Cultural Studies Between Heaven and Earth: Beyond the Puritan Pedagogy of /The Scarlet Letter/

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The Scarlet Letter we know all too well is The Scarlet Letter of the American classroom–in the high schools especially (all those AP exams) but by no means only there–and it is this hoary Scarlet Letter that illustrates almost to a T the Protestant understanding of religion that remains stubbornly at the center of U.S. pedagogy and scholarship–our supposed agnosticism and secularity and objectivity notwithstanding. This is no coincidence. For The Scarlet Letter is the first, the one and only uninterrupted, and still most pointedly religious, canonical novel in American history. The Scarlet Letter was used from the beginning to instill and has served ever since to maintain, revitalize, and modify a very particular–only residually Calvinist, but strongly middle-of-the-road Protestant–understanding of religious experience: that religion is a matter of right conviction, righteous behavior, and just community, rooted in overdrawn distinctions between public and private (the anxiety of hypocrisy, the lightening bolt of epiphanic conversion, the triumph of enlightened self-discipline), and transcendentally figural in type and allegory (The "A" is a symbol! Pearl is a symbol! The symbol is in the sky!). Its canonization–our word, taken from the sacred texts of the Christian mass–began only a couple of years after it was published in 1850, and it began not so much in the nascent community of letters, though Melville and the transcendentalists were thrilled, as it did in the 7th and 8th grade classrooms of the Know Nothing/Fugitive Slave law eras, when the bachelor teacher and spinster schoolmistress were called upon to rally the new immigrants (including the German and Irish Catholics), the new city dwellers, and indeed the rebellious white Southerners to a shared sense of the United States of America grounded not only in Republican citizenship but also in the ethos and ethics of Protestant sentimentality. Do spare the rod; internalize individualism, Pauline morality, and the guilty pleasures of self-incrimination–which are of course so more effective. The Scarlet Letter remains integral to U.S. literary pedagogy, where its reigning interpretation is used at the very least to discipline the scholastic reading habits (if not actually their bodies, their selves) of not only the most recalcitrant but also the most pliant–AP English policing corridors of college admissions. But it also continues to serve as a reference text for American literary scholarship–especially for the New Cultural Studies, which gained traction when Jane Tompkins took Hawthorne (a.k.a. Ann Douglas) to task for authorizing critical condescension to Protestant sentimentalism, when Sacvan Bercovitch characterized The Scarlet Letter in particular as a template for the modern rites of American consensus, and when Lauren Berlant delineated the novel’s self-installation at the epicenter of the multi-layered, oppressive, and invidious operations of "the National Symbolic." The Scarlet Letter remains, in short, either the whip or the whipping boy, depending on where you stand–the second because of the first, and the first, I am suggesting, because of the second. Orsian-inspired re-interpretation is therefore not just another wrangling over the meaning of a much-used, much-abused novel: tutoring a shift in the religiousness of our relationship to the novel, it instigates an alternative mode of dissent from the legacy of American theocracy than that of the republican liberal subject or the free-thinking isolate; it allows us to pursue a different usable past from that of Puritan conscience and Emersonian self-reliance, to make of the novel a different form of equipment for living than that of either Protestant renewal or protofeminist individualism, and to feel the novel’s registering of the divine and thus our registering of the divinity of the novel in a way different from that of the reformed sinner or the courageous modern, the allegorical parable or the transcendent symbol.

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Ferraro, TJ

Cited Editors

  • Fisher, JT; McGuinness, M

Published Date

  • 2008

Book Title

  • American Catholic Studies

Published By