Upon reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Minster’s Black Veil” (1832), I began to think about the underlying cultural contexts surrounding the story’s initial publication. Namely, I started to think about it in relation to the issue of slavery and the abolitionist movement. While African or African American characters nor slavery appear in the story, the thematic elements lead me to consider Hawthorne’s story in relation to issues revolving around race in the early part of the nineteenth century.
Hawthorne’s work does not explicitly place him in line with the abolitionist movement, and it does not address, in detail, the “peculiar institution.” In this way, he mirrors someone like Catharine Maria Sedgwick who privately struggled with the issue of slavery and the abolitionist movement, not reaching a clear position until around the 1850s. However, this does not mean that Hawthorne fails to address race in his writings, and even in texts that appear to have nothing to do with race or slavery. As Toni Morrison has argued in Playing in the Dark,
Explicit or implicit, the Africanist presence informs in compelling and inescapable ways the texture of American literature. It is a dark and abiding presence, there for the literary imagination as both a visible and an invisible mediating force. Even, and especially, when American texts are not “about” Africanist presences or characters or narrative or idiom, the shadow hovers in implication, in sign, in line of demarcation. (46)
Morrison writes about the Africanist presence in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) and works by Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, and other authors. Scholars have noted the presence of the Africanist presence in other works by Poe, most notably “The Black Cat” and “Hop-Frog.” With this in mind, it is not too far of a stretch to think about Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil” in this same context.
In his “Hawthorne and His Mosses” (1850), Herman Melville continues calls for a distinctly American literature, but he also makes note of the “dark half” of Hawthorne’s work. Melville notes that the blackness that pervades Hawthorne’s work has “a touch of Puritanical gloom” that reaches back to his ancestors, but he also maintains that what Hawthorne shows through his “blackness” in akin to Shakespeare who, “[t]hrough the mouths of the dark characters of Hamlet, Timon, Lear, and Iago, . . . craftily says, or sometimes insinuates the things, which we feel to be so terrifically true, that it were all but madness for any good man, in his own proper character, to utter, or even hint at them” (2264, 2265). Even with the specter of his Puritan past hanging over him, Hawthorne still exists within a tumultuous period leading up to the Civil War. As such, the writing he produces carries, albeit on a lower current, the issues of race and slavery that other authors presented with full force during the period.
When the minister Mr. Hooper dons a black veil made of crepe, his congregation and the townspeople view him in a different manner than before. They fear him, even running away at points. They speak behind his back. No one asks him why he wears the veil, except Elizabeth. When she asks him about it, he tells her, “There is an hour to come. . . when all of us shall cast aside our veils” (685). Later, on his death bed, when those gathered around him expect him to lift the veil before he dies, he tells them not to just tremble at him but at themselves as well: “Tremble also at each other! Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil? What, but the mystery which it obscurely typifies, has made this piece of crape so awful?” (690) Mr. Hooper continues by telling those gathered that before he placed the veil over his face they had an intimate friendship; however, once he donned the black visage, they “deem[ed] him a monster” (690).
When reading these passages, I cannot help but think about authors such as David Walker, William Apess, and Hosea Easton, all of which argue for the rights of blacks and Native Americans during the 1830s. I cannot help but think about the ascendancy of the abolitionist movement around 1830 and 1831 with the publication of William Llyod Garrison’s The Liberator and other organs. I cannot help but think about writers such as Lydia Maria Child and Angelina and Sarah Grimke. All of these make me think about Hawthorne within the discussion of slavery and race. The veil separates Mr. Hooper from those around him in much the same way that skin color causes some individuals to avoid others. Before he places the veil on his face, he experiences intimacy with the congregation and town, but the “black” crepe paper that takes on an extension of his physical appearance severs that connection almost immediately.
There are other aspects that could be discussed here, specifically the scene where Mr. Hooper shrinks away from seeing his reflection on the mirrors. However, I do not have space to explore those today. What are your thoughts on this subject? As usual, let me know in the comments below.
Melville, Herman. “Hawthorne and His Mosses.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Vol. 1. Ed. Nina Baym. 5th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998. 2261-2273.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Minister’s Black Veil.” American Literature. Vol. 1. Eds. William E. Cain, Alice McDermott, Lance Newman, and Hilary E. Wyss. 2nd ed. Boston: Pearson, 2014. 680-690