Revised Hawthorne Article for the Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

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  • 8/3/2019 Revised Hawthorne Article for the Nathaniel Hawthorne Review


    The Instinct of Faith: Taking Hawthornes Sunday at Home and the Sabbath Question


    As Nathaniel Hawthorne walked about the outlying areas of Boston on a cool Sunday

    afternoon in June of 1835, he was struck by the manner in which his new community was

    spending the day. Stopping at the Maverick House, a stylish hotel in East Boston, Hawthorne

    took note of the scene before him: the room was thronged by men, fashionably dressed, sporting

    handsome canes and boots, standing at the bar or sitting at the windows puffing cigars (some

    with flushed faces), watching the tender prepare tumblers of punch. He found a similar busy

    scene at the Mechanics, an equally crowded hotel opposite the Maverick, where mostly young,

    well-dressed men were lounging and taking their leisure. Hawthorne suspected that most of the

    men, although groomed for the day, were not so genteel during the week and that the dry-goods

    clerks were probably the aristocracy among them; his suspicions were confirmed when he

    noticed that the sole of one so-called gentlemans exquisitely polished boot was all worn out.

    Wherever he went that afternoon, Hawthorne encountered similar scenes of leisure and

    pretension. Taking the ferry across the Charles River back into Boston proper, he visited the city

    -tavern where, he ironically noted, the bar-room presented a Sabbath scene of repose: stage

    people were lounging in chairs, half asleep, smoking cigars, but again dressed in clean shirts to

    mark the solemnity of the day. Even on his way home, Hawthorne could not escape examples of

    Sunday indulgences, as he encountered a respectably dressed man and woman, whom he thought

    Irish, stumbling on the busy road, drunk, supporting each other so as not to fall. (Except for her

    unsteady gait, he noted, the woman had a queer air of decency and decorum in the midst of their

    inebriety.). Having just moved to the Boston area from his longtime home of Salem,

  • 8/3/2019 Revised Hawthorne Article for the Nathaniel Hawthorne Review


    Hawthornes new community was full of imitators of Sunday propriety who spent the afternoon

    in hotels and taverns, sleeping, drinking and smoking, or simply touring the city. Realizing that

    he had spent his time in similar fashion, Hawthorne averred in his journal, May conscience

    smote me for doing the like, tho if I had been at home, I should have been reading.

    Nonetheless, he speculated that his observations may serve to make a sketch of the mode of

    spending the Sabbath, by the majority of the unmarried young middling people in a great town,

    and he concluded this unusually long journal entry with the factual declaration: Stages in

    abundance were passing the road, burthened with passengers, inside and out; also chaises,

    barouches &c; horsemen and footmen. We are a community of Sabbath-breakers (Hawthorne,

    Lost Notebook, 7-9).

    Hawthorne was more than just culturally accurate: like every other state in the nation,

    Massachusetts prohibited activities on Sunday to the effect that No person shall keep open his

    shop, warehouse, or workhouse, or shall do any manner of labor, business, or work (except only

    works of necessity and charity) on the Lords day; moreover, No person shall travel on that

    day, except from necessity or charity (qtd. in Kingsbury 15).2 Passed in a flurry of activity at

    the end of the eighteenth -century, such laws re-authorized earlier legislation and codified

    longstanding mores so that, for some foreign visitors, the day seemed the hallmark of American

    identity.3 By the mid-1830s, though, Hawthornes fellow Bostonians were clearly not too

    concerned with the legal enforcement of these statutes, or whether they spent Sunday afternoon

    in recreation rather than spiritual reflection, or whether they went visiting rather than attending

    (second) service, praying, and reading devotional material. If he could have just as easily

    commented upon the pressing contemporary issue of temperance reform,4 his conclusion about

    Sabbath breaking registers Hawthornes personal and fictional interest in Puritan Sunday and


  • 8/3/2019 Revised Hawthorne Article for the Nathaniel Hawthorne Review


    the influence of an ongoing national debate that had ignited in 1810 when the federal

    government declared that post offices must open on Sundays. Indeed, this journal entry outlines

    some of the central contradictions and tensions that Hawthorne would explore in Sunday at

    Home (1837)a sketch that became standard issue in authorized editions ofTwice- Told Tales

    (1837; 1842; 1851) as well as the titular piece of an 1853 English (and probably pirated) edition

    of his shorter works called Sunday at Home and Other Tales.5

    Although republished in nineteenth- and twentieth- century editions of Hawthornes shorter

    works, Sunday at Home has elicited very little critical commentary.6 This is a curious state of

    affairs, as if the text hovers on the edge of recognition just as its unnamed narrator lingers on the

    perimeter of the circling shadow of a church steeple that he views from the privacy of his

    home one sunny Sunday (Hawthorne, Sunday at Home 21). In part, Henry James is

    responsible: his 1879 biography initiated the critical preference for the tales over the sketches

    that Hawthorne and his contemporariesincluding Poeso obviously valued. Indeed, James

    employs a rhetoric of diminution in his assessment of Hawthorne, his New England culture, and

    his writing that lingers in regard to his sketches. Noting that Hawthorne was an inveterate

    observer and that he found a field for fancy among the most trivial accidents, James suggests

    that Night Sketches is a fair representation of his accomplishments in this line of work: This

    small dissertation is about nothing at all, and to call attention to it is almost to overrate its

    importance. This fact is equally true, indeed, of a great many of its companions, which give

    even the most appreciative critic a singular feeling of his own indiscretionalmost his own

    cruelty. They are so light, so slight, so tenderly trivial, that simply to mention them is to put

    them in a false position. In this Seinfeldian appraisal, James characterizes Hawthornes sketches

    as he elsewhere characterizes Hawthorne himself: the simple and homogenous product of


  • 8/3/2019 Revised Hawthorne Article for the Nathaniel Hawthorne Review


    the thin cultural soil of the New England of some forty years ago when there was a great

    desire for culture, a great interest in knowledge, in art, in aesthetics, together with a very scanty

    supply of the materials for such pursuits. Small things were made to do large service (38, 68).7

    This last sentence is an acute insight into the symbiotic relation between Hawthornes cultural

    and fictional worlds, but of course not all things are equally small, are small in the same manner,

    nor, as Hawthornes journal entry suggests about the Sabbath, are they necessarily small at all.8

    As if caught in the slipstream of James portrait of Hawthorne as a reclusive artificer of small

    and delicate things like Owen Warland, recent critics have viewed Sunday at Home as an

    evocation of the commonplace or as a preparatory exercise in romanticism.


    Even Michael

    Colacurcio, who has done more than anyone to recover the historical and theological nuances of

    Hawthornes short fiction, finally views Sunday at Home as a rehearsal of the stock romantic

    conceit of the alienated artist. Calling it an extraordinarily suggestive sketch. . .[that] proves far

    more oblique than first appears, Colacurcio attributes Sunday at Home to its convention

    ridden sourceCharles Lambs poem The Sabbath Bellsand concludes that the sketch

    elaborates without really explaining anything (even as Colacurcio importantly also points to

    some of the historicist questions that should be asked by any critic,pace James, malicious

    enough to suppose that one minor sketch is trickier than anyone has yet imagined) (535; 493-


    This small sketch, I will propose, is best read as sophisticated example of Hawthornes

    fictional methodology of reassessing Puritanism at watershed moments in American history.10 In

    Sunday at Home, that is, Hawthorne dramatizes yet another conflicted conscience circa 1835

    analogous to the earlier and more famous cases of Young Goodman Brown and Father Hooper,

    and he does so to meditate upon a central tension of the Sabbath debate: the relation and relative


  • 8/3/2019 Revised Hawthorne Article for the Nathaniel Hawthorne Review


    authority of institutional and private forms of religious observance. For the narrators refusal to

    attend Sunday church services is paradoxically both a quite public act of dissent and one that

    allows him to participate vicariously in the church activities he sees and overhears. In fact, his

    physical absence from church enables him to (re)create a private worship service at home that

    celebrates even as it critiques the symbolism, formalism, and theological assumptions of Puritan

    Sunday. In this way, the narrator refashions his domicile, and Hawthorne the sketch itself, into a

    hybrid public/private spaceinto something very much like a confessionalthat expresses a

    pluralist brand of piety that committed to exploring the fluctuating nature of faith.