Sunday, July 4, 2010

July 4th, Nathaniel Hawthorne's Birthday - by Louise Tripp

Of all the classic literature I was “forced” to read in high school, I count Hawthorne's works as some of my favorites. I remember initially hating The Scarlet Letter, because my English teacher made us read the introductory passage “The Custom House” first (explaining what the house of customs was in lengthy detail) and I thought the entirety of the novel would be like that: dry, full of matter-of-fact details devoid of color. Then a classmate told me “just skip that part,” that it really was good – and taking her advice, I chucked my teacher's assignment and began, instead, with “The Prison Door,” technically the book's real first chapter. From the first image of the bearded men and hooded women in the courthouse, I was hooked. (Years later, of course, I did go back and read “The Custom House” and found it more interesting than my sixteen year old self originally did).

Hester Prynne is an iconic figure. Even people who have never read Hawthorne know what that infamous red letter stood for, what crime she who wore it had committed. In a Puritan world, Hester was a sinful woman. To the world today, she is someone we can understand more – a very feminist figure before the idea that a woman can be separate from and equal to her husband existed. Her crime was that she acted on her feelings (of lust, but also of love – I think of The Scarlet Letter as a great love story, in fact) and then protected the one she loved from being punished as much as she was (though, in the end, he punishes himself).

Aside from Hester's story, Hawthorne – a contemporary and friend of Moby Dick author, Herman Melville, who he looked up to a great deal – also gave us the stories of Rappaccini's Daughter and Young Goodman Brown. In the former story, a man falls in love with the daughter of a plant scientist who has managed to essentially turn her into one of his poisonous flowers. In the latter, a young man goes out to the forest to see the Devil, only to find that those around him that he considered religious and good are attending the same dark ritual that the Devil is imploring the reluctant Young Goodman Brown to accompany him to. Stories of great evils lying in the most seemingly benign places. That was Hawthorne's specialty. Happy Birthday Nathaniel – and Happy Independence Day to our readers!

Louise Tripp grew up in North Carolina. She currently lives in Chicago, where she is revising her first YA novel and working in a public library.

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