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From Robert D. Arner’s  “The Story Of Hannah Duston: Cotton Mather To Thoreau,” p. 21.   



     Not until Hawthorne became interested in the Duston family romance did the tale find an artist who fully understood its moral and psychological ambiguity and who possessed artistic ability to develop it.  A number of historians, however, were to precede him.  The year that Whittier' s Legends was published, for instance, John Lauris Blake included Hannah in The Historical Reader, 14 and the next saw Mirick's History of Haverhill, Massachusetts, with its open condemnation of Mrs. Duston, followed by Samuel Goodrich's Peter Parley's Method and his First Book of History for Children and Youth and Charles Goodrich's History of the United States of America.15   B. Bernard Cohen has shown that Hawthorne relied most heavily upon Mather, Peter Parley' s Method, and Mirick.


     Although Hawthorne, like Whittier, was aware of Hannah's duality, he did not attempt to reconcile her good and evil, suggesting only that the recollection of her child's murder "hardened Hannah Duston' s heart.”  Otherwise, his attitude suggests his later, far more complex handling of Beatrice Rappaccini, in whom purity and passion co-exist, 18 and he leaves us with the conflicting images of a "good woman" (p. 132) and a "bloody old hag" (p. 136).  Like Dwight, he is more comfort-able with her husband: "This awful woman, and that tender hearted, yet valiant man. . . will be remembered as long as the deeds of old times are told round a New England fireside.  But how different is her renown from his!”  (p. 137).


      Hawthorne's sketch is interesting because it condemns Cotton Mather, whom he terms "an old hard-hearted, pedantic bigot" (p. 135), whose self-righteousness bothered him as much as Hannah's act.  In a paragraph of sonorous dirge-like vowels, he establishes a colloquy of voices in which the soft, mournful voice of nature contrasts with Mather' s strident exultation over the impending death of the savages: "The night wore on; and the light and cautious slumbers of the red men were often broken, by the rush and ripple of the stream, or the groaning and moaning of the forest, as if nature were wailing over her wild children. . . . But, a little before the break of day, a deep, dead slumber fell upon the Indians. . ..  ‘See,’ cries Cotton Mather, triumphantly, ‘if it prove not so?’  “ (p. 135-136).


     Hawthorne's borrowings from the Magnalia are undisguised but integrated into his narrative, his voice overriding even as it echoes Mather' s.  By dealing with the husband and wife separately, he restates structurally the difference between an unequivocally noble action and a morally ambiguous one, his imagery supporting our awareness of Hannah's duplex nature.  In the conclusion, he registers disapproval of Hannah but distances himself somewhat by blending his voice into that of public opinion.  His narrative method anticipates "The Maypole of Merry Mount, " in which the revelers of Thomas Morton's plantation as children of the Gold Age gradually invite his criticism for their idleness and frivolity.  Conversely, the Puritans, who enter under a cloud as grim, grey, heavy-hearted men, slowly reveal their positive qualities.  In the same way, Hannah, who appears at first as a good woman, becomes a hag by the end of the piece.  Her antagonists, the Indians, who initially are pictured as bloodthirsty savages, Hawthorne humanizes until they become the victims.  Since both tales are grounded in history, we may conjecture that this technique of reversal was important--perhaps even necessary--to Hawthorne in converting it to fiction.



Source:  Robert D. Arner.  “The Story Of Hannah Duston: Cotton Mather To Thoreau,” American Transcendental Quarterly, 18 (1973).  19-23.  Used with the author’s permission.

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