Nathaniel Hawthorne added the “W” to his name because of shame. His family was among the first Puritan settlers of Massachusetts, and one of his ancestors, John Hathorne, was a judge in the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692. In his fiction, he strove to keep “the inmost Me behind the veil,” yet like all writers he couldn’t help but reveal himself through his subjects and themes.
I’ve only read a handful of his stories, and my favorite is perhaps the most popular–or at least the most oft-anthologized–“Young Goodman Brown.” It concerns a ‘good’ man who has a rendezvous in the woods for some dark purpose. Like E.A. Poe, Hawthorne was a fan of doubling and big, fat symbols. Thus his wife is named Faith, the character’s name is a pun, and he meets his guide who resembles himself, only older. From the outset things are weird.
The story comments on the nature of sin and religion, and in my reading the whole of earth being one “mighty blood spot” and “Evil [being] the nature of mankind” feels more situational than philosophical. This isn’t the writer spouting the sermon of condemnation that comes from the mouth of the figure cloaked in black, but a question about the nature of belief. To fear evil only breeds more suspicion and fear. The Salem witch trials stained the already diminishing hold that Puritanism had in America. The tradesmen and men of state of that fervently believed in Enlightenment reasoning mere decades later saw the trials as proof that faith failed.
Whatever meaning you might draw from the story, its mood entrances you. Fear grows with each step further into the woods like some unnatural tendril, so that when you reach the clearing, “hemmed in by the dark wall of the forest,” you see the rock that arises, “bearing some rude, natural resemblance either to an altar or a pulpit, and surrounded by four blazing pines, their tops a flame, their stems untouched, like candles at an evening meeting. The mass of foliage that had overgrown the summit of rock was all on fire, blazing high into the night, and fitfully illuminating the whole field. Each pendent twig and leafy festoon was in a blaze. As the red light arose and fell, a numerous congregation alternately shone forth, then disappeared in shadow, and again grew, as it were, out of the darkness, peopling the heart of the solitary woods at once.”
And, as if it needed to be said–Happy Halloween!