When I published the first chronicle of my undergraduate stupidities, I mentioned that
Seven months after completing my magnum micturientem I officially forswore Theory in an essay on the current state of Hawthorne Studies. Why I forswore there instead of forswearing somewhere else or appropriate even escapes me.
A few readers have asked whether I would post that as well. I wrote them back, insisting that it's nowhere near as amusing as my Honors Thesis. I told them, "It's not funny, and because it more closely resembles my current positions, I'd be limited to mocking its tedious self-righteousness." But they insisted.
I played coy, saying "I don't think I have it anymore." They insisted, correctly, that I lied.
I feigned anger, shouting "I don't want to!" They insisted, correctly, that I did.
I hid under the covers, whispering "I see dead people." They insisted, correctly, that I didn't.
They wore me down. I can no longer keep from them the oral presentation during which I renounced my idiotic, incoherent theoretical assumptions in favor of some sound ones. (Unfortunately, I had yet to renounce the prose tics of the contemporary theorist. Ugh.) I warn you: this rant is most notable for its actual vs. assigned length, as oral presentations consisting of eight single-spaced pages aren't ever really "short."
Despite the insistence of some prominent (and some not-so-prominent) literary critics on the value of criticism for criticism’s sake, literary criticism ought to abhor a vacuum. If nothing else, literature ought to provide the occasion for the critic’s labored prose and tangled syntax. Evidence of what I deem the proper mode of literary criticism abounds in The Scarlet Letter’s critical canon. Neither superior nor subservient to Hawthorne’s romance, these essays engage in an interactive dialogue with The Scarlet Letter as a work of literature. This may seem simpleminded or wrongheaded of me: if you believe it the former, forgive me my stupidity; if the latter, I welcome your new low opinion of me. This brief, highly directed reading of critical history of The Scarlet Letter demonstrates the proper role of literature in literary studies, as an occasion for critical enterprise (irrespective of the theoretical allegiances of the critic undertaking it). Of course, this little polemic of mine concerns only what falls under the aegis of literary criticism or literary studies. Cultural studies, media studies, intellectual histories and the like serve a purpose, but one distinct from literary studies (if only by virtue of their primary object of investigation).
The Scarlet Letter’s status as a canonical work of American literature assures its treatment by each and every (earth-shatteringly significant but ultimately) fleeting critical fancy. Determining (or, I’m tempted to say, limiting) the focus of The Scarlet Letter’s critical apparatus is then either frighteningly easy or impossibly complex. In a reductive sense, the criticism’s focus is on the narrative and the events that occur therein (what we as undergraduates referred to as “the plot”). Regardless of their theoretical orientation, all critics address the issues addressed (albeit, with varying degrees of salience) by “the plot.” (The grossest reduction necessary to sustain this reading is, obviously enough, the necessary exclusion of “The Custom House” from its purview.) A more complex approach acknowledges the determinative effects of a theoretical orientation on the generation of significance in a literary work like The Scarlet Letter, meaning that in each transitory critical moment critics are, in effect, reading a Scarlet Letter different from that of their predecessors. To prevent this polemic against the theorizing of theory from falling prey to the logic it rejects, we need to examine the critical apparatus that has grown up (though by no means organically) around Hawthorne’s romance.
However, first we need to account for why such an apparatus would grow in the first place. A “great” literary work would not, according the working definition I’m developing, transcend the critic’s mundane task so much as it merely (and you can read that “merely” as ironically or unironically as is your wont) precedes it. Prior but not superior to the critical enterprise, a literary text like The Scarlet Letter occasions a mode of speculation categorically different from the one engendered by, for example, a historical treatise on the effect of the theological doctrine subtending Puritan legalism on the formation of “female” as an autonomous subject position in Boston circa 1650. The question is not “what mode of speculation?” or “which particular theoretical methodology?” The Scarlet Letter summons from the void so much as why one is summoned in the first place. Scanning through the secondary literature, one (note: not “the”) reason manifests itself: that old undergraduate standby, “the plot.” As long as we imprison the novel’s self-conscious symbolic order in the terminological confines of “the plot,” this speculation (again, read as ironically or unironically as is your wont) is not entirely invalid. However, its purview is so great, so broad and simpleminded, that as speculations go, it is less than worthless. After all, every critical encounter with The Scarlet Letter addresses this definition of “the plot” in some respect, however idiosyncratic. Intellectual honesty demands it. We must then question whether the text itself explicates some thing or idea (thereby attributing its articulation to the Author), or whether we, in our capacity as literary critics, explicate it. If the text itself is doing the explicating (on its face, a patently absurd idea), how is it communicating these ideas to the reader? How does it articulate what it means? But if the literary critic undertakes the explication of the text, by what standards are we to judge that explication’s legitimacy? Intellectual history provides us with an easy answer to that second question: the explications of literary critics are judged (and just as often, their generation is over-determined) by the dominant mode of criticism in a given historical moment. The answer to the first question eludes me, although it possible existence seems less patently absurd now than it did a few sentences ago.
And so we begin this paragraph where we began the last, attempting to justify the centrality of literature to literary criticism. The majority (and I say “majority” to distinguish the conclusions of my “comprehensive” two-week search from the potentially different conclusions an “exhaustive” two-week search might reach. Were the two one-and-the-same, I’d venture to claim that the “entirety”) of secondary material on The Scarlet Letter presupposes the novel’s importance, thus necessitating we distinguish between a great work of literature and one which is merely important. To proclaim a work “great” implies an a-historical, transcendent “greatness” inheres in the work itself, whereas proclaiming it “important” merely indicates that a host of others have and do and will think it “great.” Neither approach illuminates much about the text itself, but at the very least, the idea of a work’s importance (even if divorced from the conceptualization of its “greatness”) provides an impetus for reading it. Otherwise, what reason is there for the voluminous amount of criticism openly hostile to the work it addresses (or the opinions of the author as inferred from that work)? If a work were truly and inherently “great,” what reason could there possibly be to dislike it? The easy answer to this is that some people just don’t like “greatness.” But if this answer doesn’t beg the question, I don’t know what does. How are we defining the quality of “greatness” in a work? If the answer is that someone or something assures of its “greatness,” we’d have to quantify their criteria for “greatness,” and do we really think their non-answer will be more quantifiable than ours? Probably not, but despite the emptiness of the term, its circulation (both horizontally, if you will, through a particular society in a particular historical moment, and vertically, as it were, down through generations from its moment of production to our own) assures us that we can validly consider it “important.” From this, more questions follow: what role does our consideration of a work’s importance play in creating the illusion of its “greatness”? And if, metaphorically speaking, we as critics are speculators, what is our gold standard? Do we even have one? Or are we no better than Peter Goldwaite? (Goldwaite’s name becomes more suggestive in this context: Goldwaite as “gold wait,” implying the possible redemption of our paper bills; or is it Goldwaite as “gold wraithe,” implying something about the abstract relation, as configured in this metaphor, of a work’s “greatness” to its “importance.”) Cultural studies (at least in my caricature of it) impresses on us the brilliance (quite the loaded term here) of the critical act as speculation: Who needs a gold standard when such brilliant speculators abound? Who needs The Scarlet Letter when we can come to identical conclusions by reading the transcript of Ann Hutchinson’s trial? Sadly enough, I’m no closer to an answer now than when I began this paragraph; at most, I’ve established the importance of The Scarlet Letter, and that functions as an adequate (though by no means convincing) reason a re-reading of Hawthorne’s romance accompanies the (monstrous?) birth of each new critical paradigm.
But what then are we to make of the fact that most of these re-readings still consider the same thematic axial? From a distance, there is uniformity to the situation I referred to earlier as being “impossibly complex.” (No facile allusion to chaos theory here; the distinction is analogous to the respective perspectives of the private in the trenches and the binoculared general on a distant hilltop. I know, I know, my metaphor begs challenging. How, precisely, did I acquire this perspective? To which I disingenuously reply, I have no conscious investment in any particular methodology other than whichever one allows me to momentarily repress my awareness of the illegitimacy of my metaphor.) I term this uniformity “a social history of individual sin.” Critical paradigms notwithstanding, the majority of the criticism contained in The Scarlet Letter’s scholarly apparatus addresses the relation of an individual sin to an individual sinner living under the strictures of the Puritan establishment.
A cursory examination of the critical literature demonstrates the presence of this thematic in the most disparate methodological approaches. In the cleverly titled “The New England Sources of The Scarlet Letter” (AL 31: 257-72), published in 1959, Charles Ryskamp delivers a detailed explication of Hawthorne’s fastidious use of historical sources. He characterizes Hawthorne’s historical project as an attempt to imbue his fictional narrative with the authority of a historical text. About Hawthorne’s use of historical personages, Ryskamp claims “the fictional protagonists of the action move and gain their being in part through their realistic meetings with well-known people of colonial Boston.” Or, to rephrase this in the terminology I’ve established, according to Ryskamp, Hawthorne situates his narrative within (what was, at the time, considered to be a historically accurate) depiction of the Puritan social order to “support the scenes of passion and punishment.” Here, Ryskamp implicitly claims Hawthorne values the disjunction between the stern social order of the historical Puritan establishment and Hester’s alternative moral order. I can hear Ryskamp’s valuation of the historical as a higher order of narrativized reality than literary fiction when he projects his own ideological leanings onto Hawthorne, who evinced a “steady determination to make the romances of his imagination as real as the prison house and the grave.” But how can a fictional narrative compete with the materiality of the building? The implied answer is “through the utilization of the historical record.” Ryskamp’s conception of the constitution of physical reality extends farther than my contemporary one, encompassing not merely the building historical events occurred in, but the events themselves. The one-to-one correspondence between the historical reality of Puritan Boston and the severe social order in which Hawthorne situates his narrative create a contrast that accentuates the thematic I have already identified as being central to the secondary literature. (Were I more intellectually honest, I might pause here and characterize my own critical methodology. I might historicize the critical move of combing a text in search of ruptures, that moment where what I (pre-)conceive as being the common strain in The Scarlet Letter’s secondary literature bubbles to the surface of a critical essay with a markedly different theoretical orientation and “betrays” this other author’s unconscious awareness of the superiority of my critical enterprise. Of course, I would never articulate the purpose of my method so directly, instead claiming that my awareness of these ruptures in this other critic’s text is the result of my directed reading, because we’re all tired of constantly having to kill our fathers, those benevolent figures we assist in the reproduction of every time we read another always already obsolete essay. Or, at the very least, we’re tired of hearing about it. After all, what kind of party pooper would harp about the blood on our hands when we’ve recreated a brand new critical paradigm?)
Other historical approaches, such as Joseph Schwartz’s “Three Aspects of Hawthorne’s Puritanism” (NEQ, 36: 192-208), published in 1963, explicitly relate to my directed/thematic reading of the secondary literature. Schwartz claims that “Hawthorne always felt that the religious system of Puritanism was hard, cold, and confined; it was only the fervent faith of firm believers that redeemed it at all.” Hawthorne’s use of Puritanism thus created a tension between society and the exquisitely complex emotional life of the individual. If we were to politicize that complexity, render its juxtaposition with the Puritan social order in sectarian logic, we would find ourselves arguing something similar to Michael J. Colacurcio’s argument in “Footsteps of Ann Hutchinson: the Context of The Scarlet Letter” (ELH 39: Sept. 1972). In Colacurcio’s account, Hester’s individual complexity implicates her sinful actions in the antinomian movement, because “the extremes of public legalism seem to breed their antinomian opposite as if by natural law,” thus making it impossible for Hester “to affirm the legitimacy of her powerful sexual nature without also affirming total, anarchic spiritual freedom” (of a sort anathema, if you’ll pardon my ecumenicalism, in the rigid Puritan social order).
The old and new historicism both assume “a social history of individual sin” to be The Scarlet Letter’s central thematic, and therefore use it to underpin their entire critical enterprise. But in a real way, the proper response to my essay so far should be a resounding (All together now!) “Duh.” How could historically inclined critics not presuppose the primacy of social history in their accounts of The Scarlet Letter? How could they not contextualize Hawthorne’s romance and still respect themselves in the morning? Nina Baym, in a review of 1968’s body of Hawthorne criticism, praises Nina Bayn for doing precisely that. Nina Baym, in what Nina Baym characterizes to as “a fresh reading of this much-read book,” is impressed by her own dehistoricization and secularization of The Scarlet Letter’s context in “Passion and Authority in The Scarlet Letter” (NEQ 43: 209-30). Nina Baym recounts Nina Baym’s argues that Dimmesdale and Hester “feel guilt to the extent that they have internalized the prohibitions of their community, and no absolute moral issues are implicated in their ‘sin.’” Baym’s dehistoricization of the Puritan social order is not a unique move, but one with a long critical history. Prominent examples include, at least in theory, psychoanalytic readings, but to be fair to Fredrick Crews, his The Sins of the Father doesn’t participate in this dismissal of history. However, Crews does that “if [he] were to say in one sentence what The Scarlet Letter was ‘about’ … [he] would call it a study in the unconscious interdependence of people who feed off one another’s incompleteness in a society which encourages them to dissemble and burn themselves away in secret.” The movement into a psychoanalytic critical apparatus poses some problems for the historicist. For example, how exactly do the neuroses and psychoses of early 20th century Austrians pertain to individuals in 17th Puritan Boston? (Freud’s universalization of his conceptual apparatus, first by projecting it back to the origins of Western Civilization (IoD), then by implicating it in the discourse of scientific objectivity (BtPP, E&I), does not validate Crews approach. Full disclosure: Then again, here I am talking about “ruptures” in the text.) Baym’s decontextualization seems the more egregious of the two, because she replaces the framework of Puritan authority with an a-historical, blandly generic society that is “repressive and authoritarian in its nature, and condemns their act because of its passionate and self-expressive essence.” (By comparison, Kafka’s parables seem exemplars of literary realism.)
Because this is becoming increasingly unwieldy (The Casebook II: This Time, It’s Historical), let me quickly return to the issue I was discussing at the onset of this essay. That is, if the central theme in The Scarlet Letter’s critical apparatus is the social history of individual sin, why read The Scarlet Letter at all? Why not analyze the transcripts of Ann Hutchinson’s trial instead? Is it merely because of the novel’s purported “importance”? Since I have the floor, I’ll fathom an answer: literature is synthetic, and as such it engenders a mode of speculation of a category different from that of the historical, political, or moral speculation. Thinking about the four offices of the scarlet letter (historical, political, moral, aesthetic), we can imagine their conflation as being representative of the literary text. Through this synthesis, the concrete is rendered ambiguous, but to what end? To be honest (that is, to resist polemics for the moment), it’s just more fun. It’s more work, sure, but it’s enjoyable work. I read about I.G. Farben’s involvement with the Third Reich in history texts, but I didn’t enjoy it. It was edifying alright, but not productive of a sublime paranoia that dogged my heels for weeks. To be polemical again, we can gather two sorts of information from this synthesis: 1) inferred information about the author, and 2) information about the society in which such a synthesis would occur. Of course, when the moment depicted differs from the moment of production, we’re going to run into a problem, unless we posit that the real issue is the author’s opinion on the society in which such a synthesis would occur. The question then becomes, why would we value this particular human being’s opinion so highly that we’d work to generate the kind of information we could be spoon fed by a historical treatise? Is the answer that literature contains another kind of knowledge, that one synthesis occurs, no one office can extricate itself from the mess without retaining something of the others? Does each infect/inflect the other?