Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

So Cruel: Taking Hawthorne's "Sunday at Home" Seriously

Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

So Cruel: Taking Hawthorne's "Sunday at Home" Seriously

Article excerpt

As Nathaniel Hawthorne walked about the outlying areas of Boston on a cool Sunday in June of 1835, he was struck by the manner in which his new community was spending the day. Stopping at the Maverick House, a stylish hotel in East Boston, Hawthorne took note of the scene before him: the room was thronged by men, fashionably dressed, sporting handsome canes and boots, standing at the bar or sitting at the windows puffing cigars, watching the tender prepare tumblers of punch. He found another busy scene at the Mechanics, an equally crowded hotel opposite the Maverick, where young, well-dressed men were lounging and taking their leisure. Hawthorne suspected that most of the men, although groomed for the day, were not so genteel during the week and that the clerks in dry-goods stores were probably the "aristocracy" among them. This suspicions were confirmed when he noticed that the sole of one so-called gentleman's exquisitely polished boot "was all worn out. I apprehend that some such minor deficiencies might have been detected in the general showiness of most of them" (23:126-27). (2)

Wherever he went that afternoon, Hawthorne encountered similar scenes of leisure and pretension. Taking the ferry across the Charles River back to Boston proper, he visited the city tavern where, he ironically noted, "the bar-room presented a Sabbath scene of repose--stage people lounging in chairs, half asleep, smoking cigars--generally with clean shirts and other niceties of apparel, to mark the day" (23:128). Even on his way home, Hawthorne could not escape such examples of Sunday indulgences, as he encountered a respectably dressed man and woman, whom he thought Irish, stumbling on the busy road, drunk, supporting each other so as not to fall. Except for her unsteady gait, he noted, the woman "had a queer air of decency and decorum in the midst of her inebriety--striving with all the little reason in her noddle, to behave with propriety--and succeeding to perfection; only she could not walk straight" (23:128). Thaving just moved to Boston from his boyhood home of Salem, Hawthorne found his new community full of imitators of Sunday rectitude who spent the afternoon in hotels and taverns, sleeping, drinking and smoking, or simply touring the city. Realizing that he had spent his own time in similar fashion, Hawthorne confessed that "My conscience smote me for doing the like, tho' if I had been at home, I should have been reading" (23:127). Nonetheless, he speculated that his observations "may serve to make a sketch of the mode of spending the Sabbath, by the majority of the unmarried young middling people in a great town" (23:127), and he concluded this unusually long and detailed notebook entry with the declaration: "Stages in abundance were passing the road, burthened with passengers, inside and out; also chaises, barouches &c; horsemen and footmen. We are a community of Sabbath-breakers" (23:129).

In this declaration, Hawthorne was more than just culturally correct: the state of Massachusetts prohibited travel and other activities on Sunday to the effect that "'No person shall keep open his shop, warehouse, or workhouse, or shall do any manner of labor, business, or work (except only works of necessity and charity)' on the Lord's day;" moreover, "'No person shall travel on' the Lord's day, 'except from necessity or charity'." (3) Passed in a flurry of activity at the end of the eighteenth century, the Sabbath laws of Massachusetts and other states re-authorized earlier legislation and codified longstanding mores so that, for some foreign visitors, "Sunday observance" seemed the very hallmark of American identity. (4) By the mid-1830s, though, Hawthorne's fellow Bostonians were clearly not too concerned with the enforcement of these legal statutes, nor whether they spent Sunday afternoon drinking and indulging in other forms of recreation rather than attending (second) service, praying, or reading devotional material. …

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