The Letter “A,” Spitzer, and the Misrepresentation of Puritanism

Mary Grabar
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Posted: Mar 30, 2008 12:01 AM
The Letter “A,” Spitzer, and the Misrepresentation of Puritanism

As predictable as a college freshman telling me that the “A” sewn on Hester Prynne’s dress symbolizes Puritanical hypocrisy were the commentaries about the Puritanical hypocrisy of the prosecution of men (like Eliot Spitzer) for engaging the services of a prostitute. 

The charges of “Puritanism” echo those made during the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair, and feature such notables as Huffington Post’s Chris Weignet asking us to “get beyond our Puritanical roots” in a commentary titled “In Defense of Hookers.”  The Economist saw the Spitzer affair as the latest example in American history of “Puritanism deranging the law.”  Legal and ethical scholar Martha Nussbaum, whose feminist “caring” ethic fills college anthologies, begins an Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial, “Eliot Spitzer, one of the nation’s most gifted and dedicated politicians, was hounded into resignation by a Puritanism and mean-spiritedness that are quintessentially American.”  She then expresses her “caring” for “sex workers”—the latest group of the oppressed in the Marxist universe of the American university.  Our more prestigious campuses now host an annual sex workers show.  “Sex workers,” unlike us “word workers” who toil at grading papers, were paid good money for their performances. 

The Chronicle of Higher Education appropriately gathered such commentaries in its March 28th issue, appending a note by Robert Laslsz about the “perennial hot-button issue” of the legalization of prostitution.  He comments, “What’s different about the present discussion is that there’s now economic, anthropological, and sociological analysis of sex work upon which to draw.”  Yes, indeed, thanks to all those research grants!

Although literacy rates plummet as teachers substitute “visual” and “aural” aids for old-fashioned words in books, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter remains required reading in many high schools.  This work is put on syllabi in order to fulfill what seems to be a major learning objective: to expose hypocrisy.  The favorite target is the Puritans, who presumably provide a contrast to the students’ own refreshing candor and openness in all areas—including sexuality. 

One of my favorite novelists, Richard Russo, can count on The Scarlet Letter as a point of reference in his own contribution published in The Washington Post, called “Imagining Eliot,” wherein he imagines writing a novel about Eliot Spitzer.  Russo connects the character “Eliot” to Reverend Dimmesdale, the father of the child for which Hester Prynne is condemned to wear her scarlet letter A, standing for adulteress.  His secret eventually drives him to madness and his death.  Russo writes that he has grown “fond [of] my own messed-up untidy Eliot.  So American in both his ambition and the disgrace that seems to flow from it so naturally. . . . he connects to my long-held conviction that people (in fiction, in life) aren’t meant to be saints, or to be treated like saints.  That’s the hard lesson Hawthorne’s Dimmesdale learned from the pulpit.”

The implication here is that we all “mess up” (not sin).  Being real eclipses being good.  Listen to any group of teenagers on a campus or MTV.  Saintliness implies good, which implies a standard of right and wrong, an alien concept in our culture of tolerance.  In our postmodern, post-moral universe, the choice is to either try to be a “saint” (and therefore be hypocritical) or be “real.” 

The appropriation of The Scarlet Letter to disseminate this message to high school students represents an example of the perfunctory inclusion of “classic” works, but interpreted to fit a political agenda.

Students parrot the misrepresentations of this novel.  “Hmph,” say girls sitting indignantly at desks in revealing strappy tops, “It was the woman who was punished, not the man.” Students revel in their sophistication, at the exposure at such hypocrisy, as do writers for the Huffington Post. 

My anecdotal observations from 16 years of teaching college were confirmed by a perusal of Prentice Hall’s eleventh-grade American literature textbook, which is used in every high school in DeKalb County of metro Atlanta.  Various units, or periods, have an “Author’s Desk” feature, intended by appearances to make a period of American letters “relevant” by a connection to a writer or scholar.  Most often these connections are strained in order to offer a photo of a person of color or someone whose work is politically appropriate.  For the period 1946 – Present, (“Prosperity and Protest”) the recently departed Arthur Miller, “a legend of the contemporary American theater, [who] has chronicled the dilemmas of common people pitted against powerful social forces” is presented, with his own indictment of American Puritanism and Hypocrisy, The Crucible

 In this unit’s “History Connection,” (one of the myriad graphics-studded sidebars), the editors offer John Hathorne, a forebear of Nathaniel Hawthorne and a judge in the Salem witchcraft trials, as a “historical counterpart” to the characters in Miller’s play.  The editors point to Hawthorne’s turning back to Puritans for subject and setting, but then claim, “In Puritan rigidity and repression he found an expression for his dark vision of the human soul.  Hawthorne’s best-known novel, The Scarlet Letter, examines the repressive side of Puritanism and the hypocrisy and pain that such an atmosphere produced.” 

I imagine putting the editors into stocks at the front of the classroom for misrepresenting Hawthorne’s real message: the moral degeneration of American culture since the Puritans.  In fact, in The Blithedale Romance, Hawthorne drawing upon his experience at Brook Farm, criticized social experiments in living that did away with the traditional ties of marriage and property.  Hawthorne’s moral conservatism has been praised and referenced by everyone from Flannery O’Connor to the 2003 President’s Council on Bioethics by the inclusion of his short story, “The Birth-mark,” in their publication, Being Human.

Hawthorne shows the greatest respect for the morality of his Puritan forebears and the strict code that they enforced.  In the lengthy introductory section to The Scarlet Letter, “The Customs-House,” Hawthorne sets up the frame by using his experience as a government worker in the customs house to contrast his epicurean co-workers living off political sinecures with his admirable forebears.  In speaking of William Hathorne who made an “appearance in the wild and forest-bordered settlement, which has since become a city” nearly “two centuries and a quarter” before his own time, Hawthorne writes of his “attachment” of “dust for dust” as he walks the streets of Plymouth.

He continues,

 “But the sentiment has likewise its moral quality.  The figure of that first ancestor, invested by family tradition with a dim and dusky grandeur. . . . It still haunts me, and induces a sort of home-feeling with the past, which I scarcely claim to a reference to the present phase of the town.  I seem to have a stronger claim to a residence here on account of this grave, bearded, sable-cloaked, and steeple-crowned progenitor,--who came so early with his Bible and his sword, and trode the unworn street with such a stately port, and made so large a figure, as a man of war and peace,--a stronger claim than for myself, whose name is seldom heard and my face hardly known.  He was a soldier, legislator, judge; he was a ruler in the Church; he had all the Puritanic traits, both good and evil.”

Hawthorne’s style—both in terms of sentence structure and ideas—jars with current reading habits of easily digestible sentences and similarly structured messages that conform to predigested ideologies.  Part of the problem of teaching works by Nathaniel Hawthorne and similar writers is that teachers, according to the teaching manuals and directives of school districts, have relied on visuals, assigned work in groups, and encouraged impulsive responses regarding the student’s feelings (with such questions, “How would you feel if you were Hester Prynne?  How has our society changed?  Aren’t you glad that single mothers or sexually empowered women are no longer condemned?”). 

But if one has the patience, one can discern the nuanced attitude Hawthorne holds.  Clearly, Hawthorne while recognizing his ancestors’ failings, holds great admiration for them: “[William Hathorne] was likewise a bitter persecutor,” of Quakers.  The son “too, inherited the persecuting spirit, and made himself so conspicuous in the martyrdom of the witches, that their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon him.”

But rather than pointing accusingly at his forebears, Hawthorne, in true Christian fashion, asks for forgiveness of his ancestors’ sins and casts the sin-detecting eye upon himself:

“Doubtless, however, either of these stern and black-browed Puritans would have thought it quite a sufficient retribution for his sins, that, after so long a lapse of years, the old trunk of the family tree, with so much venerable moss upon it, should have borne, as its topmost bough, an idler [as a writer] like myself.” 

Hawthorne recognizes both good and evil in his forebears, and unlike those who use his work to dismiss claims of morality as Puritanical cruelty, acknowledges the reality of sin and the burden of living with its consequences.    

Hester Prynne’s redemption comes from recognizing her sin and acknowledging it through the wearing of the scarlet A.  Her repentance takes a lifetime; these are the wages of sin.  Hawthorne, as opposed to his progressive Transcendentalist peers, very much believed in sin, Original Sin.  It is those who deny their sin, like Dimmesdale, who suffer and are doomed. 

It is instructive to look at the closing pages of the novel where, with her daughter grown, we find Hester living alone in a cottage.  There she uses her experience to counsel women, and Hawthorne describes her thus:

“But, in the lapse of the toilsome, thoughtful, and self-devoted years that made up Hester’s life, the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too.  And, as Hester Prynne had no selfish ends, nor lived in any measure for her own profit and enjoyment, people brought all their sorrows and perplexities, and besought her counsel. . . . Women, more especially,--in the continually recurring trials of wounded, wasted, wronged misplaced, or erring and sinful passion,--or with the dreary burden of a heart unyielded, because unvalued and unsought,--came to Hester’s cottage. . . . Hester comforted and counselled them, as best she might.  She assured them, too, of her firm belief, that, at some brighter period . . . in Heaven’s own time, a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness.”

Hawthorne, in showing sympathy for the trials and tribulations of women, both acknowledges the need for Hester’s punishment and the value of her redemption as a result of it. 

This is hardly the ethic that infuses debates in our post-feminist era.  Today, in “progressive” circles, sexual promiscuity is viewed as empowerment, rather than something to be “sorrowed” over.  Indeed, Fox television viewers were polled about what Spitzer’s favorite prostitute, Ashley Dupre, should do.  Should she cash in?  A large majority said yes.  In the back of their minds was that high school English class where they learned about “Puritan hypocrisy.”  They now symbolically and proudly wear the letter A, as various forms of un-dress.  Yet they are incapable of reading and understanding a nuanced novel like The Scarlet Letter whose author tells us that such behavior is to be “sorrowed over.”