Professor William Heath's 1997 essay "Thomas Morton and 'The May-Pole
of Merry Mount'" provides insight into Hawthorne's use of the New England past
for the imaginative world of his fiction, and it examines Hawthorne's ambiguities
in regard to Puritanism that are evident in the short story "The Maypole of
Merry Mount" and more fully developed in the novel The Scarlet Letter.
Heath vividly chronicles the history of Thomas Morton, the cavalier settler who erected a maypole and termed its location "Meriemounte" on the outskirts of Separatist Plymouth Colony. Morton's defiant actions against the Calvinists earned him multiple imprisonments and banishments, and Heath remarks with some surprise that Hawthorne chose to ignore this colorful individual entirely and replace him in the story with a vague priest with the acknowledged misnomer of Blackstone. Perhaps Morton's character was simply more complicated than the figure of unbridled merriment that Hawthorne envisioned for his "sort of allegory."
As Heath observes, Hawthorne shows an overriding interest in the conflict
between Puritanical humorlessness and the joys inherent in holiday festivities
that trace their origins to the earliest human communities. When the story's
narrator observes, "Unfortunately, there were men in the new world of a sterner
faith than these Maypole worshippers," he seems to speak from a very different
side of his mouth than when he concludes, "They went heavenward, supporting
each other along the difficult path which it was their lot to tread, and never
wasted one regretful thought on the vanities of Merry Mount." Just as The
Scarlet Letter's Hester Prynne embodies both heroine and fallen woman,
the revelers of Merry Mount represent the paradox of joy in the face of grim
reality, well paired by Heath with the ancestor of ancient Greek tragedy,
the frenzied Dionysian rites of comus. As in The Scarlet Letter, "The
Maypole of Merry Mount" voices some Puritan ideals while confounding them
by the evidence of the narrative. Heath further enlightens by exploring these
contradictions with Freudian analysis.
Heath understates Hawthorne’s negative depiction of Puritans, however, when he observes, “The revelers can only sing and dance, while the Puritans can only work and pray.” In fact, readers will find little if any work or prayer in the story’s Puritans. A more accurate summary of their actions would conclude, “The Puritans can only punish and destroy.” Heath overstates Hawthorne’s animus toward pagans, moreover, when he characterizes the story as “a meditation on the danger of ‘merriment’ out of control.” Although Hawthorne suggests faults in the extremes of both paganism and Puritanism, in the end he simply champions love, interestingly the essence, many would contend, of the entire Christian message, and much farther from the harsh theocracy imposed by Puritans than the sort of “Golden Age” revisited in Merry Mount.
In fact, Hawthorne’s Merry Mount revelers are lighthearted, tolerant, and mutually supportive, in sharp contrast with the story’s malevolent Puritans, whose Governor Endicott so strikingly resembles the savage characterization of Cotton Mather in Hawthorne’s “The Duston Family”: “an old hardhearted, pedantic bigot.” Even when Endicott seemingly softens toward “The May-pole of Merry Mount’s” captured newlyweds, he makes clear that he will spare them of punishments only because they could prove useful to their captors. Initially enemies to the Puritans, the newlyweds exhibit such a deep love that they can accept Puritan indoctrination without complaint as long as they remain together.
Despite ambiguous elements in Hawthorne’s fiction, therefore, readers should not permit the “trees” of faulty hedonism to obscure the “forest” of Puritan cruelty, which clearly outweighs any foibles found in Merry Mount.