Monday, September 9, 2019

Guest Post: W is for Witching: An Analysis of the Hawthorne Name and Identity by Stephanie M. Wytovich

W is for Witching: An Analysis of the Hawthorne Name and Identity 

By Stephanie M. Wytovich

The Salem Witch Trails took place in February of 1692 and lasted until May of 1693. This bout of hysteria began in a small colony in Massachusetts due to the accusations of Elizabeth Paris, Ann Putnam and Abigail Williams, all of who started having fits and unexplainable episodes that evoked suspicion of the supernatural. Eventually, these girls informed two judges—Johnathan Corwin and John Hathorne—that their illnesses were caused by the afflictions of three women: Tituba (a slave), Sarah Osborne (an elderly woman), and Sarah Good (a beggar).

Now most of us know the escalation of what happened next: interrogations, torture, the witch trails, death by hanging, and in one case, a man was pressed to death by stones. We learn about the tainted history of Salem in grade school, about the myths and fears surrounding witches, all those innocent women whose crimes were their gender, their independence, their existence, yet one man was so horrified by the ancestral ties attached to his name that he spent his life trying to undo the damage.

There is much speculation as to when and why Nathaniel Hawthorne changed the spelling of his last name—he added a ‘W”—but it is generally believed that he did so to separate himself from his great-great grandfather, John Hathorne, who played a vital part in the sentencing in the witch trials where over 200 people were accused and 20 died.

Last year, I went to Salem, Massachusetts to pay my respects at The Witch Memorial. You can read more about my experience hereand here.

After studying at Bowdoin College, Nathaniel Hawthorne dedicated his time to studying the craft of writing, and most of his body of work depicts the harsh realities of his Calvinist heritage in an attempt to shine a light on the sins of his forefathers. Stories such as “Young Goodman Brown” and “The Minister’s Black Veil” reveal the dark side of human nature with themes such as ostracization, loss of faith, mistrust, and abandonment being at the forefront of the text. However, the witchcraft in his fiction is subtle and based on speculation rather than fact, much like the actual trials themselves. As such, the tables are turned as Hawthorne searches for atonement, dealing out punishment to the accusers rather than the accused in order to repent and seek redemption. 

Something else worth noting in Hawthorne’s fiction is his treatment of women. My students and I talk about this a lot because while in some facets, Hawthorne seems to be miles ahead of his ancestors, in other ways, he’s lacking, especially when it comes to the portrayal of women. My thoughts are that while yes, his women are often fragile and submissive, he’s doing this in a gross exaggeration as a reflection of the time period. In Salem, anything could have stood as proof of witchcraft and signed a death warrant: a wrong look, a financial debt, an affair, a forgotten prayer, etc. Women had to appear submissive in order to survive, and Hawthorne displays this characterization to further illustrate past wrongdoings and educate readers to ensure the scales remain even instead of tipped in one direction.

Whether I’m reading The Scarlet Letteror perhaps a more allegorical work such as “Rapaccini’s Daughter,” it’s the social commentary that Hawthorne slips into the text that brings me back as a reader. I admire that he wrote stories that while fiction, told more truth than our history books, and I think that his work is so important to American literature because it both holds us accountable for our tragedies while also reminding us that something like this can never happen again, and that’s what good stories do. They teach us, they educate us, they entertain, and they change lives.

Stephanie M. Wytovich is an American poet, novelist, and essayist. Her work has been showcased in numerous venues such as Weird Tales, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Fantastic Tales of Terror, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror: Volume 2, The Best Horror of the Year: Volume 8, as well as many others. 

Wytovich is the Poetry Editor for Raw Dog Screaming Press, an adjunct at Western Connecticut State University, Southern New Hampshire University, and Point Park University, and a mentor with Crystal Lake Publishing. She is a member of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, an active member of the Horror Writers Association, and a graduate of Seton Hill University’s MFA program for Writing Popular Fiction. Her Bram Stoker Award-winning poetry collection, Brothel, earned a home with Raw Dog Screaming Press alongside Hysteria: A Collection of Madness, Mourning Jewelry, An Exorcism of Angels, Sheet Music to My Acoustic Nightmare, and most recently, The Apocalyptic Mannequin. Her debut novel, The Eighth, is published with Dark Regions Press. 

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