Americans honor the pilgrims on Thanksgiving while disliking the larger group they were part of, the Puritans. This dislike is partially due to the impact of Nathaniel Hawthorne (who was born 200 years ago) on the national imagination. But what made Hawthorne one of the giants of American literature is precisely his own Puritanism.
Hawthorne, who was descended from one of the judges at the Salem witch trial, deserves some of the blame for the stereotype of Puritans as stern, legalistic hypocrites. In The Scarlet Letter, he portrayed a harsh community humiliating an adulteress by making her wear a sign proclaiming her sin. In his short story "Young Goodman Brown," every member of the Puritan community turns out to have his or her own pact with the devil. In "The Minister's Black Veil," even the venerable and seemingly upright Puritan minister has something to hide.
The shallow interpretations that dominate high-school and college classrooms reduce The Scarlet Letter to a tale about "the double standard," of the woman having to pay for sexual misconduct while the man gets away with it. "Young Goodman Brown" is reduced to a rite of passage, the disillusionment that accompanies growing up. "The Minister's Black Veil" is about the hypocrisy of religious people.
But such readings miss the point, like interpreting Moby Dick while somehow overlooking the whale. All of these tales are expositions and applications of the great Puritan doctrine, in which Hawthorne absolutely believed, of total depravity.
The Scarlet Letter is about guilt, not so much the external letter the woman wears on her dress but the internal brand that torments the secret heart of the seemingly righteous man who has sinned with her. "Young Goodman Brown" is a dramatization of the biblical truth that "none is righteous, no, not one" (Romans 3:10). "The Minister's Black Veil," about a pastor who suddenly refuses to let anyone see his face, is about the way we all hide our true selves out of shame.
At a time when much of 19th-century America was indulging in romanticism, utopia-mongering, and trust in progress, Hawthorne kept insisting that sin is real.
In his short story "The Celestial Railroad," he revisits Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, the beloved allegory that embodies Puritan spirituality. This time the modern pilgrim tries to make it to the Celestial City by taking the recently invented train. New management tries to build a bridge over the Slough of Despond and install gas lights to illuminate the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
Guided by Mr. Smooth-it-away, the new pilgrim is encouraged to go to church in Vanity Fair, where he listens to the sermons of Rev. Stumble-at-Truth and Rev. Shallow-Deep, and learns to make fun of the few pilgrims he sees out the train window living the Christian life in the old way. At the end of the line, though, the modern pilgrim learns that his suave, sophisticated conductor is in fact the Devil, and that the train is hurtling to a very different destination than he expected.
Hawthorne's most profound explorations of man's sinful nature can be found in his short stories. He pioneered the figure of the mad scientist, the modern rationalist and technological master whose worldview leads him to moral disaster. The scientist in "Rappaccini's Daughter" tries to protect his daughter but ends up making her, literally, poisonous. "Ethan Brand" tries to investigate the unpardonable sin, only to find it in himself. The scientist in "The Birthmark," like other progressives, refuses to be satisfied with anything short of absolute perfection, to the destruction of the one he loves.
Hawthorne understood original sin-that inner evil that lurks deep inside the human heart-in a profound way. What is missing, though, is the other pole of Puritan spirituality: the grace of God, who forgives sin through the atonement of Jesus Christ. Hawthorne understands the law, but he leaves out the gospel.
Hawthorne lived in a time when progressive theology had reduced Christianity from being all about salvation to being all about morality. His picture of moralistic Puritans has more reference to Victorian Christians than to his evangelical forebears. The true Puritans believed works played no role in salvation, and their reputation for morality is only evidence that faith in Christ alone really does bear fruit in good works.
Hawthorne sees the problem with this external moralism that fails to deal with sin in the heart, but the remedy remains unclear. It is true that at the climax of "Young Goodman Brown," the witch-meeting vanishes like a bad dream as soon as the character Faith "looks up to heaven." But, on the whole, Hawthorne remains half-Puritan.