The Scarlet Mob of Scribblers: Rereading Hester Prynne

The Scarlet Mob of Scribblers: Rereading Hester Prynne

The Scarlet Mob of Scribblers: Rereading Hester Prynne

The Scarlet Mob of Scribblers: Rereading Hester Prynne


Jamie Barlowe finds it bitterly ironic that in literary criticism of The Scarlet Letter, a major American novel about a woman, the voices of female critics have been virtually excluded.

Barlowe examines the causes and consequences of the continuing disregard for women's scholarship. To that end, she chronicles The Scarlet Letter's critical reception, analyzes the history of Hester Prynne as a cultural icon in literature and film, rereads the canonized criticism of the novel, and offers a new reading of Hawthorne's work by rescuing marginalized interpretations from the alternative canon of women critics.

Despite the fervent protestations of scholars that women and minorities are no longer excluded from the arena of academic debate, Barlowe's investigation reveals that mainstream scholarship on The Scarlet Letter -- studied as models by generations of students and teachers -- remains male-dominated in its comprising population and in its attitudes and practices, which function as the source of its truth-claims.

Rather than celebrating the minimal handouts of the academy to women and minorities -- and of the culture that nurtures and supports the academy's continuing discrimination -- Barlowe constructs a case study that reveals the "rather pitiful state of affairs at the close of the twentieth century".

By interrogating canonized assumptions, Barlowe charts new directions for Hawthorne studies and American literary studies. Through this expose of ingrained institutional bias, perpetuated myths, and privileged critics, Barlowe provides a refigured perception of the field and state of contemporary literary scholarship.


In this book, my primary context of analysis "takes gender... to be the most radical division of human experience, and a relatively unchanging one" (Sedgwick 11), despite all claims of progress. This concept of gender, as I use it, is informed by other divisions of constructed human experience (race, class, and sexuality) and by history, as well as by other theoretical frameworks, political exigencies, and professional or institutional criticisms. On similar contextual ground, I began in graduate school to ask what seemed a simple question: Why is there an absence or token representation of women's scholarship on Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter? This absence or tokenism, I noted, occurred not only in critical arguments but also in the bibliographies and works cited sections of almost all the mainstream scholarship, as well as in reading lists for graduate examinations and bibliographies for theses and dissertations. In the 1980s none of my professors assumed that I or any other graduate student should include women on such lists--nor, later, did hiring committees, editors, or publishers--but all determined the falsifiability of my claims and arguments by my inclusion of and engagement with a long list of this mainstream scholarship, what Amy Ling and other feminists would later call the "malestream" (152). When I asked about the absence of women, I was told what generations of Americanists have been told: that few women had published good scholarship on this text; otherwise, mainstream scholarship would have known it. Their absence thus functioned as evidence for their absence. Moreover, I was often encouraged in graduate school, when I did engage with women's scholarship, to place it on the contextual ground of the "malestream" and to attempt to falsify the women's arguments (see Bar lowe , Reading Against the Grain).

After continuing to notice the absence of women's scholarship in the new work published by men on The Scarlet Letter, I began to search for women's (not just feminist) scholarship and am still discovering its remarkable extent. My problem, however, was demonstrating its absence; that is, what would count as evidence if I were to read the body of scholarship on The Scarlet Letter as a text? My solution was an empirical examination of all of the scholarship because I knew the resistance to my . . .

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