Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Nathaniel Hawthorne's Warring Doctors and Meddling Ministers

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Nathaniel Hawthorne's Warring Doctors and Meddling Ministers

Article excerpt

Nathaniel Hawthorne's stories "The Rejected Blessing" and "Rappaccini's Daughter" dramatize ideological competition among doctors and clergymen from Renaissance Italy to colonial Boston over care of the body. In the context of Hawthorne's life, these stories show his foresighted theorizing of medical hegemony and its dangers to public and individual health.

In the eighteen-thirties and eighteen-forties, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64) was a young writer trying to make a living by submitting sketches, tales, and short stories to periodicals and gift books. Having declined his mother's suggestion to pursue a career in medicine, at Bowdoin (1821-25) Hawthorne studied classics and philology. He went on to position himself as a social critic aloof from all of the professions and as a keen observer of his contemporaries' foibles and obsessions. Hawthorne's life coincided with a period of intense struggle in American medicine between academic, or "regular," medicine and a multitude of alternative healing systems, collectively referred to as "irregular" practices, such as Thomsonianism, homeopathy, eclecticism, and water cure. As regulars and irregulars vied for the public's trust and business, each touted the virtues of their own cures. College-educated physicians, following Benjamin Rush's heroic revolution in therapeutics, turned away from complex medicines with dozens of ingredients and began using heavy doses of opium, mercury, antimony, quinine, and arsenic, along with blood-letting by leech or lancet for nearly every illness (Haller 67). At the same time, alternative healing systems sprang up everywhere between the Jacksonian period (eighteen-twenties and eighteen-thirties) and the Civil War in response to the pain and worsening of illness that regular medicine offered. Alternative systems were more affordable than regular medicine, with milder side effects on patients; and, as Thomsonianism encouraged, many of them allowed patients to treat themselves.

For young Hawthorne, the conflict between regulars and irregulars and its implications for power over one's personal health and happiness was more interesting than subscribing to a particular healing system. He ultimately rejected a medical career because, he wrote, he did not want "to live by the diseases and infirmities of my fellow creatures. And it would weigh very heavily on my conscience if, in the course of my practice, I should chance to send any unlucky patient 'ad inferum,' which being interpreted is 'to the realms below'" (qtd. in Mellow 25). With this sardonic view of the profession as parasitic on human frailty and his fear of doctors' ability to kill their "fellow creatures," Hawthorne accordingly created characters who were single-minded and deadly, such as Aylmer in "The Birthmark," Drs. Rappaccini and Baglioni in "Rappaccini's Daughter," and Roger Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letter.

Early in his writing career, Hawthorne scorned the specious nature of claims made by reformers of human health and happiness. In 1835 he noted the following premise for future tales: "A sketch to be given of a modern reformer--a type of the extreme doctrines on the subject of slaves, cold water, and other such topics. He goes about the streets haranguing most eloquently, and is on the point of making many converts, when his labors are suddenly interrupted by the appearance of the keeper of a mad-house, whence he has escaped. Much may be made of this idea" (qtd. in Mancall 7). Yoking abolitionists and water-cure practitioners as "extreme," Hawthorne's main interest here is that the danger of the vocal and public reformer is his illusive power to win the belief of his audience. Hawthorne would return to the figure of the "modern reformer" again and again in his fiction throughout the eighteen-forties. In 1841, he "made much of this idea" in "The Rejected Blessing," a historical tale in The Whole History of Grandfather's Chair, or True Stories from New England History, 1620-1808, chronicling Boston minister Cotton Mather's early activism for inoculation against smallpox. …

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