Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Scarlet Letter: background, statement, and challenge


First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

It was on this day in 1850 that Nathaniel Hawthorne's masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter, was published (books by this author).

He was living at a time when there was almost no such thing as American literature, in part because the American publishing industry was so behind the times. In order to publish a book, a single printer would edit the manuscript, set the type, operate the printing press, bind the pages into books, and then sell them. It was remarkably inefficient, and so it was almost impossible to produce a best-seller, since so few copies were available to be sold.

But by 1850, books were being printed by machines. Long, continuous sheets of paper were fed into steam-powered printing presses, and factories of workers folded, pressed, and stitched the pages into books. The Scarlet Letter became the first great American novel in part because it was the first novel that could reach a large audience.

Hawthorne began the novel shortly after he was fired from his position at the Salem Custom House, and he spent almost all of his time working on it from June 1849 through February 1850. His wife, Sophia, said she was "almost frightened about it. ... He has written vehemently morning & afternoon & has not walked as much as he used to do. He has become tender from confinement & brain work."

Hawthorne had long been fascinated by America's Puritan history, especially since one of his own ancestors had been a judge in the Salem witch trials. Ten years before starting The Scarlet Letter, he had read a historical account of a woman who had to wear the letter A on her chest as a punishment for adultery. He used that woman as the main character of the novel, and he named her Hester Prynne.

He finished writing the book on February 2, 1850. He was exhausted and felt sick from spending so much time indoors, without exercise. The next evening, he read the conclusion to his wife; he said, "It broke her heart, and sent her to bed with a grievous headache, which I look upon as a triumphant success."

Hawthorne thought The Scarlet Letter was too bleak to be published by itself, and he planned to include it in a collection with a few other short stories. His publisher thought it was good enough to stand alone, but Hawthorne still had doubts about it. He wrote: "Is it safe, then, to stake the fate of the book entirely on this one chance? A hunter loads his gun with a bullet and several buck-shot. ... It was my purpose to conjoin the one long story with half a dozen shorter ones; so that, failing to kill the public outright with my biggest and heaviest lump of lead, I might have other chances with the smaller bits."

On March 16, 2,500 copies of The Scarlet Letter were published, and they sold out within 10 days. Critics loved it, and it established Hawthorne as one of the best writers in America. Henry James would later call it "the finest piece of imaginative writing yet put forth in this country."

The Scarlet Letter begins with Hester Prynne emerging from the town prison as a crowd of people look on. Hawthorne wrote: "When the young woman - the mother of this child - stood fully revealed before the crowd, it seemed to be her first impulse to clasp the infant closely to her bosom; not so much by an impulse of motherly affection, as that she might thereby conceal a certain token, which was wrought or fastened into her dress. In a moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her arm, and, with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbours. 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."
 
* * * * *

And there is this personal postscript:

Here is a provocative statement and challenge:

Statement: The Scarlet Letter remains a commonly assigned and taught novel in high school English classes, but I think that is a mistake for a number of reasons. 

Challenge: Why do you think I make such a loaded, cryptic statement?

(Hint: I spent fifteen years teaching English composition and introduction to literature courses to college freshmen and sophomores, and I have a good understanding of the reading, writing, and critical thinking skills among students who go beyond high school to college.)

So, am I right or wrong in my assertion?

We can discuss my assertion, the novel, Hawthorne, high school curricula, and more.

Tell me your thoughts.




28 comments:

  1. There is a lot to The Scarlet Letter, Tim. It's complex and multi-layered, and the language is quite different to today's use of language. So, even with skilled coaching, it can be difficult for a young person to truly appreciate it. Then, that young person might not return to Hawthorne and really get to know the quality of his work.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Margot, I would add to my early comment to you and my comments to Frank Wilson this argument: too many teachers of high school English classes are not sufficiently qualified to teach English classes; in other words, too many students get out of teacher preparation programs in college without subject-matter competence and without pedagogical skills. As I am saying this to an educator, I suspect I am committing some sort of heresy. However, I base my assertion upon many years during which I accumulated anecdotal and empirical evidence.

      Delete
  2. I think you are right. Just because a work is a great doesn't mean it is for everyone at every age. When I first read Pride and Prejudice in high school I found it largely incomprehensible and not very interesting. I'm still no Janeite.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Frank, part of the problem is teacher preparation. Let me explain. High school teachers (about which I have more to say below) are comfortable teaching literature they encountered in college; they generally regurgitate what they "learned" in college (or plagiarized from teacher's editions of texts), and they have too often neither the time nor the motivation to do more with different texts. Now, as for high school teachers in general, it is a fact of life that the students in teacher preparation programs at colleges are among the lowest performing students (i.e., lower SAT/ACT scores, and lower high school GPA) in colleges; in other words, "garbage in and garbage out." I know I ruffle more than a few feathers by making these points. But these are facts of life in education. Postscript: Have you heard that one state (I think it is California) is abandoning literacy/competency tests for teachers because it unfairly excludes non-white teachers who do not as well on such tests? And you wonder why students do not learn very much in K-12.

      Delete
    2. Frank, here is a correction as I have maligned the great state of California -- hmmmm -- because the state abandoning literacy tests is New York. Read about it here:
      http://www.foxnews.com/us/2017/03/13/ny-dropping-teacher-literacy-test-amid-claims-racism.html

      Delete
  3. Margot, here is another problem (among many others I could enumerate): when many students are confronted with TSL (and other difficult texts), they give up quickly and go to websites offering synopses and analyses; so, too often, students ill-equipped to read challenging texts (a large percentage of college students), simply do not read but resort to crappy shortcuts. Yes, when I was an undergraduate student in the early 60s, Cliff's Notes were available but not too often used by conscientious students. Now, though, the internet makes it far too easy for students to avoid reading problematic texts. I know this to be a fact because of the epidemic of plagiarism (i.e., passages stolen from websites) I found in writing assignments in literature classes. What is the solution? I wish I knew.

    ReplyDelete
  4. boy; if i'd known you were a teacher, i'd have been more circumspect re my frequently inane comments...

    re student performance: i think it's pretty difficult to teach anyone anything: they have to want to learn it and even then they have to have the capacity to understand the material... and since every brain is different, that would make me in favor of nonregimental education, wherein each student is allowed to explore all areas of knowledge and to choose one to study in depth...

    my brother was educated in such a place and he became a very well known and competent computer guy; i had a normal educational experience and spent my life waffling about, never being able to settle on one thing and mostly dissatisfied with the consequent results... this is just one example but it's one i'm quite confident represents a common experience... just saying, is all....

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Mudpuddle, I have forgotten almost everything I knew when I taught, and I'm sure I was no special expert in anything at anytime in my life. I might be Exhibit A in thei indictment of American education. No false modesty is offered there. I'm just smart enough to know that I don't know all that much. Too many college teachers, though, are not that smart. Think about it.

      Delete
  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Fred, all comments and discussions are welcomed here. Why don't you resubmit your comment. I suspect we have some common ground worth exploring.

      Delete
    2. probably he doesn't want to get in bad with the teach...

      Delete
    3. R.T..

      The reason is simple: while on my vacation, I came up with a mantra for today--Be civil or be silent.

      I found that I could not respond without being sarcastic and insulting. Fortunately, Marly has come to my rescue. I have pasted those comments that express what I was trying to say, but these are much more civil than mine.

      Thank you, Marley.


      "Meanwhile, our public schools offer less and less challenging works, and many students are perfectly happy with dumbing-down.

      So perhaps it is not that such works are too hard but that we are, for various reasons, no longer allowed to challenge students at an early age and so prepare them for the sort of work that Melville would call "deep diving." Then when we try to teach classic works, they are unprepared.

      Granted, some books are better at an older age. I've read plenty of books more than once and have found them to be different at different ages. But that's not, I think, the decisive issue here. It's more that we simply aren't educating people at the level we once were. And postmodernism has meant the leveling of texts, so that teaching one thing is as "good" as another. And our minds are frittered by technology so we cannot focus and sink into a book...."

      Delete
    4. Mudpuddle,

      Actually, it's "getting in bad" with everybody.

      Delete
    5. fred: actually, i agree with that; but i wonder if it was ever true... in my reading, school has been characterized by it's overwhelming boredom and ineffectiveness, even in past centuries...

      Delete
  6. You know, I had a student at the Antioch Workshops who taught inner-city boys in middle school. They read classical authors and major works of English and American literature in a schedule that would have worked in a graduate-level class. The success he had with those boys really was inspiring.

    Meanwhile, our public schools offer less and less challenging works, and many students are perfectly happy with dumbing-down.

    I also remember the story of a priest and teacher in Africa who said his students had no trouble with Shakespeare because they knew the King James bible and The Book of Common Prayer. Today, few people read the KJB and the BCP has been made more "accessible."

    So perhaps it is not that such works are too hard but that we are, for various reasons, no longer allowed to challenge students at an early age and so prepare them for the sort of work that Melville would call "deep diving." Then when we try to teach classic works, they are unprepared.

    Of course, not so long ago, students without Greek and Latin would have been considered unready.

    Granted, some books are better at an older age. I've read plenty of books more than once and have found them to be different at different ages. But that's not, I think, the decisive issue here. It's more that we simply aren't educating people at the level we once were. And postmodernism has meant the leveling of texts, so that teaching one thing is as "good" as another. And our minds are frittered by technology so we cannot focus and sink into a book....

    It's a depressing situation to me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Marly et al: Note, as an example, that Nathaniel Hawthorne was competent in Latin and Greek prior to his enrollment in college (Bowdoin). That speaks volumes about problems now in education. See my latest posting for something important.

      Delete
    2. basically, i agree with the a above; but i can't help feeling that "technology", as stated, has the most influence, in the sense that, students and teachers are so distracted by so many different venues; in the 19th c., greek and latin and a bit of math were all there was to teach, whereas now, subjects range from quantum mechanics to sociology... how's a poor student to remember all the different categories...? and languages, french, spanish, german, etc. remembering my own experiences, it all seemed overwhelming, even sixty years ago... now, it must seem so impossible that students just give up...

      Delete
    3. I might be repeating myself here, but I must say (again) that part of the problem is this: teachers now are products of the same flawed educational system that is (and has been for too long) poorly serving current students (and I include myself among the poorly served); in other words, how can the navigators lead the way if the navigators are inadequately prepared? Yes, the ship is doomed!

      Moreover, take a look at contemporary curricula in K-12 and beyond. It is shocking how much time is "wasted" on lessons/subjects/courses not designed to improve students' essential competencies in language, science, and math. Stating it a different way: once the secular liberal progressives (and the federal government) got control of the educational system (early-to-mid 20th century and beyond), the problems began to worsen.

      Delete
    4. you have good points and i don't at all disagree with them; still, as with computers, garbage in is garbage out; it seems the authorities that be have lost sight of what constitutes an education... it ought to be methodolgies for conducting oneself in a civilized fashion first of all; and secondly how to decide what one truly wants in life... what do you think?

      Delete
    5. actually, i don't think the political leanings of the participants have as much to do with this particular pickle as does the fact that there are too many fingers in the pie and they all want to alter the process after their own conceptions: or as you might say, there are too many captains and not enough crew... interesting discussion, this....

      Delete
    6. Mudpuddle, but then we get to the problem of who decides how one must conduct oneself in a civilized fashion: the government, the family, the individual? As for how people decide what they truly want in life, we again run into the problem of who guides: the government, the family, the individual? You see, I think it all comes down to choices about who makes decisions. And I believe the wrong people have been making the wrong decisions for a long, long time. Moreover, we have over recent decades bought into the myth that everyone deserves an education beyond K-12. Hell, even K-12 might be an error. I think I might be in favor of an educational options based upon abilities, merits, and achievements. Thus you can help avoid the garbage in and garbage out dynamic. Am I suggesting an elitist meritocracy? Not quite. However, let me use an example: when I joined the Navy in 1966, I was given a battery of tests, and I was assigned training and jobs based upon my scores on those tests and my level of achievement within the training. Yes, it was aptitude and merit based training, placement, and advancement: meritocracy! Why not try the same concept throughout the education system. What a revolutionary thought, right?

      Delete
    7. Education ought to be at least in part a pointing toward wholeness of being... But that's not what is happening.

      Meritocracy is the European method. You are weeded out at various stages.

      Delete
    8. Marly, all gardens, if the best flowers can thrive, need to be weeded out now and then; tending the garden, after all, is an important and necessary challenge (or at least I recall something about the latter concept near the end of Voltaire's _Candide_).

      Delete
    9. meritocracy probably works better than what we have in this country, but i still believe at least part of the problem is too many deciders, a product of overpopulation...

      Delete
    10. maybe the whole situation might be resolved in the immediate future, due to some global catastrophe or other... interesting, typing on top of each other like this...

      Delete
    11. Tim: who would you appoint as ultimate arbiter/decider of educational programs and goals?

      Delete
    12. Mudpuddle, yes, there is the tough nut to crack, isn't it? Who decides? I might be inclined to either some empirical standard administered by local school districts (but that is hard to administer even-handedly) or some deference to parents (but that is equally loaded with difficulties). In short, I would prefer something better than what we have now, but I do not know how to put the genie back in the bottle and return to better days (pre-Dewey, progressivism, and post-post-modernism). In short, I have destination without a map.

      Delete
    13. i wouldn't know the first thing about it... so i shouldn't be commenting, but like most, my opinions don't pay any attention to the rest of me...

      Delete