel completely welcome. It was to some degree a career-threatening decision to center his novel around an adulterous affair. But Hawthorne was not concerned with a prurient affair here, though the novel’s characters are. Hawthorne chose to leave out the details of the adulterous rendezvous between Hester and Dimmesdale entirely. Instead, he was concerned with the aftermath of the affair--the shaming of...
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