Nature and its relationship to the individual in 19th century American Literature

Exploring the theme Man and Nature in "Young Goodman Brown", "Song of Myself", "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "The Scarlet Letter"

Essay 2012 7 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Nature and its relationship to the individual in 19th century American Literature

by Johannes Zeller (2nd copy)

This essay discusses the depiction of nature and the development of its relationship to society and the individual in 19th century American Literature. By examining the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman, with a focus on Young Goodman Brown and Song of Myself, I aim to illustrate a transition that took place during this period. This transition is clearly visible in the contrast between Gothic romances and Transcendentalist poetry. Although Whitman himself was not a pure Transcendentalist, his depiction of nature in Song of Myself was obviously influenced by Transcendentalist ideas and shows various traces of thoughts expressed in R.W. Emerson’s essay Nature. Thus, the relationship between nature and the individual is portrayed as something enjoyable, highlighted by benevolence. Hawthorne’s stories, on the other hand, which are set around Puritan settlements, depict a rather rough relationship between society and the natural world. They draw a sharp contrast between civilisation and wilderness, which is commonly represented by dreary woods and dark forests. Hence, Gothic authors depict nature as something opposed to humanity while the Transcendentalists consider humans part of it.

A further notable difference between Transcendentalism and Gothic is that the latter is not a truly American genre. Although American writers such as Hawthorne and Poe brought in new ideas and a different style (especially regarding the use of ambiguity), they still were writing in the tradition of their European counterparts. In European Gothic, which was to a great extent rooted in old myths and folk tales, a story would typically be set around an old castle or graveyard, haunted by the ghosts of the Dark Ages. Yet, the young American nation had a total lack of any similar authentic places. For this reason, the setting of American gothic stories such as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Young Goodman Brown moved to the natural world. Instead of haunted castles we get dark forests which serve a similar function. Another strategy, as for example employed in E.A. Poe’s William Wilson, was of course moving the setting of a story back to Europe. Such examples, however, are probably not the best options to consider in order to find out about the zeitgeist of 19th century American society.

In order to investigate the role of nature in Gothic literature, let us first consider the Puritan depiction to which Hawthorne assigned a central role. To some extent, the expression Puritanism already speaks for itself, as the Puritans were set to ‘”purify” the established Church of England of its residual “popery”’.[1] But we can also employ this idea of purification on a more general level, as for the Puritans nature in itself was an evil thing that only was of any value when man cultivated (and ruled) it. Hence, wild nature was perceived as the opposite of society. This view is emphasized in Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown as well as in The Scarlet Letter. In both stories, the forest is presented as a place for outcasts, and evil, or at least clandestine, doings. Strange things and secret meetings happen there, like the witch Sabbath in which Goodman Brown’s forbidden journey climaxes. People may also go there to make decisions which would not be accepted by society, as do Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale. Overall, the forests are described as a place of twilight, and the shades of the trees often function as a cover for dishonourable activities.

When Goodman Brown sets out for his fatal journey at sunset, the reader is not only about to witness a transition between day and night, but also between good Christian values and devilish ill-doings. Leaving his home and the familiar environment of his Village behind him, Goodman Brown takes ‘a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest’ (1289).[2] His decision to take this obviously not very welcoming road already signifies the contrast Hawthorn draws between the everyday life of the Puritan settlement and the strange things that will take place in the natural setting. As soon as Brown meets the old traveller, the story employs a typical deal-with-the-devil theme, as we can also find it in numerous European folk myths. Still in doubt if he is doing the right thing, Goodman Brown states that his ‘father never went into the woods’. The devil in the traveller’s disguise, however, tells him that Brown’s father and grandfather indeed ‘were [his] good friends’. This is especially relevant when we consider the biographical footnote, stating that Hawthorne’s great-great-grandfather was involved in the persecution of alleged witches (1290). Thus, the ghosts of America’s Puritan past seem not only to haunt Hawthorne’s literature but also Hawthorne himself. Naïve Goodman Brown, however, still believes in the good values of his society. But his trust fades continuously as he encounters more and more familiar faces on his venture. Also, the narrative itself becomes more and more dreamlike as his journey continues. It seems the deeper Brown walks into the forest, the deeper he enters the suppressed subconscious of the American past. He meets a ‘pious old lady’ (1292), the village’s minister and his valued deacon Gookin. Eventually, it seems that all parts of his treasured Christian society are engaged in the evil doings of the ‘heathen wilderness’ (1293). When he finds out that even his beloved wife attends the black mass, Goodman Brown, in more than one way, finally loses his faith completely. He learns that ‘Evil is the nature of mankind’ (1297), as the dark figure which chairs the gathering explains. The next day, Goodman Brown returns to his town and finds it in a state that simply can be described as “business as usual”, thus maintaining the illusion of a pious society. And although neither he nor the reader can be sure if the occurrences of the previous night were reality or a dream, and if a dream to which extent, Goodman Brown apparently has lost his faith forever – in his wife, in heaven, and in society. Hawthorne, it seems, uses the contrast between night and day, and what happens in the village and what in the forest, as a hint towards the double standards of Puritan society. The woods apparently constitute a metaphor for the dark part of society’s psyche and make a statement on human sinfulness. Thus, we could imply that Young Goodman Brown points at all the blood that stuck to the Puritans’ hands, acquired in the Salem witchcraft trials and the genocide of Native Americans.


[1] Youn, R.V. (2007). ‘Individual and Community in the Scarlet Letter Young’. In: Intercollegiate Review, Fall 2007, Vol. 42, Issue 2. p: 32.

[2] Hawthorne, Nathaniel (1835). ‘Young Goodman Brown’. In: The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Seventh Edition, Volume B, Editor Julia Reidhead (2007). New York: W. W. Norton & Company Ltd. pp: 1289-1298.


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Institution / College
University of Aberdeen – English department
Emerson Hawthorne Whitman Young gothic Puritan Transcendentalism



Title: Nature and its relationship to the individual in 19th century American Literature