Sacvan Bercovitch, The Office of The Scarlet Letter.
The "office" of Sacvan Bercovitch's latest book is much more than a critique of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. It is that, certainly, in the highest application of the New Historicism, but The Office of The Scarlet Letter is also a Neo-Marxist critique of American society and its capitalistic economy. While its New Historicism calls into question the idea of a predominantly aesthetic appreciation of literature, its Neo-Marxism extends that challenge to the efficacy of American ideals such as individualism and its contribution to social order. "I have been arguing," Bercovitch concludes in his "Postscript," "that text and context are reciprocal: That to understand The Scarlet Letter in its own terms is not only to see the ideological dimensions of its act but also to bring into view the enormous imaginative resources of mid-nineteenth century liberalism." By liberalism Bercovitch means (1) ideology, or the false consensus, that we are freer than we actually are, and (2) the way that ideology is "designed to create a specific set of anticipations."
The Scarlet Letter is about socialization, not desire or successful dissent, and the point of socialization, says Bercovitch, is not merely conformity but consent. In other words, "anyone can submit; the socialized believe." If one were not already conditioned to Bercovitch's thesis--from a 1981 essay called "The Rites of Assent: Rhetoric, Ritual, and the Ideology of Consensus" in Bercovitch's anthology Reconstructing American Literary History (1986), and elsewhere--one might think it was a case of capitalistic brainwashing, far more subtle and effective than that imposed on "ultrarightist" professors in China during the communist cultural revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, Bercovitch states that the co-opting power of American ideology in Hawthorne's day was "a radicalism as compelling in its way, and as comprehensive, as the competing socialist types of radical consciousness then emerging in Europe." He refers here to the (unsuccessful) European revolutions of 1848, and by implication argues that the same ideological situation exists today because, in American literature, for example, certain texts are canonized because they further the cause. The Scarlet Letter belongs in the canon of "classics" because its high artistry shows finally--in the words of Sophia Hawthorne--that the "Law cannot be broken."
Bercovitch's study operates on two levels that are finally the same. For the novel, the letter symbolizes the insistence that one (or two, in this case) may not with impunity engage in a social activity (i.e., adultery) that has "a consecration of its own." For American culture, The Scarlet Letter argues that the process of American entelechy is such that its pace and progress cannot be broken. The Scarlet Letter represents in both cases "the metaphysics of choosing"--not a specific course of action, "but a worldview within which that course of action makes sense and takes effect." In both cases, the letter represents the paradox of dissenting while actually conforming, or individualism postured as an activity directly involved with American society and its alleged teleology.
Bercovitch wants to "demystify" the novel, but he does not wish to ignore or reject its aesthetic value. He seeks instead to illuminate that aesthetic quality by revealing the novel's "profound ideological engagement." Hawthorne's meanings, he states at the outset, "may be endless, but they are not open-ended." Which is to say rather bluntly that the author is a cultural automaton of sorts, and his or her work is "cultural work" rather than literary work--labor of culture instead of an imagination preoccupied more by self than society. In the most recent biography of Hawthorne (a work that is as successful in its approach, loosely Freudian, as Bercovitch is in his approach), Edwin Haviland Miller quotes the poet Donald Hall to the effect that domesticity precedes ideology: "The feelings between parents and children, siblings, men and women as lovers or as spouses--these relationships penetrate the life of genius as much as they penetrate the lives of the rest of humanity." Without taking this as an absolute truth, it seems reasonable that the plight of the domestic self during its formative years as well as those periods of extreme angst in a life would make more of an impression on the imagination of an artist than the experiences of the social and political self. This is not to say that ideology is not a part of the literary act, only that it is probably secondary in influence.
I first heard Bercovitch's thesis on The Scarlet Letter, incidentally, in a two-hour lecture he gave in 1989 to a packed house at the University of Texas, Austin. During our brief conversation afterward, I suggested that The Scarlet Letter might be the allegorical result of the author's psychological engagement with a culture in which "natural liberty" (as defined by John Winthrop) abounds but is never supposed to be found (out). In other words, it is primarily a story about a woman who reflects the vagaries of Hawthorne's relationships with his mother, wife, and daughter. I won't go into the thesis here because it is now available in chapter two of my Lost in the Customhouse: Authorship in the American Renaissance (1993). The point is that Bercovitch was not interested in or persuaded of the domestic influence on the novel. He is convinced from his deep study of the American puritans (for whom the New World was the New Eden) that the American imagination is also teleological and primarily political, proleptic rather than analeptic. Yet how to explain all those awakenings in our literature, from "Rip Van Winkle" to The Awakening to Faulkner's epiphanies from a past that is never passed? Hawthorne awakes in the "customhouse" of the imagination to begin his greatest work in medias res. Rather than being proleptic, the American experience is to wake up in the middle of the story and wonder why the Promised Land is full of broken promises. Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" concludes that way; Arthur Dimmesdale wakes up after a similar night in the forest to think himself evil; and Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter may well have been at an emotional watershed in his life, writing not only his first novel (excepting a piece of juvenalia, Fanshawe) but composing it in the immediate wake of the death of his mother in 1849, seven years after he had "betrayed" her by becoming secretly engaged to marry. The number seven has a long history in literature, of course, and it is seven years and a parallel time frame (1642-1649) between Dimmesdale's betrayal of Hester and his ultimate betrayal of her by his election sermon and death.
This leads me to one final objection to Bercovitch's astutely argued thesis about American ideology and literature. He maintains that the letter performed its office by making in the end a believer out of Hester. She does, of course, return to America to take up the penance of the letter; but she does it because the experience had given her a new and exciting identity (as Hawthorne argues in Chapter Five). Analeptically speaking, Hawthorne says that "her sin, her ignominy" had given her a sense of "a new birth, with stronger assimilations than the first [birth]." The letter does its office upon Dimmesdale, but Hester--the internal evidence shows--would have gone through with their rebellion had Dimmesdale not faltered. The Scarlet Letter may indeed reflect Hawthorne's belief that the American historical process is providential in terms of social order over individual freedom (certainly the result of American ideology), but ideology cannot explain why Hester acquiesces only after there is absolutely no hope of a separate peace. "Shall we not meet again?" she asks her dying lover. "Surely, surely, we have ransomed one another, with all this woe!" Life, Hawthorne is saying, has its laws that must be obeyed but will also be broken. That is why he calls his novel "a tale of human frailty and sorrow." Bercovitch's integration of ideological and aesthetic criticism here results, I think, in a reading that seriously slights the author's focus upon the human condition.
Texas A&M University
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1993|
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