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 upon him.” By disclosing these facts Nathaniel Hawthorne was ostensibly assuming his ancestors’ shame in the hope that it would help to remove “any curse incurred by them.” But he added enigmatically that nevertheless certain “strong traits of their nature have intertwined themselves with mine.” Of what ancestral traits could he have been thinking? In spite of many recent studies of Hawthorne’s life and work, this audacious book is the first to offer a plausible answer to that question.

Philip Young is a biographical critic with something of a reputation as a gifted literary detective. His first book, a study of Hemingway, 1 included a slight but incisive piece of psychological analysis. Indeed, when Hemingway heard about it he was sufficiently disturbed to try to stop the book’s publication. Young had “stumbled,” as he later put it, on the parallel between the famous Hemingway “wound” and the psychoanalytic explanation of “shell shock” or “traumatic neurosis” as symptomatic of the wounded person’s struggle to repress a powerful death wish. (The “wound” refers to both the literal injury Hemingway suffered in World War I and the symbolic wounding process that figures in the life of the stock Hemingway hero.) A frightening aspect of this syndrome, described by Freud and Otto Fenichel,2 is a “repetition compulsion” that takes the form of a pathological preoccupation with death and a recurrent need to discharge fear of death (and the unconscious wish to die) by vicarious killing and dying. Hemingway, whose father committed suicide, had a notorious tendency to risk his life; he admitted that he spent a lot of time killing animals and fish in order to avoid killing himself. In any case, when in 1961 Hemingway did kill himself, many people credited Young (“You called it, Young!”) with having predicted the event.

Hawthorne’s Secret is a more ambitious display of Young’s gifts as a literary sleuth of the psychobiographical persuasion. A single-minded effort to answer one question about one writer, it is a bold, original, if narrow and somewhat hoked-up, piece of work. During the last fifty years, many scholars have tried to clarify the obscure relations between Hawthorne’s life and writing, but until now no one has persuasively answered such obvious questions as: Why did Hawthorne’s imagination spin so obsessively around the theme of secret sin and its psychic consequences? What was the shameful trait he claims to have inherited from his seventeenth-century ancestors? With a few exceptions, notably D.H. Lawrence, Leslie Fiedler, and Frederick Crews, most critics have taken Hawthorne’s explanation at face value. In this book Young sets out to find a more convincing one.


Although the essential form of Hawthorne’s Secret is an argument, Young tries to give his research narrative interest—even suspense. He builds the argument by shifting back and forth between biographical and literary evidence until the two lines merge in a dramatic passage when he finds, in the Essex Institute in Salem, what he would have us take to be the “smoking gun”: evidence of incest committed by Hawthorne’s own ancestors.

In his brief summary of Hawthorne’s life, Young deftly underscores certain known facts that have received little attention, bearing on Nathaniel’s unusually close relationship with his older sister, Elizabeth. She was six and he was four when their father, a sea captain, died of yellow fever in the Dutch colony of Surinam. (The youngest child, Louisa, was only three months old at the time.) Almost destitute, the widow and her three children moved in with her brother, Robert Manning, and his family. Mrs. Hawthorne retired to her room and scarcely ever left it. Her meals were served there, and by his own account Nathaniel was middle-aged before he sat down to a meal with his mother. In the circumstances, he and his sister “Ebe” were thrown together. They shared a taste for reading, writing, and long walks. Like her mother, Ebe was a handsome, dark-haired woman, independent and reclusive. And like her better-known acquaintances, Elizabeth Peabody and Margaret Fuller, she was regarded as an intimidating, strong-willed person. She never married.

After Hawthorne’s graduation from Bowdoin College, he withdrew to the family house in Salem, and his relations with Ebe grew closer. During the next twelve years, while he devoted himself to becoming a writer, he too became a recluse. Except for brief strolls at twilight, he seldom left the bedroom he called “my haunted chamber.” Ebe, who also had literary aspirations, helped him by withdrawing books from the library for him and doing a large part of the literary work that he undertook for money. She evidently regarded herself as the guardian of her brother’s genius, and when he finally escaped into the world and met Sophia Peabody, Ebe did everything she could to prevent their marriage. Neither she nor any other member of the Hawthorne family attended the wedding, and for the rest of her life Ebe successfully avoided Sophia. She said that her sister-in-law was “the only human being whom I really dislike.”

None of these facts is new, but they are given a fresh perspective in Young’s discussion of Hawthorne’s early fiction. He makes much of a strange early story about a brother and sister called “Alice Doane’s Appeal.” In it the brother and sister, Leonard and Alice Doane, having lost the rest of their family in an Indian attack, live in “lonely sufficiency.” But when a stranger, Walter Brome, comes into their lives, Leonard senses a “secret sympathy” between Walter and Alice: he becomes maddened by jealousy and kills the stranger. The dead man is then discovered to have been Leonard’s twin brother. Young notes that Leonard’s “diseased imagination and morbid feelings” are given no motive in the story other than his love for his sister; in effect, Leonard has killed off the side of himself that had fulfilled his thwarted incestuous desire.

“Alice Doane’s Appeal” may well have been the first story Hawthorne published. It appeared anonymously in 1835 and he subsequently ignored it. He never republished it or mentioned it again, and it was only after his death that it was exhumed from an old magazine by Ebe, who alone had remembered its existence. Although the story is fragmentary, less a finished work than a preliminary sketch, Young succeeds in establishing its psychological importance. He also shows that three of Hawthorne’s greatest stories, all of which date from the same period—“My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” “Young Goodman Brown,” and “Roger Malvin’s Burial,” although they do not overtly deal with incest, are closely related to it in theme and spirit.


In “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” a country boy, young Robin Molineux, goes to town in search of a highly placed relative; there he witnesses a mysterious uprising, gets caught up in the fever of rebelliousness, and finally participates in a nightmarish repudiation of authority when his kinsman is brutalized by the mob. “Young Goodman Brown” is an account of a young Puritan’s loss of faith in his new wife, Faith; with the devil as his companion he journeys into the forest of evil, is inducted into a congregation of secret sinners, and thus earns the power to “penetrate, in every bosom, the deep mystery of sin.” In “Roger Malvin’s Burial” the dying Malvin persuades his young companion Reuben, to whom he has been a surrogate father, to abandon him in the forest and return to the settlement to look after his daughter Dorcas. In the event Reuben takes over Malvin’s farm and marries Dorcas, who is “by extension,” as Young puts it, his sister. Reuben later is made to expiate the guilt he unintentionally has incurred. In Young’s analysis of these four early stories, Hawthorne’s purpose, like Young Goodman Brown’s, is to unmask secret sinners: he manages to depict the supplanting of three fathers and the freeing of two daughters for their actual or symbolic brothers.

It is striking, Young argues, that except for The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne never again wrote fiction that equaled “the maturity, power, depth, complexity and mythic resonance” of these stories written before he was twenty-six. Young is suggesting that Hawthorne’s best work derived from that region of his psyche in which he guarded his painful secret, that most of his powerful early tales, written while he was still living in the seclusion of his “blue chamber,” turn upon insinuations of covert sexual relations among family members. “Incest,” says Young, “is at the open heart of…[Hawthorne’s]…earliest fiction, where it shamed Alice Doane, and it restlessly haunts the final work.”

Young conveys this in a mannered, laconic, Hemingwayesque prose that can be annoying and even silly, but nonetheless has the merit of clarity, economy, and—most of the time—directness. It is a relief to read a psychological critic who scrupulously avoids technical jargon and the ritual appeal to higher doctrinal authority. On the other hand, the absence of footnotes in Hawthorne’s Secret is troubling, and indeed Young’s evident eagerness to avoid sounding academic has the effect, finally, of making his argument less convincing than it might have been. He is a professor of English at Penn State, but as he searches out “subterranean deposits of sexuality” in Hawthorne’s life and work he seems to be impersonating Philip Marlowe. Here, for example, Young approaches the moment of truth in Salem’s Essex Institute.

Even on a fine day, dark red brick against the blue, the joined mid-nineteenth-century museum-like buildings…on Essex Street are not so appealing as the Custom House…. To examine the recently acquired Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts…the contemporary investigator enters the Institute and turns right on the ground floor into Daland House, which contains the James Duncan Phillips Library…. He pays two dollars for a yellow card. Close-mouthed, he ignores the nine openly shelved volumes of the court records to 1686: they abstract and print the old documents, he means to see the originals again. Having searched them when they were stored in the brick courthouse where they rested for 120 years, he knows what he wants to copy. He asks the attendant…for ledger number 35…. She returns with the ledger, which she takes to the table where he is sitting. He remembers from years back that what he is looking for is fixed to page 69.

And so Hawthorne, on some kind of day of some unknown year, must have walked….

If Young did not have something interesting to disclose, the tone would seem comical. But up to this point, in fact, he has presented a remarkably tight case of circumstantial evidence. At the Essex Institute the investigator has discovered a document that would establish the identity of “two females” who, according to Joseph B. Felt’s Annals of Salem, one of Hawthorne’s acknowledged sources for The Scarlet Letter, were found guilty of incest in 1681.3 Here he finds documents showing that the “two females” convicted of incest were the unmarried sisters of Nicholas Manning, Hawthorne’s first American ancestor on his mother’s side. Young also finds the original documents containing the vivid testimony (1) of a servant of Nicholas Manning who claims to have seen her master in bed with his sisters; (2) of Nicholas’s mother, whose statement to the court includes this fragmentary inventory: “Affliction…desolation…my own family…fatherless Children…my daughters had committed this heinous…”; and (3) of a woman who swore that Nicholas’s wife had told her of having several times seen “very wanton carriages betweene her husband manning & his sisters.”

The convicted Manning sisters were sentenced to a night in prison; they were publicly whipped on their naked bodies, and forced to sit on a high stool in the aisle of the meeting house during lecture day exercises with a sign on their heads saying “This is for whorish carriage with my naturall Brother.” At the time they were punished one of the sisters was seven months pregnant.

This is the smoking gun—a find in itself less original than the investigator’s histrionic account would suggest. To be sure, Young admits that he was not the first scholar to connect these documents with Hawthorne, but he withholds this information until the end of the book, where it will not diminish the uniqueness, the dramatic effect, of his discovery. Still, it would be wrong to allow Young’s self-dramatizing to obscure his accomplishment in Hawthorne’s Secret. No one before now has put the pieces together: the story of the Manning incest trial (of which Hawthorne almost certainly was aware); the suggestive circumstances surrounding Nathaniel’s relations with his sister Ebe; Hawthorne’s hitherto unexplained assertion that he had inherited a shameful family trait; and his lifelong obsession with the theme of secret sin and its psychic costs.4

Young’s thesis, moreover, casts light on certain puzzling aspects of Hawthorne’s fiction. He is perceptive on “the awkward disproportion between the reality of adultery and the unreal horror with which it is regarded in…[The Scarlet Letter].” Granting that the New England Puritans took adultery seriously, Young observes that Hawthorne’s characters treat it less as a sin against the sanctity of marriage than as an inherently obnoxious, repulsive act. Many critics discuss the extreme sense of horror and repugnance in Hawthorne as a Gothic narrative convention, but Young insists on the primacy of the writer’s direct experience. Hawthorne himself claimed that his masterpiece was “positively hell-fired,” but he never explained what he meant by this. Young suggests that in depicting Hester’s sin Hawthorne actually was thinking about a woman who had borne her brother’s child, and whose punishment was to wear an “I” instead of an “A” on her breast. Indeed, a few years after the trial of the Manning sisters, Young tells us, the wearing of an “I” was made a mandatory part of the punishment for incest in Massachusetts.

Young’s analysis also illuminates Hawthorne’s futile efforts, toward the end of his literary career, to complete a novel about a terrible family secret that had been inscribed in an old and buried document. Was he unable to finish the novel because—the usual explanation—he could not think of a secret terrible enough to carry such a plot? Or was it, as Young suggests, that he could not think of a surrogate crime that could justify the overpowering feelings aroused in him by the crime he had in mind but dared not mention?

At last Young introduces what he refers to as a “serious matter that cannot be avoided”:

…there does not appear to be any way around the question of the relationship between Nathaniel and Elizabeth Hawthorne. The least that must reluctantly be suggested, and the most that can be responsibly intimated, is that it looks as if Something Happened. Just what that may have been—and the range of possibility is broad—it would be as fruitless as vulgar to guess.

Young’s coy insinuation serves only to heighten our awareness of the book’s slight but unpleasant touch of voyeurism. Young has no evidence whatever of an actual incestuous relationship between Hawthorne and his sister. Though at one point he concedes that the “Something” that allegedly “Happened” may have happened only in the writer’s mind, he immediately dismisses that possibility. Guilty thoughts, Young explains, are common to practically everyone, hence it “stretches credulity” to suppose that guilt as intense as Hawthorne’s could have been the result of “nothing more than imagination or longing.” But of course Hawthorne was endowed with an unusually vigorous imagination, and if indeed he had the extreme aversion to incest implied by Young, it would make more sense to assume that it might have been aroused by either a real or an imagined experience. Interpreted in this way, Young’s theory becomes more persuasive than other currently available explanations of Hawthorne’s obsessiveness.

Despite the narrowness of his perspective, Young has altered the way we think about a major writer and his work. He has left us with a Hawthorne who in one important respect bears a striking resemblance to his own creation, Arthur Dimmesdale: in the relationship between his secret guilt and his public discourse. In his sermons the guilt-ridden minister repeatedly confesses his sinfulness, but as the sermons become more eloquent, his parishioners assume that his endorsement of the Calvinist belief in the universality of orginal sin is simply becoming more intense. So instead of exposing his guilt, his sermons earn him high praise. “The minister knew well—subtile, but remorseful hypocrite that he was!—the light in which his vague confession would be viewed.” So, too, Young’s argument suggests, Hawthorne’s writing may be understood in part as fulfilling his desire for confession and absolution. Yet whatever his secret motive, the work of his literary genius stands on its own, and the genesis of its self-contained power remains nearly as inexplicable as it ever was.

This Issue

February 14, 1985