To Harmonize Heaven With Earth: The Difficulty of Teaching Hawthorne in Our Time

Introduction: Distinguishing Hawthorne’s moral philosophy from his political criticism

Today, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter has become a staple of the high school curriculum. Hawthorne’s most retold and remembered fables are The Birthmark, The Artist of The Beautiful, and Rappucini’s Daughter. Through his stories, Hawthorne shows his great range as a writer. On one hand, his readers see him revivifying history and the past, and on the other, his stories can pass for science fiction looking into the future. However, It is little wonder that Hawthorne acquired such range as an author. Alexis De Tocqueville prophesied that democratic readership would implore the artist as writer flex a full range. Tocqueville writes,

(democratic people) like books that are procured without trouble, that are quickly read, that do not require learned research to be understood…they need lively and rapid emotions, sudden clarity, brilliant truths or errors that instantly pull them from themselves and introduce them suddenly, almost violently, into the midst of the subject”(Democracy in America, page 448).

My argument is that the tales less widely read are those which do not proffer sudden clarity and brilliant truths but nonetheless provide insight into the moral philosophy of Nathaniel Hawthorne. In order to answer the questions posed by Hawthorne regarding the polity in his most widely read works, one must consider the framework of individual morality sketched in Hawthorne’s stories in which the individual has departed from political society. Such stories illuminate the tension apparent within the American soul which regards salvation and civic duty as incommensurable; the demands of both pose the question regarding what a man should do in an age of democracy where the preservation of religious liberty is contradicted by religious intolerance or religious laxity. My aim in the following essays is to forsake Hawthorne’s tales which are more explicitly critical of Puritan society and scientific materialism, and resituate those tales most critical of the polity within the framework of his more intimate tales regarding the decisions to be made by the individual regarding the human heart. I seek further to prove that Hawthorne and Tocqueville, who write differently about America’s Puritan ancestry, understand the point of departure similarly. In writing about the Puritans they similarly critique democratic society urging that it adopt certain mores necessary for the preservation of freedom. Tocqueville and Hawthorne are complementary in that they are in agreement upon what is necessary to sustain liberty. Where Tocqueville provides advice regarding how society should embrace the individual, Hawthorne provides the mode in which the individual should properly embrace society; they come about their complementarity by considering that which is most harmful to democratic society, and what the collective and what the individual should do about it.

In considering Hawthorne’s two genres, readers may draw two criticisms that at first appear mutually exclusive. Hawthorne critiques his contemporaries as men who wish to impiously overcome their inherent frailty through science, and he concomitantly criticizes his ancestors as fanatics who harness political coercion to serve their faith. Hawthorne derails scientific materialism and transcendentalism while also dismissing his ancestors as worthy of emulation. It thus appears that he leaves his audience no stable foundation for flourishing and salvation, and nothing worthy of the commitment of man’s life. Hawthorne, however, sees in the transcendentalist, the materialist, and the Puritan, one similarity: they disregard man’s original sin and attempt to overcome it subverting God’s providence. Hawthorne attempts to moderate the influence of his contemporaries on the regime by drawing parallels between their shortcomings and that of his ancestors. He thereby details America’s own original sin as the ignorance of man’s nature as inherently flawed and limited. But in considering Hawthorne’s political philosophy through the context of his moral philosophy it becomes apparent that he urges that progress is possible only through the slow improvement of the conscience through charity and a bolstering of the human heart through community and the family. Hawthorne understands that such mores supplant the democratic desire for rapid and unchecked change with a dedication to fundamental principles that rear men of humility.

Section 1: Habits and Hearts

In 1835, Alexis De Tocqueville remarked, “Hitherto no one in the United States has dared to advance the maxim that everything is permissible for the interests of society, an impious adage which seems to have been invented in an age of freedom to shelter all future tyrants”; however, as Hawthorne’s career as an artist progressed, he would bare witness to the very thing that Tocqueville feared as a “shelter” for all future tyrants. Hawthorne saw the spirits of transcendentalism and scientific materialism as the direct enemy of (1) reliance on God’s will, (2) a proper understanding human nature and of liberty, and likewise (3) a respect for the human heart.

Near the middle of his career Hawthorne writes Rappaccini’s Daughter and its corrective The Artist of the Beautiful in direct response to this new tendency of the American mind to rely on scientism for progress. He later pens The Scarlet Letter detailing the project of an apparently pious people attempting to harness political coercion for the salvation of souls and the purification and subsequent transcendence of the township. All parties usurp the power ascribed to God in different ways, and all meddle with God’s creation attempting to harmonize the earthly with the heavenly.

It is often understood that Hawthorne writes The Scarlet Letter simply in rebuke of his ancestors, but that is not the whole of it. A careful reading of Hawthorne’s sketches and short stories reveals a much more complex critique present in the novel that has proved itself immortal. A more robust study of Hawthorne’s philosophy lays naked his purpose in writing The Scarlet Letter as a critique of his contemporaries and reveals his true purpose in realigning protestantism between the two extremes of the moral laxity of the present and the moral obstinance of the Puritans.

The themes that drive Hawthorne’s most widely read work can be seen in the Boston of Hawthorne’s own time. In viewing Roger Chillingworth, one sees the reckless abandon of moral limitations due to a mastery of the scientific, and one sees a striking parallel between the transcendentalist and the Puritan society who both wish to perfect man’s moral character in order to bring about heaven on earth. All parties, through their infirmity in judgment, cannot but violate the sanctity of the human heart in demanding such perfection, performing what Hawthorne takes to be the greatest sin of all.

The assumption of the proper bounds of freedom has long been the test of American politics. The question of how men may be taught to respect the rightful bounds of their freedom without the application of force by government is therefore of the utmost importance in a polity dedicated to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter he uses Puritan society to paint a backdrop that considers two forms of tyranny in Chillingworth and Puritan society, one of which Americans of his day still have to fear while the other appears to have been overcome. As a city in a free nation, the Boston of Hawthorne’s time does not institute what Aristotle would consider distributive law favoring any one religious sect. In 1780 the Congregational Church was disestablished and in 1833 state funding was suspended. Hawthorne chooses to write about a Puritan society that utilizes distributive justice and through such power neglects the punishment of the one man who uses his intellectual might to transform himself into a devil, committing the most grave of crimes by meddling with the sanctity of the human heart. Then, Hawthorne utilizes Roger Chillingworth to prove the twofold point that through harnessing the power of the mind man may transform himself into a devil and that the expansion of man’s own freedom through mastery of the scientific perhaps leads to the enslavement of the spirit. What is noteworthy is that Hawthorne critiques both ends of the spectrum: the scientific and the religious when vested with a power that is not in accord with the laws of nature restrain man’s ability to serve both the self and the collective. That said, transcendence properly understood is that which invests man with the power to know himself in terms of his nature: knowing his natural limits are therefore just as important as his ambition to overcome those limits.

Many who teach Hawthorne’s novel today fall into the pit of historicism, concluded that The Scarlet Letter is a firm critique of an overbearing religious society and Hester, in breaking down barriers is to be praised as the hero. They thus conclude that Hawthorne was dedicated to tearing down the maxims of the Puritans. However, this would be to dismiss both Hawthorne’s words regarding Hester as hero, as well as Hester’s regard for herself as hero. Hawthorne bookends his novel between a conclusion and an introduction that are of utmost importance when considering the “parable” that this story establishes. In his Custom House introduction he apologizes for any stern remarks he may place at the graves of his ancestors, and in his conclusion he renders Dimmesdale himself the parable. Dimmesdale is regarded as a parable to “express to the world how utterly nugatory is the choicest of man’s own righteousness” and that “in the view of infinite purity, we are all sinners alike”. What is most curious is that Hester, not Dimmesdale was intended to become the parable at the outset of the novel. Hester was meant to become “a walking sermon on sin”, and Dimmesdale supplants Hester to that end. But in order for Dimmesdale to become the parable that Salem needs he must defeat Chillingworth, not Puritan society itself. Puritan society can be redeemed through Dimmesdale, if only Dimmesdale acts properly. Hester exhausts her efforts attempting to upheave society itself, but Dimmesdale in finally committing himself to his own spiritual survival is able to usurp Hester’s place as protagonist. He thus renders the antagonist not society itself, but Roger Chillingworth.

Both Hawthorne and Tocqueville are particularly concerned with the heart. Hawthorne regards the sanctity or violation of the individual heart as definitive when considering one’s ability to preserve freedom, whereas Tocqueville considers the collective heart of the community as paramount to the preservation of liberty. In Democracy In America, Tocqueville defines mores as “habits of the heart”. He considers “this word (as) the whole moral and intellectual state of a people” (Democracy in America, Page 275). To Tocqueville, not only were mores habits of the heart, but also applied “to the different notions that men possess, to the various opinions that are current in their midst, and to the sum of ideas of which the habits of the mind are formed” (Democracy in America, Page 275). These habits of the heart, Tocqueville considered “one of the great general causes to which the maintenance of a democratic republic in the United States can be attributed”. Tocqueville and Hawthorne both considered the heart the agent that would check the democratic mind from overturning all that was customary and overrunning all that stood as apparent barriers for the progress of equality. Both understood that the heart would need cultivation if democratic man were to submit himself to those things worthy of self-sacrifice. In The Scarlet Letter, true repentance for both Dimmesdale and Hester can only come about through sacrificing their pride. Dimmesdale must cease pretending he is doing all in his power to cleanse himself by repenting alone and holding onto his lie, and understand that only submitting himself wholly to the judgment of the city will he surrender his guilt. With Dimmesdale’s death, Hester must come to the realization that although she may resist and lash out against the society which alienates her for her sin, God’s justice is irresistible, ultimate, and forgiving.

Teachers who teach The Scarlet Letter as a tale only in rebuke of Puritan society miss the point. Although the injustices of Puritan society are definitive, the acceptance of that society is ultimate if we are to consider Hester’s end a happy one. In order for Hester to become heroine, she must accept the society that has rejected her, and work from within in order to become the prophetess who will moderate that society and overturn the unjust law that is the perceived antagonist of the story. Roger Chillingworth is a mere shadow of the law itself which agitates Hester Prynne. He violates the Reverend Dimmesdale’s heart just as civil society violates Hester’s. He acts as the parallel punishment for Dimmesdale, and Dimmesdale must accept and forgive him in order to pave the way for Hester’s ultimate acceptance and forgiveness of society.

What is most important though is that both heroes of the parable of sin and redemption accept the very thing that proliferates their suffering in order to ultimately purify their antagonists. Where Tocqueville understands that democracy in America is most stable because of the several associations that temper her citizens, he understands that what is to be most feared is the breaking of the ties that unite individuals in various groups that satisfy, guide, and moderate the American appetite to serve one’s self interest. Hawthorne refers to this connection of citizens with a similar interest when he writes of “the electric cord” that unites Pearl, Hester, and Dimmesdale. Both Hawthorne and Tocqueville understood that materialism and the scientific captivated the American mind and had the capacity to undermine these associations by making men believe that through science and knowledge they could transcend in order to become self-sufficient without relying upon others within society. However, Chillingworth’s once virtue, knowledge, is at least part of the reason he is able to undergo the transformation of man to devil. His knowledge, marred by his broken heart, allows him to do that which Dimmesdale could not. Because of the self-assurance his own intelligence provides he is convinced that he is capable of escaping all associative bonds and live with a false face to the multitude. Through his escape, his action goes unchecked by his fellow man. Because of his pain, his actions go unchecked by his conscience. At least part of the reason that civil associations are important for liberty is that they are a useful tool for checking passion.

Perhaps Hawthorne’s greatest lesson is that which is set in motion by Pearl. He unites Hester and Dimmesdale by the link that is Pearl who thus urges the Reverend to “be true”. What she means by this, is to tell Dimmesdale to live up to the compact that he signed by committing adultery with Hester Prynne. In order to do this he must be honest with himself and with society that he has partaken in a relationship that cuts against the principles of the very society of which he is considered preeminent. Hawthorne does not wish to dismiss the dedication of the Puritans to serving some good, but rather he wishes to relegate the work done by society to the realm of the several associations that comprise society itself. In free society praise and blame can only progress a people when it utilizes love and holds the heart and conscience to be sacred. Pearl is therefore able to urge Dimmesdale where the rest of the city cannot. Society, however homogenous, is a collective of several human passions and interested associations and thus cannot be counted on to urge praise and blame while respecting individual liberty. The problem with the transcendentalist authors of Hawthorne’s time mirrors the problem of Chillingworth, and embodies all of the vices of Aristocratic literature and materialist thought to which Tocqueville refers: it has the tendency to ignore the bounds of individual liberty and use its power as an excuse to assert its control where it ought not.

Transcendentalism became peculiar to America as romanticism grew stale, and its poetic expression has colored much of the way American literature is approached to this day. The expression of the idea of transcendence in this world is a peculiar expression and appeals to the American sense of self-reliance and individualism. Tocqueville understood that democratic people, and Americans particularly, conceived of man’s ability to better himself in a way much unprecedented. He writes

Although man resembles the animals in several points, one feature is peculiar to him alone: he perfects himself and they do not perfect themselves. The human species could not fail to discover this difference from the outset. The idea of perfectibility is therefore as old as the world; equality did not give birth to it, but it gives it a new character.

Puritan society, in envisioning itself a shining city upon a hill, embodies the sentiment of the indefinite perfectibility of man. The great critique drawn from Hawthorne’s famous novel is the critique of Puritan society and the severity of the punishment conferred on poor Hester. However, what many American’s miss is that the punishment of Hester Prynne as sinner is expressive of the American character itself. The peculiarity of Hester’s punishment is that it is done publicly in hope that she will become a “living sermon on sin”. Although Americans today do not prescribe distributive laws, much legislation is geared toward progressing the limitations on practical liberty that prove a bane to the people as they hope to pursue objects of their own happiness. The Puritan society of The Scarlet Letter is no different from the America of today when considering the end toward which it strives. The mastery of Hawthorne’s great work is not only that it encapsulates a period of American history that is defining of America and distant from the artist himself, but that he is able to use history to teach a perennial lesson to Americans. Unfortunately, much of that lesson perishes when the Puritan society of the novel is so far divorced from our own contemporary reality that it becomes a strawman that serves to bolster our appreciation for progress rather than a reminder that some things ought not be strived for by collective society no matter the power of the collective will. The greatest lesson that Hawthorne may teach us is an echo of Tocqueville. Tocqueville is sure to include that the severe punishments doled out by the Puritan settlers were democratically decided, and Hawthorne is sure to have the women of Puritan society urging a harsher punishment for Hester Prynne. What Hawthorne’s great novel calls into question is the tendency of democratic progress to defy the bounds of morality. This lesson that Hawthorne teaches calls into direct question the project of the naturalist to revivify the prospect of man’s transcendence. Where Tocqueville and Hawthorne both understand that habits of the heart have a way of conditioning the mind, the Transcendentalist wishes to unleash the mind for this project of bringing about heaven on earth. What is most striking about Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter is its relevance as a teaching for the readers of his own time and the transcendentalist movement of which his often incorrectly considered a part.

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Thoughts on Charlottesville

The David was also a very controversial monument in its day. The greatest explanation is that it is a rebuke of the Medici family and an assertion of the strength of the people in the face of tyranny. Where David represented the everyman, the underdog, and the slayer of the giant, the rich and empowered Medici could be tied to Goliath who was overpowered by the man with hidden strength and intelligence. A statue of Hercules was later erected to sit beside David outside the Medici palace as a message that brute strength rightfully rules

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This all started because someone decided to cave and attempt to erase history. History is not for us to love or hate, but to learn from in order that we not repeat the mistakes of the past. So that we be better, wiser, and more prosperous than our fathers before us. Attempting to erase the past will only erase truth as well as our capacity to grapple with it and become wiser in order that we not repeat it.

America is founded upon certain principles. These principles are what Lincoln called the “sheet anchor of American Republicanism”. These principles, although we neglect to recognize it, are our “philosophical cause”, as Lincoln put it. In other words, they brought all other thoughts of America into being. In regimes past, you see, citizens were not free to dispute certain individual principles publicly or politically: it was illegal and punishable by death to go against the word of the representative body or the crown. America’s proclamation that individuals had certain inalienable rights, such as that of speech and demonstration, put an end to this understanding of rule. The Declaration of Independence thereby reversed the role of government and governed and made the ruling body subject to the words and orders of the people rather than vice versa. Because this “philosophical cause” gave weight and expression to all other ideas about American democracy and representative justice, Lincoln understood this philosophical cause as “entwining itself more closely about the HUMAN heart”. In other words, Liberty was something that we could all agree on. I argue that this should therefore be our spring board for civil discourse: it should be understood that this is what we all have in common.

What gave way to the Charlottesville “riots” is a demon that has been brooding in the heart of America and in Americans. It is a spirit much too maniacal to be considered “partisan”, as many have called it. I understand this demon as a depreciation of our capacity to grasp this common understanding of a “philosophical cause” which results in a neglect of an understanding of the common dignity of man. What follows from this understanding of the dignity of man is a certain sense of civility requisite for civil discourse and real self-government.We have lost this understanding, as we have lost what brings it into being. In order to understand our own dignity and the dignity of our fellow man, we have to understand, As Madison once told us, that all men are not angels, else there would be no need of civil government in the first place.

Our forgetting that men cannot become angels has brought us to Charlottesville, or at least the events that led to Charlottesville: the tearing down of General Lee’s statue. Why do we want to tear down monuments? Simply because we believe that we are better than those of the past merely by our existing in a time set apart from that of theirs. Because they can no longer defend themselves we tear them down in order to exalt ourselves. We do not do the due diligence of learning from them, and in turn learning of ourselves and educating our children in matters of right or wrong in order that they may rise to the level of wisdom and equality for good self-government, but rather we hide them from the truth because often the truth elicits some ugliness. We want to destroy all that is flawed in the world so our children do not witness it and we no longer have to bear it. We do this all the while neglecting to understand that we ourselves are flawed and the logical consequence of our destruction of the past and its monuments is a decimation of ourselves.

As for the technicalities of the Charlottesville tragedy, those who were protesting the tearing down of Lee’s statue had gotten a legal permit to exercise their first amendment rights from the local government. They had followed the proper regulations in order to exercise legal rights. We may dislike them, but their rally was lawful. Contrary to their position, the word went out for a counter-protest to occur which included groups from a different side of the political spectrum. What should have happened is that these two groups should have been kept miles apart. I do not understand why any local law enforcement agency would allow these two groups close proximity.

I do not wish to criticize either group, wrong as I think they each are. We have gotten into the habit of criticizing groups of people in this country, and that is very wrong. If we are to understand Liberty in order that we foster it we must begin to judge individuals with the dignity due to individuals. We must begin to understand that demonizing our opponents as if they are packs of wolves has gotten us nowhere, that both parties have suffered greatly from the onslaught lain at their doors by their opposition, and that justice and self-government, liberty and the safeguarding of individuals rights, is not a zero sum game. If one group loses, then we all lose. If you cut your neighbor down, then your conscience and sense of dignity suffers.

So how are we to understand one another? I am always apprehensive to write about contemporary politics. It is too ugly and complex, and therefore I refrain from passing judgment all too quickly. As Lincoln once said, “Better to stay silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt”. I prefer beautiful things that lift people up to sad news that diminishes my respect for “this last best hope” for freedom.

So I turned to Moby Dick, as I always find myself doing.

“Men may seem detestable as joint stock companies and nations; knaves, fools, and murderers there may be; men may have mean and meagre faces; but man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such and grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes. That immaculate manliness we feel within ourselves, so far within us, that it remains intact though all the outer character seem gone; bleeds with keenest anguish at the undraped spectacle of a valor-ruined man. Nor can piety itself, at such a shameful sight, completely stifle her upbraidings against the permitting stars. But this august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy! His omnipresence our divine equality!” 

A few paragraphs ago I pointed to history as a tool for teaching our children so that they may “rise to the level of equality requisite for self-government”. Although a peculiar phrase, I used it intentionally. I used it with my students just as my mentor Peter Schramm used it with myself and my fellow Ashbrooks. Melville and Peter could agree on this, I like to think: we are all born with a certain sense of dignity, being human and naturally free. We have great capacity and all the gifts that “radiate without end from God”; however, it is so very easy to slip up, to lose our privilege of practicing those rights which our forefathers have secured for us. I use the phrase “rising to the level of equality” because it is so easy to lose the privileges that come with the dignity that we are born with. Rising to equality means becoming strong and wise enough to make prudent choices that bolster our ability to practice freedom rather than making the choices that detract from the proper use of our freedom. Abuses of power and imprudent governance makes freedom falter just as we make the choice to limit our freedom when we commit injustices such as murder or theft. Although we like to believe that our natural dignity entitles us to certain privileges and freedoms, history teaches us otherwise. Millions of people before us have made mistakes in governing themselves and have lost the prosperity that their forebearers had worked so diligently to pass down. Although we like to believe freedom is promised, human history speaks to us of a perpetual endeavor not only to reach freedom, but to keep it. Benjamin Franklin famously declared that the founders had given us “A Republic, if you can keep it”. What Franklin, a student of history and a world traveller, understood was that it was much more difficult to keep the rights that our founding secured for us than it was to sign a document declaring that those rights were just.

But notice what Melville proscribes for the keeping of dignity. He claims that it is proprietous for good men to throw their “costliest robes” over the valor ruined. Although it is our impulse to rebuke the unjust, to point fingers and prove to the world that we are right when others are in the wrong, where has this gotten us? I hope and pray that we understand that it takes a community of robe throwers for men to rise to the level of equality and wisdom necessary to promote justice and the good. I pray that one day we will be wise enough to understand the blessings of union and the future felicity that compromise and selflessness have in store for those who can endure the pain of refraining from telling the entire world that they are right and the other side is wrong. I can promise you, that the world will not listen however loud you may proclaim.

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This statue of Lincoln was found vandalized on August 16th, in the wake of the Charlottesville tragedy. Let us not fight fire with fire. 

“You Can’t Die if You Don’t Give Up”

So now it was all over, he thought. So now he would never have a chance to finish it. So this way the way it ended, in a bickering over a drink. Since the gangrene started in his right leg he had no pain and with the pain the horror had gone and all he felt now was a great tiredness and anger that this was the end of it. For this, that now was coming, he had very little curiosity. For years it had obsessed him; but now it meant nothing in itself. It was strange how easy being tired enough made it. 


He was nineteen days shy of his sixty second birthday: prematurely old, multidiseased, mentally bewildered, delusional, slurred of speech, in exile from Cuba, from the Stream, unable to compose so much as one true sentence a day, or so he’d wept on a sofa in his living room. Is it any wonder the most imitated writer of the twentieth century rose sometime after seven o’clock that morning, moved past the master bedroom where his wife was sleeping, padded down the carpeted stairs, crossed the length of the living room to the kitchen, retrieved the key to the locked storeroom where the weapons were, went down to the basement, took shells from his ammo box, closed and relocked the door, came back upstairs, walked ten steps to the front-entry foyer, opened the foyer door, stepped inside, placed the butt of the gun on the linoleum tile, tore open the breech, slammed in the cartridges, snapped it shut, bent over, rested his forehead against the blue steel, and blew away his entire cranial vault with the double-barreled, 12-gauge Boss shotgun with which he once shot pigeons?

There are plenty of things for which you can criticize Ernest Hemingway. You can call him a coward for taking his own life, and you can point to Zelda Fitzgerald’s account of his making a pass at her in an alleyway one drunken night. Many have pointed out that his code-hero is simply an affirmation and vindication of his own machismo character, and many have argued that there is nothing creative about his work: that it is merely a retelling of events that indeed happened in Paris and in Pamplona. However, all this would be to miss the most important point of Hemingway’s contribution to American literature, and this would be to dismiss the aim of good writing.

Hemingway’s most widely read work, and perhaps his most tired, is The Old Man and the Sea. Of that work, Papa once said “There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is the old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The sharks are sharks, no better, no worse.” Despite the criticism of his simplicity, Ernest Hemingway’s stories still endure because they touch what is all too human: failure in endeavor, and failure in self-redemption. Hemingway was able to produce work that was honest to his own life and his own vice, and this resonates with readers who are too weak to be honest with themselves about their own failures and their inability to white-wash those failures. Hemingway’s stories are the simplest of stories because they are the truest of stories, and they touch what is truest about ourselves; this is what most readers of Hemingway are too weak to confront, that his stories mimic the human fallen-ness that is too evident to all of us.

No story shows Hemingway’s confrontation and confession more so than The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Snows is the story of a man named Harry on safari in Africa with his rich wife. Harry is a writer who believes that he has become impotent as he has lived off of his wife’s wealth. Because he has become weakened by the life of luxury provided by his wife, when he becomes afflicted with gangrene in a cut on his leg he begins to distance himself from his beloved even blaming her for his demise as a writer and his belief that he “would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well”.

The story is a reflection on the life of a writer and his suffering; of his inability to express those truths that “Maybe you could never write… and that was why you put them off and delayed the starting”. What is striking is that Harry has given up: he believes that he is going to die and there is no fighting it. Meanwhile, his wife holds out hope for his survival, telling him “You can’t die if you don’t give up”. Harry responds “Where did you read that? You’re such a bloody fool”. He treats of his death as an imminently practical matter, whereas his wife looks to the metaphysical. While she asks “What have we done to have that happen to us?”, Harry responds “I suppose what I did was to forget to put iodine on it when I first scratched it”.

There are threads that run through this story and provide its depth. On one hand you confront the difficulties of marriage. Hemingway provides a power struggle between his code-hero husband and wife. There is the bickering about Harry’s purported “giving up” and the way in which his readiness for death will affect his wife. On a much deeper level, we see Harry bickering with himself through flashbacks, internally confronting his own insecurity and fears of death while providing false strength in regard to his impending death.

But what we receive through the depths of this text is some knowledge that what is most important is out of both Harry and his wife’s control. Although Harry believes that he is already dead, he has hope that is above and beyond him despite his recognition of that hope toward which he may grasp. Harry reflects, “He had had his life and it was over and then he went on living it again with different people and more money, with the best of the same places, and some new ones”. You see, just as Hemingway believed that his life has ended as he no longer had the ability to write the things that he once wrote, Harry believes that his life has ended because he has given up the opportunity to write by marrying his wife. What he doesn’t realize is that what he subconsciously confronts in his reflections throughout the story: that his life contains the properties of a life well lived, if he could just make good of these properties. Most readers rebuke Harry for beating up his wife, which is understandable, but my reading is that Harry’s verbal abuse of his wife stems from his inability to see good in himself. He verbally attacks her in order to confirm his control over his own life, despite his understanding all the while that he has lost control. What must be understood by Harry and Hemingway alike is that salvation is not to be found in fame and writing; that one cannot redeem himself through the product of efforts on this Earth, and that honor is something above and beyond the individual endeavor or accomplishment. Hemingway struggled with this his entire life, and Harry never approached it.

The story has a double edged ending. Harry lies in his cot after dinner with his wife as he drifts to sleep. He has a dream that he has been rescued. Harry ascends and sees the square top of Kilimanjaro, and “he knew that there was where he was going”. This recalls the opening description of Kilimanjaro as “the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai, the House of God. Close to the western summit is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude”. However, Harry’s dream is interrupted as his wife wakes to the laughing of a Hyena and witnesses her husband dead in the night. Undoubtedly, Harry’s reflection points that he is assured that he is that leopard climbing toward the House of God. Nevertheless, the reality is not so. Helen wakes and is still haunted by her husband’s death and the cackling of the hyena that accompanies that death. The great question that the reader is left with is the same one that we all confront: does the man who acts viciously in times of despair reach the House of God, and is his vice pardoned in death?

Harry’s true failure is being like that leopard of whom no one knows what he is seeking. He reflects, “You kept from thinking and it was marvellous. You were equipped with good insides so that you did not go to pieces that way, the way most of them had, and you made an attitude that you cared nothing for the work you used to do, now that you could no longer do it”. Because Harry hides all that is internal for fear of being perceived weak, he neglects the opportunity to lead a life of honest. If Ernest Hemingway’s birthday warrants one lesson, it must be that we ought not worship false idols and sirens singing the psalms of temporal fulfillment. This is a lesson that we as Americans are in such deep need of, and it is fitting and proper that Papa provides this insight for all of us in which we often take for granted that which is most important.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1: I Guess I Named Myself

Cornelius Sheridan Dare Postell. Wouldn’t that have been a hell of a thing to go by? The day that I was born my Uncle said “He will always be Bob to me”.

The tale that was told me was my uncle Frank Smith come in the morning I was born and heard that name. He always did his business on a Sunday. He asked, “What’d ya name him?”

“Hoho!” He laughed “He’ll always be Bob to me!”

That name stuck. So when I went into the Navy that was the name I put in: “Bob Postell”.

But the recruiter said that was just a nickname. I said “No… It’s not a nickname. I was named Bob”.

He said “That’s not a full name- you’re going to have to go by Robert”.

I complied because at the time that was all there was to do. There was no fighting it. So I’ve always signed my checks “Robert S. Postell”. It is the deal between what I was given and what I took; what the Navy give me and what I refused to give them.

I always said that I’ve named myself.

In school I went by Deacon. I always went to Sunday school because Pop always made us go. I had a friend who was named Bob Bryner and he was a Jehovah’s Witness. His folks had me over for dinner one night and his mother asked me when I would go with him to “class”. You see, they always called church “class”.

I replied “I’ll come with him to class when he decides to come to the Baptist church with me!”

Oh boy, did that go over bad!

So that’s when I hung the nickname “Baptist” on him. From that point on I was known as the “Deacon” among us boys. Old Dale Ward was “Cedrick”, Rolly was “Rolo”. And then there was old Carol Reams who we called “Dutch”; he was a really good friend of mine.

We started nicknaming one another early on. It was a way of knowing who we were, and that is what that Navy recruiter couldn’t understand. He couldn’t understand how deeply American it was because, rather than his own self-reliance, his obedience to the Naval order defined his American-ness. There is nothin’ more American than naming yourself. There is nothin’ more American than defining who you are and what you will be.

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This is the story of my grandfather, my hero. He is an Ohioan who served in the Navy in World War II. He is extremely conscious of becoming too elaborate in his story-telling and when he heard that I had recorded him the first thing he said was “It wasn’t any braggin’ in there was it?”. He always defines these stories as “most of ‘em funny”. Every time he tells me stories he reveals that of which he is most proud saying, “I’ve had a good life, Sammy”.

He also reveals that which he wishes to be remembered by. He fathered three children with the same wife. He loved my grandmother deeply and faithfully. The first time I ever saw him shed a tear was the night before her funeral. He said “She was my left hand and my heart” and brought the entire room to tears. He wrote her every day when he was away at war while she was working in a factory and taking care of their first born daughter.

However, little of what is within these pages come from the letters. We were able to locate a plethora of pictures, keepsakes, notes, and Naval garb in my grandfather’s house, but only two letters that he had written to my grandmother. His story is that he saw her lighting them on fire because she was “bashful”. In my heart I know that my grandmother was too proud to relive losing him to the war for so long, and she was too “bull-headed” to admit how special they were to her.

The stories herein told are taken from several hours of recording on different occasions of his telling them to my brother and myself. At first, I thought it impossible that he could remember so many stories from as early as the age of eleven, but I have heard these stories on numerous occasions as have a few others. I have talked to others that he has spoken with and the stories are the same each time. He is either being honest or he has memorized lies. You may choose to believe what you wish.

My grandfather’s stories are important because they capture the character of a people and ennoble that character, shedding light upon the goodness of a people who are in great need of ennobling. What his stories capture are a dedication to family, country, and compass. He always put his family first, no matter how difficult, and he never thought a thing of it. He understood that family was the stuff of life. He always loved his country, honored it, and fought for what it stood for, despite the various things about that country that he could choose to hate her for. He always kept in view his own moral compass, never straying from what he thought was right and never backing down when had to fight for what he believed in.

My grandfather is my hero because he embodies what is redeeming about Midwesterners and about Yankees. My grandfather’s story is important because it preserves the character and the habits of a time past and it preserves the history of a time when Americans were dignified without believing themselves so.

The terms “Yankee” and “Midwesterner” that I use to describe my Grandfather ought to be synonymous; however, not all Yankees are Midwesterners and not all Midwesterners are Yankees. Nonetheless, I believe that a Yankee is what a Midwesterner and an American should strive to be.

Outside the United States all Americans are sometimes described as “Yankees”. This includes Southerners. The informal British and Irish English “Yank” refers to Americans in general. It is especially popular among Britons and Australians and sometimes carries pejorative overtones.

Within the United States, “Yankee” usually refers to those of the Midwest and the Northeast. It most precisely identifies those with New England cultural ties and descendants of colonial New Englanders. It is therefore more cultural than geographical. It ties Americans back to the settling of America before the United States became Independent from Great Britain and expanded Westward, allowing the descendants of those settlers to disperse. It recalls the grit and the stern Puritan faith of those who settled along that coast. They later migrated through New York, then Pennsylvania, and finally into Ohio, later dispersing throughout the Midwest in no certain pattern.

Southerners often refer to Northerners as “Yankees”, and this certainly carries a negative connotation. It refers to the nickname of those fighting for the Union side in the American Civil War. The term Yankee implies holding one’s ground, willing to fight in order to “nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth”.

Yankees were the ones who migrated North, up the shore of America, and began operating fisheries and running towns. They were the ones who migrated West into what we now understand as the Midwest where they began to create the infrastructure that would later facilitate the industrialization that happened in the north. Because they were the first to define the habits and culture of the place that they inhabited to a great extent they informed the culture and the habits of immigrants who came to work throughout the next two centuries in hopes of becoming Americans. Throughout Industrialization, Yankees began to define themselves by work and work ethic in addition to grit and religion. It is peculiar the way in which a Midwesterner or a Yankee earns money and feels toward that money, especially if he becomes rich. Rich Yankees are different from any other rich men I’ve met.

If the hillbilly happens to become rich it is usually by chance. He takes a risk and stumbles upon wealth, only to expend that wealth quickly, lavishly, and foolishly.

The rich men on the coasts are always old money, or if they are not they feel self conscious that they are not. If their fathers were not rich they are burdened by this almost daily and conceive of a way to manufacture the circumstance of their birth in order to dignify themselves. They are defined by the wealth of their fathers and their fathers’ fathers before them.

Rich men in cities are self-made but often the product of calculated risk. They come to their own demise as a result of that risk, never taking a moment to cherish what they have got while they’ve got it, and never thinking about the provisions for the next day or for their children because they always believe that their industry and talent will provide income.

The Yankee, on the other hand, almost does not believe he has money even if he’s got it. It sometimes seems that he is bashful about having money for concern that he may appear to be reaching beyond his own means and therefore exercising haughtiness, but that is not quite it. The Yankee always deeply understands his past and his future and therefore he understands equality as the capacity of misfortune to bring any man to ruin. He does not feel exempt from the heaves and throws of life simply for having earned a few day’s bread. Even if he becomes rich he feels compelled to toil, often outlasting his necessary work years. The Yankee understands that work and toil define life and a man’s worth. It is almost as if the money is for naught. Even after the Yankee has ceased a life of labor and lives peacefully in retirement, he will conceive of a way to show those around him that he still struggles and works rather than rests. It is almost as if he believes that in giving up a life of labor he gives up life altogether. The Yankee feels self conscious if he is spending lavishly and frivolously and this will weigh on him. He will soon feel that his neighbors mock him and disdain him for breaking the appearance of equality of hardship and the fashion that is work.

This is but a mere sketch of what the Yankee is and what my grandfather has taught me is good within him. My grandfather’s stories should give vividness and expression to this description, and this should serve merely as a framework or reference to the themes throughout the book.

Intro:

In the middle of an old town in the middle of a grand nation there is a changing light that hangs in the middle of a cross section of two highways that carry old cars off into the horizon to meet the sunset.

An old Model-T has been known to hover over that old blacktop carrying a family to a service early on a Sunday morn as the sun rises in the east and cuts through the low hanging purple clouds.

That same car, summers ago, may have been placed on that same road carrying a corral of hearty young boys raisin Cain on Saturday night fresh off from farm duty. The same damp air that shrouded their bodies in a stuffy hay mow that adorned those bodies with the sweat of a good day’s work now envelops them in an expectant feeling as stars pepper the sky and aftershave stains their loose white collars.

That same crossroads was the place that the town would gather for a parade; lining the sidewalks with lawn chairs and gleaming young faces set wide with teeming young eyes awaiting the moment that sailors in all-whites would cross and firecrackers could be seen atop the two story business buildings that reached toward the heavens with hopes this year of more booms than busts.

Its said that those stars not only shone down to touch light upon the broad shoulders of boys, but they would dance across the sky one time ago as a hopeful courting couple would lay in the dead night’s streets as they claimed those stars with open and hopeful hearts.

Any old one stop light town is jus’ as good as any other, so don’t hold that again’ my story none.

 

Hands and Hearts

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is the only book in which the author writes what cannot be written. The book is highly experiential, arguably to the point of superfluity. Among my students, the whaling chapters are those which push them to give up the fight. For myself, my first copy of Moby Dick was burnt upon Ishmael’s description of the Italian paintings of Christ wherein the narrator claims that they are most accurate because they capture the “hermaphroditical” character of the Son. Melville even went so far as to write to Nathaniel Hawthorne that he had composed “a wicked book and (felt) spotless as a lamb” having written it. My argument is that Melville writes in such a way in order to accomplish what no author had yet, or has since, been able to accomplish: he not only makes his reader think about God, but he affords his reader the opportunity to experience God. Thereby, Melville is able to moderate the American soul in hopes that it may make use of the vast freedom that so quickly can dissolve into wayward discontent. His book becomes a symphonic experience through which you, reader, like Ishmael are plunged into the deep waters of baptism and forced to fight your way back to faith, experiencing a metaphorical resurrection. As we read the American epic we find that we are all Ishmaels searching to find something all the while knowing not what.

 

Everyone is familiar with the false opening lines “Call me Ishmael” (I say false because there are two important “chapters” preceding the “loomings” chapter). However, few understand the significance of “Call me Ishmael” just as they do not attempt to make sense of the title “loomings” which is of layered importance. The Biblical Ishmael is said to be a man “with his hand against all men”. How American is he? I see in him every political campaign to which I’ve ever contributed, and I see in him the faces of all of the students I’ve ever taught. As Americans our independent and enterprising natures are manifested in this fellow who will befriend us along this journey. He is an orphan and a wanderer, a son begat with no true mother, and one searching for some ounce of feeling all the while wandering off the path that he most needs to tread. Just as Tocqueville describes Americans full of restlessness and characterized by individualism, Melville creates an American working through his restlessness and grappling with his individualism.

 

The title “Loomings” is doubly important: first, it recalls the feeling that “looms” over Ishmael, and second it refers to the first step in the process of God’s weaving of Ishmael’s fate upon his loom. The feeling of having his hand against all other men makes Ishmael feel as if he must either walk into the street and “deliberately knock their hats off”, or commit suicide. Luckily for us, he chooses water as his “substitute for pistol and ball”. What we will learn alongside him throughout this journey is that love of his fellow man must displace this looming feeling of grief and loneliness. Only through knowing and appreciating others will Ishmael come by a feeling of self-love and appreciation. This communion with his fellow man will be a thread in the tapestry woven upon God’s loom throughout the tortured journey of the Pequod. Ishmael will find later that God is that weaver who “weaves and is deafened by his weaving”. Initially angered with God for his deafness, Ishmael reasons towards that thought which Ahab never does: that perhaps the reason that man can’t hear God isn’t because God is not speaking, but rather the word of God is drowned out as we place our word at the center of the universe, contemptuously displacing His plans for us with our own wandering desires.

 

Surprisingly early in the novel Captain Ahab symbolically nails his doubloon to the mainmast of the ship as a bribe for his crew to follow Moby Dick. Ahab proceeds to explain that his path is “laid upon Iron rails” as he rhetorically overpowers Starbuck in front of the crew. Ishmael remarks “my shouts went up with theirs because of the dread in my soul”. How often are we all damned to chasing cursed Job’s whale to the ends of the earth for no reason but our own looming loneliness? Melville really calls into question, in this instance, the extent to which man really desires to exercise rational judgment. At least for Ishmael, the easiest way out of loneliness is to succumb peer pressure; nevertheless, his coping mechanism proves a hollow one. It is not until about 200 pages later, when we have almost forgotten about the soft despotism that plagues the crew, that the spell over Ishmael is broken and his loneliness truly subsides.

 

Only in the “Squeeze of the Hand” chapter when Ishmael is kneading spermacetti with his fellow voyagers can he remark “I forgot all about our horrible oath; in that inexpressible sperm, I washed my hands and my heart of it… while bathing in that bath, I felt divinely free from all ill-will, or petulance, or malice, of any sort whatsoever.” The result: Ishmael “lowers, nay shifts, all expectations of attainable felicity” from philosophy to the home, the bed, the wife, and the hearth. He even remarks that on that day he saw “angels all with their hands in a jar of spermaceti”. Rather than trying to focus on his tortured fate and all that lacks sense, Ishmael begins to find pleasure in those small graces that we so often overlook. Only through this lens can Ishmael finally begin to make sense of his relationship with God. He must first see light in order to see darkness. For Ishmael, friendship makes good all the vices of his fellow man and cloaks all of the darkness of the world: it is akin to the forgiveness that God has given man when he sends his son to die on the cross rendering our sins moot in the respect to salvation. All that is necessary to gain this blessing is for Ishmael to turn his hands away from his fellow man, and use those hands to work with his fellow man instead of against him.

 

Thus goes the baptism of Ishmael’s hand in a jar of spermaceti. Melville wishes to make stark the distinction between baptism of the body and baptism of the soul; however, he understands that the physical baptism is necessary to make possible the spiritual baptism. The purification of the soul is harder than the baptism of the body because it is an active pursuit rather than a passive one. And, as no man is worthy of the mantle of the Son of God, each man’s discipleship will be riddled with tests and failures. Ishmael’s is no different. However, by the end of the book Ishmael is no longer Ishmael: he is no longer the biblical orphan with his hand against all other men, but rather he is claimed by the wayward ship “the Rachel” who weeps for her lost children. However, he cannot be claimed by the Rachel until he has been plunged into the deep in pursuit of Moby Dick, losing all of his comrades, and only surviving by attaching himself to Queequeg’s coffin. He thereby becomes a “loose-fish”, and he thereby suffers the same fate as Ahab. However, Ishmael turns the fate of Ahab inside out: where Ahab was claimed by the darkness as he was loosened, Ishmael is claimed by God. The epilogue (which was not included in the first edition of the novel due to a huge twist of fate, but that is a story for another time) begins with the first instance in which Ishmael accurately quotes the bible: “And I alone   am escaped to tell thee”. Melville thereby draws a parallel between the old, wayward Ishmael, and the new Ishmael. He thus renders his great novel digestible from another perspective for the reader’s second read: the perspective of Job. In short, through realizing who Ishmael is by the end of the novel, we are able to better understand his perspective throughout the journey by placing it in view of all of his suffering. 

America, and especially American kids, is experiencing an identity crisis. Moby Dick may be the book that my students most hate, but it is the book they most need. Today we are too quick to teach our children to be “nice”, but we do so at the expense of affording our kids the opportunity to explore the complexities of their souls. I hope that my students begin to hate Moby Dick the work, just as Ahab hates Moby Dick the whale. I hope that they burn their first copy just as I did- because this will mean that the book has touched them. This will mean that the book has pushed them intellectually and made them uncomfortable. After all, Ishmael must be made uncomfortable in order to come about change, in order to grow, and finally in order to come about a resurrection and a renewal of his faith. The way in which I gauge my success or failure while teaching Moby Dick is to evaluate how my students are working through their hate: whether or not they are taking it seriously. Soon they will no longer be children, and soon they will have to grapple with their souls as they roam free. The better part of “being nice” is not a continuous set of accommodating gestures, but rather it is the ability to rule the hatred in their souls that Ahab feels combined with the longing that Ishmael feels to contemplate the blackness in the world which seems to overrun all light. In short, what Moby Dick attempts to do is make sense of the erotic hatred within us all to which Ahab falls, and to reign in the false path that reason may take if we become an Ishmael rationalizing the darkness and its seeming consumption of the light. If our kids can do this, then they can learn how to rule themselves in a much more substantial way than they can by being nice at all costs. If we can teach them this, then we will not have to teach them to “be nice”, for they will be happy and they will be just.