The King's Two Bodies, and the Slave's: Diasporic History in the Whole History of Grandfather's Chair

By Williams, Rita | Nathaniel Hawthorne Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

The King's Two Bodies, and the Slave's: Diasporic History in the Whole History of Grandfather's Chair


Williams, Rita, Nathaniel Hawthorne Review


As the anti-slavery movement reached a fever pitch shortly after enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote to Zachariah Burchmore, "I have not ... the slightest sympathy for the slaves" (16:456). Despite recent observations, such as Robert S. Levine's, that the body of this letter is complex and nuanced about the author's view of chattel bondage in the United States (132), a dominant strain in Hawthorne criticism has held him to be more apolitical than his antislavery Concord neighbors, the Emersons, the Horeaus, and the Alcotts, as a result of such comments. Michael T. Gilmore provides a succinct precis of this view: "unlike Emerson and Horeau, unlike Douglass and Stowe, activists all, he was an inactivist who fetishized deferral" (Politics 22). He interest in politics he did exhibit, centered around the Democratic party, his friend Franklin Pierce, and the prospect of remunerative government employment, has earned him the sobriquet "Hawthorne the trimmer" (Gilmore, Radicalism 117).

Some critics, however, advance another, and profoundly significant, reading of Hawthorne. Writing of The Scarlet Letter, for example, Andrew Delbanco argues that Hawthorne

   dramatized a cultural conflict that was to remain central in the
   New World--a conflict between a struggle to preserve a sense
   of sin as what he explicitly called 'alienation from the Good' ...
   and the community's more savage sense of evil as an entity with
   a dangerous life of its own.... If we think of the burgeoning
   abolitionist belief in the 1840s that a slave-conspiracy exclusive
   to the whorish South was the whole measure of the nation's sin
   ... we may judge Hawthorne's linkage between the centuries a
   grim success. (219-220)

Delbanco's theory that Hawthorne was animated by the conflict between two ideas of good and evil, and his belief that the persistence of these constructs can be traced to a more secular form in mid nineteenth century America, suggest another frame in which to place Hawthorne's politics. If Hawthorne's work and beliefs reflect one side in the cultural conflict described by Delbanco, and reform movements such as abolition the other side, then Hawthorne's impatience with antebellum agitation receives its impetus not from an apolitical stance, but from a political stance imperfectly recognized as such. Hawthorne's attitudes toward slavery and abolition, then, may represent not an absence of proper social engagement, but a presence: his participation in the conflicts of the cultural imaginary characterizing American life from the English Puritan migration to the Civil War. Hawthorne's work is not without a significant interest in the ongoing construction of slavery and freedom, as many of Hawthorne's critics (not to mention his abolitionist contemporaries) argue, but is deeply--perhaps constitutively--concerned with it. Concerns with slavery and freedom run throughout his work, generally universalized to psychological states. What are we to make of the contradiction between Hawthorne's expressed displeasure with political agitation, his impatience with abolitionists both public and private, and his work's insistent figuration of slavery and freedom? He combination can be elucidated with reference to the American cultural imaginary descended from the Puritans, and analyzed via reference to a work in which Hawthorne portrayed that imaginary, The Whole History of Grandfather's Chair.

More recently than Delbanco, other critics have explored the Puritan inheritance of antebellum New England. Larry J. Reynolds terms the presence of abolition in Massachusetts "the warrior spirit of Cromwell ... alive and well in New England," and notes that "a Puritan sensibility inspired much of the righteous indignation of antislavery thought" (Slavery 56). In his Devils and Rebels: The Making of Hawthorne's Damned Politics, Reynolds makes a strong case that Hawthorne himself saw a linkage between state persecution and antislavery reform:

   Hawthorne perceived the Puritan backgrounds of contemporary
   abolitionists and the ways their behavior mirrored that of the
   Puritan witch-hunters. … 

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