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Hawthorne and Whitman: A Comparison

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    In comparing various aspects of the fiction and poetry of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman, it is evident that each nineteenth-century writer’s use of symbolic landscapes, images of nature, and dramatization of qualities of fear and desire are strikingly similar. It is also evident that there are notable differences in the tone of the work, but this is not surprising, for Hawthorne and Whitman were uniquely talented individuals with different approaches to expressing the themes they presented in their works.

    Focusing our attention first on what these two nineteenth-century literary legends shared in common, we find that in The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne defined the romance as a place of more mystery and less specific description of concrete reality. For Hawthorne, and for Walt Whitman as well, it was a place where both elemental and spiritual forces could be put into play in a landscape that was full of symbolic, almost allegorical, potential. Hawthorne set his romances, as romances are often set, in places distant, where different rules could apply, or in the past, and in much of his poetry, Walt Whitman was also interested in revealing a world in which different rules and perceptions applied.

    One example of the landscape symbolism of Nathaniel Hawthorne is In The Scarlet Letter, when Hawthorne describes the forest surrounding Puritan Boston as a “moral wilderness” where the unmarried lovers, Hester Prynne and the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, could freely express their deep affection for one another. But unlike her lover, Hester wears the scarlet “A” on her breast as a constant reminder of her adultery and proudly refuses to betray the identity of her fellow sinner, the preacher and father of their child. In contrast, Reverend Dimmesdale continues to occupy his position of holy authority, and is revered and respected for his purity and wisdom, but his hypocrisy condemns him to a private hell.

    Nathaniel Hawthorne’s sympathy for this poor victim of puritanical hypocrisy and tyranny is evident when he wrote in The Scarlet Letter that, “Thus Hester Prynne, whose heart had lost its regular and healthy throb, wandered without a clue in the dark labyrinth of mind; now turned aside by an insurmountable precipice; now starting back from a deep chasm. There was wild and ghastly scenery all around her, and a home and comfort nowhere.” (Hawthorne)

    Nathaniel Hawthorne’s portrayal of Hester Prynne is interesting, for she changes significantly throughout The Scarlet Letter. Through the eyes of the Puritans, she was an extreme sinner; and had gone against Puritan ways by committing adultery. For what the Puritans considered an irrevocably harsh sin, she had to wear a symbol of shame for the rest of her life. As the assigned quote demonstrates, Hawthorne criticized the Puritanic treatment of Hester Prynne. In The Scarlet Letter she is a beautiful, young woman who has sinned, but is forgiven. Hawthorne portrays Hester as divine maternity who can do no wrong.

    In terms of images of nature, as a transcendentalist, Walt Whitman viewed Nature and the individual as two parts of an inseparable whole, and the imagery of his poetry reflects this often. He also explored through his transcendentalist philosophy the range of possibility for the American imagination before the Civil War, through the content of his poetry. (Reynolds)

    Walt Whitman concerned himself with the unraveling of the great and fundamental mysteries of life and the universe, and wanted to fire the imagination of his readers with his vision. He believed that if the philosophy does not explain all, and if it cannot be held as a kind of ultimate value, it must be dismissed. This is reaffirmed when Whitman holds that, no matter how sublime the doctrine, if it does not have some umbilical point of practicality, it is of no value.

    His sentiments are reflected in the lines, “This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is, This is the common air that bathes the globe.” (Whitman ) Walt Whitman considered his views to be truly representative of reality. Furthermore, he considered them in logical terms to be inescapable conclusions. Wherever there is life, these are its underlying truths. Furthermore, these views, Whitman held, are themselves Life.

    In comparing the distinctive differences in tone between Walt Whitman and Nathaniel Hawthorne, it must be noted that this difference is due to a number of factors, primarily involving the practical differences between prose and poetry. But their tones also contrast because of their quite different personalities, and their different perceptions of the world around them.

    Walt Whitman of course was a man whose expressive art through his poetry was complex and multifaceted. There are really several aspects to Whitman, and his work can be interpreted on many levels: democrat, egalitarian, patriot, metaphysicist, nature poet, lover, free spirit, and exponent of spiritual values such as moderation, balance and tolerance.

    In terms of his personality, Whitman was a very gregarious man who loved life, knew how to have a good time, and particularly enjoyed children and good company. His poems are less a logical discourse than spontaneous outpourings of human emotion. It is from this emotion that Whitman’s poetry derives its power. At times, Whitman reached not for cosmic, transcendental levels, but dealt with the elemental and intimate on a purely emotional level. Like this information? You need something similar? We are ready to help with dissertation!

    In contrast, unlike Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne led a shy and rather somber life, and had a moody, intensely meditative temperament. The colors and shadows of his temperament are marvelously reflected in his work. Despite his acquired and inherited reserve, he possessed a faculty of divining men and women and exercised this skill with almost uncanny prescience and subtlety.

    In conclusion, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman both used symbolic landscapes and images of nature in their writing. Each of them also dramatized qualities of fear and desire, but demonstrated notable differences in tone. This is not surprising, for Hawthorne and Whitman were uniquely talented individuals with different approaches to expressing the themes they presented in their works.


    • Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1981.
    • Reynolds, David. Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.
    • Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. New York: Bantam Classics, 1983.

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