The Scarlet Letter (1850) opens on the threshold of what is, arguably, the bluntest form of social containment, the prison. From the very beginning, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s narrator marks the inextricable relationship between the infant Puritan society and the methods that it uses to organise and contain:

The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognised it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison (47).

Hawthorne’s Puritan tale of adultery and shame has traditionally been read as an American genesis, a belated origin myth for the United States. At its own beginning, it lays at the nation’s foundation a series of containing forms designed to organise the dead and the law-breaking living. In this quotation the prison is ‘the black flower of civilised society’, the ‘virgin soil’ planted with forms of control so that organising structures are shown to be a natural product of social life (48). Hawthorne here cites and then immediately tempers utopian intention. His use of the indefinite article – ‘a new colony’ – subtly rebukes American Exceptionalism; all societies begin with idealism and move swiftly to controlling, containing forms. However, if we are to take Hawthorne’s text as a myth of origin, it is surely predicated upon the drawing of boundaries; to strive for particularised identity is, of course, to delineate form. The first paragraph of The Scarlet Letter thus speaks to the problematic nature of national identity: though boundaries and restrictions are crucial to the organisation of social life, there is, at their heart, a lack of any differentiating essence. Theo Davis writes that Hawthorne is aware that ‘identity is both inaccurate to our lived experience, and yet impossible to live without’ (229). In what follows, I examine how The Scarlet Letter is acutely aware of this problematic logic. Though Hawthorne’s text works to articulate a holistic national identity, it ultimately recognises the contingency of this identity.

The characters of The Scarlet Letter frequently linger on thresholds. Most notably, in the opening chapter, the protagonist Hester Prynne stands in the doorway of the prison that is described above. Throughout the text thresholds and boundaries are confounded sites that trouble the relationship between what is within and what is without. Confounding the nature of boundaries has often been a central concern of late twentieth and early twenty-first century literary criticism. Indeed, as Caroline Levine argues, the discipline has long been attentive to problematising received boundaries and limits. However, as she goes on to write, ‘we cannot do without bounded wholes: their power to hold things together is what makes some of the most valuable kinds of political action possible at all’ (27). In The Scarlet Letter, as the above passage attests, Hawthorne is always mindful that limits are inevitable. What emerges in the text then, is a preoccupation with wholes; Hawthorne pushes at the boundaries of literary and social forms so that by the end of the narrative, he offers his readers an expanded whole that is at once vexed and held together. Both Sacvan Bercovitch and Lauren Berlant have read the politics of The Scarlet Letter as quietist, finding Hester’s eventual return to Salem to be a concession to the status quo. I argue here that Hawthorne’s attentiveness to the whole is instead, a type of radical collectivism. The Scarlet Letter gives textual space for radical viewpoints to develop and Hester’s absorption into Salem society at the end of the story ensures that these transgressions are then assimilated into the whole. Levine deems the field of literary studies too preoccupied with ruptures and hybridity in its attempt to dismantle the dominant ideologies that structure culture – though she is sympathetic with these aims – and calls instead for a new strain of criticism that recognises the political potential of form. In my reading of The Scarlet Letter, I answer Levine’s call and show how a study of the text’s connecting, converging, and clashing literary forms can elucidate the complexity of Hawthorne’s political position. I borrow the capacious definition of form that Levine uses – she has stretched it to include political and social forms as well as literary forms, in order to bring them all to bear on one another. Levine seeks to find confluence between the approaches of New Criticism and New Historicism in order to marry the formalist analysis of the former with the progressive political project of the latter. What I gain from Levine then, is both method and aim: by analysing the way in which literary and political forms interact in the text, I uncover Hawthorne’s own attentiveness to the rendering and shaping of wholes.  I argue here, that, in its attempt to expose the complexity within wholeness, The Scarlet Letter redefines it for political ends. Hawthorne problematises containing forms but ultimately finds the whole to be a model for incremental and ongoing progress.  Though it has been read through formalist and historicist lenses alike, no critic has yet brought Levine’s brand of New Formalism to bear on the text.

New Formalism is then a pertinent method to analyse the literature of the American Renaissance more generally. Much writing of the mid-nineteenth century was a pronouncement of national identity. Many of Hawthorne’s contemporaries articulated the need for a national literature distinct from its European predecessors. For example, Margaret Fuller’s ‘American Literature; its position in the present time’ (1846) and Walt Whitman’s ‘Democratic Vistas’ (1871) both posit literature as the primary tool for shaping a distinct American character. Whitman writes there, ‘the great literature penetrates all, gives hue to all, shapes aggregates and individuals, and, after subtle ways, with irresistible power, constructs, sustains, demolishes at will’. So, for Whitman, literature has the unique ability to imagine and create political and social relationships. We are not so far from Levine here; by interacting with the political, literary forms can expose and create new potentialities. The writers of the American Renaissance located a dynamic political potential in literature; for them it provided an imaginative space to envision new and different realties. As Lawrence Buell notes, ‘nation making itself’ is ‘a kind of narrative creation’ (10). A formalist critique is thus uniquely positioned to explicate the development of national identity. An attention to the interplay of literary forms in The Scarlet Letter elucidates the ways in which Hawthorne articulates a collective national identity. In what follows I first look at the way that genre functions in the text and then go on to look at the role of affect in ratifying Hawthorne’s delineation of national identity.

Generic Forms

Hawthorne’s text has often been categorised as a romance narrative. [1] However, in its companionate sketch, ‘The Custom House’, Hawthorne writes that his tale is designed to hold a place ‘somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other’ (36). This statement reflects the text’s complex engagement with generic categories. The Scarlet Letter is not a straightforward romance, rather, it encompasses and shifts between a number of different genres: historical romance, moral allegory, folktale, the realist novel, suspense fiction and origin myth. These generic forms compete with one another for precedence at its close. Because of this generic hybridity – and for the sake of simplicity – I here refer to the text as a novel rather than the more typical term Romance. This is with the aim of pointing directly to the collection of generic registers contained within it.

Levine attends directly to the interplay of different genres within a single text, writing that ‘literary texts have a power quite different from the ones they have been assigned – not the power to unify and contain like an urn, but […] to set forms against one another in disruptive and aleatory as well as rigidly containing ways’ (40). Thus, forms are interesting not for their power to unite, but rather for their ability to expose tensions. By analysing Hawthorne’s shifting generic registers, I show how each one imposes a different logic on the novel. Further to this, an analysis of the interaction of generic forms in the novel will show how Hawthorne reconceptualises the whole – in this sense as typified by the wholeness of the text – by rendering it a dynamic space for the interaction of different forms. The whole thus emerges as necessarily held together, but without satisfying unity or coherence.

On one level, The Scarlet Letter functions as moral allegory; the tale of Hester Prynne and her scarlet A held up as a lesson both to the reader and to the inhabitants of the Puritan settlement. Both Hawthorne and the town elders deal in emblems. Hester’s punishment and the text are made up of dense symbolic patterning; the A is repeated again and again to impose an aesthetic and moral unity upon the novel. Read in this way, the characters of the novel function as types; Hester is the American Eve cast out of the Edenic new world. Governor Bellingham says of her daughter, Pearl, ‘Nay, we might have judged that such a child’s mother must needs be a scarlet woman, and a worthy type of her Babylon!’ (110). Bellingham attempts to reduce Hester and, by token of genetic proximity, Pearl to mere types, held up as an example for others. However, the other elements of the text resist this; the chapters ‘The interior of a heart’ and ‘Another view of Hester’ endow both Hester and her lover, the minister Arthur Dimmesdale, with the psychological complexity usually given to the subjects of realist novels. There is then, a disjointedness between the novel’s employment of motif and character types and the psychological complexity given to the main figures of Hawthorne’s fiction; the generic modes are thrown into an ambivalent relationship with one another. Indeed, Henry James was unable to reconcile these disparate elements of Hawthorne’s prose and made the complaint of his forbear that there is ‘too much symbolism [emphasis added]’ (117). James takes particular issue with Hawthorne repeating the A in natural phenomena: ‘the minister looked upward to the zenith, beheld there the appearance of an immense letter, – the letter A, – marked out in lines of dull red light’ (Hawthorne 115). For James, this results ‘not [in] moral tragedy, but physical comedy’ and stands in conflict with Hawthorne’s complexity and ambiguity elsewhere (119).

I depart from James and instead interpret this comedy as intentional. Hawthorne is exposing the farcical nature of aesthetic and moral coherence. A few pages after this paragraph, Dimmesdale encounters the sexton who tells him of Governor Winthrop’s passing and offers a different explanation for the letter in the sky; ‘A great red letter in the sky, – the letter A, – which we interpret to stand for Angel’ (158). The humour here is undeniable; Hawthorne uses black comedy to destabilise the signifying power of the A. This is intensified at the end of the novel when Hester herself becomes an agent of the A’s instability; ‘the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too’ (263). Hester’s eventual standing in the community means that the letter comes to be regarded with respect. Thus, Hawthorne does not unite the elements of moral allegory and psychological realism, rather he sets them against one another and posits the trajectories that are designated by such symbols as arbitrary. However, as Branka Arsić has noted, the ‘problematizing of boundedness doesn’t mean that all limitations are eluded’, rather, Hawthorne ‘generate[s] a different type of wholeness’ (xiii). In this way the forms in the novel that are designed to control and contain meaning are as equally necessary and contingent as those of nation states.

We know from the ‘The Custom House’ that The Scarlet Letter is animated on some level by an attempt to convey the real. This realism is apparent at the beginning of the novel, after we move out of the prison and into the assembled crowd who have come to view convicted ‘adulteress’, Hester, upon the scaffold. Hawthorne scans the assembled townspeople before zooming in on a group of women. The women are presented as a unit, alike in their physical appearance; ‘The bright morning sun, therefore, shone on broad shoulders and well-developed busts, and on round and ruddy cheeks, that had ripened in the far-off island’ (Hawthorne 50-51). The first speaker remarks, ‘What think ye, gossips? If the hussy stood up for judgement before us five, would she come up with such a sentence as the worshipful magistrates have awarded?’ (51). This statement attempts to unite the different speakers but instead opens the floor to the diversity of their judgements: one suggests Hester be branded on her forehead, another that she hangs and the youngest member of the group says ‘let her cover the mark as she will, the pang of it will always be in her heart’ (51). This moment in the text bears a striking similarity to the scenes from works by Zola and Balzac that Jacques Rancière describes in his defence of naturalism. Rancière argues that, by showing characters and voices that do not contribute to the symbolic unity of the story in vast crowd scenes such as this one, naturalist novels are democratic in their form (34-45). Hawthorne’s realism in this early scene presents a democratic diversity of opinion. In the light of Rancière’s claim then, Hawthorne reconceptualises the whole; it is not imposed from above, but rather made out of its constituent parts. The Naturalist or Realist mode democratises the text and presents national identity as milieu rather than homogenous. In choosing to set literary forms against one another by creating his characters as types and also giving textual space to develop peculiar subjectivities, Hawthorne plays with the boundaries of what constitutes meaning. He represents it through aesthetic unity as necessarily held together, but also encompassing enormous diversity and individual subjectivities.

Affective Forms

Different generic forms tend to represent and provoke different affective registers. Davis argues that Hawthorne is part of a swathe of antebellum writers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harriet Beecher Stowe, who believed that experience was ‘a domain of hypothetical typical responses’ (2). For Davis this means that Hawthorne is not concerned with creating meaning, but attempting to provoke individual experience from his reader. I read this use of the affective is an extension of the novel’s moral allegorical form; affect functions as pedagogy, emotion is instructive. Davis goes on to claim that the emblem-making that Hawthorne engages with results in an ‘abstract structure that is, in effect, the property of neither the text nor the reader, but projected between them’ (107). In this light, what I have previously characterised as the realist elements of Hawthorne’s fiction, produce in the reader an emotional response that is deftly controlled by the author. Emotion is used as a universalising technique so that realism and subjectivity are subsumed into allegory. Hawthorne pushes and pulls at the boundaries of allegorical fiction, diversifying it but still rendering a unified whole. In the light of this assertion, I will consider the novel’s utilisation of one particular affect, shame.

Shame is, as Beverly Haviland points out, ‘the signature emotion of Hawthorne’s fiction’ (421). It is the mobilising affective category of The Scarlet Letter and it is through shame that Hawthorne imagines both Hester’s individuality and her relationship with the rest of society. Haviland argues that in the text Hester makes progress from the start where ‘[her] suffering seems to be solely at the hands of her community, which has judged and marked her, reducing her to a single aspect of her identity’(421). However, this psychoanalytic reading is diminished if the novel is read as moral allegory rather than realist fiction. Hester’s shame is her identity; like Eve, she is shame personified.  Throughout the text, shame is the governing factor in her relationship with wider society and defines her identities as lover and mother as well. The chapter ‘Another view of Hester’ provides an in-depth character study of Hawthorne’s protagonist and the reader is given access to, and asked to participate in, Hester’s private shame. Hester’s exclusion from society gives her the space to develop her own viewpoint. Silvan Tomkins sees shame as the affect of transgression, it is caused by a radical departure from accepted norms (133). This is startlingly apparent in The Scarlet Letter, which identifies Hester’s shame as the result of her affair with Dimmesdale. The town elders, through the scarlet letter, ensure that her shame continues to be her defining characteristic. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick states that ‘shame is […] considered the affect that most defines the space in which a sense of self will develop’ (37). Hester’s shame results in her exclusion from society which, in turn, affords her the space to develop her own radical view of the world: she is ‘[l]ittle accustomed, in her long seclusion from society, to measure her ideas of right and wrong by any standard except herself’ (159).  Shame is thus seen to precipitate the development of a surer, more independent subjectivity. It also engenders a radical departure from society’s accepted norms. For Sedgwick, shame is, ‘both peculiarly contagious and peculiarly individuating’ (36). Through Hester’s shame, the society in the novel comes to define its own identity: ‘It is our Hester, – the town’s own Hester’ (162).  The townsfolk of Salem appropriate Hester’s shame and thus her private subjectivity is subsumed back into the whole. Hawthorne reminds us, it is ‘the propensity of human nature to tell the very worst of itself, when embodied in the person of another’ (162-163). If shame is the affect that is most predicated on our relationship with what is outside of us, but equally distils in us an acute sense of self, then it is the most appropriate emotion through which to articulate a nascent national identity. Hawthorne employs the affective, through the peculiar properties of shame, to render private subjectivity as social identity.

     Hawthorne’s use of the affective is also apparent in the novel’s utilisation of narrative suspense. Much of the text holds both the reader and the Puritan community in a state of expectancy as to the identity of Pearl’s father. Levine argues in an earlier book that ‘radical politics [and] suspenseful storytelling all rely on the act of imagining a future’ (Suspense 9). Hawthorne’s use of suspense draws the reader into an imaginative relationship with the text and thus incites them to conceive of radically different realities. Hawthorne uses suspense in the novel to push and pull at the limits of reality in order to portray radical departure from society but ultimately to return it to its place within the whole. Just as Hester is given the space to imagine different realities, so too is the reader.

As I noted in my introduction, the critical tendency towards the end the twentieth century was to see Hawthorne’s political stance in The Scarlet Letter as anti-revolutionary. Notably, Sacvan Bercovitch and Lauren Berlant both attest that the novel ultimately punishes Hester and that she concedes her radicalism by returning to the community that demonised her. Indeed, Hawthorne’s pronouncements on Hester’s radical thought, do rely on her outward submission to the social order:

It is remarkable, that persons who speculate the most boldly often conform with the most perfect quietude to the external regulations of society. The thought suffices them, without investing itself in the flesh and blood of action. So it seemed to be with Hester. Yet, had little Pearl never come to her from the spiritual world, it might been far otherwise (165).

On reading passages such as this, it is easy to see how Bercovitch and Berlant could accuse Hawthorne of political quietism; here, radical thought comes at the expense of radical action. Hester can only ingratiate herself in the public consciousness by submitting ultimately to their way of life and value system. However, Levine insists that participation in the whole can in fact provide a greater potential to transform it and she ‘challenge[s] the assumption that all totalities must be disrupted or broken’ (Forms 7). Hester’s outward obedience affords her greater leverage within society; by conforming, Hester is, to borrow Levine’s term, deploying a ‘canny formalism’ (19). It is Pearl that causes Hester to transform radical thought into radical action. Her daughter represents the possibility inherent in the future and Hawthorne shows us Hester ‘embroidering a baby-garment’ to be sent to some exotic location bearing symbols ‘unknown to English heraldry’ (262). The foreignness and ‘luxury’ of Pearl’s adopted homeland stand in contrast to the Puritan ideals of Salem. Therefore Hester’s radical stance toward the ideals of her own society are shown being passed down through the matriarchal lineage of her family.

Furthermore, through her return to Salem as well as through her ascetic and uncomplaining existence, Hester is able to enact her radical politics through quiet conversation with the women of the town:

Women, […] came to Hester’s cottage, demanding why they were so wretched and what the remedy! Hester comforted and counselled them, as best she might. She assured them, too, of her firm belief, that, at some brighter period, when the world should have grown ripe for it, in Heaven’s own time, a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish a whole new relationship between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness (263).

Bercovitch and Berlant can only come to their reading of the text by ignoring what Hester does upon her return to Salem. Indeed, her return allows her to educate and disperse the products of her own experience. If Hester left Salem, Puritan society would have no way of learning from her transgression. Given that Hawthorne is using his historical setting as a transhistorical model for contemporary society this would not provide the potential for change in the antebellum period either. Instead, Hawthorne shows his protagonist pushing from within, in an attempt to reconceptualise the whole. Hester’s shame radiates outward to other women in her society.

However, Hawthorne emphasises that these conversations must be contained within Hester’s cottage: ‘It was only the darkened house that could contain her’ (161). Hester’s cottage is rendered as a space where revolutionary politics can be voiced, though the text is adamant that in her immediate New England context these must be confined to the domestic sphere:

She assumed a freedom of speculation, then common enough on the other side of the Atlantic, but which our forefathers, had they known of it, would have held to be a deadlier crime than that stigmatised by the scarlet letter. In her lonesome cottage, by the seashore, thoughts visited her, such as dared to enter no other dwelling in New England; shadowy guests, that would have been as perilous as demons to their entertainer, could they have been so much as knocking at her door (164).

The proximity of Hester’s cottage to the sea forges a connectivity between her own radical thoughts and the revolutionary ideals espoused in England. Indeed, as Buell notes there is a preoccupation in The Scarlet Letter with the ‘old world’ and states that at such moments it ‘seems more a text about migration and diaspora, a work of “Anglo-Atlantic,” poetics than a text about the consolidation of the Puritan origins of national culture’ (84). Hester’s radicalism is shown to be part of a wider transatlantic movement of changing ideals. Thus, The Scarlet Letter renders American national identity as contained, but porous, stretching backwards and outwards towards its European origins. In this way, Hawthorne again acknowledges the arbitrary nature of national identity whilst also asserting the necessity of containing forms for the effective deployment of radical ideas. One must be dually attentive to the forms of society and also receptive to what lies outside it in order for revolutionary politics to be enacted.

Finally, I turn to the novel as Romance narrative. The Scarlet Letter resists the satisfying narrative closure usually found in love or romance plots – something Roland Joffe’s 1995 failed filmic adaptation sought to rectify by having Hester shed her scarlet letter and flee with Dimmesdale to Carolina. Closure has often been seen as the making whole of the novel, drawing together the complex arguments it unfolds into a satisfying conclusion. However, Hawthorne sacrifices readerly satisfaction by refusing textual unity at the end of the novel. Hester’s attachment to Chillingworth is designated by the text as an unfit, unnatural marriage, Chillingworth himself conceding, ‘I […] a man already in decay, having given the best years of my life to feed the hungry dream of knowledge, – what had I to do with youth and beauty like thine own!’ (74) Hawthorne is at pains to render Hester’s marriage as an abortive one and instead sees her relationship with Dimmesdale as her true marriage. As Hester states, ‘What we did had a consecration of its own’ (195). In The Scarlet Letter, when the narrative technique of closure collides, as it so often does, with the cultural institution of marriage, we see the novel resisting a conformist return to order.  The traditional satisfying closure of nineteenth-century realist fiction would see Hester and Dimmesdale united in Holy matrimony. Hawthorne instead, gives his reader a parody of this, the lovers united only in death; ‘one tombstone served for both’ (264). The end of the novel when read on the varying levels of genre found throughout, takes on different significance. As romance narrative the end of the novel refuses closure, as moral allegory it bestows retributive judgement, and as realist novel it is tragic. By refusing satisfying closure, Hawthorne asserts that the American utopian project is unfinished. Margaret Reid argues that the unstable political atmosphere of antebellum America means that political action must acknowledge its history: ‘in such a world, revolution comes in minute forms; every small shift asks again what will be carried forward and what will be left behind’ (73). Furthermore, Jane Zwart questions to what extent the novel should be read as origin myth. She equates the scarlet letter, the letter A, with the start of the first word of this novel – ‘A throng of bearded men’ – or any other (47). In doing so she dampens the status of The Scarlet Letter as a belated mythologised beginning. If we take The Scarlet Letter, to acknowledge its own status as one cultural narrative among many others, we see the story as part of an ongoing process that assimilates endless beginnings into a larger picture. However, these elements are all necessarily held together within the novel, which reflects the need for some measure of collective national identity.

I have argued here that Hawthorne’s text is alive to the power of wholes. Though at times he deems them simplistic and controlling, he also sees radial potential not in their dismantling, but in their expansion and reconfiguration. By switching between formal modes, Hawthorne transforms their political potential, the moral allegorical tale becomes particular rather than universal and the realist elements become cohesive parts of a holistic vision.  Hawthorne’s switching between generic modes allows him to play with the boundaries of identity and to create a text that forms a new notion of the whole, one that delineates form but acknowledges that its limits are arbitrary.    This attentiveness to boundaries that focuses on what they hold together, rather than how they can be ruptured, allows for the imagination of new and different forms of collectivity.


[1] Sophia Forster calls the novel, ‘the most venerable exemplar of the romance tradition’ (Forster, “Emergence of American Literary Realism.” p.43).

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