"Whether hatred and love be not the same thing at bottom": Cultural revisionism in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and Toni Morrison's A Mercy

Béar, Anna, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Brickhouse, Anna, Department of English, University of Virginia

In this thesis, I investigate how Toni Morrison and Nathaniel Hawthorne both engage in the practice of cultural revisionism in their respective novels A Mercy and The Scarlet Letter. Standing as they do as two of the most towering figures of American fiction, Morrison and Hawthorne’s work in their respective novels demonstrates that national self-definition through literature was not only a concern of early American writers now read more for their historical and ideological significance than for their literary merit – it is entrenched even in the nation’s most celebrated fiction. Where these two authors, so different in their work itself and in its historical and cultural context, coalesce is in their shared belief that looking back at earlier American culture through literature, in contrast with the critical model of revision proposed by Van Wyck Brooks, is key to addressing the problem of America’s canon. I am interested not only in the differences between the concept of a ‘usable past’ for Hawthorne and Morrison, but also in where the two are similar, and what that might tell us about how to conceive of America’s canonical literature.

MA (Master of Arts)
American literature, Toni Morrison, Nathaniel Hawthorne
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