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Explore Activities Related to Indians in The Scarlet Letter

Explore Activities Related to Indians in The Scarlet Letter

1. This activity was created by Dr. Doug Rowlett from Houston Community College System, Southwest Campus, Stafford, TX.

 

In nineteenth-century Salem the frontier was a distant place only to be read about by most inhabitants, and interactions with living Native Americans were few and far removed. The occasional Native American visitor to Salem had become by Hawthorne's time a quaint relic, more curiosity than threat in most people's minds.

However, residents did read about them in the newspapers and in popular books and articles and were certainly aware of their place in the history of New England, and there were still a few people alive during Hawthorne's early years who could recount old tales from previous generations about "Indian depredations." While Hawthorne never wrote the kinds of Indian-centered tales that Fenimore Cooper did, a close examination of his stories and novels will show he did make more use of Native Americans than is at first apparent.

  • Margaret B. Moore's book The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne provides useful information about Hawthorne's treatment of Native Americans. Read the synopsis cited above and then examine The Scarlet Letter for examples of Hawthorne's treatment of Native Americans in the novel . Note that the forest and its natural inhabitants are portrayed at times as dark, mysterious, and surely allied with the forces of darkness and iniquity and at other times as noble, enduring, natural, and even innocent. Consider how Hawthorne's attitude toward Indians in The Scarlet Letter may have informed his thematic treatment of the duality presented by God's Law on the one hand (civilized, restrained, white, and Christian) and Nature's Law on the other (savage, passionate, dark, and pagan).

  • Review Ellen Knight's article on the Squaw Satchem , the excerpt of John Winthrop's Journal for June 1630 , and review some of the original documents from the early Colonial period . What can you glean from these documents about the attitudes of early colonists toward the Native Americans they encountered? Now read Johnson's critical commentary on The Scarlet Letter and the excerpt from Colacurcio's The Province of Piety. Does Hawthorne's attitude toward Native Americans in The Scarlet Letter seem to agree with or to be at odds with the early colonists' perceptions of them? Is he mainly sympathetic or antipathetic toward them?
    Illustration by Frank T. Merrill of Shem Drowne’s Indian warrior weathervane that stood on top of the Province House in Boston
    Illustration by Frank T. Merrill of Shem Drowne’s Indian warrior weathervane that stood on top of the Province House in Boston (courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA)
     

  • Jarold Ramsey in Redefining American Literary History explores ". . . why, after four centuries of contact, America's first traditional literatures have had so little influence on our literary heritage." While his article deals mainly with Thoreau, explore the Hawthorne In Salem Web Site to find materials pertaining to Hawthorne to either support or refute his thesis that ". . . literary imaging of native life, of which there has been so much, must not be confused with literary assimilation of native imaginative traditions, of which there has been too little."



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