Philip Young Hawthorne’s Secret: An Un-Told Tale.
David R. Godine, 183 pages, $15.95
According to Julian Hawthorne, the novelist’s son, Herman Melville once said that “there was some secret in my father’s life which has never been revealed,” a secret that “accounted for the gloomy passages in his books.” Hawthorne’s lawyer, George Hillard, likewise read Hawthorne’s knowledge of “the morbid anatomy of the human heart” as evidence that he was “burdened with secret sorrow.” And Hawthorne’s sister Elizabeth (Ebe) Hawthorne also told Julian that “Your father kept his very existence a secret, as far as possible.”
All biographers have granted that Hawthorne was a deeply introspective, even introverted man who, for a dozen years after his college graduation from Bowdoin, kept pretty much to himself in Salem while he learned to write fiction. Afterward, he married Sophia Peabody, seemed sociable, fathered three children, published with great success, and became an esteemed public figure. Even so, Hawthorne was a true loner, a dark personality. While his marriage was without doubt one of the happiest and most celebrated in American literary history, even Sophia remarked after his death that “Such an unviolated sanctuary was his nature, I his inmost wife, never conceived of knew.”
Hawthorne’s friends and relations, then, pose him as a riddle, a man whose life was perhaps marked by an event that—like Young Goodman Brown’s encounter with evil—forever afterward permeated his life with gloom. Julian, who wrote the life of his father, ransacked the records and interrogated all of these friends and relatives but came up with nothing. His father, he remarked, “had no stain ... upon his conscience .... The closet. . . had no skeleton in it; there was nothing to be hidden.” Did Julian miss something or conceal what he found? Was Hawthorne’s “mystery” merely a function of his meditation on the ubiquity of evil in the human heart? Was it a by-product of his literary method—a symbolic mode embedded in gothic conventions? Could he merely have enjoyed mystifying his familiars even as he did his reading audience?
There is no doubt that Hawthorne loved to play the riddling game with his audience. In the famous autobiographical preface to The Scarlet Letter, he fueled all of this speculation by reflecting on his own ancestry. There he announced that “the grave, bearded, sable-cloaked . . . progenitor” of the Hawthorne family, “who came so early with his Bible and his sword,” incarnated “all the Puritan traits, both good and evil.” Hawthorne represents himself as implicated in their evil: “Strong traits of their nature have intertwined themselves with mine.” And then he concludes by undertaking, through the agency of writing the novel, something like an expiation: “I, the present writer, as their representative, hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse incurred by them ... be now and henceforth removed.”
What was this curse, thought by Hawthorne to have manifested itself in a taint of the blood or a “moral disease” afflicting the Hawthornes? And if The Scarlet Letter is an act of expiation, what crime does it expiate and who committed it? Is it a crime of his ancestors in persecuting Quakers, Anabaptists, blasphemers, scandalmongers, adulteresses, and others of “whorish carriage”? (We know from the history of New England that Major William Hathorne [1607-1681] and his magistrate son John Hathorne [ 1641 -1717 ] did wield the rod of correction with pious severity.) Or is it a crime committed by Nathaniel himself, whose shouldering of their guilt is a surreptitious way of confessing his own crime? If so, what was Hawthorne’s crime?
We know that Hawthorne did not persecute witches or Anabaptists. But since The Scarlet Letter deals with adultery, could it be that Hawthorne committed adultery and expiated it through the act of writing the novel? Is he a closet Arthur Dimmesdale or a Parson Hooper mystifying his audience in the act of performing an obscure penance? Some critics and biographers have thought so, especially in view of Hawthorne’s fascination with dark-complexioned women of intense overt sexuality. Such a “Dark Lady of Salem,” with whom Hawthorne is supposed to have had an adulterous liaison, must have been the source of Hester in The Scarlet Letter, Zenobia in The Blithedale Romance, and Miriam in The Marble Faun. Hawthorne’s attraction for this type of woman seems certainly odd, in view of the woman he married, who was the quintessence of nineteenth-century innocent femininity, a type celebrated in the fair, virginal purity of Priscilla in Blithedale, Hilda in The Marble Faun, and Phoebe in The House of the Seven Gables.
Some twenty years ago, Philip Young, in an essay called “Hawthorne and 100 Years” (Kenyon Review, 1965), revived the question of Hawthorne’s secret. Speaking of himself in the third person, he remarked that “he fancies he knows what the secret was.” And he remarked that “of the theorists” who had proposed a dark crime of which Hawthorne might be guilty, “he [Young] is the way-outest yet.” Young promised that his revelation of the mystery would explain “more than just the gloomy passages.” But like a coy mistress, he withheld it: “Never mind; mistrusting his tenure he does not intend to reveal it here. They can always get you for Moral Turpitude (and the hypothesis could be construed so as to involve something like that.)” And he rather facetiously concluded that “he means to publish it posthumously . . ..” If anyone has been waiting these twenty years for the suspense to end, the moment is at hand.
Hawthorne’s Secret: An Un-Told Tale is not, I should quickly say, a posthumous publication. At sixty-six, Young must feel secure in his tenure at Pennsylvania State University. In any case, the dark crime of which Hawthorne is alleged to be guilty is not adultery at all. It’s incest. The news is hardly new. Leslie Fiedler guessed as much twenty-five years ago in Love and Death in the American Novel, and Frederick Crews made incest a central motif in his 1966 psychoanalytic study The Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne’s Psychological Themes.
Now there is no gainsaying that Hawthorne had an interest in incest, as he did in all crimes of the heart, all passions and perversities. Melville compared him to Dante by virtue of the “great power of blackness in him” that derived its force “from its appeals to that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin . . ..” Since Hawthorne himself conceded this puritanic strain in himself, an interest in incest is not out of the question. Did he write about incest?
In certain tales—for example, “Alice Doane’s Appeal,” “The Haunted Mind,” and “Fancy’s Shadow Box”—a motif of incest, though clouded in obscurity, can reasonably be deduced. In fact, Fiedler remarked twenty-five years ago that The Marble Faun and some of Hawthorne’s unfinished manuscripts also suggested, obscurely, an Oedipal theme. Fiedler’s exegesis of these stories did not stoop to any consideration of biographical fact, which would have been, for him, infra dignitatem, the hackwork of dry-as-dust pedants. Instead, he merely applied to the texts the unmasking methods of Freudian psychoanalysis. In addition, Fiedler adduced Melville as a “proof” of Hawthorne’s obsession. Pierre was offered to us as “Melville’s attempt to confess for his alienated friend the secret sin which presumably haunted him through all his years.”
Then, in 1966, Frederick Crews did a full-blown psychoanalysis of Hawthorne’s fiction in The Sins of the Fathers and found, predictably, the derivatives of the Oedipal theme, incest and parricide. Crews concluded that Hawthorne was obsessed by an unresolved incest neurosis that illustrated Freud’s hard saying that “whoever is to be really free and happy must overcome his deference for women and come to terms with the idea of incest with mother or sister.” But again, as with Fiedler, Crews’s interpretation is based only on symbols plucked from the stories, not on the basis of incontrovertible biographical fact. Both invoke the old Oedipal formula: Hawthorne was fixated on his mother, his father having died when he was four, and got rid of the guilt by writing about it. In the present work, though, Philip Young announces the discovery of the missing “facts” that will now ground Hawthorne’s preoccupation with incest in the circumstances of his ancestry and his personal life. What are the facts?
First, let me rehearse Young’s account of the facts and then test their validity. Young’s thesis is that Hawthorne, an antiquarian who read widely in Salem colonial history, discovered a 1681 scandal in Salem in which one Nicholas Manning was accused of incest with his two sisters, Anstis Manning and Margaret Manning Polfery. Hawthorne was absorbed by this case since he was descended on his mother’s side from the Manning clan and doubtless heard family tales about the infamous case. The 1681 incest trial would have obsessed him—as the source of the moral disease tainting his whole ancestry—because of his own incestuous relationship with his sister Ebe (this a displacement of his longing for his mother). The incestuous relationship with Ebe flowered in Hawthorne’s solitary years when he lived under the same roof with her. Finally, although Hawthorne broke free of this relationship with his sister and went on to marry Sophia, “Alice Doane’s Appeal,” The Marble Faun, and other tales represent Hawthorne’s unsuccessful lifelong attempt to rid himself of a burden of guilt arising from acted-out or wished-for sexual relations with his sister.
Here we must pause to check the evidence. Did Hawthorne really know of the Manning incest case of 1681? We know that he read Felt’s Annals of Salem (1827). Elizabeth checked out more than twelve hundred titles for him from the Salem Athenaeum, including this work. But Felt, who summarizes the case, does not identify the family involved. Here is what the Annals presents: “1681, March 29. Two females, for incest, are sentenced to be imprisoned a night, whipped, or pay 5£, and to stand or sit, during the services of the next lecture day, on a high stool, in the middle alley of Salem meeting-house, having a paper on their heads with their crime written in capital letters.”
To get an identification of the participants, Hawthorne would have had to track down Felt’s sources in the handwritten old manuscripts in the Quarterly Court Records of Salem. Did he? There is no evidence that he did. Nor is there any evidence that Hawthorne ever heard a family story that some of his ancestors had been brought up and convicted on a charge of “Vehement suspicion of committing incest.” The whole argument that Hawthorne viewed incest as the family curse, the moral disease from which he too suffered, is based on assumption about his reading for which there is no solid evidence.
Setting aside the question of the family curse, then, what is the evidence that Hawthorne and his sister experienced incestuous desire and acted on it? First, Hawthorne lived for many years in the same house with Elizabeth. She was a dark beauty, said to resemble her mother; she never married. Next, Ebe identified with her brother and served his literary ambitions in a variety of ways—not merely checking out books but contributing articles to The American Magazine, which Hawthorne briefly edited, and advising him on his apprentice tales. Finally, she opposed Hawthorne’s marriage to Sophia, tried to block it, and hated Sophia long after her death. After Hawthorne’s death Ebe directed his biographer to many of Hawthorne’s youthful anonymous tales and sketches, including “Alice Doane’s Appeal,” of which she said it possessed his “peculiar genius.” Finally, she is known to have objected to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Atlantic Monthly article on Byron’s incest with his half sister Augusta.
It is worth pointing out here that there are some facts that Young either suppresses or scantly credits. Ebe Hawthorne was a bizarre, reclusive woman who in some ways makes Emily Dickinson look like a social butterfly. A woman of private nocturnal habits, she shunned the daylight and avoided normal social intercourse. She no doubt saw her brother’s marriage as a blow to her own literary career and a threat to the family income needed to support their widowed mother and her two daughters. As to Sophia Peabody, Ebe took an instant dislike to her sister-in-law when, on Sophia’s first visit, Sophia claimed that the pillows smelled musty. It was downhill from there: Ebe quarreled with Sophia and Nathaniel about how the Hawthorne children were being reared, and she appeared to think that Hawthorne’s writing suffered from Sophia’s influence. As to her attention to Stowe’s article on Byron’s incest, we must observe that the piece caused an uproar in America, was full of inaccuracies, and paid subscriptions were canceled by the thousands. As the Atlantic editor William Dean Howells told a friend, it was “received with howls of rejection from almost every side where a critical dog is kept.” Ebe’s attention to the article, then, was nothing unusual: virtually everybody had some criticism of it. Possessive and peculiar she was, but there is no solid information to suggest that Ebe ever hankered after her brother. Did he lust after her, even if only as a surrogate for his mother?
Again, there is no convincing evidence. As a boy, Nathaniel feared Ebe’s sharp tongue, as a youth he admired her, and as a man he respected her and collaborated with her on literary projects. But he knew her,for the bizarre recluse she was and mediated the quarrel between his wife and sister. Even after Hawthorne’s marriage, during long periods of time when Ebe lived with Nathaniel and Sophia, they never saw her, even at meal times; for she kept almost entirely to herself, coming out only after dark to take extended walks. Hawthorne doubtless loved Ebe, despite her eccentricities (perhaps even for them), just as he loved his mother, also a strange personality, at whose death he was distraught. But there is nothing solid—in the letters, journals, or family anecdotes—on which to posit an incestuous relationship.
Yet Philip Young is convinced that, during that solitary period of Hawthorne’s life with Ebe and the family on Herbert Street, “Something Happened.” He goes on to say, “Just what that may have been—and the range of possibility is broad—it would be as fruitless as vulgar to guess.” Then he goes on to guess. He opines that Hawthorne may have “sinned” in mind only, polluting his soul by the mere contemplation of incest with his sister, like the narrator in “The Haunted Mind” who is visited at night by a spectral figure, or like the speaker in “Fancy’s Shadow Box” who meditates on guilt that may arise from impure thoughts.
But since guilty thoughts occur to everyone, “It stretches credulity to think that his nature contained such an area of culpability as a result of nothing more than imagination or longing.” The deed must have been done. Without quite saying so, Young posits an actual act of incest as the source of Hawthorne’s mystery, the expression of the family disease, the latent thematic of Hawthorne’s greatest work, including The Scarlet Letter. Hester’s crime is viewed as so resonant with horror that it cannot be mere adultery that Hawthorne is writing about. Since the Manning incest testimony included an affadavit of a servant who claimed that Nicholas’s bedsheet was stained by a blood spot, made by his sister, this, for Young, is the scarlet sign. What the novel is really about is incest.
Anyone with a respect for the patient work of assembling historical fact and biographical evidence that can withstand interrogation must be appalled at the cavalier way in which Hawthorne’s life is treated in this study. Perhaps even worse is the rhetorical duplicity with which Young develops his argument. A hypothesis—e.g., that Hawthorne might have read about the Mannings’ incest in the Quarterly Court Records—is posed as a “what-if”; then it is taken as fact, and on that “fact” another hypothesis is posed, leading to another “fact,” culminating in a conclusion that is in fact a tissue of suppositions. Young, being too intelligent not to see that his method has no merit, then backs off from the drift of his own argument, and, instead of asserting the conclusion toward which he leads us, he resorts to rhetorical questions that merely insinuate his point. An instance:
So many things suggest a brother-sister relationship closer than normal, there is reluctance in drawing inferences which seem, paradoxically, too obvious to be valid .... But . .. what then is to be made of a sister’s open and long-lived admiration for “Alice Doane’s Appeal,” with its vibrant biographical overtones? (That if they were relevant to her and her brother she would never have mentioned the tale? She was bold: how bold?) How much might be made of her instant, blunt, undying dislike of her brother’s wife? Why the vigorous immersion in the details of Byron’s relations with his sister, and the ex cathedra rejection of the charges? Closer to home, to what degree can a sister be made out in the shade of that pale beauty who came in sin and desolation to a young man in the bed of his haunted mind, or stood beside it guilt-stained as a demon pointed to his breast? ... In light of a sister’s resemblance to a mother, might something more be made of a son’s encephalitic reaction (Sophia’s diagnosis) to a mother’s death? Was the mysteriously injured foot, which as a boy crippled Nathaniel for two years, a Delphic sign that a better name for him than Oberon (“white leprosy”) might be Oedipus (“swell-foot”)? Fancy’s Shadow Box runs amuck.
What has run amuck here is Young himself. All that can be claimed as new fact in this book is Young’s printing of the court records containing testimony in the Manning incest case of 1681, which Hawthorne cannot be proved to have known about. Beyond that, all is mere speculation. In fact, most of the details of the Manning incest case have already been tracked down and discussed in Gloria Erlich’s Family Themes and Hawthorne’s Fiction: The Tenacious Web (1984), which, although just published, has been available since 1977 in the form of her Princeton doctoral dissertation, which Young read before publishing his book. (Erlich does not read the Manning case as evidence that Hawthorne committed incest with his sister, although [being a Freudian herself] she does posit the “repressed desire” of Ebe for her brother.)
That Young—or even Erlich, for that matter—should have produced such a book, at this time, is in itself an oddity in contemporary Hawthorne criticism. For perhaps the most striking development in this field has been Frederick Crews’s gradual but apparently complete rejection of the possibility of the psychoanalysis of dead authors and of their literary texts. In his Out of My System: Psychoanalysis, Ideology, and Critical Method (1975), he conceded that “psychoanalysis as a hermeneutic” had shown itself to be “too prone to question-begging” and lacked a sufficient respect for facts to command our assent. In a complete volte-face, he claimed there “the irreducibility of literature to any functional perspective ...” Even more recently, in these pages (“The Freudian Way of Knowledge,” June 1984.), Crews has attacked the heritage of Freud as a “pseudo-science that cannot be defended on any grounds” and attacked psychoanalytic literary critics as given over to a “spirit of unmasking” that plays fast and loose with the facts.
Crews’s current position (he is, after all, the father of psychoanalytic Hawthorne criticism, as Fiedler is the godfather) has posed the inescapable crisis in this methodology that Young has nowhere addressed and of which he seems oblivious. This might be forgivable if his reading of Hawthorne were resolutely grounded on evidence that can withstand scrutiny, but it is not. One can only admire Crews’s more forthright recent position—that his most “binding loyalty is not to a particular system but to the empirical attitude.” Young, “the way-outest” critic yet, still ought to worry about Moral Turpitude.