Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Sermons out of Rags: Constitutionalism, Conspiracy Theory, and "Reading" the Scarlet Letter in Hawthorne's "Custom-House"

Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Sermons out of Rags: Constitutionalism, Conspiracy Theory, and "Reading" the Scarlet Letter in Hawthorne's "Custom-House"

Article excerpt

"With its famous emphasis on the problem of interpretation, The Scarlet Letter has often been seen, for better or worse, as a romantic and aestheticist attempt to transcend--or, depending on one's position, escape from--the immediate, material, and political issues of its time. The book's stylized renderings of the relationship of perception to reality were one of the literary strengths that led F. O. Matthiessen to celebrate Hawthorne as an author in American Renaissance. Matthiessen refers to Hawthorne's emphasis on multiple interpretations as "the device of multiple choice": "One main source of Hawthorne's method lay in these remarkable providences, which his imagination felt challenged to search for the amount of emblematic truth that might lie hidden among their superstitions" (277). It is his persistent refusal to provide that "emblematic truth" to readers that Matthiessen saw as one of the marks of Hawthorne's greatness as an artist: The book's failure to resolve its contradictions, the way in which the text upholds a seemingly infinite number of interpretations, is one of the main formal strengths that has led to its canonical status.

However, with the increasing trend toward historicist criticism in the 1980s, the book's "indeterminacy" came to be seen as not simply a twentieth-century literary-critical preoccupation but a nineteenth-and twentieth-century ideological function. Jonathan Arac, in his highly influential essay "The Politics of The Scarlet Letter, " states this position: "In The Scarlet Letter, as in some current criticism, 'indeterminacy' functions as a closure" (249). Arac aligns the formalist celebration of the text as a self-enclosed art object that refuses to resolve its internal contradictions with Hawthorne's quietist stance in the political atmosphere of the mid-nineteenth century:

Consider the problems of reading the letter in relation to the fundamental debates in the 1850s over the meaning of such documents of American life as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. As America left behind the directly "political" statements and actions of the Founders, the age of Clay, Webster, and Calhoun made "constitutional" questions a matter of "exegesis." All the fundamental questions of interpretation arose around these no less than around Hester's letter. (259-60)

Seeing the Constitution as a document that was both crucial and adequate to preserving any kind of future for the Union--since it did not explicitly mention slavery--while recognizing that it did in fact offer present "guarantees" of slavery, democrats like Hawthorne could maintain a "double vision" that "allowed them to deny the need for present action" (261). The Scarlet Letter, Arac contends, is similarly "'open' in its refusal to make absolute claims for Hester's transcendence of the contradiction between passion and principle" (263). For Arac, if a novel like Uncle Tom's Cabin was an openly propagandistic call to its readers to change their lives and the world, then Hawthorne's romance, with its "'open' ... refusal to make absolute claims" is "also propaganda--not to change your life" (251). Though Arac claims that he "at once draw[s] back from the extremity of this last suggestion" (251), over the course of his essay it becomes quite clear that this is his stance on the novel, in part because he finds in Hawthorne's campaign biography of Franklin Pierce a similar emphasis on exegesis in political matters and draws a parallel between the two texts. Thus, rather than a "juxtaposition," Arac ends up reading Hawthorne's novel more or less as a translation of his (conservative) politics.

Arac's position on Hawthorne's novel has become an extremely popular one for critics who have, like many of Hawthorne's contemporaries, condemned his politics. (1) This position is understandable, given what is, from a contemporary perspective, seemingly the only reasonably just view of the issue of slavery as an affront to both human rights and human dignity. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.