The Scarlet Letter Historical and Social Context
by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

1882 Woodcut Published by Gale Cengage

The Transcendentalist Movement

The Scarlet Letter, which takes as its principal subject colonial seventeenth-century New England, was written and published in the middle of the nineteenth century. Hawthorne began writing the novel in 1849, after his dismissal from the Custom-House, and it was published in 1850. The discrepancy between the time represented in the novel and the time of its production has often been a point of confusion to students. Because Hawthorne took an earlier time as his subject, the novel is considered a historical romance written in the midst of the American literary movement called transcendentalism (c. 1836-60).

The principle writers of transcendentalism included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and W. H. Channing. Transcendentalism was, broadly speaking, a reaction against the rationalism of the previous century and the religious orthodoxy of Calvinist New England. Transcendentalism stressed the romantic tenets of mysticism, idealism, and individualism. In religious terms it saw God not as a distant and harsh authority, but as an essential aspect of the individual and the natural world, which were themselves considered inseparable. Because of this profound unity of all matter, human and natural, knowledge of the world and its laws could be obtained through a kind of mystical rapture with the world. This type of experience was perhaps most famously explained in Emerson's Nature, where he wrote, "I become a transparent eyeball, I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God."

Even though Hawthorne was close to many transcendentalists, including Emerson, and even though he lived for a while at the transcendentalist experimental community of Brook Farm, he was rather peripheral to the movement. Hawthorne even pokes fun at Brook Farm and his transcendentalist contemporaries in "The Custom-House," referring to them as his "dreamy brethren indulging in fantastic speculation." Where they saw the possibilities of achieving knowledge through mystical experience, Hawthorne was far more skeptical.

Abolitionism and Revolution

More important to Hawthorne's literary productions, and particularly The Scarlet Letter, was abolitionism and European revolution. These, in Hawthorne's view, were episodes of threatening instability. Abolitionism was the nineteenth-century movement to end slavery in the United States. Though it varied in intensity, abolitionism contained a very radical strain that helped to form a climate for John Brown's capture of Harpers Ferry in 1859. (John Brown intended to establish a base for armed slave insurrection.) The rising intensity and violence of abolitionism was an important cause of the Civil War. Hawthorne's conservative position in relation to abolitionism did not necessarily mean that he was pro-slavery, but he did quite clearly oppose abolitionists, writing that slavery was "one of those evils which divine Providence does not leave to be remedied by human contrivances."

What Hawthorne feared were violent disruptions of the social order like those that were happening in Europe at the time he wrote The Scarlet Letter. The bloody social upheaval that most interested Americans began in France in 1848. This, and other revolutions of the period, pitted the lower and middle classes against established power and authority. While the revolutions eventually failed, they were largely waged under the banner of socialism, and it was this fact that caused concern in America; as one journalist wrote, as quoted by Bercovitch, here there were "foreboding shadows" of "Communism, Socialism, Pillage, Murder, Anarchy, and the Guillotine vs. Law and Order, Family and Property." Critics have recently pointed to Hawthorne's guillotine imagery in "The Custom-House" (where he even suggests the title "The Posthumous Papers of a Decapitated Surveyor" for his tale) and metaphors of his own victimization as some...

(The entire section is 1,313 words.)