Short story written by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Your experience may vary, but I had to read The Scarlet Letter in school and I resented it. The teacher clearly suspected her students of indifference because we received regular quizzes to ensure that we kept up with the reading. I confess to actually liking some of the book, but that did nothing to reduce my irritation. This was late middle school, of all things, and let’s just say that some key plot points had little resonance.
A few years later, I visited Salem and toured Hawthorne’s house with the seven gables. I came away with no improved opinion of Hawthorne, but with a mild interest in New England architecture. Really, it was probably a lot to ask a nice historical tour to compete with the hullabaloo that has grown around the Salem witch trials. Once they’ve seen a torture chamber, it’s tough to impress them with a gable.
Yet, that damn book keeps returning, like some specter haunting our national consciousness. Students still find it required reading. And somehow it touches a lot of people. Hawthorne’s accomplishment in touching on universal themes and making them continuously relate-able rather stuns me.
Then, there was this thing where I went to college and took some literature surveys in order to fulfill the English requirements. More Hawthorne appeared before me, as did a number of other 19th century authors. Shades of Willa Cather and Wilkie Collins for me (don’t get me started).
The real struggle
at that age is trying to figure out where you fit into the scheme of things. People are always telling you what you are supposed to like in order to fit in, let alone succeed. As an artist, that becomes an internal debate about from whom you will learn and whom you will discard. Even worse, one collegiate English department is not like another. Stephen Crane might be acceptable in one place while he is a minor curiosity elsewhere. Reading genre fiction would only get you transferred to the pop culture studies department headed by the professor who burned enough incense to have his office moved to the basement.
So, I read some of Hawthorne’s short stories and really liked them. One professor appreciated them, but no one else seemed interested. Once again, that feeling of being on the outside looking in… But Hawthorne seemed gifted in ways that high school teachers barely had the time to hint at. He touched on themes of loss and betrayal and somehow made old pain feel like modern pain. His characters were so much more than Hester Prynne. For her part, she’s sat in the back of my mind, just as that early reading intended. She has certainly proven a good test for empathy over the years.
What’s it all about?
You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 109 more to go.
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