October 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 5
Overrated The Scarlet Letter . At the very whisper of the title, of course, I see 10,000 high school teachers rise up and shake their gory locks at me. For three generations at least, American schoolchildren have been introduced to their literary heritage through Hawthorne’s grim and thoroughly unwholesome novel about the adulteress Hester Prynne, her bad-tempered husband, Chillingworth, and the insipid, repressive, and well-named Reverend Dimmesdale. The book is a tribute to “the power of blackness” in our national psyche, one famous Harvard scholar says. It is, Henry James thought in a moment of critical disequilibrium, America’s “finest piece of imaginative writing.”
The truth is, though Hawthorne sets his story in seventeenth-century Salem, Massachusetts, and places his fictional characters among real historical figures during real historical events, he does a terrible job of evoking early New England life, much less a core experience in the American psyche. I would venture a guess that a very high percentage of students slog through the novel’s allegorical murk without ever discovering that it is about sex; the characters are far too disembodied for that, the dialogue too oblique for anybody ever to explain just what is going on. In his dying moment the best Dimmesdale can do is cry out (“with tremulous solemnity,” alas), “The law we broke—the sin here so awfully revealed—let these alone be in thy thoughts! I fear! I fear! It may be, that when we forgot our God,—when we violated our reverence each for the other’s soul.. .,” etc.
We know from authentic historical records that the Puritans were never so puritanical. And that nobody human ever talked like this or lived in quite such pure and goofy hypocrisy. If it is the business of fiction generally to create, through the hieroglyphic of words, a solid, plausible, inhabitable reality, it is the business of historical fiction to create as that reality something faithful to the shared experience, something closer, say, to the history of the tribe. Hawthorne falls short on every count. The only true American touch in the book, I think, is his rather sly and quite Yankee revelation in the afterword that thanks to old Chillingworth, the repellent little “Pearl—the elf-child,” Hester’s illegitimate daughter, has grown up to become “the richest heiress of her day.” It would be a better world if the book were a satire and Voltaire had written it.
Underrated Gore Vidal’s Lincoln is a great novel because in it Vidal, whose brilliant wit almost always comes at the expense of other people, finally found someone he couldn’t make fun of.
I have no way of knowing if Lincoln’s own greatness of character released some intense (and unsuspected) human sympathy on the novelist’s part. I do know that virtually every page of Lincoln bears witness to Vidal’s remarkable, self-effacing immersion in his subject’s world.
Vidal also makes two absolutely perfect technical decisions. The first is to avoid a full-scale birth-to-death narrative and to tell only the story of Lincoln’s Presidency. The second is to write about those four years not from Lincoln’s own point of view but from the points of view of a revolving carousel of characters around him—John Hay, William Seward, Lincoln’s myopic rival Salmon Chase, and, perhaps most wonderfully, Lincoln’s off-and-on mad wife, Mary. The effect is partly to show us Lincoln from the outside, opaque, as his contemporaries saw him and partly to keep the President’s own inner character unviolated and, in every right sense, mysterious.
Academic historians hate the book. The historian Richard N. Current claims that “Vidal is wrong on big as well as little matters. He grossly distorts Lincoln’s character and role in history.” Professor Roy Basler calls it “the phoniest historical novel I have ever had the pleasure of reading” and adds, with fascinating precision, that “more than half the book could never have happened as told” and that another 25 percent consists of “episodes that might have happened, but never as told by Vidal.”
Actually, Vidal makes very few and very insignificant slips of fact. His book is beautifully written and epic in scale, and it really does deserve that most clichéd and impossible praise that it truly brings the dead past to life. The professional objections, as Vidal himself remarked, reverting to form, “are the sort of thing that gives mindless pedantry a bad name.”