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Hawthorne's Puritans: From Fact to Fiction

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Published in Journal of American Studies. 1999, vol. 33, no. 3, p. 509-517
Abstract Nathaniel Hawthorne's view of his first American ancestors as belonging to a grim and gloomy race, impatient with human weaknesses and merciless towards transgressors, reflects a wide-spread popular attitude towards the Massachusetts Bay colonists. Indeed, Hawthorne's contribution to the construction and perpetuation of this view is not inconsiderable. Hawthorne frankly confesses to his own family descent from one of the "hanging judges" of the Salem witchcraft trials, and he does not spare any instance of persecution, obsession, or cruelty regarding the community led by his paternal ancestors. But Hawthorne does not stop at indicting his own family history; in a famous exchange with the president of Hartford College, Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, shortly after the publication of The House of the Seven Gables (1851) Hawthorne is accused of blackening the reputation of another of New England's great colonial families. Hawthorne denied any knowledge of a "real" Pynchon family, let alone one with living (and litigious) descendants. He apologized for his mistake and offered to write an explanatory preface (which never appeared) for the second edition. Historical evidence suggests that Hawthorne, in fact, knew the history of the Pyncheon family, in particular William Pyncheon and his son John, of Springfield, who shared political and business connections throughout the mid-seventeenth century with William Hathorne of Salem. William Hathorne was a notorious persecutor of Quakers and his son John was the "hanging judge" of the witchcraft trials; William Pyncheon was a prominent fur-trader and founder of several towns along the Connecticut River who left the colony abruptly in circa 1651 accused of heresy. Given this history, a more likely model for the grim Colonel Pyncheon of Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel is rather a composite of John and William Hathorne than William Pynchon. So why should Nathaniel, who had already in his fiction revealed his family skeletons, choose to displace his own family history on to the Pyncheon family, with all the trouble that then ensued? In this essay I argue that Nathaniel Hawthorne's defence of his family lies in the creation of a monolithic Puritanism, in which all figures of authority acted as his own ancestors acted. To this end, he obliterates the history of subversion and heresy that involved even the colonial elite; heretics are represented in Hawthorne's fiction as exceptional individuals, and subversives are always defeated by the overwhelming forces of orthodoxy. Nathaniel Hawthorne is able to excuse the sins of his fathers by showing that they were incapable of acting otherwise. The primary consequence of this strategy, however, is a powerful misrepresentation of actual Puritans, of the dynamics of Puritan theology, and the politics of colonial New England. And this misrepresentation is now enshrined in the American literary canon where its influence can continue unabated.
Keywords New England PuritanismNathaniel HawthorneWilliam HathorneWilliam Pynchon
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MADSEN, Deborah Lea. Hawthorne's Puritans: From Fact to Fiction. In: Journal of American Studies, 1999, vol. 33, n° 3, p. 509-517. https://archive-ouverte.unige.ch/unige:87859

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Deposited on : 2016-09-30

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