December 16, 2017

Wagner: Puritanism or Positivity? ‘Young Goodman Brown’ comes of age

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Matthew Brady / Public domain (Wikimedia Commons)

Nathaniel Hawthorne

As we endure the ongoing revelations involving sexual harassment, rape and “inappropriate behavior,” it’s hard not to think back on lessons learned from literature, in particular Nathaniel Hawthorne and his short story “Young Goodman Brown” (1835).

Mark Wagner

Growing into adulthood and having the privilege of higher education, I took a course at UMass Amherst with John Clayton. We focused on American literature and in that class read, among other short stories, “Young Goodman Brown.”

As you may recall, the story is an allegory: Young Goodman Brown leaves his wife, Faith, and travels into a dark forest, which exists just outside his Puritan village of Salem. He meets the devil and is brought into a witches’ coven. In short, during his night’s journey, Goodman Brown is shown that human life is one of sin and depravity. This puritanical vision will destroy him, and he will die, disheveled and sad. Near the end of the story, we hear the devil’s revelation:

“This night it shall be granted you to know their secret deeds; how hoary-bearded elders of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households  … how beardless youths have made haste to inherit their father’s wealth; and how fair damsels — blush not, sweet ones! — have dug little graves in the garden, and bidden me, the sole guest, to an infant’s funeral. … It shall be yours to penetrate, in every bosom … the fountain of all wicked arts. … And now, my children, look upon each other.”

One would be hard-pressed to find a piece of literature more apt for this historical moment, when “we look upon each other,” and the curtain is pulled back on a depraved humanity. Many of the men named in lawsuits and accusations are enriched by fame and/or money, and they all drink – it appears — from the fountain of “all wicked arts.”

Uma Thurman’s texts of herself with a battle axe say much to reinforce this vision of a humanity of depravity and sin, which is toppling artists, politicians, journalists and others. But we would all be at our peril to ignore the counter-narrative, drawn from Hawthorne’s critique of Puritan morality.

Puritan America, shocked by its own sins, has endured into the present, yes, and we have to witness the “wonton words” of judges and actors and sports figures and clergy who, like Goodman Brown’s people in Salem, are unable to face the wilderness in a courageous way, and succumb to sin and depravity.

Can Hawthorne’s life and literature call us to a counter-movement, a world in which we escape from sin and find love and happiness? There is a zero-tolerance culture arising around the #metoo hashtag, and this might cloud our seeing other ways.

Even during Hawthorne’s time, with Thomas Morton and his lords of misrule intermarrying with the native culture, up through the suffragettes and women’s movement (in which Worcester played such a key role), through the role modeling of Eleanor Roosevelt and then the countercultural movement: Our world has also given birth to liberation movements and subcultures that have been sex-positive and focused on the health and pleasure of human relations.

If you have ever visited Hawthorne’s home in Concord, The Old Manse, you’ll remember that he and his beloved wife, Sophia, had etched their love into a glass in the upstairs bedroom. Sophia wrote, “We were never so happy as now — never such wide capacity for happiness, yet overflowing with all that the day and every moment brings to us.”

This light is coming. Shakespeare and others have drawn the connection between love and happiness and pleasure, a lesson many folks have still not learned. Which lesson should we pass on?

One wonders whether a 32-year-old Roy Moore had figured out that the connection between love and sensuality is a path to happiness. Harvey Weinstein, Moore and others conflate power with sex and the result is infinite harm, and not only to their victims. They are renewing the horrid vision Goodman Brown had in the forest in 1835. The revelations of rape and harassment cause us to reel in horror, as Goodman Brown did, destroyed by a loss of virtue and belief.

But we might also advance and celebrate the gains we have made, that allow women to celebrate their happiness, that allow women to protect themselves against harassment and rape, that allow us to celebrate gay and transgendered culture and be true to the vision of positivity that has advanced us from witch trials, from the darkness and depravity and sin, to a place where we can face the wilderness and not give in to fear, but still yearn for equality and freedom and the happiness that comes from positive human relationships.

Let’s not forget: Worcester played a major role in the development of the birth-control pill, which played no small part in the feminist movement of the 1960s. Massachusetts is also the state that first legalized same-sex marriage. Boston social activist Mel King and others gave birth to The Rainbow Coalition Party, and we have advanced the discourse surrounding transgender individuals and their right to live lives free of bullying or fear.

Worcester can still play a role in celebrating an open, healthy, sex-positive culture, but let’s also use the moment to see something clearly: Sex and love are separated at great cost. The literature has instructed us quite clearly on this, and it would be at our peril that we abandon the great lessons of the likes of Hawthorne, Shakespeare and Sappho.

Men drunk with power will assault and harm, and warring cultures will rape and pillage, but a more beautifully human reality exists in the joining of love and pleasure, in our lives and our literature. We might think about taking the challenge to pass that vision on to our young more readily than the devil’s handiwork.

Mark Wagner, director of the Binienda Center for Civic Engagement at Worcester State University, lives with his wife and son on a small farm in Dudley.

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