As Alan Wolfe noted in a broadside published in The New Republic in 2003, the study of American literature, especially in American Studies programs at our major universities, has, since the 1970’s, become little more than a vituperative exercise in anti-American polemics.
Largely a confabulation of Latino, Native American, African-American, feminist, “queer,” and “whiteness” theorists (as they like to think of themselves), our literary academics share at least one abiding conviction: The American “nation” was never more than an illusion of consensual harmony predicated on the exclusion of minority voices—or, more insidiously, the co-optation of those voices—in the name of an assimilationist ideology that was prepared to tolerate dissent only insofar as it seemed to grant fresh legitimacy to a vampiric but always smiling liberal order.
This attack on liberal consensus is not, of course, without some truth. But as the always entertaining Slavoj Žižek maintains, academic radicalism is really little more than a “pseudo-psychoanalytic drama” preoccupied with nothing so much as the “right to narrate its own victimizing experience.”
Still, however ineffectual may be the parlor radicalism of the academic left, there is no doubt that their incomprehensible diatribes dominate the pages of our leading literary journals, as well as the front lists of most university presses. Old-fashioned critics like John Alvis, who presume that such authors as Nathaniel Hawthorne still have something of importance to say to us, rarely find a publisher, or, when they do, are consigned to critical oblivion. I hope that the latter will not be the case with Alvis’s most recent book, Nathaniel Hawthorne as Political Philosopher, which unfashionably assumes that America was an “exceptional” nation in the sense that she was “uncommonly well devised,” and which attempts to demonstrate that the Declaration of Independence and Hawthorne’s fictions might be understood as mutually illuminating.
With respect to the equality proposition, Alvis asserts that the only interpretation of equality consistent with the Declaration as a whole may be concisely expressed, “Government exists for the sake of all the governed.” It follows that “every human being . . . is equally entitled to the benefit of civic association,” though it should be emphasized that such an understanding allows for some latitude in the distribution of said benefits. In this view, Jefferson’s vision of equality was grounded upon a prior notion of justice; that is, a just equality could only be a proportional equality—one distributed “in proportion to the recipient’s contribution to the ends of civil society.” Alvis’s reading of the Declaration here agrees with legal historian John Phillip Reid’s contention that the Founding Fathers’ conception of equality was fully compatible with ideas of natural, if not hereditary, rank. Understood within the context of civic association, equality is not primarily about the rights of individuals in isolation. Instead, it seeks to regulate liberties for the good of a republican social order to which individuals are subordinate yet inviolate. Among the pivotal themes of Hawthorne’s explorations of the American character is the “magnetic chain” that binds the individual to communal association, yet preserves the sanctity of individual conscience. Alvis insists that Jefferson and Hawthorne shared the conviction that a harmony between individual rights and communal solidarity rested on limited government, “allowing for decentralized, spontaneously arising, voluntary communities.”
In his reading of Hawthorne’s early short fiction, Alvis moves easily from allegorical works like “Rappaccini’s Daughter” and “Young Goodman Brown,” which would seem at first glance to have little to do with revolutionary principles, to themes of marriage and polity in the Endicott tales. The allegories are stories of “soulcrafting.” Hawthorne’s deepest concern in these is moral integrity, a quality compounded, among other things, of candor and “whole-heartedness.” Without candor, social commerce free of duplicity and fraud is impossible. Goodman Brown is dishonest with his loving wife, Faith, but also, more importantly, with himself. He refuses to face up to the real reason for his ill-fated journey into the forest, and succumbs in the end to an all-consuming suspicion of the whole community: “His initial failure in candor leads him to doubt, and finally to deny, every appearance of virtue.” In the best known of the Endicott tales, “The Maypole of Merry Mount,” the political implications are more obvious. After John Endicott and his band of dour Puritans descend upon the enclave of Merry Mount to suppress the pagan nuptial festivities of Edgar and Edith, the two lovers, having been spared Endicott’s wrath, seemingly embrace without regret the more demanding domesticity of proper Christian marriage. For those of us still enamored of the erotic freedom promised by the Birth Control Revolution of the 1960’s, the “doom of care” willingly assumed by Edgar and Edith may seem a bitter pill to swallow, but Alvis makes a convincing case here and elsewhere in his book that, in Hawthorne’s estimation, a “durable marriage appears to be the only object answering to the legitimate pursuit of happiness” envisioned by the Declaration. Today, what we do in the bedroom is all too often regarded as a purely private matter, but Hawthorne reminds us that sexual pleasure has consequences. The proper care and training of children is clearly a matter of concern for civil society, which must enforce the obligations attendant upon parenthood. The Puritans were not a lovable folk, but, as Hawthorne well knew, they possessed an admirable integrity of purpose. They understood that liberty is the offspring of self-restraint, which, in turn, flourishes best within the confines of lawful matrimony.
Ideally, in the Jeffersonian prospect, marriage and family must be anchored in the firm foundation of private property, and property rights are the pivot upon which the plot of Hawthorne’s novel The House of the Seven Gables turns. Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon’s unscrupulous quest for a lost deed to lands in Maine that, if acquired, will enhance his wealth and political aspirations is the pretext for Hawthorne’s most penetrating reflections on one of the most fundamental conflicts in American life. Most critics of the novel have described this conflict in terms of democracy versus aristocracy, but Alvis insists that the conflict is better understood as an opposition “between oligarchs and democrats, some of whom are liberal, some not.” Though in decline, the Pyncheon family has aristocratic pretensions, but Hawthorne makes it clear that their claims of distinction are founded originally on fraud. In the age of Jacksonian democracy, Jaffrey must secure his lust for power not only in wealth but behind a façade of public service, a farcical proceeding that Hawthorne handles with devastating irony. The plebs are easily manipulated, but they—represented in this novel by the Maules, a family whose animus against the Pyncheons is longstanding—are hardly depicted as innocent victims. The burgeoning, potentially demonic power of the people (evidenced in Matthew Maule’s mesmeric powers) is driven both by family pride and class envy. If in the end the Maules achieve a nominal ascendency, they are not triumphant. Hawthorne’s political solution, not surprisingly, is figured in a marriage between Phoebe Pyncheon, a poor relation of the Salem Pyncheons, and Holgrave, who is secretly a Maule descendant. Holgrave and Phoebe, free of both the oligarchic and democratic versions of the lust for power, are Hawthorne’s natural aristocrats. Holgrave’s somewhat unexpected transformation in the end from alienated artist to gentleman farmer has often been criticized, and it is true that Hawthorne’s development of Holgrave as a character is not altogether convincing. But the author’s intention is clear enough. In this novel, he projects a guardedly optimistic belief that “America may be exceptionally well constituted not to eradicate but to negotiate its way between the two political perils” of oligarchic corruption and democratic despotism.
Few would dispute the claim that The Scarlet Letter is the best of Hawthorne’s novels, and Alvis devotes two intricately argued chapters to this work. Occupying the thematic and moral core of the novel is what Hawthorne calls “the sanctity of the human heart,” which Alvis associates with the Declaration’s equality proposition. Each of us shares an equality of moral opportunity, even if the result is unequal. We are free to pursue good or evil, but we have no right to impede another’s capacity to act as a moral agent. Readers who come to this novel for the first time may find Chillingworth, Hester Prynne’s lawful husband, to be the most egregious offender against the heart’s sanctity. For he wages a campaign of fear and intimidation against Hester as he plots to take revenge on her lover, Dimmesdale, thus violating her “right to be viewed as an independent soul.” Yet Dimmesdale and Hester are ultimately more culpable. Each willfully violates Chillingworth’s lawful right of possession in the name of a romantic union that, in Hester’s words, “had a consecration of its own.” But it is not Chillingworth who is the chief victim of this avowal; it is the offspring of their adultery, Pearl, whose upbringing is neglected by Dimmesdale out of his solipsistic preoccupation with his own remorse, and by Hester, who, out of “a romantic notion of freedom,” remains silent about her lover’s identity and pridefully parades her child, arrayed in sumptuous attire, before the community. The result in the child is a “distemper of liberty,” which, as Alvis is careful to note, amounts to yet another violation of the heart’s sanctity.
While Alvis does more than justice to the roles of Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, the most compelling part of his analysis involves Hester’s genuine but incomplete repentance. Though in the climactic scene of the novel she joins her lover and her husband in a public confession of sin, in the end she clings to her notion that the bond between herself and Dimmesdale was somehow “consecrated” by the sincerity of their mutual passion. Moreover, to the women of Boston she “preaches a humanistic gospel,” prophesying “a new truth [to] be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness.” Some recent critics have, of course, found in Hester’s prognostications an indication of her proto-feminist leanings, and Alvis seems to be saying that such a view is not inconsistent with Hawthorne’s “religion of humanity,” a secularized version of the “Christian economy of grace.” If this progressive view of moral evolution seems to clash with Hawthorne’s usual conservatism, it should be noted (as Alvis frequently reminds us) that he was an adherent, like Jefferson, of a “rationalized” or nominal Christianity. Alvis’s discomfort with Hawthorne’s heterodoxy is apparent in an earlier chapter of his book, when he suggests that Hawthorne’s “spare creed” lacked the “potency required to support decency against appetites emancipated by skepticism . . . ”
Finally, while there is no doubt that Alvis’s book is an impressive contribution to our understanding of Hawthorne’s fiction, some might wish to quarrel with his conviction that Hawthorne’s interpretation of the equality proposition is the only one fully consistent with the text of the Declaration. Many, on both the right and the left, have discerned a more radically egalitarian drift in the document. In any event, I was dismayed to find that Alvis never questions Hawthorne’s faith in “natural rights” and their supposed inalienability, if only because, as philosopher Donald Livingston has argued, the universality of such rights requires that they can be known by reason alone, “independent of any inherited moral tradition.” If that is the case, then it does indeed follow, as Livingston insists, that “the doctrine of natural rights must be in a condition of permanent hostility to all inherited moral traditions.” After all, the particularity of inherited moral traditions can always be trumped by universal claims, which lend themselves all too readily to the possibility of perpetual moral and political revolution, a state of affairs clearly in conflict with Hawthorne’s vision of an individualism tempered by the “magnetic chain” of communal loyalties.
[Nathaniel Hawthorne as Political Philosopher: Revolutionary Principles Domesticated and Personalized, by John E. Alvis (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers) 282 pp., $49.95]