We’ve come to the end of The Scarlet Letter, and it’s time to consider this journey we embarked upon almost three months ago.
In 1876, George Parsons Lathrop (1851-1898) was editor of The Atlantic Monthly (and at 25 years old, no less). That year, he published A Study of Hawthorne, neither an official biography nor an official literary study, but more a hybrid of the two. Lathrop himself called it a “portrait” rather than a biography. Whatever it’s genre, it remains one of the best studies on the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1809-1864). The book remained a popular study of the author for at least the next quarter century; I have an edition published in 1898.
Lathrop notes that it was The Scarlet Letter that made the author’s reputation when it was published in 1850. The subject was something of a shock and sensation, but the public quickly got over it and the book became a bestseller, selling out the first printing of 5,000 in 10 days. It was not without its contemporary critics; a publication of the Episcopal Church, which fancied itself the authority on all things Puritan, rained harsh criticism on the book, its story, the author, and anything associated with them. The criticism was ignored.
Interestingly enough, Lathrop points out in a lengthy footnote that the laws of Plymouth Colony, enacted in 1658 (and roughly the time period for the story), that those guilty of adultery were to be whipped twice and required to wear a letter sewn on their upper outer garments. If they were caught without the letter, they were to be publicly whipped. No one knows if Hawthorne was aware of the law or not, for he never mentioned it, referring instead to a painting he’d seen in Switzerland of a woman and girl as his original inspiration.
While he called Hawthorne’s later novels “more aesthetically pleasing” and “mellower,” Lathrop acknowledges that, “as a demonstration of power, it seems to me that this first extended romance was not outdone by its successors.” It is that power – the stark scenes, the shocking developments, the strong characters of Hester Prynne, Roger Chillingworth, and even Pearl, the child, and the fundamental statement of human frailty and sin – that give the book its modern appeal. That’s not bad for a 170-year-old historical novel about the Puritans.
Even when they’re in their Puritan garb, we recognize these characters. We know people like the weak Arthur Dimmesdale, the revered and highly regarded minister too afraid to confess his part in an adulterous relationship. We know strong women like Hester Prynne, who’s fully prepared to throw over convention and does it rather slyly with a beautifully embroidered sign of her sin and punishment. We recognize Roger Chillingworth, whose kindly demeanor masks an almost evil desire for revenge.
These characters are familiar to us because we can see elements of ourselves in them. They are fallen and broken, as we are fallen and broken. These characters, like ourselves, are sinful. It is one of the surprises of The Scarlet Letter that it seems so deeply Christian. Hawthorne was a Romantic, and the story contains an abundance of romantic elements. But its Christian base is recognizable. It certainly was recognized when it was published; Lathrop points out that it was initially better received by the more devout than the less devout reader.
Lathrop the writer, poet, critic, and editor was himself influenced, but in a very different way. In 1871, he traveled to London, and he met Rose Hawthorne, the author’s youngest daughter. They were married that year and returned to live in Massachusetts. Lathrop never met his father-in-law; Nathaniel had died in 1864. But with the support of the family, he wrote his fine study of Hawthorne’s life and works. The Lathrops had a son, Francis, who died in 1881 at five years old.
George died in 1898 at the relatively young age of 46. Rose, who had trained as a nurse at the New York Cancer Hospital, founded a cancer hospital called Sister Rose’s Free Home. She founded an order, with the approval of the Catholic Church, which was eventually called the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne; it worked with patients who had incurable cancer. Rose became known as Mother Mary Alphonsa. She died in 1926 at the age of 75.
The Scarlet Letter has resonated in popular culture. Some 17 versions of the novel have been filmed as movies; the first was in 1908 and the most recent was 2015. It’s threaded its way through literature, influencing Franz Kafka, John Updike (Roger’s Version), and Paul Auster, to mention only a few. It’s even shown up in music; the 1968 song “Midnight Confessions” by the Grass Roots is actually about Arthur Dimmesdale’s confession on the scaffold. And it’s been included or retold in songs by such disparate performers as Nirvana, Metallica, Casting Crowns, and Taylor Swift, among many others.
The novel seemed to have risen like a meteor in 1850, and it’s remained a part of our national literature ever since. Literary fashions come and go, but the best works, like The Scarlet Letter, endure.