Lingering Puritan Influences in Nineteenth-Century New England
Although the Salem Witch Trials had unfolded more than one hundred years prior, nineteenth-century New England was still reeling from inherited guilt, even as it rebelled against the constrictive morals of its forebears, the Puritans. It was into this Salem, Massachusetts, society that Hawthorne was born in 1804. Despite the fact he listed Unitarian as his official religion, his roots and sensibilities were unmistakably Puritan.
Hawthorne’s great, great grandfather William Hathorne (Nathaniel added the “W” to the family name when he began signing his published works) was the first family member to emigrate from England. He once ordered the public whipping of a Quaker woman who refused to renounce her religious beliefs. Following in the footsteps of his father, William’s son, John, presided over the Salem Witch Trials. Hawthorne claims he was frequently haunted by these unholy ghosts from his past. Hawthorne’s heritage was not the sole influence on his development, however; the social tenets of his contemporary society also played a key role.
Nineteenth-century English traveler Thomas Hamilton once described the descendants of New England’s first colonists as “cold, shrewd, calculating and ingenious,” and asserted that “a New Englander is far more a being of reason than of impulse.” Hawthorne applied these traits and values—which he struggled to accept within himself—to his characters, including the title character in “Young Goodman Brown.” According to Hyatt H. Waggoner in his book, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hawthorne “continued to note in himself, and to disapprove, feelings and attitudes he projected in … Young Goodman Brown. He noted his tendency not only to study others with cool objectivity, but to study himself with almost obsessive interest.” The same Puritan values that inspired Hawthorne’s objective observation of people and events contributed to his growth and genius as a writer.
At least one other classically Puritan trait emerges in Hawthorne’s writings: a keen interest in the welfare of the community. With its emphasis on brotherhood and the perils of alienation, “Young Goodman Brown” is a good example of a Puritan society. “Salem was a part of him,” Waggoner concluded, “for good and ill.”
The Industrial Revolution and the Publishing Business
Printed communication increased by leaps and bounds in the first half of the nineteenth century as a result of new technology. Publishers enlarged their size and scope under the pressure of competition, and new agencies of delivery—including the ocean steamship and the railroad—increased the speed and efficiency of publishing. Improved presses sped up the rate of printing twenty-fold between 1830 and 1850. This trend contributed to Hawthorne’s public reputation and income as many of his earlier short stories and essays found their way into print via a newsman’s press.
The literary output of New England writers between 1830 and 1850 was not only noteworthy for its volume but also because it reflected the qualities of the region, new contacts with European culture, and the spirit of Jacksonian Democracy. The works of many writers of this period—including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Herman Melville, and Edgar Allan Poe—are still widely read today. According to Frederick Jackson Turner in his book The United States, 1830-1850: The Nation and Its Sections, however, Hawthorne was “the greatest of the New England novelists” and exhibited “a power of psychological analysis and literary skill that have not since been equaled by any American writer.”
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Published by Gale, 1997.