Regressing Harder: Post-Colonial American Lit

Those Americans who paid attention in high school carry around in their head an understanding of early American literature built upon a foundation of two works: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, The Scarlet Letter (1850), and Edith Warton’s, Ethan Frome (1911*).  Both fine works, but both on the heavy side for high school readers, even those in the more advanced English classes of 30 years ago.  Both deal heavily with infidelity and were taught with a strong anti-Puritan streak that, looking back, had a lot more to do with a rejection of Americana than an appreciation for it.  That the end result of this instruction, an increasing ambivalence among students toward both literature and American history, should be as reliable as it is predictable, indicates a curriculum designed with malice toward early-American literature far more than an appreciation for it.

And yet, if the opprobrium of assholes is a badge of honor, then we can invert that lesson and thereby draw forth some gold from the straw.  Remembering always the twin maxims of “don’t give money to people who hate you” and “regress harder”, I’ve taken a turn toward looking into the subject from which my early literary teachers tried so hard and yet to subtly to steer me away.  Part of this arises from an October desire to read more pre-1940’s horror, which naturally leads to works such as Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820) and Rip Van Winkle (1819).  The quality of writing in those works – and to be fair, these were also required reading in the 1980s – impressed me enough as an adult to seek out additional fare.  But a greater part of my desire to read from the earliest American writers stems from a desire to stick a thumb in the eye of the modernists and Death Cultists who want to re-write the narrative of my nation during those years.  They can have their lies, I’ll take my narrative directly from the pen of my forefathers rather than the digital ink of newcomers who hate them.

And what I often find is a hard edged philosophy as dark as any offered up by today’s nihilists.  

Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown (1835) tells the story of the titular character’s trial by fire.  Like his father and his father’s father, Goodman Brown has an appointment to keep with his destiny in the form of a late night rendezvous with the devil.  He leaves his wife, Faith, behind in Salem Village, to meet with the Father of Lies, who explains to Mr. Brown that everything is fake and gay and that everything he once thought good is ackshully evil.  Including the local pastor and deacon and Sunday-school teacher and even his wife, Faith.  Mr. Brown accepts the word of the Devil, and though he refuses the Devil’s offer to join in the fun, Mr. Brown retreats from the world and spends the rest of his days slouching around Salem as a bitter old hermit.

Good times.

Given the nature of the lesson Hawthorne is trying to deliver here, it’s amazing this story hasn’t been picked up as a must-read by the anti-American educators.  It’s everything they could want in a story, told by a kindred spirit.  Perhaps the tedious length of The Scarlet Letter lead them to consider it a punishment to inflict on students more preferable to the shorter Young Goodman Brown.  Or perhaps they recognized that the the central message of the shorter work – “everything is fake and gay” to put it into the language of our days” – was a blade too easily turned against themselves?  Or perhaps they were too ill-read to even consider the work.  Malice and stupidity are often indistinguishable with these people after all.

And yet, it is for this reason that Hawthorne’s rejection of authority makes for an excellent read in these days of visibly ascendant evil.  Inverting the author’s message – a tactic much beloved by the Death Cult – offers us a chance to learn from Mr. Brown’s mistake.  Yes, the world is Fallen and much plagued with evil.  Yes, evil men hold much power and offer us a steady diet of lies and deceits. But Mr. Brown makes the mistake of surrendering to the dark powers.

Perhaps he does not surrender to the Devil’s tempting offer, but his rejection of that offer leads him to reject all things of this world.  He surrenders his place on the front lines of the battle of good against evil, and in his flight he even turns his back on the woman he loves.  Mr. Brown prefers to run from the fight like a coward rather than looking for ways to confront it. 

Even Nathanial Hawthorne, who clearly sympathizes with his protagonist found a way to fight back against what he saw as the dark powers of his day.  He wrote stories that lambasted the Puritans and championed a response that today we the Black Pill.  That ain’t much, but it is something.  It is enough to inspire conversations about trusting authority here and now, nearly two centuries later.  It’s a shot fired whose effects linger long after the death of the author, and it carries a power the author likely never anticpated.

Young Goodman Brown offers up a warning not just to mistrust the dark forces at work in our world, but a warning not to retreat into despair.  And though written generations ago, that is a message as timely as any.

*While researching these dates, I discovered that Wharton wrote Ethan Frome in 1911, and that it takes place toward the latter years of the nineteenth century.  A bit outside the scope of my current reading, but the point stands.  to a late twentieth century teenager, everything that happened before WWII was one big smear of ancient history.  

One Comment