Friday, February 4, 2011

SO DEEP A STAIN

I had the opportunity to read some of my Chapter One of 'American Masters' at our local writer's group this past week and thought I would share it with you today. 'American Masters' is a sweeping narrative history of United States literature, told in a way that may help make literature popular again. Anyway, let me know what you think:

Of his Puritan ancestor's "persecuting spirit" and involvement in the martyrdom of witches, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote, "...their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon him. So deep a stain, indeed, that his old dry bones, in the Charter Street burial-ground, must still retain it, if they have not crumbled utterly to dust!" (Found in 'The Scarlet Letter' 1850, referring to John Hathorne (1641-1717), one of the judges of the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692. A man can do no more than live his own life and try to expiate the sins of his forefathers.

Two hundred and sixty years passed before playwright Arthur Miller was able to gain the proper perspective on the trials of witches in this country's colonial period, (thereby attempting to expiate the country's sins). In 1952 Miller's friend, and director of his play 'Death of A Salesman', Elia Kazan was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and threatened with blacklisting from Hollywood. Rather than face the loss of his livelihood, Kazan named eight black men as fellow members of the Communist Party. Because the activities of that committee were likened to a 'witch hunt', Miller traveled to Salem, Massachusetts to research a play 'The Crucible', which came out the following year.

In the play a local preacher's daughter has taken ill. It is discovered that she along with other local girls were dancing around a bonfire in the night forest with the slave woman Tituba. The Reverend John Hale is called in to investigate the possibility of witchcraft. John Proctor, a farmer, is revealed to have had an affair with seventeen year old Abigail Williams, who accuses John's wife of witchcraft. The presiding judge, Judge Hathorne, refuses to listen to evidence that the girls might be lying. More accusations are made and more people arrested. John Proctor himself is accused by Mary Warren of being in league with the Devil and he, seeing the horror of what is happening, says that if such things can happen, God is dead. Proctor admits to being a wizard but then tears up his signed confession when he sees how it will be used to ruin him and other of his neighbors in Salem. In the end he is led away to be hanged.

To see these dramatic events acted out by talented actors is memorable indeed. To hear the fear and vengeance dripping from their lips - to hear their wails and screams - one may well lose sleep over the monstrous state of the world, then and now.

Nathaniel Hawthorne struggled to make sense of his own heritage. The beginning of his 'Scarlet Letter' finds bearded men "in sad-colored garments" assembled at the door of the jail with the narrator's observation that the building of jails and graveyards had been the first order of business in the establishment of this utopia. Mistress Prynne, emerging with her baby, has ignored the "dismal severity of the Puritan's code of law" and has become known as a "hussy" and a "malefactress" by the other "Goodwives" of the colony. She should have been branded on the forehead, the good women think; not only given a mark to wear on the bodice of her gown. "On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A."

Why the A? Why the baby? Whose baby is it? Such are the questions that form in the first passages of 'The Scarlet Letter'.

Brought out in shame! The narrator comments of the "Severity of the Puritan character. Meagre, indeed, and cold, was the sympathy that a transgressor might look for, from such bystanders at the scaffold."

In an odd twist of history, however, it was Cotton Mather's book (Cotton Mather also took part in the witchcraft trials) concerning the Christian's obligation to take action in the world: 'Bonifacius: Essays to Do Good', published years later, in 1710, that was to influence a boy who would one day become a founder of the American nation. This boy's name was Benjamin Franklin.

Adapted from Chapter One of 'American Masters'. Copyright 2011 by James D. Sanderson. All rights reserved.

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