The name Hawthorne in many classrooms, brings up images of just that: a thorny bush that must  be navigated in order to graduate. I would propose this has more to do with how the works of  Nathaniel Hawthorne are taught and less with the works themselves. By utilizing a multimedia  approach and using contemporary examples in “pop culture” of both Hawthorne’s works and  allusions to his works, a teacher can enhance the learning experience of a student.

I realize there are purist out there who think a traditional approach to Hawthorne more  appropriate, but I would argue that a student understanding the implications of Hawthorne, both  in the author’s day and in ours, is vastly more important than maintaining a tradition. Gerald  Graff, in his book Beyond the Culture Wars, gives us an example of how his father “was  frustrated by my refusal to read [and]… once confin[ed] me to my room until I finished a book on  the voyages of Magellan” (65). Here we see Graft pointing to his father’s traditionalist approach  to teach his son to understand literature. Instead, Graft was much more interested in “comic  books, sports magazines, and the John R. Tunis and Clair Bee sports novels” (ibid 65). In other  words, the pop culture of his day. I wonder what Graft’s experience with Magellan would have  been if there had been a comic book to spark an interest in the storyline?

This naturally leads to our discussion of Hawthorne. If we are to adopt a strategy that  uses pop culture to excite students about Hawthorne’s works, we must first ask the question:  “What contemporary examples of Hawthorne are in today’s pop culture?” For our purposes here, we can use three main categories; that of music, movies, and television shows. By analyzing  these categories and tying them into Hawthorne’s works, we can show a type of perpetual  importance of the ideas and themes that Hawthorne brings forth. After hooking the student with  examples like the music of Taylor Swift, the movie The Help, and characters like Poison Ivy, we  can show how these ideas are taken from Hawthorne. This, in turn, will point out that many of  the students have pop culture heroes who have also read these stories and can talk and write  fluently about them.

To begin, a note on comparing texts of various mediums, including books, movies, and  song lyrics. An excellent treatment of this type of intertextual linkage is found in an essay by  Zsolt K. Viragos, entitled “The Hazards of Interpretative Overkill: The Myth of Gatsby.”  Although the essay itself is not about Hawthorne, Viragos makes some important observations  for our discussion. For instance, when discussing how people link various texts, Viragos writes,  “the network of cross-references in world literature resonates with obvious, apparent, potential  and undiscovered analogs…and will have a large and ever-increasing number of counterparts”  (Hungarian Studies in English 52). Viragos points out that there are any number of texts that can  be cross-referenced in order to pull a theme out of any one work. In a limited sense, Viragos is  talking about the link in the myth themes between literary works, but I propose, in a broader  sense, that these intertextual links can come from texts like music, movies, and television shows  also. Furthermore, Viragos explains “how intertextual linkage is generated: the oscillation  between the poles of similarity, partial identity, anomaly, etc. is grasped [by] the reader or critic”  (ibid 52). This shows us that the intertextual connection can be direct, indirect, or partial. Of  course, the strongest evidence can be found in direct references, but it may be a mistake to  discount partial connections.

This becomes important in our ever fragmenting social landscape, where “being  connected” means never actually meeting. This leads to anything from a Hawthomian blurb in a  song to a television show where a character reads The Scarlet Letter, to entire movies that are  patterned after Hawthome’s themes, sometimes with a twist, and at other times quite true to the  original text. By gathering these occurrences together, we can show the modern day cultural  impact of Hawthorne on current issues and entertainment. Here, I will be focusing on two main  modes of reference in pop culture: the explicit, where Hawthorne and/or his works are named or  imitated, and the implicit, where a myth theme of Hawthorne is present, although not called out.  In the latter case we will see these implied myth-themes may be older myth themes Hawthorne  adapts himself.

It is said that, “Music soothes the savage beast,” and so perhaps the use of music to teach  Hawthorne to a class full of undergraduates is appropriate. I am not saying that all students are  savage beasts, but at times when faced with a difficult to understand Hawthorne text, some may  turn into just this. Music is a vast opportunity for an instructor, if they can tap into this culturally  significant medium in the classroom. Perhaps a good question to begin a class with would be,  “What do Taylor Swift and Metallica have in common?” This should perk up the ears of a decent  slice of the class. The answer: Hawthorne.

Taylor Swift is actually an extremely good place to start our discussion. In Swift’s song,  entitled “Love Story,” she sings, “So close your eyes, escape this town for a little while/’Cause  you were Romeo, I was a scarlet letter/And my daddy said `Stay away from Juliet’ (qtd. @ This explicit mention of The Scarlet Letter is interesting. First, it tells us that Swift  knows what The Scarlet Letter is, and another interesting detail is her age when she wrote these  lyrics. Being so young implies she had contact with the text in High School, apparently alongside William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In fact, the entire song is about a Romeo and Juliet  type situation, and the verse, “I was a scarlet letter,” appears to be a mixed metaphor.

I realize there are those who may chalk this up to Swift needing a line for a song. I can  understand the sentiment, but even if this is exactly true, it does not negate, both the phrase’s  interesting use and its importance to pop culture, which in turn makes it appropriate for our  discussion.

The reason this verse seems so out of place in a song about “Star-Crossed lovers,” is  because Hester and Dimmesdale are anything but. Romeo and Juliet are willing to give up their  lives for each other, and this does not happen in The Scarlet Letter. In fact, there is a vast  difference between the “romantic” Romeo and his antithesis Dimmesdale, who Hawthorne writes  has a “dim interior” (Scarlet Letter 87) and is a “low, dark, and misshapen figure” (SL 91). The  very name of Dimmesdale, eludes to him as a dim person and is counter to the handsome and  lively portrait of Romeo.

This leads us to look a little deeper into Swift’s mixing of metaphors. If we assume she  intended this mix, then we wonder how she ties these ends together. In an interview for the Los  Angeles Times about “Love Story,” Swift explains that “I was going through a situation like that  where I could relate. I used to be in high school where you see [a boyfriend] every day. Then I  was in a situation where it wasn’t so easy for me, and I wrote this song because I could relate to  the whole Romeo and Juliet thing” (qtd. @ The Romeo and Juliet theme is clear  and so I would propose the way Swift is tying these two together is by reading them both as  tragedies. If Swift is reading The Scarlet Letter, which is considered a romance, against the  grain, and instead seeing it as a tragedy, the intertextual linkage is plain. The two lovers in each story do not get happy endings. This is conspicuous because in Swift’s “Love Story” the couple does, as Swift sings, “Marry me Juliet/You’ll never have to be alone” (qtd. @ I  believe this leads us to the students in the classroom reading these classic texts in entirely new  ways.

Swift’s fans, known as “Swifties,” are mainly in the millennial generation and much like  Swift, they may not understand why Romeo and Juliet could not have a happy ending. In a  generation living with ideals about family, marriage, and sexuality that are so far removed from  Puritan times, it is not hard to see why. This points to a need for, at least a cursory lesson on the  Histo-critical method for students to be able to grasp these differences.

Again, I realize that some will simply dismiss Swift’s mixed metaphor as a line in a song,  but I would point out that a quick dismal is what we like to do when a person’s reading of a text  is different than our own. We claim, “They just don’t get it,” instead of looking into the reasons  why their stance is different. The important thing here is that “Love Story” went multiplatinum,  which means that, not only did millions of teenagers hear this song, they may be much more  inclined to agree with Swift’s reading, than that of their English teacher.

To prove diversity we can turn to an entirely different genre of music, heavy metal, and  the band Metallica. In the song “The Thorn Within,” whose very title brings to mind the name of  Hawthorne, we see the explicit moving toward the implied. Lyrics like, “I do your time, I take  your fall/I’m branded guilty for us all” (qtd. @, certainly bring the idea of The  Scarlet Letter to the forefront of the mind, but I believe there is a deeper level here. For instance,  Hawthorne and perhaps even Metallica, may have had St. Paul’s statement that, “a thorn was  given me in the flesh” (RSV, 2 Cor. 12:7), in mind as they write. In fact, each of the three, St.  Paul, Hawthorne, and Metallica, show us that bring  imperfect gives one a “sympathic knowledge  of the hidden sin in other hearts” (SL 60). This sympathy that both Swift and Metallica seem to share with Hawthorne is a base line for discussion. By pointing out this wide variety of  correlation between these seemingly different types of music and how they relate to Hawthorne’s  works, we may be able to draw students into a discussion about the themes of Hawthorne that  they can relate to their current culture.

Furthermore, Michael Broek, in his article “Hawthorne, Madonna, and Lady Gaga: The  Marble Faun’s Transgressive Miriam,” we have yet another tie to the music industry. This article  claims that Madonna in the 1980s and Lady Gaga today, use their art, much like Hawthorne, to  point out hypocrisy. What is more, Broek believes, “arguments could be made for relating  Hawthorne’s work to contemporary female pop artist other than Madonna and Lady Gaga, and  such homologies would be intriguing” (Journal of American Studies 638). Especially pertinent  here is the use of media in teaching these lessons. Broek explains that, “What sets these artists  [Madonna and Lady Gaga] from earlier female pop “transgressors,” however, is also what sets  The Marble Faun apart from other Hawthorne novels. Here Broek is showing that Madonna and  Lady Gaga are using the newest forms of media in order to teach the lessons they have for the  world. Even more profound is Broek’s assertion that Hawthorne does the same thing albeit with,  “paintings, sketches, sculptures, Roman ruins, the coliseum, the Parthenon, and especially the  Faun of Praxiteles” (ibid 638). It is not much of a stretch that music videos of today, are what  sculptures were in the past.

All this being said, it would be difficult to deny the cross over between the music  industry today and the works of Hawthorne. The question remains though, “How do we  incorporate these into a classroom setting?” The author, Derrick Jensen, gives us an idea in his  book: Walking on Water: Reading, Writing and Revolution. Although the text focuses on  teaching classes in writing, it is a short leap to literature, and so the lessons transfer quite well.

Jensen proposes that teaching is less about forcing students to regurgitate what they think the  teacher wants to hear, and more about showing them how to think. I could not agree more,  especially in the field of liberal arts. In the chapter, “The most important writing exercise,”  Jensen uses “a CD player, a pile of CDs, and a pile of books” (61), to teach about writing. Jensen  asks, “What’s the attraction of rock `n’ roll?” (61), finally bringing the class to an answer,  “Power. Passion. Energy” (61). By playing all types of music, from Jimi Hendricks to  Beethoven, he accents this lesson, showing the students that this is true of all art. It is the power,  passion, and energy that creates art. The same is true of music, painting, and writing. Much like  Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga, Hawthorne uses the power of his art to point out the hypocrisy of  the Puritan culture and in doing so creates an energy for change that unfolds through the years,  even into the current pop culture of today. Hawthorne is not boring; he is the Ozzy Osborne of  his time.

This awareness of Hawthorne within our contemporary pop culture can also be seen in  the movies that are produced. Aside from the many remakes of The Scarlet Letter, there are  numerous movies that either explicitly use Hawthorne or at the very least imply his themes to  such a degree as to draw attention to the author. One such example is the movie Easy A starring  Emma Stone as a virginal “pretender” of an adulteress. Stone’s character, Olive, is tasked with  writing a paper on The Scarlet Letter, and, in a twist, begins living the ordeal of Hester Prynne.  Olive goes as far as sewing the letter `A’ on her clothing and wearing it like a badge. Of course,  in the movie the young Olive is innocent of all charges, except lying about her love affairs for  various reasons, but in the end earns her `A’ grade by using a webcam to teach a very  Hawthornian message about judgment, redemption and hypocrisy.

While I will concede that it is much different to pretend to be an adulteress and to live  with actually being one, it is interesting to note that the character still learns how people would  treat her if she had actually “sinned” in this way. Another point to make about this movie is that  while the movie is Hawthorne themed, there is no character that mirrors Dimmesdale or  Chillingsworth. Pearl is also absent and so the important lessons we learn from Hawthorne’s use  of these characters is missing.

As before, I do not propose to do away with the Hawthorne texts. I propose instead that  movies like Easy A many entice an otherwise skeptical student, to explore the text more fully. By  assigning the movie first and then asking the students to relate it to the text itself, we may find  that students understand the text better, because we have given them a baseline to start measuring  from.

Moving to a more implicit Hawthorne themed movie, we have The Help, again starring  Emma Stone. In this text there is no overt mention of Hawthorne, but there are a number of  references that, in my reading, are obvious. For instance, there is a correlation between the  mother of Stone’s character, who mirrors Hepzibah in The House of the Seven Gables. Not only  does the mother embody the 1960s aristocratic old lady, who mistreats her servants, she wears a  “strange horror of a turban on her head” (HS 27). In fact, the entire character seems to read as  Hepzibah, and like Hawthorne’s character, the mother learns a lesson in the end and is able to  change who she is.

Another interesting parallel is the character played by Sissy Spacek, who seems to minor  Clifford. They are both a little senile and care little about the world’s judgment. There is even a  Holgrave character, although I will admit it is a small one.

Stone’s character, nick-named Skeeter, is on the other hand, a type of Hawthorne’s  Phoebe. Skeeter is not content with how things have been, she has no desire to be made into a  housewife, and she makes a country to city to country transition just like Phoebe. Even so,  Skeeter eventually moves to the city for good, instead of staying in the country like Phoebe. This  movement theme is prevalent in Hawthorne and so it seems conspicuous in the movie when tied  to the other evidence. What has changed in our current culture is that moving to the city has  become the ideal instead of the country as in Hawthorne’s contemporary time which is why this  is reversed in the movie.

Moving on to the medium of television shows, there are numerous mentions of  Hawthorne and his works in the various popular shows. From The Glimore Girls and The  Mentalist and even The Simpsons, there is mention of, or close correlation to, Hawthorne’s  works and/or themes. One of the strongest characters portrayed is Beatrice from “Rappaccini’s  Daughter.” The Batman character of Poison Ivy seems to be one of the most overt correlations in  television to Hawthorne’s short stories. Although it is difficult to prove undeniably, the Poison  Ivy Wikipedia page cites Batman: The Complete History, as claiming, “[T]he character was  partly inspired by the short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” (qtd. Wikipedia) written by Nathaniel  Hawthorne.” Naturally, this citation is for the original comic book, but any movement from the  original character would extend from this genesis. The parallels are obvious.

For instance, both characters are beautiful, both are poisonous, and both have a scientific  slant. After all, Beatrice is an assistant to a “scientific gardener” (RD para. 11), with a “scientific  mind” (RD para. 9). Poison Ivy is often portrayed as a scientist character, especially as an  environmentalist, albeit an Eco-terrorist, but a lover of the environment nonetheless. This is  interesting as Hawthorne points out the character of Giovanni lives in a mansion where “perhaps an occupant…had been pictured by Dante as a partaker of the immortal agonies of his Inferno”  (RD para. 3). The text note of the Norton Edition reminds us that an “unnamed Paduan nobleman  [was] among those who committed crimes against Nature” (The Scarlet Letter and Other  Writings 199, Note 7). While the difference between the “crimes of Nature” in Hawthorne’s time  and our own are vastly different, this is still easily translated to the global environmental crisis of  today. Therefore, it is not difficult to see how a modern-day reader would view both Poison Ivy  and Beatrice as environmentalist.

Hawthorne is not the first author to use the concept of a poisonous female in their  writing. As far as the physically poisonous female, this theme is especially prevalent in writing  from the Indian continent, and by the seventeenth century we see it arrive in the western  literature. This physical understanding of the poisonous female is differentiated from the female  figures of Eve and Pandora, who bring both physical and spiritual death into the world. This  establishment of an entire canon of literature that carries this theme shows us this is not new, but  I believe the way Hawthorne uses the theme most certainly is. Beatrice commits no sin or  transgression in the story and is wholly an innocent, whereas Eve and Pandora let their curiosity  get the best of them (feminine curiosity seems looked down upon in ancient times). Even so, the  consequence is the same has Beatrice tends the plants her father, “has killed [with] by the  perfume of a flower” (RD para. 50). This is exactly how Poison Ivy kills in the comic books and  the subsequent movies starring the Poison Ivy character.

Moving to more implicit evidence we have the character of Phoebe in the popular show  Friends. The character of Phoebe is played by Lisa Kudrow, and she acts a lot like Hawthome’s  character in The House of Seven Gables. Kudrow plays a female character who is, as Hawthorne  describes, “young, blooming, and very cheerful…a face to which almost any door would have open of its own accord” (HS 46). In the show, Phoebe is an optimistic girl who has a mysteries  past that unfolds slowly and is even then still obscure. What is more, the Friends character is a  feminist and an environmentalist, which is precisely what a modern day Hawhtornian Phoebe  would be like. Hawthorne’s Phoebe does not rush to get married and enjoys tending the flowers  in the family garden. This, coupled with the examples from the movie and music industries,  shows us just how much currency Hawthorne still holds in our culture today.

Finally, a note on The Blithedale Romance. First, there are not many references to this  particular work of Hawthorne in contemporary media. The references that can be found are  typically embedded deep into scenes and typically seem to be a nod to Hawhtorne instead of a  use of his theme in the novel. For instance, in the Harry Potter movies there is a character named  Moody, who has, as Hawthorne’s character Moodie, a “patch on his left eye” (BR 82). In the  movie Half-Blood Prince, there is even a scene where Moody has his eye patch on the wrong  eye, perhaps an ode to Hawthorne’s character’s eye “patch over his right eye” (BR 179). Which  Hawthorne writes seemingly on mistake. After the Potter character realizes that the patch is on  the wrong eye, he moves it back to the correct one.

Aside from this, we see a long tradition of the “drowned woman,” theme in literature.  From the Chinese folk stories retold by Maxine Kong Kingston to the Mexican-American author  Rudolfo Anaya, there are numerous examples in world literature of texts with a drowned woman  motif. In Chinese literature this is portrayed as woman become disgraced or shamed, and in the  Mexican culture in spawns the La Llorona myth. Again, although this theme is, in a wider sense,  a structure of literary works from around the world, its presence in Hawthorne’s The Blithedale  Romance, tells us that there is an underlying theme. That ties Hawthorne into the wider literary  community from around the world.

Again, the question is how to incorporate these texts into a class on literature. Another  voice in the discussion is Lauren Gatti and her article “Seriously Popular: Rethinking 19th  Century Literature through the Teaching of Popular Fiction.” Gatti also believes that we should  “try hard to breathe life into Hawthorne’s work” (The English Journal 47), while she still admits  that “reading Hawthorne is hard” (ibid 47). For Gatti the answer is to allow the students to, “add  the poems, songs, or books that they have read…for example, if a student’s canon included  Tupac, Poe, Longfellow, Lauryn Hill…the students could have these figures debating the merits  of their [these authors] works” (ibid 52). Gatti is clear we should not “abandon texts that make us  work hard” (ibid 53), and by using contemporary artists we can bridge the gap.

In conclusion, all of these examples of modern media of various forms, including songs,  movies, and television shows, show us there is a huge opportunity to bring the classic works,  especially that of Nathaniel Hawthorne, alive. Making these texts clearer and more present to the  student in class will open up an entire tool chest of resources for a lively discussion of  Hawthorne. I believe this is important, because Hawthorne’s writing teaches us something about  what it is to be human, and by learning these works, the students will thereby learn about how  they should live.

Perhaps some will see beginning the discussion of Hawthorne with contemporary movies  and songs, as sneaky at best and blasphemous at worst, but I maintain that the student being  actively involved in these discussions and learning something from them is vastly more  important than any traditional approach. I whole heartedly agree that Hawthorne should be  taught in class, but I believe by not using these techniques a teacher is missing an awesome  opportunity to show the perpetual importance of one of the foundational fathers of American  Literature. I admit that this will be necessarily more complex and difficult to accomplish. Even so, forcing students to sit, dead-eyed as a teacher talks, is not a better alternative. Recently there  are more and more voices rising in academia with evidence to prove it is well worth the extra  effort.


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