Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Scaffold, Pulpit, Booth, and Possibly a Death-Bed: Scenes of Confession in Hawthorne and Poe

Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Scaffold, Pulpit, Booth, and Possibly a Death-Bed: Scenes of Confession in Hawthorne and Poe

Article excerpt

In one of Anglophone poetry's most unlikely moments, Poe's Tamerlane confesses to a Christian monk who has found his way along the blood-drenched road to Samarkand. Poe justifies the scenario in a note to the version of 1829: "How I shall account for giving him a 'friar' as a death-bed confessor--I cannot exactly determine. He wanted someone to listen to his tale--and why not a friar?" (1386). Even before the enactment of the law of 1647 ordaining banishment or death for Roman Catholic priests, finding one in Boston was almost as unlikely. (1) Yet Hawthorne had considered having Dimmesdale confess to such a priest, and James Russell Lowell, for one, was "sorry he didn't." (2) One might argue, of course, that the presence of a professional listener whose calling requires him to judge and to console is, like the mirror that reveals the features of a heroine or hero, a trusty narrative device. Yet in the largely Protestant culture of the U.S.A. that Poe and Hawthorne knew, an ambivalent fascination with confession flourished, as it did in Britain. (3) The confessional presence in their works is a response both to the polemical tumult of their day and their own artistic (and personal) concerns with silence, secrecy, and speaking out.

In anti-Catholic polemics of the nineteenth century and beyond, the sacrament of penance and reconciliation (to use its formal name) was a spiritual abomination in itself, encouraging sinners to take absolution for granted and claiming for the priesthood a power to forgive that rightfully was God's alone. Moreover, the social effects of confession exemplified Rome's aggressive tendencies. Taking a then- familiar line, William Hogan, an apostate priest and militant nativist, presents the confessional as a means of political indoctrination and the exploitation of gullible immigrants:

   But how is it with the Roman Catholic who comes amongst you? Scarce
   does he land on your shores, when he becomes more turbulent, more
   noisy, and more presumptuous, than when he left his native bogs. As
   soon as he confesses to his priest, he hurrahs for democracy, by
   which he means anarchy, confusion, and the downfall of heretics. He
   must vote; if he cannot do so fairly, his priest tells him how to
   evade the obligations of an oath. (122) (4)

Thus, in the U.S., the Roman Church is the enemy within, a threat to nation and to family. Patriarchs who allow a family member to convert are "moral assassins":

   Do any of those fathers know the questions which a Romish priest
   puts to these children, at confession? Do husbands know the
   questions which priests put to their wives, at confession? Though a
   married man, I would blush to mention the least of them. (170)

In the same year as Hogan's tirade, 1845, Jules Michelet's Du Pretre, de la femme, de la famille appeared in Paris, followed right away by an English translation published in Philadelphia: Spiritual Direction, and Auricular Confession. While Hogan takes up the language of sixteenth-and seventeenth-century hard-line Protestantism, Michelet begins with seventeenth-century controversies among French Catholics, specifically between the Jansenists and the Jesuits. (5) Like Pascal in his Lettres provinciales (1656-57), Michelet attacks the position of those among the Jesuits who offered to the socially privileged a regime pleasingly mild and quick to excuse. (6) Michelet deplores the "sweet language of pious tenderness" (67) and goes beyond Pascal in claiming that priests vied with each other in permissiveness:

   Let one imagine to himself this general emulation between
   confessors, directors, and consulting casuists, to justify every
   body, and to find continually some adroit means to go farther in
   indulgence, and to make some new case innocent which had before
   been deemed culpable. (48)

The words case and casuistry deserve noting, as does directors. When understood in a hostile sense, a case is an act (quite possibly a bad act) assessed in its extenuating circumstances, and casuistry is the means by which the act can be made to seem trivial, or easily forgivable, or even praiseworthy, quite possibly with the aid of equivocation. …

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