Samuel Johnson haunted the nineteenth-century American literary imagination, and there is no more compelling example of this than Nathaniel Hawthorne, who modeled his uniquely reticent form of authorial exemplarity in Johnson’s sociable shadow. This essay looks at a neglected dimension of Hawthorne’s historical and moral endeavor in his masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter (1850), by considering his fascination with both the great Augustan moralist and the elusive, mobile, and seminal historical genre that shaped that fascination, the anecdote. The genre of exemplarity par excellence, the anecdote is also, in Joel Fineman’s words, “the literary form that uniquely lets history happen by virtue of the way it introduces an opening into the teleological, and therefore timeless, narration of beginning, middle, and end.” The anecdote is thus the “hole within the whole” from which alternative histories, including the true histories known as romances, can emerge. Hawthorne’s lifelong preoccupation with James Boswell’s anecdote of Johnson’s penance in Uttoxeter Market roots a uniquely American fictional hero (aka Arthur Dimmesdale) and Hawthorne’s distinctively melancholic mode of American authorship, in Johnson’s English singularity.
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