Seminar on Freedom and Religion: “The May-Pole of Merry Mount” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), novelist and short story writer, was born in Salem, Massachusetts into an old, established New England family. His great-great-grandfather, John Hathorne, was one of the judges who presided over the Salem Witch Trials; it is said that young Hawthorne added the “w” to his birth surname, “Hathorne,” in order to distance himself from this infamous ancestor. Few American authors have written more searchingly and profoundly about the American character. Enduring moral and religious questions, as they emerged in the life of the Puritans and their New England descendants, are the focus of many of Hawthorne’s writings, including his masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter. His marvelously crafted stories also take us deeply into the American soul, with its dark motives, conflicting aspirations, and moral struggles. “The May-Pole of Merry-Mount,” one such story, appeared in his first published collection of stories, Twice Told Tales (1837). Said by the author to be a “sort of allegory,” it depicts an early version of the culture wars, between a party of otherworldly piety or “gloom” (the Puritans) and a party of pleasure or “jollity” (the Merry-Mounters). The cultural struggles between the two outlooks on life appear to be deeply embedded in the American grain.

Watch editors Amy A. Kass and Leon R. Kass converse with guest host Yuval Levin (National Affairs) about the story. For discussion guides and more, visit