furious circumstances: reckless vaults of imagination

In the middle of 1849, during a summer of torrid heat in Salem, Massachusetts, the contending forces in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s life were drawing into battle formation, as for a civil war ling in preparation. His mother lay dying in a guest chamber of his “narrow house.” He had just lost the job in the customhouse that had been arranged for him by friends in politics. In the politically motivated hearings that terminated his appointment he had been slandered and deceived by pious hypocrites among the Whig opposition.

Nathaniel Hawthorne at thirty-six. Painted by Charles Osgood. Image: Wiki

The financial problems that had marred his courtship and harassed the first seven years of his belated marriage still plagued him, and were proving all the more malignant for having been postponed. Add to the practical pressures the fact that he was a man of New England conscience to whom failure was a matter of shame.

For four years his literary production had been small. No less a critic than Edgar Allan Poe had scolded him for his addiction to allegory, and he himself had said of the stories that made up the bulk of his previous work, “they blossomed in too retired a shade.” As shade-scattering as the intellectual contacts of recent years had been, his friendship with Boston transcendentalists had rubbed him raw between the decaying claims of Puritanism and the rude potency of the Emersonian optimism.

He was forty=five years old now, and the fame that he had wished for since his college days still flirted just beyond his grasp. It would come too late to offer an appeasement for the knotted emotions that had estranged him from the silent woman dying in the guest room. On one hot evening of that summer he recalled, ” I love my mother; but there has been, ever since boyhood, a sort of coldness of intercourse between us, such as is apt to come between persons of strong feelings if they are not managed rightly.”

---Now it is that blackness in Hawthorne, of which I have spoken, that so fixes and fascinates me. It may be, nevertheless, that it is too largely developed in him. Perhaps he does not give us a ray of his light for every shade of his dark. But however this may be, this blackness it is that furnishes the infinite obscure of his background, that background, against which Shakespeare plays his grandest conceits, the things that have made for Shakespeare his loftiest, but most circumscribed renown, as the profoundest of thinkers. ---Melville. Read More:http://thisrecording.com/today/2009/8/12/in-which-herman-melville-and-nathaniel-hawthorne-stare-into.html

When Hawthorne looked back at his mother, ” he seemed to see the whole of human existence at once, standing in the dusty midst of it.”

This was the summer and these were the furious circumstances in which he began to write The Scarlet Letter. In a house full of women that included his two sisters as well as his mother, wife, and daughter, he was trying not only to resume and extend his career as a writer but, by a reckless vault of imagination, to reconcile all that was terrible and enchanting in the enigma of a woman’s life. While his wife tended the dying woman, he had to work much of the time with his study door open to keep an eye of the children in the yard. Of his daughter Una he noted, “There is something that almost frightens me about that child- I know not whether elfish or angelic, but at all events, supernatural… a spirit strangely mingled with good and evil, haunting this house where I dwell.”

---The majority of Hawthorne’s work takes America’s Puritan past as its subject, but The Scarlet Letter uses the material to greatest effect. The Puritans were a group of religious reformers who arrived in Massachusetts in the 1630s under the leadership of John Winthrop (whose death is recounted in the novel). The religious sect was known for its intolerance of dissenting ideas and lifestyles. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne uses the repressive, authoritarian Puritan society as an analogue for humankind in general. The Puritan setting also enables him to portray the human soul under extreme pressures.---Read More:http://warriorap.squarespace.com/letter-background/2011/4/25/the-scarlet-letter-historical-background.html

In that summer the task that loomed was simply to seize fear in his bare hands and, while it burned him, to shape of it a novel without precedent in American letters, a unique and brilliant point of light in the constellation of world literature.

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