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Resurrecting “Young Goodman Brown” to find timely relevance

November 23, 2021 Published By Holly Watson

By Rae Padilla Francoeur

Until recently, the only time I read anything by Nathaniel Hawthorne was when I had to. My class read “The Scarlet Letter” in 7th grade in Santa Barbara, California. Mostly, I felt sorry for Hester Prynne. Now I see our teacher’s motives. The novel was a cautionary tale for seventh-graders. Sex education disguised as literature. Heartache disguised as romance.

Many years later, a colleague at the Peabody Essex Museum stopped by my office and said he had reread “Young Goodman Brown” the night before and that the story, one of his favorites by Nathaniel Hawthorne, was just as outstanding as it was the first times he read it. He made a copy for me and, feeling obligated, I read it. I loved the author’s lush depiction of the woods — alive with movement and evil intent. From my summers backpacking in the High Sierras I shared this view. Sometimes the woods are like that. Scary. Instead of Native Americans and colonists raiding each others’ encampments, there were bear raids on our food caches.

I’ve just reread “Young Goodman Brown” with a short story study group I joined via Zoom back in March 2020 right after the COVID-19 lockdown. My job last week was to help facilitate our discussion of this classic story, said to be one of Hawthorne’s best. Except for the group leader, I know the group only by their postage stamp images on the computer screen and by their comments — always thoughtful, often impassioned. Prior to the pandemic they met in person in Northern California where most of them are based.

Hawthorne set “Young Goodman Brown” in Salem Village shortly before the witchcraft hysteria of 1692. If ever there was a time on the North Shore when one might conjure witches, it was right about then. There were said to be ugly disputes and serious mistrust between neighbors because of property boundary issues. Surrounding the village of 1692 were dark woods where all manner of danger lurked. As my PEM colleague Greg Liakos said recently, woods could easily represent the absence of civilization. Goodman Brown saw that firsthand. So did the settlers.

In a nutshell, Young Goodman Brown leaves his home in Salem Village at dusk. His bride of three months, Faith, implores him to stay. But Brown had promised to meet a man in the woods. Oddly, it took the man only 15 minutes to journey from Boston to Salem on foot. Brown notices that the man’s cane has a carved snake that appears, at times, to writhe. We agree that the man possesses devilish powers. Brown encounters fellow villagers, both the most religious and well respected and the reprobates. It’s as if society has relocated to this uncivilized and forbidding place. Among those he spots is his beloved Faith. The purpose of the gathering is apparently the baptism or induction of Goodman Brown and his wife. Brown then comes to, either from shock or a nightmare, forever changed into a mistrusting, bitter man. He has essentially lost his faith in people and their society.

It helps to read “Young Goodman Brown” with some historical perspective. I’ve learned from my research that a number of Salem (then Danvers) residents had relocated from Maine, where they had brutal encounters with the Native Americans and probably suffered from PTSD. In Sebastian Junger’s new book “Freedom,” he writes that the torture was so prolonged and

terrifying and, ultimately, deadly, that the colonists preferred to fight to the death rather than allow themselves to be taken prisoner.

After my Sunday short story study group finished George Saunders’ “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain” that featured seven Russian short stories and Saunders’ helpful, generous and thrilling commentaries, we decided to keep going with classic short stories. Each of us selects stories that the group reads, and those making selections provide background as necessary for our weekly discussions.

Hence my recent monthlong high-maintenance relationship with “Young Goodman Brown,” culminating in last week’s one-and-a-half-hour animated Zoom discussion.

Most people know that Nathaniel Hawthorne was a native son of Salem. He was complex, committed to his writing, precocious and funny and creative as a boy, and a devoted father and husband. There are so many parts to him that I wonder if anyone, so many years later, can ever fully comprehend him. He was not a recluse, as many believe. He was not bound solely to Massachusetts but traveled and lived abroad. He was a talented diarist and is now accessible online at Project Guttenberg and elsewhere. As a boy he loved the woods.

Our skilled, enthusiastic group leader, the author Joan Price, found and shared a wonderful audio recording of an actor interpreting “Young Goodman Brown.” We discovered, when reading the Russians, that listening to the older or more challenging stories really helps. None of us found Hawthorne easy. We have a guideline that most of us have adopted — a short story needs to be read three times to be understood. Fortunately, “Young Goodman Brown” is under 10 pages. The more times we read and listened to it, the easier it became to feel at home with the language.

To prepare for “Young Goodman Brown,” I read the story four times and pulled every book on Hawthorne I could find in my library. I had several. And, of course, I Googled and watched lectures and read scholars’ essays. Most of the scholarship I have is dated and, frankly, felt harder to plow through than Hawthorne himself. Here’s one tidbit from Norton’s third edition of “The American Tradition in Literature” — one of my daughter’s college textbooks:

“We understand better [Hawthorne’s] full manliness and humanity now that Professor Randall Stewart has restored their pristine vigor to the gently henpecked texts that Mrs. Hawthorne published of his ‘Note-Books.’ “

I hope that book is no longer used at Mount Holyoke College! Hawthorne’s wife, Sophia, was a smart, critically acclaimed painter and a wonderful letter writer, as well as one of the legendary Peabody sisters (see “The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism” by Megan Marshall). Interventions in her husband’s journals were likely made with informed insight.

Once our Sunday short story group gathered for Hawthorne, one member resisted getting into life in early Salem or Hawthorne’s psyche. I agree in theory. I like to take a story on its merits before launching the literary version of a post-mortem. That’s when you Google every word or piece of text you don’t understand and then read at length about the author.

Overall, we saw the story, in part, as Hawthorne’s way of thinking about the paranoia that overtook Salem Village. His interest was personal and he had become learned in colonial history. His great-great-grandfather, John Hathorne, was one of the judges presiding over the trials and sentencing people to death.

Some members thought the story was about evil. Others connected it to mistrust. Still others saw the prescience of the story, with its relevance to contemporary times and a deeply divided nation where life is tragically lost because of a lack of trust and collaboration. And, of course, facts of witchlike behaviors presented at trials were not facts at all.

An artful story means different things to different people, with some overall agreement on key matters like quality of writing, themes and, yes, entertainment value. “Young Goodman Brown” has all of those, delivered to us in 1835 by one of America’s great and searching writers. As we learn and relearn in our short story study group, reading a story three times is the baseline for understanding. So, too, is trusting in all the readers who’ve come before. Through their enthusiasm and scholarship, they preserve the story for us to discover and appreciate.

 

Rae Padilla Francoeur is a writer and editor who lives in Rockport.

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This post was written by Holly Watson