Wednesday, April 06, 2005

A Classic to Neglect

The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Read by Dick Hill, Brilliance Audio, 2001

The Scarlet Letter is a book Americans intimately connect to their days in high school. I suffered through reading it then, and I suffered through listening to it again years later. Unlike Heart of Darkness, a book that for me gained tremendously by the intervening years of my maturation, Hawthorne’s classic remains still a somewhat overwrought dud. There were, it is true, parts of the book that with a few more years on my hide rang with a finer resonance, touched deeper chords inside my heart, but for the most part Hawthorne writes of highly overstrained melodramatic characters and writes them with an adjectival heavy sensationalism. Mere infidelity, even when it could get you stoned, even in an age of common belief in witches and devils, is ultimately just not enough to carry such thunder and lightning.

That remains my opinion now and it was my opinion over a decade ago (though better phrased now). Boring, was perhaps how my younger self would have described the book, and there’s something to that. The style of Hawthorne is the long, intricately constructed abstrusely embroidered, multiply claused sentences of the middle nineteenth century, prose that is asked to take on so much signification. Melville did it a thousand-fold better, managing to somehow invoke the very pith and soul of man in such trifles as Bartleby’s refusal and such tremendous moments as Ahab’s quest.

If there are reasons The Scarlet Letter is included in the canon, they are simple and straightforward to pick up on. First, its publication was marked by high-scandalized dudgeon among the still uptight New Englanders of the day, which galvanized sales and word of mouth. Then Hawthorne’s novel was the first American novel to make a big splash in literary European circles and is therefore surrounded by the high fence of original native pride. It holds on to its place through the same kind of antediluvian tradition that keeps Beowulf in its charmed standing among English teachers. None of this improves the novel as a whole, but it doesn’t hurt in building up and sustaining your status as an exemplar.

That this book is regularly beaten into the minds of impressionable teens as a model for consummate and high quality literature is almost enough to explain the poor reception the humanities typically get in American culture. Apart from not being that compelling, the book is also written in a style guaranteed to turn off many if not most or all teenage readers. The themes that The Scarlet Letter addresses, hypocrisy, rejection of the dominant mores and standards of your society, how one’s status as pariah eventually becomes a kind of habit you become incapable of shaking, could easily be found in a number of other books aimed more at the teen reader if these are such important lessons for them to learn.

There are, it is true, a number of books, short stories, poems, and essays that teens are frequently called upon to read during their secondary education, such immortals as Robert Burns “To a Mouse,” the value of which seems impossible to quite pinpoint for readers at that state of development. A misconception of what students should get out of their high school education seems to be to blame, teachers and curriculum makers leaning more heavily on exposure to certain items on a list (a measurable outcome and one that can be checked off a test) rather than fostering a love of literature and the ability to receive and retain messages and values of far greater import (and ultimately untestable and unmeasurable with accuracy). It’s hard to blame teachers themselves for this outcome; there are more forces involved in Hawthorne’s literary sainthood and foisting it on teens than merely who’s at the head of the class.

Dick Hill, this audio version’s reader, is always touted on what he’s read as having been voted one of the best readers, having been named one of the industry’s Golden Voices. And with good reason. His is a mercurial tone, gruff in his Twain readings, tough in his thriller adaptations, and smoothly, faintly British inflected in Hawthorne. The man truly is a remarkable example of the emblematic.

But he’s saddled with a rough row to hoe here. The entirety of disc one and nearly half of disc two is made up a “sketch” called “The Custom House” that describes some of the old sea salts around the wharf, Hawthorne’s early employment there, the politics of the time, what working at the Custom House was like, of Hawthorne finding the rag remains of the Scarlet A and a foolscap MS of the story, and so on. It is a rather pointless addition, bearing little relationship to the story itself, more an authorial vanity project than any real connection to Hester Prynn’s tale. I freely give permission to all readers of the book to skip this chapter and still be able to tell others with clean conscience that they have read The Scarlet Letter. Any teacher who tests on this frippery vignette is truly a malicious thug. The thing is nearly one quarter of the whole length; it’s outrageous.

As the book opens we meet the whole town out to watch the punished Prynn leave the jail, including even the colonial governor. This kind of public meddling in private life is the kind of world that Republicans and people like radical cleric James Dobson would dearly love to revisit nationwide. If only to help sensitize people to the possibility of such a thing happening then the book is worthwhile. Other than that, I see little value here.

When we meet the product of Hester’s adulterous relationship with Mr. Dimmesdale, the little sprite-like girl Pearl there were times I thought that maybe Hawthorne could see into the future and was reporting back on my daughter. That Hawthorne makes the child so mischievous was also very, very accurate. Here’s our introduction to her:

Pearl's aspect was imbued with a spell of infinite variety; in this one child there were many children, comprehending the full scope between the wild-flower prettiness of a peasant-baby, and the pomp, in little, of an infant princess. Throughout all, however, there was a trait of passion, a certain depth of hue…a being whose elements were perhaps beautiful and brilliant, but all in disorder…wild, desperate, defiant…intelligent, yet inexplicable, perverse, sometimes so malicious, but generally accompanied by a wild flow of spirits…

Yet this alone is not enough to save the book, it really just isn’t. Hawthorne’s novel isn’t terribly bad, especially considering its time, but it’s not nearly as good as people want it to be. And for this reason alone it shouldn’t be taught in public schools — it’s not nearly as important as people have made out. The weight of having to live up to such expectations almost no novel can bear, not least of all this one, and pretending otherwise does no one any favors. I’m well aware that Hawthorne has his defenders, that much hue and cry would accompany his loss of status, but I’d wager no students are well-served by palming off on them novels likely to turn them off to reading as a whole. Let's put Hawthorne to bed.

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