16 November 2006

15. The Scarlet Letter by Nate Hawthorne

It's damn difficult to read books outside the curriculum I teach these days, but I am slowly working my way through a few fiction books right now: The System of the World, the final book in the Baroque Cycle; The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly. And a few non-fiction ones: Instant Weather Forecasting by not the Zen-Master Alan Watts; and the Boatowner's Electrical Handbook by Charlie Wing.

But I have asked you here to tell you about the glorious writing that is Nate's. I had not read The Scarlet Letter before reading it to teach it. Nothing better to clarify your concentration than having to get in front of 25 16 year olds and lead a book discussion. The AP Language class read the book, and we looked at it both as a piece of fiction, and as an argument. That Hawthorne was critiquing the Puritans in the plight of Hester, Chillingsworth, and Dimmesdale, and even criticizing his own ancestors (his grandfather of some great-kind, was one of the judges in the Salem Witch Trials, a fact that shames Nate so much that he adds the W to his last name to put some distance between the two of them. Old Judge Hathorne is a character in "The Crucible."). We looked at the monologues as editorials and Nate's language - his syntax and diction.

It was a fascinating way to read a book with teenagers, to really take a close look at the words in the text. For example, in the 200 pages of the novel NH uses the word ignomony 21 times. So we examine why that word, and why in those places. I really enjoy close reading and my best classes in college where the ones where we took a critical eye to word choice and the multiple meanings of words. (I realize that that close reading lead many a folk to the evils of the post-modern, but I found it intellectually satisfying right to that threshold.) I also learned that the kids, or at least these kids, will get as nerdy about language as you make it safe to be so.

A section I especially loved, and it will come as no surprise to my fellow Wordsworthians, was when little Pearl was in the forest, and the woods seemed to welcome her: the melancholy brook, the birds, the wildflowers that called out to her - I never knew Hawthorne to have such a delicate eye for nature and the sympathetic, in-tune feelings of his fellow transcendentalists. There are sentences, paragraphs even, where Hawthorne uses all of the descriptive finesse of Hank Thoreau.

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