Melissa Hernandez, Contributing Writer
Late last Friday, University of Dallas English professor Dr. John Alvis gave a public lecture entitled “Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter: Giving Fictional Form to America’s Founding Principles,” in which he sought to trace the relation between The Scarlet Letter and these principles. Addressing a group of students gathered in Gorman C, Alvis offered his explanations of the connections between politics and literature, attempting to draw together two seemingly disparate fields of study.
With fellow English professor Dr. David Davies looking on intently from the table beside the podium, Alvis identified the sanctity of the human heart as the basis of equality and inalienable rights, and explained how all of the chief characters in the novel are guilty of violating that sanctity.
Alvis exemplified this idea by showing how Hester Prynne’s act of adultery harms not only the sanctity of individual rights, but also the collective heart of the community. As Alvis sees it, these principles are not solely political; they relate to the individual as well.
Alvis based much of his lecture on his most recent book, Nathaniel Hawthorne as Political Philosopher: Revolutionary Principles Domesticated and Personalized, published last fall after six years of research.
In this work, Alvis looks at principles found in the Declaration of Independence such as equality, liberty, unalienable rights, law of nature and consent of the governed, heavily emphasizing Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and how it deals with these principles within individuals and the community.
“I was interested in seeing how these principles of equality and liberty applied to the colonial era and the moral outlook on human dealings,” Alvis said.
The six years of research that culminated in this work included reading not only all of Hawthorne’s writings, but also much criticism written about Hawthorne. The book also drew from conversations in the classroom.
“My publishing comes out of classroom work,” Alvis said. “It was the natural outgrowth of the conversation between students and teachers.”
Davies described Alvis as “UD to the bone.” Alvis completed his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees at UD, and returned to teach English at his alma mater in 1969.
“I’ve been teaching Hawthorne for years and years,” Alvis said. “This is my approach to look at the political significance of literature.”
Alvis is author or editor of various works, such as Shakespeare as Political Thinker, Divine Purpose and Heroic Response in Homer and Virgil and Areopagitica and Other Political Writings of John Milton. In these works, Alvis said he wants the reader to see the connections between self-government as a political system and self-government applied to the individual soul. Davies said that his most recent book does indeed show that the principles found in the Declaration of the Independence are not only part of organized government, but also of the individual.
“If it weren’t for Hawthorne in Dr. Alvis’ magisterial reading, we would and do think of these principles as essentially and exclusively political,” Davies said.