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Literary Hate Crime

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Portrait of American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne author of The Scarlet Letter.
 While Many High Schoolers — And Their Parents, Too — Cannot Seem To Relate To Hawthorne’s Classic, The Scarlet Letter, Using Emma Stone’s Easy A As A Modern Signpost Is Misguided, At Best


By Stacy Graber
Special for Modern Times Magazine

March 27, 2015 — Hawthorne-bashing is commonplace in the American classroom. It’s like an automatic joke that students share. Simply speaking the words: The Scarlet Letter elicits a chorus of disapproving cackles, clucks, and snorts from kids — not far removed from the judgmental sounds issued by the “somber clad,” pietistic haters Hawthorne assembled before the scaffold to jeer at Hester.

Students despise The Scarlet Letter, yet their acquaintance with the book is often faulty and superficial. For instance, some well-meaning teachers pair it with the film Easy A, intending to package Hawthorne palatably for a contemporary, youthful audience. But the challenge of reading Hawthorne’s words proves too overwhelming to justify the union and the conversation degenerates to false analogies and misdirected meditation on Emma Stone’s candy-box bustier.

Sex is a piece of The Scarlet Letter, but it isn’t the central conversation. If it were, then Hawthorne would not have introduced the book with the extended discussion of his brief tenure of employment with the Custom-House. In this crucial introduction to the novel, Hawthorne explains the way the quotidian grind of a bureaucratic job can wear an artist down. He makes a point of lambasting the dullards who eternally recycle the same half-assed stories and “moldy jokes” they’ve always exchanged. And Hawthorne further condemns his colleagues by writing, “I characterize them as a set of wearisome old souls, who had gathered nothing worth preservation from their varied experience of life.”

What Hawthorne is talking about in The Custom House is the way that the provincial and narrow-minded expect little and create an environment bereft of sensuality. This is precisely Hester’s predicament. All of which is to say that The Scarlet Letter is an extended meditation on “the difficulty of being an artist.” John Berger labeled this problem and devoted an entire chapter to it in Permanent Red. In his book, Berger writes, “The artist sets out to improve the world—not in the way that a reformer or a revolutionary does—but in his own way, by extending what he believes to be the truth, and by expressing the range and depth of human hopes.”

To Berger’s point, Hester practices a kind of voluptuous, optimistic art that is demonized by Puritanical society. She works it with her body and her needle as a virtuoso embroiderer and seamstress. Her passion is ungovernable in a time that only lusts to legislate, and so she is labeled a criminal. That is Hawthorne’s thesis: Artists can’t be contained by petty routine, writ, or restrictions that limit their vision. Likewise, they won’t be fed on what passes for sustenance (e.g., security, inclusivity, traditionalism).

For this reason, I would advise teachers: If you really want to pair something useful with The Scarlet Letter in order to engage students in the legitimate questions raised by the text, match it with the beautiful, Danish film from 1987 titled Babette’s Feast. This allegorical tale deposits a master chef amidst a bunch of zealots who believe that imbibing equals sin. Like Hester, Babette practices a sensual art and struggles against the same rigidity that constrains and threatens pleasure.

Scholars are still divided on the canonical lit question. Some feel that the canon is finished, as is the dead-white-guy tradition it was meant to uphold at the expense of other voices. Some feel that these works represent a cultural-artistic inheritance that continues to enable us to make meaning in the present. The Common Core State Standards pay homage to the classics, as evidenced by many of the exemplar texts proposed for the English Language Arts curriculum, grades 9 to 12. Is this a gauge of Hawthorne’s value for contemporary readers?

Probably not.

If Hawthorne continues to mean anything at all, the significance could be read through Gerald Graff’s theory of productive tension. Graff argues that texts will sign to the present only if there is some problem or useful tension raised in the work that seems important enough to continue to talk about.

Hawthorne poses the Romantic question: Are you able to imagine a creative life apart from the conventions that fix and frame your moment? Truly courageous people seem able to do this, which is why Hester Prynne is Hawthorne’s Magic 8 Ball.

I was thinking about the enormity of this book while reading a deprecating comment posted online in which a young person goofed on Hawthorne yet misspelled the word “Scarlet” in the famous title, like the first name of the actress Johansson.

Stacy Graber is an Assistant Professor of English at Youngstown State University. Her areas of interest include pedagogy, popular culture, critical theory, and semiotics.
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