Critical Overview

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Last Updated on February 10, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 437

From the publication of his first collection of stories, Twice Told Tales, Hawthorne’s books were reviewed often and enthusiastically. Although lavishly praised by critics, the collection itself sold poorly; an enlarged edition issued in 1842 fared no better. This pattern of critical appreciation and public neglect continued throughout Hawthorne’s literary career, and he was forced to occupy a series of minor governmental posts in order to supplement his income. Hawthorne’s work, which consists of over fifty stories and sketches as well as such classic novels as The Scarlet Letter, has continuously drawn critical and popular attention since his death. His work draws readers not only for its strong storytelling qualities but also for the moral and theological questions raised within.

“Young Goodman Brown” ranks foremost among Hawthorne’s short stories in both popular appeal and critical respect. It remains a favorite because it holds something of interest for almost everyone, be it plot line, the title character’s moral dilemma, or the tale’s ambiguity. Yet this universal appeal comes not at any sacrifice of artistic or structural integrity.

Some notable American authors of the nineteenth century, however, dismissed “Young Goodman Brown” for its strong allegorical structure. Edgar Allan Poe thought Hawthorne’s use of allegory distracted from the natural elements of his work, while Henry James believed it constituted Hawthorne's propensity for taking the easy way out. Of Hawthorne’s contemporaries, only Herman Melville saw merit in “Young Goodman Brown.” “Who in the name of thunder,” Melville wrote in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tales, “would anticipate any marvel in a piece entitled ‘Young Goodman Brown’? You would of course suppose that it was a simple little tale, intended as a supplement to ‘Goody Two-Shoes.’ Whereas it is deep as Dante.”

Over the years, critics came to agree with Melville rather than Poe and James. In 1945, Richard H. Fogle offered these words of tribute in New England Quarterly: “In ‘Young Goodman Brown,’ then, Hawthorne has achieved that reconciliation of opposites which [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge deemed the highest art. The combination of clarity of technique, embodied in simplicity and balance of structure, in firm pictorial composition, in contrast and climactic arrangement, in irony and detachment, with ambiguity of meaning as signalized by the device of multiple choice, in its interrelationships produces the story’s characteristic effect.” Nearly twenty years later, critic David Levin was still finding genius in Hawthorne’s outwardly simple tale. “By recognizing that Hawthorne built ‘Young Goodman Brown’ firmly on his historical knowledge,” Levin wrote in American Literature, “we perceive that the tale has a social as well as an allegorical and psychological dimension.”

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