Carter Kaplan on Hawthorne
My friend Carter Kaplan recently sent me a copy of his International Authors (IA) edition of The Scarlet Letter, and it arrived more quickly than expected. Most of you will have heard of but not (yet) read Hawthorne's famous novel on the trials and tribulations of an adulterous woman in Puritan New England, and you probably know that the scarlet letter of the title is an "A" that stands for "adulteress." Or does it? This IA edition has a ninety-page afterword by Kaplan himself, titled, "'A' is for Antinomian: Theology and Politics in The Scarlet Letter." It begins as follows:
While it feels natural to read The Scarlet Letter as an expression of modern secular sensibility, the novel also provides evidence of political and theological concerns that resonate deeply with a radical "post-Calvinist" Protestant nexus construed along the lines of Socinus, Arminius, Cromwell, Milton, Locke, various Independent American churchmen (and women) of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and Thomas Jefferson. Like the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Act of Religious Freedom, The Scarlet Letter stands on the shoulders of well-evolved political and theological discussions advancing a range of independent notions concerning human nature, individualism, community, open public disclosure, the "real" authority of law, separation of government institutions and powers, and the separation of church and state. An examination of these ideas as they existed in England and in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the seventeenth century -- especially the 1640s, the time of the novel's setting -- brings to light the novel's complex philosophical dynamics, which resonate with the anthropological and political understanding that attends skeptical-empirical science and analytic philosophy. As a phenomenon of intellectual history, The Scarlet Letter represents an important formulation of the classic liberal ideas that mark the emergence of the modern world. (p. 230)One might be taken aback at the assertion about "skeptical-empirical science and analytic philosophy" -- what's a novel about religious obscurantism got to do with science and logic? -- but Carter's essay is full of human understanding and sharp analysis, as I know from proofing an earlier version. I even contributed some ideas, which Carter notes:
Horace Jeffery Hodges has suggested some intriguing possibilities for the symbology of the letter A: "It's the alpha awaiting its omega in the end. It's Arminius, always offering grace to our free choice. It's amiability, opposed to Chillingworth. It's grade 'A' because Hester's really a good egg." (p. 324, n. 51)I hope that all readers realize my suggestions are meant tongue-in-cheek! But not everyone will catch the dry humor, so I have to be explicit, I suppose. In short, I'm joking about the letter "A."
Anyway, readers who love American literature would benefit from reading Carter's serious essay on the intellectual history behind this novel, for there is much to think about -- and much, indeed, that goes rather far beyond American literature, e.g., this remark defending Locke:
[John] Locke has . . . been identified as part of a larger Enlightenment straw man that is the target of those seeking to advance the authoritarian agenda of Continental philosophy, which as a program, in anthropological terms, seems to be the logical systemic outcome of an increasingly corporate, nihilistic and authoritarian Academy.On that note, let's segue to the quintessential song of American exceptionalism . . .