What Should We Make of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Racism?


Richard Klayman, Ph.D., is the author of several monographs on American life including America Abandoned: John Singleton Copley’s American Years, 1738-1774, An Interpretative History (1983), The First Jew: Prejudice and Politics in an American Community, 1900-1932 (1985), and "Beyond the Scarlet "A": Hawthorne and the Matter of Racism," Historical Journal of Massachusetts (Winter, 2007).

Nathaniel Hawthorne was the quintessential man of letters, the Great Romancer as he was known, but he was also a tireless racist. The trail examining Hawthorne as an artist versus efforts to probe Hawthorne the racist have been unequally pursued. What might be called a respectful recognition of Hawthorne’s troublesome racial pronouncements is best surmised by Philip McFarland, author of an often eloquent inquiry about Hawthorne’s marriage and life in Concord: “We would prefer that those we admire be admirable in every way.”

“I have not, as you suggest, the slightest sympathy for the slaves; or, at least, not half as much as for the laboring whites, who, I believe, are ten times worse off than the Southern negroes.” Dated June 15, 1851, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s letter to a Salem friend written from a broken down red farmhouse in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts, provides a glimpse of the sharp language, demeaning remarks and unkind observations of the great Hawthorne pertaining to the African American. In fact, critical ideas about race and America are made tangible by understanding how one man, notwithstanding his literary acclaim, came to mitigate slavery and racism in both the antebellum and Civil War years. A legion of gifted biographers have alluded to this racism and, failing to plumb an otherwise remarkable man’s wrong-headedness, instead, gauge the prevalent racist attitudes of the times, review the biblical justifications on behalf of slavery, and suggest that the sectional nature of slavery fostered a general ignorance and indifference about the shame that was slavery.

So what was racism's special connection to Nathaniel Hawthorne?

To Hawthorne, the intense partisanship over the issue of slavery was a challenge to several deeply personal concerns. Many of his lifelong friends were loyal Democrats, as was Hawthorne, all of whom were linked by ideology, patronage and a view of America that rejected the elevation of slavery as an issue weighty or worthy of testing the bonds of Union. These friends did not own slaves but they sustained the existence of slavery through an acceptance of racist presumptions, shared with Hawthorne, chiefly, that being white was and would remain a defining attribute of participating in American life. In this perspective, tampering with slavery was as politically unjustified as it was philosophically flawed: race defined participation in America, political or otherwise, and it was contrary to reason to believe or even consider the likelihood of any change to this condition.

Hawthorne’s political partisanship and, especially, his pursuit of patronage were relentlessly linked throughout his life. He was keenly alert to matters of self-interest, and he was conscious and concerned about appearing at odds with any movement, political or social, that challenged the Democratic Party’s affinity with slavery. With rare exception, Hawthorne’s racism was supportive of those forces that preserved and maintained the slave system. Throughout his life Hawthorne’s struggles attaining and retaining political patronage necessitated public visibility and a rather unremitting association with matters concerning race and slavery. Politics and issues that were enmeshed with the nature of racism became, in fact, a controversial and continually fractious leitmotif both in his life and in the mind of the nation, especially by the 1850’s decade when sectional partisanship heightened and all efforts at some kind of manageable resolution proved futile.

As such, Hawthorne would have preferred a world without slavery but he stubbornly mitigated arguments to preserve slavery’s continuance. In his views, slavery and the racism was a rock of certainty in the land. Hawthorne grew weary of New England intellectuals and social reformers as early as the 1840’s and thereafter who sought its demise. Hawthorne’s dismissal of the Concord icon Ralph Waldo Emerson as “that everlasting rejecter of all that is, and seeker for he knows not what” captures Hawthorne’s distrust of reckless or ill-advised reforms.

To Hawthorne, Andrew Jackson was the source and epitome of political insight and courage because he recognized and articulated the most meaningful issues that confronted the nation, just as he sought to galvanize those long ignored and despised constituencies that truly deserved entitlements. After the presidential election of 1828, America was in the throes of Andrew Jackson’s working class rhetoric and anti-aristocratic public policies. Jackson was not shy in advancing divisive political issues imbedded within the context of social and economic class conflict. In the struggle between the prerogatives of the rich versus Jackson’s tenacious and undisguised support for the “common man,” Old Hickory's charismatic promise was to the advancement of white people. Jackson’s mythic appeal was not lost on Hawthorne.

In the spirit of pro-slavery intellectuals, Hawthorne saluted slavery's “beautiful peculiarities.” He viewed the slave system as a historic quantity, however unfortunate in its origins, that neither politicians nor societal activists could or should alter, less some greater ignominy replace it. The impetus for the end of slavery could only be ordained on the order of the heavenly or the primordial.

As an artist whose design and command of an immense imaginary wellspring was his stock in trade, Hawthorne ascribed great weight to his recognition of the idealized from the real. To him, slavery and the racial suppositions that supported the institution were authorized, constitutionally sanctioned and decidedly evidenced in the history of the world, regardless of the wishes of social critics or the inferences of intellectuals to the contrary.

As a political realist, Hawthorne would grant no political advantage to the opponents of slavery for whom he held disdain. In effect, Hawthorne was every inch a proponent of the racial status quo.

Hawthorne believed it was far more rationale and possible to justifiably recognize that a Jacksonian inspired Democratic Party might help struggling poor whites, the large and diverse swath of American citizenry that emphatically included himself, especially in the years 1825-1837 when he was striving to learn his craft but at a loss to earn a livelihood. Jacksonian politics properly offered Hawthorne a reality check in both truth and necessity: the truth being that poor whites needed a hero and advocate, and that the necessity of earning a bit of bread through the patronage Jackson espoused was democratic and reasonable, especially in an era when wealth meant privilege and exclusivity.

Copyright Richard Klayman

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More Comments:

Bill David - 8/26/2009

The writer is a Ph.D.? He doesn't even use the word "mitigate" correctly in a sentence. The agenda is clear, however: to use Hawthorne's alleged racism as a justification for contemporary racism. This is trash.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 8/25/2009

"Hawthorne believed it was far more rational and possible... that a Jacksonian Democratic Party might help struggling poor whites (than blacks)." It WAS far more rational and possible and it DID.

"(Hawthorne believed) being white was and would remain a defining attribute of participating in American life." In this he was quite correct. Being white DID remain "a defining attribute" for roughly a century after his death (in 1864).