Classics of American Lit: 1915-1960: American Radiance

English 271.01

"American literature is distinguished by the number of dangerous and disturbing books in its canon--and American scholarship by its ability to conceal this fact." —Leslie Fiedler (Missoula, October 13, 1959)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, reputedly the most Puritan-besotted writer of America's Puritan-obsessed canon, makes an appearance--at least his words do--in, of all things, a terrific episode of our belated mafia melodrama,TheSopranos. TheHawthorneweencounterinTheSopranos would seem to be that specialist in the consummately Calvinist terrors of masquerade and self-division: "No man can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true." But the episode in question--when chief mobster Tony takes his daughter on a New England college tour--features a would-be adulterous priest, a communally sanctioned revenge plot, female complicity in male-on-male violence, and the metaphysics of Evil's daughterly issue. Now where have we seen those narrative conceits before? I have in mind of course Hawthorne's very own The Scarlet Letter, a novel or, to be more precise, a Romantic novella, featuring a diva-class sexual adventuress whose notorious act of transgressive love is at once reproductive and redemptive, a false buddy team of village divine and his pagan avenger locked in a tangle of stalking, persecution, and self- flagellation, and the projected specter of a Protestant Godhead so intent on punishment that the only ideas of "confession" He will abide are communal humiliation and face-to-face abjection. Now what's up with that? The stunning truth is that Hawthorne borrowed from the treasure- trove of Southern Italian storytelling--cuckoldry, the predator parson, vendetta, bedeviled children at risk, and the omerta--to produce not only a Protestant moralistic turn on the classic Northern European adultery novel but also--if in coy indirection or even (to come full circle) panicked self- denial--the greatest sexual revenge narrative of 19th century America.

Clearly, what I am describing here is not your mother's The Scarlet Letter-- it is not even my mother's Scarlet Letter--yet this Pagan Catholic reading of the novel breathes new life into the first and still most canonical of all American tales: resurrects it as it were, responsive to emergent 21st century wisdoms--having to do with race and sexuality, sanctity and violence, the interplay of imperial Calvinist heritage and syncretic religious dissent--yes, but also shedding light to an astonishing degree on the evidentiary detail and emotional pulse of Hawthorne's conflicted story. I have a couple of dozen such readings up my sleeve from which to choose no more than nine, interweaving warhorses of the postwar white boys' canon (Billy Budd, The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises), the most revered of the multicultural neo-canon (Chopin's The Awakening, Cather's Professor's House, Larsen's Passing, Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, West's Day of the Locust), and outliers of an insidiously magical sort (Harold Frederic's The Damnation of Theron Ware, Claude McKay's Banjo, Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy), with a few films (The Wizard of Oz, Some Like it Hot, Blue Velvet) referenced for queerer measure.

ALL are invited, by the way, whether these novels have gotten to you--or not! 

Classics of American Lit: 1915-1960: American Radiance