All in the Family

Hawthorne's Secret: An Un-Told Tale

by Philip Young
David R. Godine, 183 pp., $15.95
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Nathaniel Hawthorne; drawing by David Levine

“For in this world of lies, Truth is forced to fly like a scared white doe in the woodlands; and only by cunning glimpses will she reveal herself, as in Shakespeare and other masters of the great Art of Telling the—even though it be covertly, and by snatches.”

—Herman Melville, “Hawthorne and His Mosses”

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s unusual reticence was remarked upon by almost everyone who knew him well, and it occurred to several of them that he might be concealing an important—possibly an all-important—secret. Even his wife Sophia referred to his nature as “an unviolated sanctuary” she never “conceived or knew.” In a curious letter to Hawthorne, his friend and lawyer, George Hillard, speculating about his (Hawthorne’s) strange “taste for the morbid anatomy of the human heart,” surmised that his client, who seemed to be “burdened with secret sorrow,” was a man with a “blue chamber” in his soul which he “hardly dared to enter.” But Melville was the first to suggest that the secret occupied a central place in the writer’s work. He was convinced that “all his life” Hawthorne had “concealed some great secret, which would, were it known, explain all the mysteries in his career.”

Sensitive readers, people who have known Hawthorne only through his work, have had similar suspicions. Indeed, no attentive reader can fail to wonder about the reasons for his obsessive preoccupation with sin, or with the strange theme of hereditary guilt: the alleged transmission from one generation to the next of a sinful trait and its painful psychic consequences. Hawthorne was fascinated by the idea of guilt as a form of punishment, especially the inner torment suffered by respectable men like Arthur Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter, who has secretly committed what he regards as an unspeakable crime. Many critics have developed theories about the connection between these morbid themes—what Melville called “a blackness, ten times black” shrouding Hawthorne’s soul—and the furtive writer’s life. D.H. Lawrence wrote that Hawthorne was “nice as pie, goody-goody and lovey-dovey” on the surface, but with a hidden center reachable (like that of his best work) only if one delved into “the inner diabolism of the secret meaning.” “That blue-eyed darling Nathaniel,” he wrote of The Scarlet Letter, “knew disagreeable things in his inner soul. He was careful to send them out in disguise.”

In “The Custom-House,” the introduction to The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne attributes his acute sense of guilt to the cruel ways of his Puritan ancestors. He felt bound, he says, “to take…[their] shame” upon himself “for their sakes.” He was referring both to the progenitor of the American Hawthornes, Major William Hathorne, a seventeenth-century magistrate who handed out harsh penalties to Quakers, and to his son John, who “inherited the persecuting spirit, and made himself so conspicuous in the martyrdom of witches, that their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain…

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