Hawthorne's Secret

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Much recent twentieth century Hawthorne criticism is concerned somewhat less with the sense of guilt that Nathaniel Hawthorne conveys and more with the sense that he himself possesses. As an attempt to look into the biographical well-springs of creativity, such analysis poses intriguing motivational questions; as literary criticism, however, it may be potentially misleading. Philip Young’s Hawthorne’s Secret: An Un-told Tale partakes of this difficulty.

While making available certain historical documents important in the study of the Mannings, Hawthorne’s maternal forebears, Young’s analysis nevertheless suffers from what may be called the fallacy of attribution. It is a matter of public record in Joseph B. Felt’s Annals of New England (1827) that Hawthorne’s ancestors were tried for incest, yet no commentator has suggested that Hawthorne’s buried familial guilt completely explains the “secret” of his writing. To be sure, other scholars, the biographer Vernon Loggins among them, note the Manning lapse, yet Young, who omits much scholarly paraphernalia and collects such references in his “Acknowledgments and Afterthoughts” chapter, claims that he “alone, however [is] responsible for the central notion about the nature of Hawthorne’s secret”—that Hawthorne committed incest with his sister Elizabeth. Indeed, Young’s discussion lacks both the weight and the breadth of, for example, Frederick Crews in The Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne’s Psychological Themes (1966), who also mentions the possibility of incest, both ancestral and biographical. Rather than posing an ultimate solution, however, Crews sees such a possibility as one facet of a complex personality which spun an intricate web of metaphor capable of being read with an eye to psychological motivation.

A number of points are at issue about the nature of Young’s contribution to Hawthorne scholarship. The uniqueness of his discovery of the Manning documents is one; his critical approach is another; the light that the documents shed on Hawthorne’s personal life and writing is a third. Finally, because how a work is written frequently affects its reception, Young’s style and organization are a consideration. At all points it is clear that Young does publicize certain published but little-known facts about Hawthorne’s background.

Hawthorne scholarship, as Young notes, has already recorded the details of the family history. Nicholas Manning, who sailed from Devonshire to Salem in 1688, married Elizabeth Gray and began the succession of Elizabeths that ended with Hawthorne’s sister Ebe. During a successful private, civic, and religious career, albeit interrupted by a series of lawsuits, Nicholas returned to England to bring his mother Anstice, three sisters, and two brothers home. While Young traces Manning’s later escapades—divorce from Elizabeth, marriage to Mary Mason, a judgeship under Edmund Andros, subsequent imprisonment, and sporadic enlistment in the military—it is the 1680-1681 aftermath of the family reunion that most interests him.

With regard to this period of time, Young notes that Hawthorne, who had read Felt’s Annals of New England, probably made use in The Scarlet Letter (1850) of the entry for 1681 which records the sentencing of two women for incest, part of their penalty being “to stand or sit, during the services of the next lecture day, on a high stool, in the middle alley of Salem meetinghouse, having a paper on their heads with their crime written in capital letters.” He proposes that Hawthorne probably followed up the entry and examined the depositions from which it came, located in the Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County. That Hawthorne saw the records is speculation, but that Young not only read the originals but also reprints of them is important. What he found is that the two women were Anstis [sic] and Margaret, two of Nicholas’ sisters; moreover, in examining the evidence brought before the court, Young found depositions from a Manning household servant as well as from Nicholas’ wife, Elizabeth, the first an eyewitness account of Nicholas’, Anstice’s, and Margaret’s questionable activities, the second a statement of Elizabeth’s fear of her husband and her belief that he was using their marriage to “cloak” his relationship with his sisters.

That Young’s scholarly contribution—making available the original depositions—should appear in the third chapter of a four-chapter book detracts from his effort to trace the effect of such ancestral incest on Hawthorne’s personal life and writings. Young has, it seems, sacrificed analysis to suspense. The hints that he drops throughout his discussion of Hawthorne’s early attempts to find a “fictional facsimile” of his historical guilt are less convincing than the facts themselves, and, unfortunately, the reader still cannot be sure that Hawthorne saw the depositions or how much he knew from his maternal relatives; thus, to suggest that the writer transforms incest into adultery in, for example, The Scarlet Letter, would require more explanation.

Considerably more speculative is Young’s discussion of the relationship between Hawthorne and his sister, Elizabeth, a relationship, Young suggests,...

(The entire section is 2178 words.)