Democratic Personality Unbound: Historicizing "The Minister`s Black Veil" Anew
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Nathaniel Hawthorne is considered as one of the most representative writers of nineteenth-century America. But that reputation is largely built upon the scholarly consensus that his work concerns the realities of Puritan America. The consensus is well illustrated in the criticism on "The Minister`s Black Veil" (1836), which centers on the question of what the Reverend Hooper`s veil signifies and tries to answer it by analyzing the tale as Hawthorne`s satirical commentary about the problematic of American Puritanism. Such a religiously historical reading obscures another important historical fact that the tale was foremost written and published in the contexts of early nineteenth-century America. Drawing on this multiple historical referentiality of "Black Veil," this paper proposes to re-historicize the tale by means of the similitude between Puritan America and nineteenth-century America. The paper especially attends to how the two historical periods conduce to what Nancy Ruttenburg calls "the rise of democratic personality" in America. "Black Veil" does have allusions to such early American incidents as the Salem Witchcraft Trials and the Great Awakening, both of which allow common people to voice their opinions individually and achieve sociocultural power collectively. At the same time the tale also responds to the literary market system in post-revolutionary America where the varied tastes of common readers altogether influence the production and consumption of a literary work. This distinctively American phenomenon of "collective individuality," which blurs the typical binary opposition between the individual and community, is represented in the relationship between Hooper and the townspeople in "Black Veil." On the one hand, Hooper`s veil confuses and obscures the dualistic divisions of Milford, leading the townspeople to a new type of harmony in which they all react to it but heterogeneously. Hooper, on the other, is controlled by the townspeople`s reactions to his veil so that he lets his identity be made through those reactions. This paper concludes by discussing how Hawthorne`s unique career path, which completely moves from writing short stories and tales to writing novels, indicates his Hooper-like acceptance of the democratically formulated writerly personality in the reader-oriented literary domain in nineteenth-century America.
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