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Cardinal Covenant Application Essay — Student …

Bercovitch argues that The Scarlet Letter is primarily aboutthe prevailing political issues in the United States in the1850's—not the 1650's—especially slavery. According toBercovitch, The Scarlet Letter critiques the kinds ofradicalisms that existed in Hawthorne's day, especially the mostprominent radicalism of the time period: the movement to abolishslavery. Hawthorne, it is no secret, was a friend and collegeclassmate of Franklin Pierce, the fourteenth president of the UnitedStates (he held office from 1853 to 1857). Pierce was against theabolition of slavery, and Hawthorne wrote his campaign biography. Both the campaign biography and The Scarlet Letter,Bercovitch's book tells us, express a preference for a gradualisticapproach to "solving" national problems. In the case ofThe Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne, its heroine, starts out asa radical outrage to social custom—she is an acknowledgedadulteress at the beginning--and ends up a conformist who nonethelessmakes her small contribution to bettering the lives of her fellowBostonians. What this shows, according to Bercovitch, is thatrocking the boat was a far less effective means of bringing aboutchange than a gradual one. In terms of slavery, this means that thesolution was not immediate and total abolition but rather time; infact Hawthorne was simply expressing the view of the majority ofAmericans before 1850 that with time and patience the problem ofslavery would gradually go away all by itself.

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One school of historicist Hawthorne interpretation has emphasizedwhat Hawthorne's historical fiction says about the time period in thepast in which the tales and romances are set. A classic example ofthis sort of interpretation is Michael Colacurcio's article, firstpublished in 1974 in the Essex Institute Historical Collections(I have to make a plug for the host institution!), entitled "VisibleSanctity and Specter Evidence: The Moral World of Hawthorne's 'YoungGoodman Brown.'" Colacurcio's point about "Young Goodman Brown" isessentially that the story presents Hawthorne's interpretation of thedynamics of Puritanism, especially as practiced in Salem Village, andhow those dynamics led inevitably to the horrendous and misguidedapplication of religious zeal in the Salem witch trials. Todemonstrate his point, Colacurcio explains how certain details aboutBrown make it clear that he is a third generation Puritan—thestory makes it clear that both his father and his grandfather wereSalem Puritans. As a result, Brown finds himself in the specialposition of being from so religiously devoted a family thateveryone—including Brown himself—would have assumed thathe was going to become one of the elect.

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