Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Not-So-Random Questions

With "Roger Malvin's Burial," "My Kinsman, Major Molineux," "Legends of the Province House," and "Old News" to his credit, I'd say the critical commonplace that Hawthorne didn't know what to do with 18th-century New England history is wrong. So how did it become a commonplace in the first place, and why?

Where do we draw the line between identifying Hawthorne's intentions and positing our own readings of his novels and tales as his intentions? How do we tell the difference? Should we be focusing more on identifying the actual political and cultural work of his fiction in his times or their potential political and cultural work in our times?

Why did close attention to Hawthorne and race follow prior debates on Hawthorne's engagements with gender and class issues in his times? Why haven't we seen more attempts to link race, gender, and class in his fiction? Why is it still rare to see race considered in multiple dimensions--his images of and attitudes toward African Americans, American Indians, Mexicans, and immigrants considered together; his responses to racial sciences (ethnology, phrenology, physiognomy, etc.) and manifest destiny considered in light of his general skepticism toward the intellectual sensations of his times; his responses to abolition and anti-war/pro-war sentiments in the 1830s/1840s/1860s considered together; his immersion in party politics and American-English relations tied to issues of American expansionism, imperialism, and transatlantic and transpacific trade--in Hawthorne criticism? And why has there still been much more attention devoted to his longer works of the 1850s and 1860s (finished and unfinished) with respect to race than focused on his earlier works, particularly of the 1830s and 1840s? Is there someone out there doing this kind of synthetic work who's willing to share it with me, or do I have to do it myself in my book?


Joseph Kugelmass said...

Is it possible that part of the reason has to do with a certain way of approaching (and loving to the point of narrow-mindedness) the representations of "Puritanism" in Hawthorne? I could imagine writing some kind of great meta-critique of that, as a preliminary to this kind of broader and more integrated approach, using Foucault on "overcoming" sexual repression at all costs, and at the expense of everything else.

The Constructivist said...

Well, I think that attack helps explain why many people, following Perry Miller, have enlisted Hawthorne in the Puritans' quasi-defense, or have differentiated his engagements with the history of Puritanism from, say, Mencken-style attacks (which, of course, were as much attacks on 20th C stereotypes on 19th C Victorian/Genteel culture as they were on 17th C Puritans). So, yes, that larger "repressive hypothesis" frame may well help account for the ferocity of the arguments back and forth over Hawthorne's relations to Puritanism (and Romanticism and Transcendentalism in his own times), but does it explain the relative disinterest in any of his 18th C works except "My Kinsman," and, to a lesser extent, "Roger Malvin's Burial"? I actually think his 18th C historical writings have much to do with the question of transatlantic studies you and others over at The Valve were recently discussing. I'll definitely have to write more about this to flesh this out better....