Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stories (1835): Fear the Gerontocracy

“Old and young, we dream of graves and monuments. I wonder how mariners feel, when the ship is sinking, and they, unknown and undistinguished, are to be buried together in the ocean—that wide and nameless sepulchre.” (306, from “The Ambitious Guest”)

The ten stories I looked at for today all appeared in print first in 1835 and carry with them some common themes as might be expected from such an aggressive expression of creative energies. Actually, he published fifteen stories in that year, including stories I looked at yesterday. One strong common thread is Hawthorne’s ominous presentation of the old, the ancient, the static, and the traditional. When set next to a work such as “Little Alice’s Ramble” (a story I feel in love with yesterday), this contrast becomes much clearer. Can we say that Hawthorne was at roots a Promethean, optimistic when it came to the  youthful, like the American republic itself during his life, and dark only when looking at the decrepit?  I will try to show that, in 1835 at least, Hawthorne consistently presented the old with a degree of suspicion and fear. If he is right, let me say that I totally agree with him. The idea that we have something special to learn from elders (by virtue of age and experience alone) is one of the most dangerous views out there. All things being equal, I will trust the child for a host of reasons, not least of which is that they need to live in this world much longer than the ancient.

The stories for today were “The Gray Champion,” “My Visit to Niagara,” “Old News,” “Young Goodman Brown,” “Wakefield,” “The Ambitious Guest,” “A Rill from the Town-Pump,” “The White Old Maid,” “The Vision of the Fountain,” and “The Devil in Manuscript.”

Hawthorne has a gerontocracy to work against thanks to the historical memory of New England and its Puritan elite. They are never far from his pen and they are the most common symbol of destructive, useless, rigid, or just plain silly values. He wants to tell his readers that despite a revolution and a century of distance, the Puritan elders maintain control over the minds of the people of New England, and rarely for the better. This is expressed in several places, including “The Gray Champion.” This story is essentially about the long-standing political and moral power of Puritanism in New England, even during a period of dramatic change brought on by James II’s attempt to rein in the colonies and the later Glorious Revolution. During the tyrannical rule of Sir Edmund Andros, the people of New England were challenged to stand up for liberty against tyranny, but the spirit of fierce independence that brought the Puritans to New England was weakening. This spirit lives on in the “gray champion” who appeared—it seems—out of the mists of time. He condemns Andros and threatens him with the return of the gallows, before retreating back to the shadows. The end of the story meditates on the meaning of these events, suggesting that this same spirit lived on in other events particularly the American Revolution. “But should domestic tyranny oppress us, or the invader’s step pollute our soil, still may the Gray Champion come; for he is the type of New-England’s hereditary spirit; and his shadowy march, on the even of danger, must ever be the pledge, that New-England’s son’s will vindicate their ancestry.” (243) This is actually a fairly positive image of the Puritan spirit, at least the part of it that led thousands to flee England and attempt to establish a new society away from the shackles of the king and his church. The ominous part of this is the Gray Champion’s unending moral authority and his authoritarian personality, his ability to command the attention of all and his immediate willingness to combine independence with the domination of morality, enforced by the gallows. It is also a reminder of how fine the line can be between tradition and liberty.

Arrest warrant for Andros by the people of New England (not the Gray Champion, as it turned out).

Arrest warrant for Andros by the people of New England (not the Gray Champion, as it turned out).

“Old News” is a summary of the highlights of New England’s history, including the French and Indian War and the Revolution. He makes some wonderful observations, including the way in which the newspaper record the minutiae of the life of the elite. Whatever nostalgia Hawthorne feels over this bygone age, is tempered by the realization that these newspapers are records of a dead world. “Whether it be something in the literary execution, or the ancient print and paper, and the idea, that those same musty pages have been handled by people—once alive and bustling amid the scenes there recorded, yet now in their graves beyond the memory of men—so it is, that in those elder volumes, we seem to find the life of a past age preserved between the leaves, like a dry specimen of foliage.” (275) We are ashamed not to reflect on those glories but cannot escape the fact that they are dead and poor models for the living.

The horrific nature of the Puritan past is the major theme of the famous “Young Goodman Brown,” about a man who attends a Witch’s Sabbath, populated by many of the town elders, who learns about the deep connection between New England’s traditions and the works of the devil. The events take on a dream-like quality when the protagonist, Goodman Brown, escapes the proceedings (which involve his wife he thought he left behind), but nevertheless, the hypocrisy of the community is exposed. Goodman Brown’s guide into the forest provides this historical context. “I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem. And it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip’s war.” (278)

In other stories, the ancient is just associated with oddness or a vapid stability. A character in “The Ambitious Guest” said: “Old folks have their notions as well as young ones. You’ve been wishing and planning; and letting your heads run on one thing and another, till you’ve set my mind a wandering too. Now what should an old woman wish for, when she can go but a step or two before she comes to her grave? Children, it will haunt me night and day, till I tell you.” (305) In “A Rill from the Town-Pump” it appears as a location in the town that is home to deep traditions and many ghosts. The story contains a warning against inherited sin and a celebration of alternatives freed from these traditions. “Until now, the phrensy of hereditary fever has raged in the human blood, transmitted from sire to son, and re-kindled, in every generation, by fresh draughts of liquid flame. When that inward fire shall be extinguished, the heat of passion cannot but grow cool, and war–the drunkenness of nations–perhaps will cease. At least, there will be no war of households. The husband and wife, drinking deep of peaceful joy–a calm bliss of temperate affections–shall pass hand in hand through life, and lie down, not reluctantly, at its protracted close. To them, the past will be no turmoil of mad dreams, nor the future an eternity of such moments as follow the delirium of the drunkard. Their dead faces shall express what their spirits were, and are to be, by a lingering smile of memory and hope.” (312)

The Good Old Days of 17th Century New England

The Good Old Days of 17th Century New England

The stories go on like this. “White Old Maid” gives us a quasi-ghost story about a widow who wanders through the town stuck in her grief for years. While the woman grows old from grief, we witness decaying buildings and the dominance of death and woe, which can only from from a world dominated by the past.

Ah, how I much prefer Little Annie and her ramble.

 

 

 

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