Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Witch Trials

Nathaniel HawthorneOn this day in 1804, the great American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne was born. He was a highly moralistic writer who did not have a very good view of human nature. Stylistically he seems quite modern to me, even falling into the surreal at times. For example, in The Scarlet Letter, we really don’t know if there was an “A” on Dimmesdale’s chest, although I suspect in Hawthorne’s mind, it was an indication of his cynicism: people see what they want to see.

Given his writing, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that Hawthorne was the great-great-grandson of John Hathorne. He was one of judges during the Salem witch trials. It’s not like Salem was cut off from the world. There was much comment at the time that the town was out of control. In fact, twelve local ministers wrote, “Presumptions whereupon persons may be Committed, and much more, Convictions whereupon persons may be Condemned as Guilty of Witchcrafts, ought certainly to be more considerable, than barely the Accused Persons being Represented by a Spectre unto the Afflicted.”

But as you may remember, after killing off the final eight, pretty much everyone came to their senses. “Oh my God! What have we done?” I can easily forgive Betty Parris and Abigail Williams. They were just children—and females at that. They must have loved all the attention they got at a time and place when not much was thought of women—much less girls. But the activity of the adults, especially the judges? That’s harder to forgive. And it is quite impossible to forgive John Hathorne. He was the most eager of the “judges”—providing the usual kind of irrefutable claims, “Why you seem to act witchcraft before us by the motion of your body which seems to have influence upon the afflicted.” He was the only judge to never apologize for the twenty who the town murdered (One by pressing!) and the five who died in jail.

Hawthorne was clearly not thrilled to be associated with great-great-granddad. He added the “w” to his last name. (Perhaps he added it because he too was a witch!) Regardless, it is nice to think that something good came out of the witch trials. Because we know one thing that did not come out of them: a change in American mass hysteria. True: we don’t kill witches today. But we freak out about about stuff all the time with far worse consequences. Think: Iraq War or crack cocaine laws.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was certainly one of the best early American writers. None other than Edgar Allan Poe (who didn’t like him), wrote of Hawthorne, “We look upon him as one of the few men of indisputable genius to whom our country has as yet given birth.” In fairness, however, Poe didn’t much like anyone. And given who we are, who can blame him. Hawthorne would understand that.

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