In The Productive Tension of Hawthorne’s Art, Claudia D. Johnson identifies and explores the tension between Nathaniel Hawthorne’s concepts of art and morality by describing its sources, plotting its manifestations, and suggesting how the opposing elements of this tension are finally reconciled. Hawthorne’s major works, including his short fiction, exhibit a profound conflict between eighteenth-century views of an orderly, balanced, and static universe on the one hand and nineteenth-century conceptions of a universe in constant flux on the other. Johnson argues that Hawthorne, though he did not identify with any organized church, found in theology the myths that allowed him to negotiate a bridge between these two opposed views of the world and to forge the social, psychological, and aesthetic values that inform his art.
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About the Author
Claudia D. Johnson is a former professor of English at the University of Alabama. Her scholarship focuses on “gothicism” in To Kill a Mockingbird, the role of prostitutes as patrons of the theater in the nineteenth century, and Hawthorne and early American religion. She is the author of nine books as well as the author or editor of eighteen reference and textbooks. She lives in Berkeley, California.
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The Productive Tension of Hawthorne's Art
By Claudia D. Johnson
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 1981 University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
"The Mind Falling Back Upon Itself": Hawthorne's Tales
Much of the unresolved debate about Hawthorne's artistic convictions results from the failure of criticism to go beyond generalizations in commenting on that essential organicism, the grand myth that shaped his work — the regenerative descent. Critics write about it without reference to differentiations just as they affirm Hawthorne's Puritanism with little study of particulars. Yet two elements of cultural history provide a useful means of focusing on Hawthorne's struggle with his vocation. One is his inheritance of a Puritan concept of regeneration, impossible to dismiss in a word. It was an extraordinarily intricate and complete process, consisting of clearly defined stages, fine distinctions, and exacting tests, all of which clarify Hawthorne's history of the soul. The second point, rarely taken into consideration in discussing Hawthorne, is that this history of the soul was as profoundly important to the nineteenth-century mind as it was to the Puritans. This essentially organic morality of the Puritans was altered by Hawthorne's contemporaries to reflect an evolving system of values. Set in a cultural context, Hawthorne's pervasive use of the idea reveals more than the gradual refinement of the heroic moral journey, more than the philosophical basis for discord between art and morality; it also reflects the eventual evolution of an aesthetic theory. It is a grand paradox that the conflict of Hawthorne's life may have been the irritant that gave rise to his development of an organic view of art at the last. He seems desperately to have wanted to make the progress of the great artist consistent with the history of the regenerated man. One doubts, of course, that he ever reached a subconscious reconciliation; nevertheless, the redemptive journey of the good man is finally shown clearly to be one and the same with that of the artist. Like the moral person who travels through self-destruction toward time and nature, the imagination of writer and reader must relinquish the sanctity, the passivity, and the static traditional forms of art. It must embody the change and variety of time and nature within a suggestive form and invite a social motion between artist and viewer, as each reader becomes cocreator with the artist in a new work. The story of Hawthorne's long inability to give art and the imagination a salutary place in his moral scheme begins with Puritan justification, a model journey necessary for the moral man but impossible for the artist. The particulars of this mythic doctrine are keys to Hawthorne's allegories of the soul and the imagination. Justification, an internalization of the age-old myth of the journey to hell, was a concept to which Hawthorne had, beyond a doubt, been directly exposed in his religious upbringing and in his later readings in colonial history and theology. He had, for example, read Samuel Willard's The Fountain Opened, John Winthrop's The History of New England, a wide variety of fast, election, funeral, ordination, and "occasional" sermons by various ministers, Daniel Neal's The History of New England, containing an Impartial Account of the Civil and Ecclesiastical Affairs of theCountry, and Neal's The History of the Puritans. He had also read several treatises by Cotton Mather, including A Companion for Communicants, and works by Increase and Samuel Mather. Publication of The American Notebooks is a further indication of Hawthorne's fascination and familiarity with the colonial theology that he encountered in the voluminous library left by old Dr. Ripley and other inhabitants of the Old Manse. He was also exposed to Puritanism and to the broader concepts of Calvinism through omnivorous reading of secondary sources.
These and other works describe justification as a classical journey to hell, which was given what the modern reader would recognize as a psychological dimension — a dark night of the soul that every person had to undergo in the underworld, or hell, of the self. It was an interior landscape more bleak and far more treacherous than the external one in which the New World Puritan found himself. It is not surprising that the Puritan often referred to the heart as hell. There were chasms in that region, the foulness of which one could not begin to fathom. There were terrors more frightening than the terrors of the untamed new continent, in the face of which not only man's goodness but also his reason failed. Satan with his multitude of devils was assumed to have established his kingdom in man's heart, and elements of hell existed there: envy, pride, anger, selfishness. Jonathan Edwards is one of many preachers who continued to believe as the earlier Puritans had that "hellish principles" resided in the heart and that only God's restraints kept the hell within from bursting out to envelop man's entire nature:
These principles are active and powerful, exceedingly violent in their nature, and if it were not for the restraining hand of God upon them, they would soon break out, they would flame out after the same manner as the same corruptions, the same enmity does in the hearts of the damned souls, and would beget the same torments as they do in them.
The theological basis of justification, as it is expounded in a large body of Puritan thought on the Covenant, reveals an inescapable reality — that man hides a flawed heart, the perilous depths of which he must explore or be damned in this life. The necessity for such a descent was explained by the well-known history of man's relationship to God, revealed in Covenant theology. The Puritans taught, of course, that although man could no longer be saved under the condition of the Covenant of Works, and although mankind was hopelessly depraved since the Fall, each person had been given a second chance with the appearance of Christ, the second Adam, who had been promised to man even in the Garden of Eden. With Christ acting on man's behalf, God entered into the Covenant of Grace, by which He would soften His great anger toward certain individuals, making their lives easier in this life. This benefit, the sinner's "justification," was neither automatically nor simply awarded. Instead, usually with the help of the clergy, the person prepared his heart for God's working with the understanding that this preparation was all that he himself could do. By meditating upon sin, death, the last judgment, and hell, his heart was softened like wax so that God could leave His impression upon it.
If God then chose to renew a sinner, He accomplished His work in two steps. First, He let man have a glimpse into the depths of awful sin in his heart and the hell that he deserved. From this, a revelation resulted when the sinner came to see that his helplessness and sinfulness made it impossible for him to depend upon his own efforts to quiet the soul's unrest. The word "justification" generally described the first movement of regeneration, which resulted in a changed relationship with God. Samuel Lee in Contemplations on Mortality noted that death and hell are the tragedies awaiting man at the close of his life and that in order to arise from this "valley of the shadow of death" a Christian must "be the tragedy himself." He must act internally the "part of the condemned man and make the journey within himself."
This descent was marked by a complete destruction of self — a clear vision of the sinner's depravity and helplessness, regardless of any outward illusions of strength or decency. Before justification, the unregenerated person typically depended, actually leaned, upon many things: upon material possessions, other people, the belief that nothing bad could happen to him for he was not evil, or, most of all, upon false ideas about himself, about his own nature and his own life — others might murder and cheat, but he himself was incapable of such atrocities; he typically felt that he was good, despite the doctrine of natural depravity, which he may have embraced intellectually. These were his "props," which would prove worthless; and the attitude, which was self-righteousness, was both deceptive and isolating. In the end he would lose them all, along with any remaining belief that he could lean upon his own strength, his own determination, or any conviction that he could do anything by the strength of his own will if only he put his mind to it. In the justifying descent into the self, ultimately, he came to see himself as a helpless child.
The devastating truth of the soul was often almost more than the sinner could bear. He found there was no horror, no evil, no monster that he did not harbor within himself. There were many rooms in the heart, and each was blasted with every sin of which mankind was capable. The murderer, the sadist, the betrayer were now seen within one's own soul. Samuel Mather describes this awareness of sin in descent as knowing that we are completely evil: "Top full, (as we say) there is not one empty corner in it; it is brimful; and there is no Sin butwhat is there." So the old delusion of innocence, wisdom, independence, and power were all swept away at once. As Solomon Stoddard so graphically put it, the sinner was now "thrown to the ground" or "stripped naked as naked he is." Only when he ceased to depend on his shallow conception of goodness and strength would he turn to Christ and be lifted out of hell.
Even then, however, there were still pitfalls remaining. Because there were false as well as true descents, justification was kept vital in the mind of the Puritan even after he had been justified. To this problem of whether or not the experience of the heart had been genuine, he gave continual and serious attention. The accepted test was to ask whether one felt that he could attribute his insight and rebirth to his own will for self-examination, to his reason, or even to his devotion. If the answer to any of these was yes, the experience had been false because only the grace of God could afford a true view of the heart and lift one out of the inner abyss. If he believed that anything else, even in the smallest degree, had contributed to his revelation, then it had not been true.
With all this, one final question remained: How did one recognize God's grace? The answer was that grace provided the sinner with an experience, as opposed to mere intellectual knowledge. Thomas Hooker, one of the most eloquent preachers upon justification, clarified the difference between the man with common convictions and the man with experience by comparing those who had actually traveled to foreign countries with those who had only read about them. The genuine traveler has felt the heat of the torrid regions and seen the barrenness of the deserts; he has experienced wars, not just read about them: "The one hath seen the very place, the other only in the paint of the Map drawn." One test to determine whether the experience had been false or true was to ask, "Do you still believe yourself incapable of or untainted by any sinful horror?" If the answer was yes, then the deluded Puritan had not seen the very place. As a result of these grave suspicions that justification had not been genuine, the entire Puritan congregation — not the unjustified alone — attended to the doctrine continually. The sermons were addressed to those who believed that they had been reborn as well as to the admittedly unregenerate. In always being warned to examine the manner of their descent and to test its validity, the doctrine was kept lively in the mind of the whole community.
The second movement of regeneration, the return journey that Calvin called "vivification," was the ascent to Christ after humiliation. At this time the sinner, realizing that he could not justify himself, turned to Christ in faith and was lifted out of his inner hell. After the sinner's justification and vivification, God more readily helped him to maintain an upright, peaceful life and a less troubled heart. There might be backsliding, but the regenerated man's behavior would never again be as reprehensible as it had been before.
In a further complication, the Puritans believed that some individuals began this requisite journey but never returned, were never vivified, in which case these doubly unfortunate beings were trapped forever, inexorably, in their own private hells; their only reward for their dangerous endeavor was an early glimpse of their own dark eternity. Like the ubiquitous Cain (a favorite illustration of such a type among the Puritans) who, with a full sense of his own evil and his own damnation, was never revived, the errant, unholy Puritan was doomed to wander as a spiritual "fugitive and vagabond in the earth," and to be hidden from the face of God. It was a fate designed to make a strong man tremble, as indeed it did. Those who experienced this unfortunate half-journey were described by John Calvin as remaining "caught in that disturbed state" from which they could not extricate themselves, and the punishment was inherent in the crime: "Therefore, their repentance was nothing but a sort of entryway of hell, which they had already entered in this life." The tragedy in this possibility was truly shattering. The Puritan traveled inward as he had traveled into the wilderness, into an area beset with unspeakable dangers, knowing all the while that if he did not undertake the hellish journey he was surely damned, and that if he did venture out he might well be entrapped in a premature hell.
This vision was the Puritan's reality, and it was something beyond the possibility of change. Thus the problem, especially as it was carried over into the nineteenth century, was not how to alter this reality but how to know it, to realize its full implications and yet still endure. The vision itself appeared to be a force compelling man to create, under its bleak shadow, a moment-to-moment existence among the people and with the common materials of the earth. Salvation in the hereafter could never be a certainty and perils in this life were immanent realities. Nevertheless, perhaps a kind of harmony, however finite, could be known in this world. Perfect goodness might be unknowable, but relationships between people seemed to produce eternal verities. From the awful suffering that came of self-knowledge, the Puritan could come to know the common sinful nature of mankind. Out of dark necessity came an affirmation of union and rebirth, not into timelessness, but into the world. From the darkness of self, the individual struggled for full, developing mankind.
This was the legacy of the Puritans. The concepts inherent in it — a belief in natural depravity, in the necessity for the painful inward journey resulting in the annihilation of reason and pride, and in the suspicion that man could be deceived by a false descent — constituted the foundation of a new myth, enlivened by an infusion of nineteenth-century positivism. Without denying the mystical experience or the depraved nature of man, the religious mind of the nineteenth century could use the idea to illustrate a growing conviction that man must be a social being in a time-affected world. This history of the soul (which Hawthorne never ceased to contemplate in his works) was an imaginary treatment of precisely the same spiritual progress that Hawthorne's religious contemporaries had formulated from their Puritan legacy.
By the nineteenth century, as William James points out, the gloom of Calvinism was gradually lightened by a tendency to dwell not, as the Puritans had done, on the fall, but on the return, the ascent. The emphasis was increasingly placed on man, the social being, returning to work out his salvation in the everyday, material world rather than on man alone, endlessly searching the depths of his own soul, always preoccupied with his fate in the hereafter. The nineteenth-century Protestant was, of course, conscious that the pit was always there, a reminder of his dangerous complexity. For that very reason, he wanted to dispense with the hellish experience as quickly as possible, to avoid compulsively digging in the ashes of his heart and to escape the destructiveness of perpetual inaction and despair. So he would, ideally, turn outward to his possibilities here and now.
This tendency to temper an awareness of hell with concerns for salvation in this world is nowhere more striking than in one of the far-reaching theological concepts of Hawthorne's day: "perfectionism," a movement that cut across all denominations of the second great awakening and even attracted many nonsectarian followers. Like the Puritans, perfectionists believed that man is, by nature, flawed and requires renewal. Unlike early Calvinists, however, the perfectionists taught that after conversion man could experience a second stage of religious growth when he would, for a second time, be the recipient of God's grace. At this time he was "perfected" by partaking of God's love, which "purified" his inclinations. Even after purification, however, evil was a powerful force in the individual's heart, and one was not exempt from a struggle with evil. Although evil would continue to fight within his soul, as long as love sustained the perfected man he had reason to hope that his victories over evil would be assured. In short, the doctrine of perfectionism was in no sense the conviction that the soul could reach a stage in which it was free from human nature. The first stage of perfectionism was very like the descent in justification: The individual came to have a full experience with his own ignominy. The second stage propelled him out of meditation into the world. By definition, perfectionism meant the state of man in this life, not in the hereafter.
Excerpted from The Productive Tension of Hawthorne's Art by Claudia D. Johnson. Copyright © 1981 University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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