Thursday, March 16, 2017

The First Great American Novel Still Speaks to Us

The Scarlet Letter by Hugues Merlem 1861. Hester Prynne and daughter Pearl are in the foreground and Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth can be seen dimmnly in the background at left. 

On March 16, 1850 Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, widely regarded as the first great American novel was issued by Ticknor, Reed & Fields, the publisher of choice for the New England transcendentalist literary elite. 
Hawthorne was born in 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts, a member of an old family that, much to his chagrin and embracement, included one of the judges of the Salem Witch Trials.  He later added a w to the spelling of the family name in a vain attempt to disguise the connection.
After his sea captain father died when he was two, his family was fostered with wealthy local relatives who saw that the boy was educated Bowden College in Maine, which aspired to be the Harvard of the North and which was considerably cheaper than the Harvard of Massachusetts.  Among his classmates were lifelong friends Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Franklin Pierce.  A shy and brooding young man, but strikingly handsome, he wished only to write. 
A Democrat in ultra Whig Massachusetts he was able to secure political appointments at the Boston Custom House to support himself as he wrote.  He published an undistinguished first novel anonymously and sold short stories to various literary magazines.   His first collection of short stories Twice-Told Tales drew local interest in Boston.  He began to move in the intellectual orbit of the emerging Transcendentalists. 
Despite a receding hair line, Nathaniel Hawthorne was still matinee idol handsome in this 1848 Daguerrotype taken two years before the publication of his masterpiece.
Hawthorne courted Elizabeth, the eldest of the brilliant Peabody Sisters, but to everyone’s surprise, especially the heart broken Elizabeth, proposed to her frail sister Sophia, an artist.  The Peabodys were always in a condition of dire genteel poverty.  Hawthorne decided to raise money for his marriage by investing a $1000 and joining the Brook Farm community.  He was put in charge of the manure pile.  It was not a happy experience and he soon departed, but satirized the community later in his Blithedale Romance. 
Sofia and Hawthorne married in 1842 anyway and moved to the epicenter of Transcendentalist life, Concord where they lived for three years in The Old Manse, latter the home of Longfellow. While there he completed a second story collection Mosses from an Old Manse The couple were madly in love and devoted to each other.  
The lovely but sickly Sophia Peabody married Hawthorne and her health improved. She ended up out living him by seven years.  Her charcoal self-portrait. 

In 1846 with the return of the Democrats to power in Washington, Hawthorne got the lucrative appointment as Inspector of Revenue at the Port of Salem.  The move back to his—and Sophia’s—home town was a mixed blessing.  On one hand his growing family was secure.  On the other hand the dreary duties of the custom house sapped his energy for writing.  But he did have time to explore the legacy of Puritan morality.  When the Whig’s return ousted him from his position, he turned those musings into The Scarlet Letter. 
The shocking tale of the noble but fallen Hester Prynne and the tormented Rev. Dimmsdale, as sexually predatory preacher who is the cause of Hester’s shame, was a literary sensation and one of the first American best sellers.  More than 2,500 copies flew off of bookstore shelves in the first ten days. 
Hawthorne moved his family to a farm house near Lenox in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts to dedicate himself to writing.  While there he met and became fast friends with Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., the physician, wit, and poet, and Herman Melville, to whom he became a mentor.  During these years he completed The House of the Seven Gables, The Blithedale Romance, and his collection of classic mythology for children, The Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys.  
The Wayside, formerly the Concord home of Bronson Alcott and his family including young Louisa May, was twice Hathorne's home.
Summers in the mountains were pleasant but winters brutal and lonely. The family moved once again, this time back to Concord into the old home of Bronson Alcott where Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were neighbors and close friends. He named the house The Wayside. He also found time to complete a campaign biography for old pal Franklin Pierce. 
When Pierce won the Presidency, Hawthorne was rewarded with appointment as United States Consul in Liverpool.  After his appointment lapsed when the Pierce administration ended, Hawthorne and Sophie made the grand tour of Europe before returning to Concord and the Wayside.  He completed and published the Marble Faun in 1860 and was working sporadically on several other romances.  But Hawthorne’s health was failing.  In 1864 Pierce took him back to the Berkshires to restore his health.  Hawthorne died there with his old friend at his bedside at Plymouth, New Hampshire on May 18, 1864.    
At his funeral in Concord Longfellow, Emerson, Alcott, and Holmes were among his pallbearers.  Sophia died in London seven years later.  In 2006 her remains and those of their daughter Una were relocated to the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord and laid next to Hawthorn’s.

The Scarlet Letter became a staple of 20th Century high school English classes, although it has increasingly been protested by fundamentalist parents who think that Hester got just what was coming to her, the little slut, and sometimes banned by timid or right wing dominated school boards.
Meanwhile being branded by a scarlet letter became a widely used cultural metaphor for public shaming and mob mentality bullying.
Perhaps the most memorable of all of the film versions of Hawthorne's masterpiece was the MGM silent starring the ever-cuffering Lillian Gish.
The semi-salacious nature of the plot made it a natural for several stage and film adaptations.  The first movie version was a 1911 one reel film King Baggot, Lucille Young, and William Robert Daly shifted the focus to Baggot, then a major star as the tortured Dimmsdale.  Hester fared better in the third version released in 1926 as a prestige MGM feature with their biggest melodrama star, Lillian Gish.  Colleen Moore, Hardie Albright, and Henry B. Walthall, the star of Birth of a Nation released in 1932 and shot on location at Salem’s Pioneer Village was the first sound version.  German director Wim Wenders made a European version starring Senta Berger in 1973 has seldom been shown in the United States.
In 1995 Demi Moore, Gary Oldman, and Robert Duval headlined a star studded cast.  But the film took great liberties with the novel and was roundly mocked—the film review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a 14% approval rating, based on 35 reviews.  It won the Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Remake or Sequel and Moore was nominated for Worst Actress.
There was also a Public Broadcasting System miniseries made by WBGH in Boston in 1979 as an answer to the tony BBC costume/literary dramas that dominated the public airways.  The production featured Meg Foster, John Heard, and Kevin Conway.
And inevitably there are numerous porn versions and take offs.  Yes, you can see up-close and personal just how Hester earned the A.


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