For many recent readers, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ”The Maypole of Merry Mount” is a simple tale in which the bad, old, “gloomy” Puritans have their vices exposed while the merits of a joyful life are paraded for all to see. The story is portrayed as a sort of pre-Revolutionary Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, with the Merry Mount crew filling the roles assigned to Matthew Broderick and Mia Sara while Endicott takes the place of the suspicious and fun-killing Principal Rooney. In fact, this motif where “Jollity and gloom were contending for an empire,” as Hawthorne famously describes it, can be found in any number of teen-oriented, school-based movies. Dead Poets’ Society comes quickly to mind as well as the 2005 made-for-TV School of Life. The message is clear: if all of the killjoys in life would just lighten up and left the kids have fun, everything would be terrific.
Despite the protests of those who have commented upon “Merry Mount” without reading it with a great deal of care, this is decidedly not the message that Hawthorne attempts to convey. Of course Hawthorne has some issues with the “grim-visaged” Puritans, but he has issues with humans in general. In other good-and-evil tales, he demonstrates the same sort of ambivalence. Hester Prynne is not the feminist martyr simplistic readers would like her to be. Goody Cloyse and Deacon Gookin, taken at face value in the story, are wholly true to neither God or the Devil. Similarly, Endicott, held up as a patriotic hero later in the same collection, however stern and serious, should not be dismissed as simply the patron saint of no-fun.
The appeal of the Merry Mount path is obvious. Who wants to work when they can play? Who wants to choose gloom over jollity? Who wouldn’t opt for the endless party if such were offered?
The Endicott path, while perhaps overly severe, leads to stability and a better future. It was the Endicott path that made Boston a vigorous and affluent city. The Endicott path gave Hawthorne the sort of leisure that allowed him to hole up in his mother’s attic writing for years on end. Hawthorne recognizes this unpleasant fact in much the way that Aesop recognizes it in “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” Granted, in Aesop’s canon, a counter-fable exists that explains the existence of the ant by pointing to a farmer who never turned from his labors, but the fable embraced by Hawthorne is clear.
And Endicott, the severest Puritan of all who laid the rock foundation of New England, lifted the wreath of roses from the ruin of the Maypole, and threw it, with his own gauntleted hand, over the heads of the Lord and Lady of the May. It was a deed of prophecy. As the moral gloom of the world overpowers all systematic gayety, even so was their home of wild mirth made desolate amid the sad forest. They returned to it no more. But as their flowery garland was wreathed of the brightest roses that had grown there, so, in the tie that united them, were intertwined all the purest and best of their early joys. They went heavenward, supporting each other along the difficult path which it was their lot to tread, and never wasted one regretful thought on the vanities of Merry Mount.
In this closing paragraph, Hawthorne seems to connect the severity of Endicott with the solid foundation of the region, but then credits Endicott with a sort of wedding gift in the wreath of roses. Clearly, Hawthorne seems to be describing the couple turning from the childish and unproductive ways of Merry Mount, however appealing, and toward the sterner, gloomier, but more purposeful ways championed by Endicott, never wasting “one regretful thought on the vanities of Merry Mount.”