This Week in Literary History: March 15-21
Recognizing the birthdays of The Scarlet Letter and Philip Roth
Searching for the Real Villain of ‘The Scarlet Letter’
By Corinne Weaver
People who think of The Scarlet Letter often remember high school literature classes or even the hit movie Easy A, which tried to modernize the allegory. But the book itself, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne and published on March 16,1850, seems doomed to endless cycles of choppy essays in the service of teaching young ones about American literature.
The tale unfolds in a maddening Puritanical environment where the reader feels Hester Prynne's shame and humiliation as she stands in front of a crowd with a newborn child. Meanwhile, her paramour, Arthur Dimmesdale, preaches to a group as if he has done nothing against his Puritan beliefs.
But Hester does not act as the victim for the rest of the story. Although she is silent on her child's origin and her relationship to Roger Chillingworth, the vengeful husband who seeks to kill Dimmesdale, her actions speak louder than words. "Hester's silence, in particular, can be viewed as a strategy, a presence in the text, as well as in the fictional world of the novel, that forms the plot and determines the fates of the other characters," writes one critic. She ends up essentially owning her own business and being left alone for the most part by society.
Dimmesdale, on the other hand, succumbs to poison prepared by Chillingworth. His weakness as a clergyman, as a father, and as a partner eats him alive and marks his chest with the titular scarlet letter that Hester voluntarily wears on her clothes. Most literary exercises point to Chillingworth as the antagonist who acts out of revenge, but Chillingworth at least has some excuse: his wife had a child with another man. The modern era would have advised Chillingworth to at least get divorced.
"Heaven hath granted thee an open ignominy, that thereby thou mayest work out an open triumph over the evil within thee, and the sorrow without," Dimmesdale publicly advises Hester Prynne. Later, of course, he repents as he dies, without fear of retribution from his Puritan congregation, who can do nothing against a dead man. While Hester doesn't regret loving Dimmesdale and indeed loves him in his weakness, the clergyman regrets loving Hester.
Hawthorne painted Hester as the hero in the most romantic terms, referring to her as a tragic figure, fallen from grace, much like Milton's depiction of Lucifer in Paradise Lost. Hawthorne shows some narrative pity to Dimmesdale, but given that after his death, Hester calls loving him a sin, Hawthorne probably realized his character's cowardice.
The Scarlet Letter was published on March 16, 1850.
How Philip Roth Used a Flashlight to Define 20th Century America
By Andrew Sanger
Comparing himself to two fellow titans of 20th-century literature, Saul Bellow and John Updike, Philip Roth once said, "Updike and Bellow hold their flashlights out into the world, reveal the world as it is now. I dig a hole and shine my flashlight into the hole."
That's an enigmatic statement, to be sure. But it's hard to conjure a better analogy for a writer remembered for his ability to create characters so fleshed out, so lifelike, that readers couldn't help but see their innermost selves reflecting off the page. However, what we learn about ourselves in the pages of a Roth novel aren't always pleasant truths.
Roth created a cast of literary figures that stand among some of the greatest of the last century. Alexander Portnoy, Coleman Silk, and Seymour Levov, to name a few, are more memorable for their fallibility, their all-too-humanness, than anything else. Maybe this is what Roth meant by shining a flashlight into a hole?
Roth showed more willingness than most writers to engage with the psychologically-unglamorous intersection of sexuality, religion, and politics. And while his work was not without a sense of humor, he always treated those topics as worthy of an intense artistic examination. As a result, his books have managed to stir up controversy with more or less every group upon which he cast his critical eye.
None of Roth's novels could encapsulate this unique quality better than the one which catapulted him to the heights of literary fame: 1969's Portnoy's Complaint. The novel catalogs the exploits of a young, anxious, sexually frustrated Jewish man named Alexander Portnoy in the form of an extended monologue to a psychoanalyst. The novel works simultaneously as a character study, a comic examination of Jewish-American culture, and an artistic exercise that few writers could have successfully pulled off. Portnoy's Complaint received a mixed critical reception, a hostile reception from parts of the Jewish community, was outright banned in Australia, and still managed to be an instant bestseller.
Like most of Roth's work, Portnoy's Complaint can be read as at least a bit autobiographical. Roth despised being labeled as a Jewish-American writer, saying, "The epithet American-Jewish writer has no meaning for me. If I'm not American, I'm nothing." But he did admit that his upbringing in a Jewish family played a part in his view of American society.
Portnoy's Complaint's core narrative device is a psychoanalytic therapy session that traces Roth's life experience. While living in New York in the early 1960s, Roth took a hiatus from writing after publishing his first full-length novel, Letting Go (1962). During that time, he underwent psychoanalysis. It was a period which Roth remembered as one of "literary uncertainty."
"I didn't know what the hell to do," Roth recalled in an interview. "What do I write about? Do I pursue these Jewish subjects any further or get rid of them?"
In private life, Roth was by all accounts the exact person he was on the page: intense, uncompromising, utterly hilarious, and almost unsettlingly insightful. After Roth died in 2018, his friend and fellow writer Benjamin Taylor wrote about Roth in The Atlantic.
"He possessed the terrible gift of intimacy," Taylor wrote. "He caused people to tell him things they told no one else. His mineral-hard stare was impossible to hide from."
Roth put this skill to use in his meticulous research for his novels, traveling the country and gathering stories in his career-long quest to uncover the inner lives of those around him. Perhaps it's what led Roth to write in his novel American Pastoral,"He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach--that it makes no sense."
Roth spent his writing years investigating, satirizing, and lambasting the American experience. His books American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain are bundled together as "The American Trilogy." He is one of a handful of authors responsible for creating an image of what it meant to be an American in the late 20th century. Through his commitment to shining a flashlight into that perfect darkness, Philip Roth earned his place among the greatest writers of a generation.
Born on March 19, 1933, in Newark, N.J.
Died on May 22, 2018, in New York, N.Y.
Celebrating World Poetry Day With a Champion
By Emily Quiles
Each year on March 21, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) hosts World Poetry Day, celebrating poetry’s unique ability “to capture the creative spirit of the human mind.” Established in Paris in 1999, World Poetry Day not only gives the mic to writers who’ve spent hours writing and rewriting their hearts out, but it’s also a day “to support linguistic diversity through poetic expression.”
In the spirit of this year’s World Poetry Day, Bidwell Hollow has decided to feature the creative and transformative nature poetry has brought to Steve Champion (Adisa Kamara), a death row prisoner at California’s San Quentin State Prison.
“Writing requires self-honesty,” Champion said in a phone call back in April 2019. “All of these things that are buried in the subconscious start to come out, and it allows yourself to put it on a microscope and look with a very critical eye.”
As a solitary act, writing has given Champion space outside of the prison’s walls. “When you are dealing with poetry - the human language, the human heart, the human soul - you have the ability to reach a person almost anywhere,” Champion explained. “Your words can resonate because of its universal appeal and its beauty.”
A pen and paper rest by his bedside, as unexpected clarity often greets him at night. “I have to. I don’t know if a word, a phrase, or what is going to come up. So I just jot it down.” It’s almost like having two children, he compared. One child is crying for attention while you’re trying to care for the other. “You have to say ‘Okay, if I tend to this one here, then maybe I’ll stop crying,’” Champion said.
“Writing is like breathing for me,” reads Champion’s website. “It allows me to explore the inner region of my soul and discover new things about myself. Writing, like reading, allows me to travel without moving. I’m able to escape the circumscribe mantle of my confinement and connect to the social world I’ve been separated from. Every day I wake up with a central purpose that motivates me to keep moving forward.”
Below are some of Champion’s poems for you to enjoy. These are printed with his permission. You can read more of Champion’s work at sacredeyeofthefalcon.com. Feeling Inspired? You can also write him a letter at:
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin CA 94974
April 22, 2018
It drives a wedge between my eyes like a double edged sword,
pulling me in motion like currents in the sea.
I cannot escape the pull of its gravity, no more than I can my shadow.
I’m orbiting into new dimensions.
Like an object lost in space.
I imagine what it is like to be free from the bondage of pain.
Like splinters being plucked from swollen hands
the pain becomes numb.
I’m in pain, from being free from pain
Like Siamese twins separated by surgery
I miss it like missing limbs, but it’s always present.
August 31, 2017
We can no longer communicate.
Those who boast of being
more powerful than we
have removed the phone
so we can no longer speak.
They have banned mail
so we can no longer write.
They have cancelled visiting
so we can no longer see each other.
They have rendered us incommunicado.
But you and I create our own language,
our own timetable.
We travel without moving.
We bend time to our will
and conquer distance.
We have the gift of remembrance.
If I am held incommunicado,
You keep me alive
When I say
"I love you!"
Illusions of Control
September 2, 2017
We are in control,
or we delude ourselves
of this daily.
We cannot control the rising
and setting of the sun nor
the tides of oceans or the
movements of stars.
We can’t control the weeping
of children yearning for their
Mother’s breast; so how can we
control the longing of the human
heart dying to be fulfilled?
Every attempt bleeds of failure
while eating away vestiges of our souls.
I knew a man who once rejected love.
He fought it, suppressed it, ignored it
and even wished it away.
He claimed victory in his denial.
“I am in control” he declared
It was his daily mantra.
But like a tsunami,
love grew stronger, building momentum
Until one day
it overran him
Like a volcano
in its path.
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The Scarlet Letter
The Scarlet Letter. Nathaniel Hawthorne. 1850.
“Hester Prynne: Sinner, Victim, Object, Winner.” Andrea Seabrook. NPR. March 2, 2008.
“Hawthorne's ‘The Scarlet Letter’: Arthur Dimmesdale's Manipulation of Language.” Michel Small. American Imago, Spring 1980.
“Hawthorne's Dimmesdale: A Small Man Gone Wrong.” William H. Nolte. The New England Quarterly. June 1965.
“Hester's Revenge: The Power of Silence in The Scarlet Letter.” Leland S. Person, Jr. Nineteenth-Century Literature, March 1989.
“Philip Roth Biography.” The Philip Roth Society. 2013.
“Portnoy's Complaint – still shocking at 40.” Chris Cox. The Guardian. Sep. 7, 2009.
“Philip Roth’s Terrible Gift of Intimacy.” Benjamin Taylor. The Atlantic. May 2020.
“Philip Roth, Towering Novelist Who Explored Lust, Jewish Life and America, Dies at 85.” Charles McGrath. The New York Times. May 22, 2018.
World Poetry Day
“Sacred Eye of the Falcon.” Steve Champion. Weebly Website.
“World Poetry Day.” Observances. United Nations.
Notable Literary Births & Events for March 15-21
Heather Graham Pozzessere
The Scarlet Letter is published (1850)
Robert P.T. Coffin
Anna Hempstead Branch
Madame de La Fayette
Florence Ripley Mastin
Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is published (1852)
World Poetry Day