Mark Twain: “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc,” Part One

“Joan of Arc, a mere child in years, ignorant, unlettered, a poor village girl unknown and without influence, found a great nation lying in chains, helpless and hopeless under an alien domination, its treasury bankrupt, its soldiers disheartened and dispersed, all spirit torpid, all courage dead in the hearts of the people through long years of foreign and domestic outrage and oppression, their King cowed, resigned to its fate, and preparing to fly the country; and she laid her hand upon this nation, this corpse, and it rose and followed her.” (546)

What moved me while reading Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc was how much Joan’s dilemma and challenge parallels the challenges of today’s young. Joan grew up in a France that was defeated and in decline, but more seriously lacking a vision for itself. And then, after saving France she is made to suffer for her deeds. We have yet to see the second half of this story play out in our world (we hope it will not), but the first part seems quite true to life. Whether it is crushing debt, an increasingly vapid democracy, an unprecedented ecological catastrophe, growing inequality, a perverted image of socialism, or a dying culture, our children are being left quiet a mess to clean up. The argument we should get from Twain’s quite brilliant history Joan of Arc is that those of us old in body or mind, should step aside.

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I have touched on the theme of generations before. Philip K. Dick had an intense fear of the gerontocracy (something I am exploring in the book I am working on). The almost always pessimistic Hawthorne, seemed to think that creative energy and transgressive potential existed in children. Mark Twain clearly believed the same or else he would not have created so many examples of creative and courageous children alongside odious and cowardly adults. Perhaps this tension must exist in the literature of a young revolutionary nation.

I do not want to let my feelings on the old be misunderstood. While I do think we must blame them for most of the mess younger people were left with, we should not ignore the challenges that they overcame. They were left with a mess of their own to clean up. They were faced with the central challenges of the twentieth century: unrestricted capitalism and political tyranny. But they also left us a political and economic system that is in need of a massive recreation. Resolving these problems require that that generation step aside. They control the wealth (we can look at generational income and wealth inequality), they remain in charge of the political system, and in many ways they still control the terms of the debate. One major concern of mine, is that with life-extending technology and declining birth rates, the young of the world will be spending most of their time laboring to keep alive a wealthy and increasingly delusion class of elders. Yes, grandpa, maybe you are living too long.

Now, of course, the solution to this problem is not the repression of elders, but rather the empowerment of youth. And one of the largest hurdles to this is that disgusting idea of adolescence. I do not think it is wise to take physically and (but for public education and a mind-numbing culture) mentally adults and give them an arbitrary label as adolescence. I do not know much of the history of this, but I suspect it began either with industrialization or with public education. And now, unfortunately, adolescence is being extended by sending millions to collages, straddling them with unpayable debts, and forestalling the responsibilities of adulthood into the distant future. This was not a problem in Joan of Arc’s time, when you were either a child or an adult and that transition came with sexual and physical maturity. Joan of Arc was young, but an adult. She proved it in her actions, the sharpness of her rhetoric, her courage, and her ability to inspire others. In this way, she is a grander version of Huck Finn, who triumphed over the greatest moral question of his life, and of his age.

Onto the novel (historical fiction certainly, but heavily researched in archives). The first half covers Joan’s upbringing in Domremy to her emergence as a victorious general of the French armies at the battle of Orleans, where a major English position was maintained, including her rallying of the French king and the nobility and populace of France for the war effort. As for that history-making victory, Twain wrote: “No other girl in all of history has ever reached such a summit of glory as Joan of Arc reached that day. And do you think it turned her head, and that she sat up to enjoy that delicious music of homage and applause? No; another girl would have done that, but not this one. That was the greatest heart and the simplest that ever beat.” (742) As you can see, Twain believed that Joan of Arc was the most impressive person in human history. Often his praise comes off as exaggerated, but we have no reason to believe Twain was not authentic in his praise, even if we may not share his reading of the past.

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Twain started the novel with some discussion of the children of Domremy, the world that created Joan. These children were already cultivating a religious culture distinct from that of adults. Joan plays a role in connected the intellectual courage of children with the piety of mature religion. “All the children pleaded for the fairies, and said they were their good friends and dear to them and never did them any harm, but the priest would not listen, and said it was a sin and shame to have such friends.” (563) Joan’s first moment of courage came in her confrontation with the theology of the priest class. She remains an impressive person in local history, but it was the sight of a dead and mutilated man that spurs her to adulthood and action. “It was a bloody and dreadful sight. Hardly any of us young people had ever seen a man before who had lost his life by violence; so this cadaver had an awful fascination for us; we could not take our eyes from it. I mean, it has that sort of fascination for all of us but one. That one was Joan.” (589) She turns from the horror not to flee but to action, although she would first need to undergo a religious and then a political transformation.

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A significant role of Joan of Arc was in the conquest of cynicism and defeat. One could argue that she got this strength from religious delusion. Twain is less interested in the origin of the courage than in the amazing fact that such courage was possible in a young person. (Perhaps not so amazing for himself who eager gave his young characters this moral courage.)

No less significant for Twain is Joan’s triumph over narrow human expectations about the source of one’s value. She faced much ridicule early in her campaign. “Human nature is the same everywhere; it deifies success, it has nothing but scorn for defeat. The village considered that Joan had disgraced it with her grotesque performance and its ridiculous failure; so all the tongues were busy; insomuch that if the tongues had been teeth she would not have survived her persecutions.” (610) How often has such ridicule stopped people from speaking and creating?

I have not given much thought to Joan of Arc before reading this novel, but now I find her a useful model for the challenges of our day and an argument for the empowerment of youth, a group that needs to be much freer and take much more seriously for the role they can play in historical change.

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The House of the Seven Gables” (1851)

“Shall we never, never rid of this Past! It lies upon the Present like a giant’s dead body! In fact, the case is just as if a young giant were compelled to waste all his strength in carrying about the corpse of the old giant, his grandfather, who died a long while ago, and only needs to be decently buried. Just think a moment; and it will startle you to see what slaves we are to by-gone times–to Death, if we give the matter the right word!” (509)

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Through my exploration of Nathaniel’s Hawthorne’s works over the past few weeks, I kept coming back to the question stated in the above quote from his The House of the Seven Gables. It is not only that the young tend to me more creative (at least until they are educated), more energetic, and seem to have a better conception of freedom than adults. More troubling is that our elders have created a world that is hard to free ourselves from. Perhaps it is inevitable that the elders attempt to pass on their values to their children through education, but they also more unknowingly create systems and institutions that bind us to their values, whether we agree or not. How could it be otherwise? Without being too hard on my parents and grandparents, it is hard not to accuse them of exasperating the ecological crisis to the point where repair and sustainability is unlikely and of codifying a system of exploitation that is now global in its reach. And it is unlikely that it will be that generation that either dismantles those systems or is left to pick up the pieces after it falls. That is the job of the youth. So why do so many of us feel that we owe our parents so much loyalty?

Hawthorne at the time he was writing his novels.

Hawthorne at the time he was writing his novels.

That quote is spoken by Holgrave, the photographer, who is actually the scion of the Maule family, who had their home (The House of the Seven Gables) taken in the aftermath of the murder of witches in Salem by the Pyncheons. The Pyncheons hold onto the home with their dying grasp, while the surviving Maule cannot let go of the past, hiding out in the house under a false name. Here is some of the rest of what he had to say. “A Dead Man, if he happen to have made a will, disposes of wealth no longer his own; or, if he died intestate, it is distributed in accordance with the notions of men much longer dead than he. A Dean Man sits on all our judgement-seats; and living judges do but search out and repeat his decisions. We read in Dead Men’s books! We laugh at Dead Men’s jokes, and cry at Dead Men’s pathos! We are sick of Dead Men’s diseases, physical and moral, and die of the same remedies with which dead doctors killed their patients! We worship the living Deity, according to Dead Men’s forms and creeds! Whatever we seek to do, of our own free motion, a Dead Man’s icy hand obstructs us!” (509)  Yes, what more do we owe these zombies.

Hawthorne’s main argument running through The House of the Seven Gables is the almost unbearable decrepitude of life for all the characters. Most of the characters are old and cannot help but live in the past. Hepzibah Pyncheon and Judge Pyncheon and Clifford Pyncheon are all of the same old and barren generation. The Judge, the man responsible for putting Clifford in prison for thirty years, is searching for ancient land titles to provide wealth for the family, which is soon to die out anyway. Clifford, just out of jail, is so frozen that the loss of the one youthful element in the home, Phoebe, sends him into a catatonic state. You must read the novel to get a full feeling of the paralysis and banality of aging. However, it is not easy to recover from. For the Maule’s the past is so alive, they seem to truly maintain the witchcraft that their ancestor was killed for practicing. Whether it was real then or not, it became real in the resentful heirs to the Maule line. In one of the more horrifying episodes, we learn how witchcraft was used to literally enslave the body and mind of Alice Pyncheon, an act of an Maule eager for revenge.

The House of the Seven Gables, the tourist site. It looked different in Hawthorne's day.

The House of the Seven Gables, the tourist site. It looked different in Hawthorne’s day.

This was written and published one year after The Scarlet Letter and is thematically similar. Both deal with dead sins and their burden on the living. The House of the Seven Gables is vastly more disturbing to me. At least in The Scarlet Letter, there were signs of the youthful potential in Pearl’s disobedience and impertinence. In Phoebe we find someone who can and does escape the home but is still of the Pyncheon clan. In both novels, the solution to the burden of the past was simply letting go. For Hester Prynne it was the symbolic removal of the red “A” for the Pyncheon’s it only took moving out of the House of the Seven Gables and leaving the past dead.

Another important message of The House of the Seven Gables (and perhaps its only hopeful message) is that our individual clinging to the past may not necessarily result in social stagnation. The Pyncheon wealth was in land and social prestige, but was largely used up by the opening of the story. When we meet Hepzibah, she is opening a small shop near the home in order to make ends meet. This may symbolize the shift to a democratic, commercial economy. Judge Pyncheon’s obsessive over the old land deeds and his position is really of the old colonial ways. Interestingly, the Pyncheons escape from the judge on a modern train. Holgrave–full of resentments to be sure–was the most modern character in profession and social mobility. (Was this a legacy of his witch heritage?) “Thought now bu twenty-two years old . . . he had already been, first, a county-schoolmaster; next, a salesman in a country-store; and, either at the same time or afterwards, the political-editor of a country-newspapers. He has subsequently travelled New England and the middle states as a peddler, in the employment of a Connecticut manufactory of Cologne water and other essences. In an episodical way, he had studies and practiced dentistry.” (503-504) It actually goes on, with his adventures in a utopian community, his participation in mesmeism, and his travels to Europe. It is hard not to see him as a symbol for democratic America.

 

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stories (1838–1843)

“Why, to tell you the truth, my good Mr. Wigglesworth, to be quite sincere with you, I care little or nothing about a stone for my own grave, and am somewhat inclined to skepticism as to the propriety of erecting monuments at all, over the dust that once was human. The weight of these heavy marbles, though unfelt by the dead corpse or the enfranchised soul, presses drearily upon the spirit of the survivor, and causes him to connect the idea of death with the dungeon-like imprisonment of the tomb, instead of with the freedom of the skies. Every gravestone that you ever made is the visible symbol of a mistaken system. Our thoughts should sour upward with the butterfly—not linger with the exuviae that confined him.” (“Chippings with a Chisel,” 624–625)

The pace of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writings seems to have slowed down in the years 1839 to 1843, at least for the short stories which formed the core of his career up to this point. Four important things happen during these years, which will shape his future. First, he took a job as weigher and gauger at the Boston Custom House. That just meant he took weight and inspected cargo as it came in. Those who have read A Scarlett Letter (not me yet, but I cannot help but peak), know he talks about the Salem port in some detail there. Like Melville, Hawthorne had to take a day job. He worked there for a couple years, but would go back into the business with a political appointment in the Salem Custom House in 1846. A second life-changing event was his engagement and later marriage (in 1842) to Sophia Peabody. Third, as if to prepare for his future children or simply as part of a mid-life crisis, he began to write children’s books, three of which are published in 1840 and 1841. The Library of America did not collect these, but the volume I am currently working on does have some of his tales for children, which were published late in his life. Finally, Hawthorne spent eight months at Brook Farm, a utopian socialist community, but leaves disillusioned by it. He will write a book on his experiences. In 1842 and 1843, he make a transition to his “Old Manse” period, centered on his years in Concord, connected to the transcendentalists. That is for the next post. For now, we find Hawthorne more busy with life than with writing.

Boston Custom House, Hawthorne's day job

Boston Custom House, Hawthorne’s day job

Sophia Peabody

Sophia Peabody

 

He did produce the following ten stories, excepting his children’s books: “Chippings with a Chisel,” “Legends of the Province House” (a four part narrative of a home’s deep connection to historical events), “The Sister Years,” “The Lily’s Quest,” “John Inglefield’s Thanksgiving,” “A Virtuoso’s Collection,” “The Old Apple-Dealer,” “The Antique Ring,” “The Hall of Fantasy,” and “The New Adam and Eve.” The major theme in these stories is again the tension between the old and the young, and Hawhtorne’s anxiety over giving the past too much power over our lives.

As for the major theme of “Chippings with a Chisel,” a magnificent work in my point of view, it is made clear for you in the quote opening this post, which was spoken by a man in dialogue with a tomb builder. At the very least the story forces us to think about the way our attitudes toward death and the memorializing of the dead shapes how we see life. I reckon we should take the same attitude with ruined relationships, failed ambitions, and discarded dreams. If we memorialize and dwell on them, we will tend to associate those beautiful things (mad passions, grand plans, and bold risk taking) with ultimate failure.

“The Lily’s Quest” gets at this tension by juxtaposing “two young lovers” (Adam and Lily) who want to build a summer-house “in the form of an antique Temple.” When they find the ideal spot, they are stopped by old Walter Gascoigne, who warns them that everyone who tried to build there has met with failure and disasters, adding, “Poor child, in one shape or another, every mortal has dreamed your dream.” (687) The lesson he gives is clear and could be applied to anything. The fact that most romances end in heartbreak and most dreams are dashed is, for many, reason enough not to risk those things. After building the Temple of Happiness at another site, Lily dies, leading the young man to transform the Temple of Happiness into a tomb. In doing so, Adam redefines the foundation of happiness as the grave. But unlike the traditional grave, which buries memories of happiness under a symbol of death, Adam builds instead the temple of his and Lily’s dream. This seems to defeat the pessimism of old Walter Gascoigne, who “stalked drearily away, because his gloom, symbolic of all earthly sorrow, might no longer abide there now that the darkest riddle of humanity was read.” (691)

“The Virtuoso’s Collection” is a delightful story about a American who enters a museum, “A Virtuoso’s Collection,” which contains am unbelievable list of relics from mythology and history. It seems there is almost nothing that this collectors has not obtained. The Big Bad Wolf (stuffed, of course), the shell that fell on Aeschylus’ head killing him, Excalibur, and much more. Much of the joy comes from seeing these items listed, but we are taken aback by the American observer, who although impressed, is nevertheless quickly bored by these things. Is this part of the American spirit of Hawthorne’s democratic age? A disgust with the old and fetishization of the new and original? If so, I will tend to be sympathetic to this fetish. It turns out that the collector is the Wandering Jew, but that in itself is less interesting than the continual indifference the American shows to the collection. At one point he stakes out his opposition to “earthly immortality” more directly. “Were man to live longer on the earth, the spiritual would die out of him. The spark of ethereal fire would be choked by the material, the sensual. There is a celestial something within us that requires, after a certain time, the atmosphere of Heaven to preserve it from decay and ruin. I will have none of this liquid. You do well to keep it in a sepulchral urn; for it would produce death, while bestowing the shadow of life.” (708) So, again, we have an image of death and sterility presented in the preservation of the old.

Well, there are other stories that cover some of the similar ground (“The Antique Ring” for one), but I will save it. I will start the next post with the masterful “The Birth-mark,” which due to my fondness for science fiction anthologies was the first Hawthorne story I ever read.

Concord's Old Manse

Concord’s Old Manse

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stories (1837–1838)

“Patience, patience! You have been too long growing old. Surely, you might be content to grow young in half and hour! But the water is in your service.” (“Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” 475)

Wow, the stories from this set are all lovely and full of a great deal of joy. In his stories from 1837 and 1838, Hawthorne is continuing his warning against what is old and static and praising the creative, young, and daring. In this attempt, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” must be seen as a central text, taking this one directly with the administering of the waters of the Fountain of Youth on a group of boring old people. For those that are not following, I am reading Hawthorne’s works chronologically, going through the stories ten at a time. Today’s stories are “David Swan,” “The Great Carbuncle,” Fancy’s Show Box,” “The Prophetic Pictures,” “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” “A Bell’s Biography,” “A Journal of a Solitary Man,” “Edward Fane’s Rosebud,” “The Toll-Gatherer’s Day,” and “Sylph Etherege.” Here are some of my random thoughts.
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“David Swan” is a direct reminder of how much life is passing us by day by day. It is about a man sleeping through three life-changing events. The arrival of a rich man seeking an heir, a beautiful woman eager for a husband, and a gang of criminals. Had he woken up during any of the encounters he would have, respectively, won a large inheritance, gotten married, or been killed. How many of us sleep through events because of the danger of the robbers, forgetting the possibilities that our slumber also denies us.

In a similar vein, “The Great Carbuncle” warns against looking for meaning in symbols, ideologies, or precious items. The Great Carbuncle, the target of a quest by a group of people becomes simply an extension of their individual desires and perspectives. In this way, it loses its real function, while simultaneous reifying the perspectives of the various explorers searching for it. For an old experienced wanderer, the Great Carbuncle is valuable only as the question. He is the “Seeker.” For another, it is of scientific interests. For a third, it is a source of immense financial gain. For a poet is a source of inspiration. For an aristocrat, it is a potential symbol of his fame. For a married couple, the Great Carbuncle is a possible source of light for their humble home. Finally, for the “Cynic,” the Great Carbuncle cannot exist. He only seeks it to discredit the others who believe in the potential of beauty in the world. He wears glasses that corrupt his view of the world. It is the young couple who first gaze upon the glorious Great Carbuncle and when the show it to the Cynic without his glasses, he is blinded. They agree it is too much for their humble home and leave it for other seekers. Of course, the Great Carbuncle could symbolize anything we want it to. It could be the American Dream, anarchy, or the good life. Hawthorne’s point seems to be that it is reckless to invest too much in the search (the “Seeker” is killed in the attempt) and it is often fruitless to give it a singular meaning, but it does exist and should exist as a point of a projectral life. “Some few believe that this inestimable stone is blazing, as of old, and say that they have caught its radiance, like a flash of summer lightening, far down the valley of the Saco. And be it owned, that, many a mile from the Crystal Hills, I saw a wondrous light around their summits, and was lured, by the faith of poesy, to be the latest pilgrim of the GREAT CARBUNCLE.” (449)

 

“Dr. Hiedegger’s Experiment” is a strong and convincing tale about a bunch of old people who taste the water of the Fountain of Youth in order to relive their younger days and, they hope, approach it with more maturity—not making the same mistakes. This is a very adult way of pondering youthfulness. How often do we presume to be able to improve on our younger selves? It is the same arrogance that convinces us that we can teach children the right way to live, an arrogance institutionalized in universal public education. The Fountain of Youth (and I need to point out that I am not convinced it was much more potent than liquor, and maybe we should approach drunkenness as an elixir of agelessness. Acting in the same silliness their did the first time around (largely about jealously, failed courtship, and petty rivalries), we learn not that it is impossible to reform the youth, but that is an odious proposition. Here is part of Hawthorne’s description of the old’s transformation into youth. “Blushing, panting, struggling, chiding, laughing, her warm breath fanning each of their faces by turns, she strove to disengage herself, yet still remained in their triple embrace. Never was there a livelier picture of youthful rivalship, with bewitching beauty for the prize. . . . But they were young: their burning passions proved them so. Inflamed to madness by the coquetry of the girl-widow who neither granted nor quite withheld her favors, the three rivals began to interchange threatening glances.” (478) That Hawthorne sees this as a beneficial transformation, even if temporary, is suggested in how his characters end searching for the Foundation of Youth (a rather silly youthful quest in its own right).

I am trying to phase out more commentary on Hawthorne’s celebration of youth and disgust with the old and static, but I see it again and again in his work. Placing this theme into the historical context of a young nation attempting to find its own culture amid long standing English traditions (political, social, religious), Hawthorne is presenting a deeply important political critique as well as a path for life. So let me dwell on it a bit more. It is a good reminder.

“There is hardly a more difficult exercise of fancy, than, while gazing at a figure of melancholy age, to re-create its youth, and, without entirely obliterating the identity of form and features, to restore those graces which time as snatched away. Some old people, especially women, so ageworn and woful are they, seem never to have been young and gay.” (“Edward Fane’s Rosebud,” 501) Yes, growing old and leaving beyond childish things is murder. We should stop doing it so often. We have too much to learn from the young and even ourselves when we were young.

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.