New England Puritan Ghosts: Why Hawthorne “Got” Melville

 

My town sits on a particularly rich literary and intellectual “trade route.”  Most notably Moby Dick was penned here in the mid-nineteenth century (see my post Moby Dick as Theology.)  Moby Dick wasn’t the commercial success Melville had hoped for, but Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom it was dedicated, understood and appreciated it.

I have ruminated about why Hawthorne “got” Moby Dick, when most of the critics of the day saw merely a dark muddled fish story interrupted by frequent wordy digressions on whaling.

The answer I think, and this is hardly a new theory, lies in their common New England heritage and the ever-looming memory of the two centuries long Puritan experiment, by their time for all practical purposes over.  Hawthorne, of course, wrote the enduring iconic Puritan novel, The Scarlet Letter, which every American schoolchild must read.  That The Scarlet Letter is more about Hawthorne’s nineteenth-century neighbors than about his seventeenth-century Puritan forbears should not let us underestimate its importance in defining Puritanism in the popular imagination (any more than Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, another school favorite, should, although it too is less about the Puritans than it is about its own context, the social hysteria of 1950’s McCarthyism.)

The third canonical school text on Puritanism is Jonathan Edwards’ notorious Enfield sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” a brilliant but scary depiction of the fires of hell and the tenuousness of human life.  To those of us who have actually read other Edwards’ sermons, the choice seems largely to have been made on the basis of dramatic impact, and not to get too paranoid, another piece of literary ammunition to discredit the Puritans.  At least “Sinners” is an actual Puritan text.

But even Edwards’ ritual enemies often admit he is a towering intellectual figure.  Recently I have been reading in and about him, and the first thing that struck me is that a mere 100 years separates Edwards Freedom of the Will (1754) from Moby Dick (1851), both written here in the Berkshire Hills but in different intellectual worlds.

Much changed here in that hundred years.  For one thing, when Edwards lived, Pittsfield didn’t exist as a city, but was part of the much conflicted frontier, the “howling wilderness” as Edwards was to describe nearby Stockbridge, to which he came in 1750.  I like that the local community college has a “Jonathan Edwards Library,” but Edwards died in 1758 and Pittsfield wasn’t founded until 1764.  But it is the Berkshire Community College so the title is apt.  I once delivered a community forum lecture on Puritanism there and, while the students were attentive and eager to engage, their knowledge of Puritanism in general and Edwards in particular was spare, and largely formed by the aforementioned canonical school texts.

Pittsfield was named after the British Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder, who so influenced the future of North America by his efficient administration of the Seven Years’ War.  The first minister of Pittsfield’s First Church of Christ was Parson Thomas Allen, Harvard trained but influenced by the New Divinity of the Edwardsian disciples that developed Edward’s themes after his death.  (I was the eighteenth minister of that church.)  By Melville’s time in the mid-19th century my eighth predecessor John Todd (1800 -1869) was the incumbent, but there is no record of Todd and Melville crossing paths that I have found.  Todd thought of himself as being in the Puritan succession, but the grand granite meeting house he built in the Gothic revival style points more to the prosperous 19th century Congregationalism of the beginning of the Gilded Age than to the Puritans.

All thoughtful New Englanders in these times had to engage the legacy of the Puritans.  Edwards himself in the mid-eighteenth century was dealing with a changing world far removed from the world of the 17th century founders.  It was his genius to cast the theological preoccupations of that world into the new thought-forms of the Enlightenment.  He wasn’t the only bright young man in his time to read Locke and Newton and have his eyes opened, but he seems to be the only one who didn’t turn away from the old verities, rather he used the new learning as tools to express the old truths.

But by the mid 19th century it was more the novelists than the theologians who were grappling mightily with the themes of the founders.  So Melville’s fish story plumbs such deeps as election, predestination, and theodicy.  Where Edwards found human freedom in the affections, Melville finds the demonic in human obsession.  Hawthorne’s village soap opera explores old themes as well: covenant and community, morality and hypocrisy.

That is why Hawthorne “got” Melville.  He understood what Melville was trying to do, because he was trying to do it as well: make sense of this rich and ambiguous religious and intellectual legacy that had so shaped the American mind and soul for better and for worse.

That Puritanism, real and imagined, continues to be a template for American ideas, even in our own time, is as true as a quick look at the rhetoric of American Exceptionalism proffered by the W. Bush era neoconservatives as a defense of the Iraq war demonstrates.

Which is to say that the ghosts of the founders’ faith linger.  Perhaps a more nuanced reading of their actual beliefs and positions would result in a more nuanced approach to the issues they raised.

 

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