Quoth Nathaniel Hawthorne: ‘Burn, Baby, Burn’

Review of Earth’s Holocaust by Nathaniel Hawthorne

You may know Nathaniel Hawthorne from being subjected to his The Scarlet Letter in high school or—if you’re especially unlucky—his The House of the Seven Gables in college. Which means that you’ve probably avoided everything with “Hawthorne” listed as the author since then. Which further means that you have missed out on some truly wonderful short stories where he proves that he’s earned his reputation just why he’s ranked as one of America’s best authors. A great place to start getting back into the quality writings of Hawthorne is with “Earth’s Holocaust.”

In this story, the unidentified narrator observes a fire started somewhere in the Western  United States  in order to burn away  everything bad that holds mankind back from the much longed-for golden age of progress. First, the narrator witnesses mounds of European insignia of nobility (coats of arms, medals, armor, and such) being cast into the fire.

At sight of the dense volumes of smoke, mingled with vivid jets of flame, that gushed and eddied forth from this immense pile of earthly distinctions, the multitude of plebeian spectators set up a joyous shout, and clapped their hands with an emphasis that made the welkin echo. That was their moment of triumph, achieved, after long ages, over creatures of the same clay and the same spiritual infirmities, who had dared to assume the privileges due only to Heaven’s better workmanship.

The nobles—who are after all nothing more than men like the rest of us—have had their power broken, and now there is nothing left to hold mankind back from its destiny of freedom and prosperity.

Next to be burned after these symbols of nobility are everything that is “bad” for us (liquor and tobacco, especially)—everything that holds us back from physical progress. And what holds us back from physical progress more than weapons of war? Into the fire with them as well! Not, one observer points out, that doing so has actually solved anything:

But I saw a grim smile pass over the seared visage of a stately old commander,—by his war-worn figure and rich military dress, he might have been one of Napoleon’s famous marshals,—who, with the rest of the world’s soldiery, had just flung away the sword that had been familiar to his right hand for half a century.

“Ay! ay!” grumbled he. “Let them proclaim what they please; but, in the end, we shall find that all this foolery has only made more work for the armorers and cannon-founders.”

“Why, sir,” exclaimed I, in astonishment, “do you imagine that the human race will ever so far return on the steps of its past madness as to weld another sword or cast another cannon?”

“There will be no need,” observed, with a sneer, one who neither felt benevolence nor had faith in it. “When Cain wished to slay his brother, he was at no loss for a weapon.”

The fire keeps getting bigger and bigger as more and more of what makes up human civilization is thrown in, all in the name of “progress.” When it seems that there is nothing left to burn, the story reaches its climax with a conversation among a group of bystanders consisting of an executioner, some criminals, and mysterious visitor:

“The best counsel for all of us is,” remarked the hangman, “that, as soon as we have finished the last drop of liquor, I help you, my three friends, to a comfortable end upon the nearest tree, and then hang myself on the same bough. This is no world for us any longer.”

“Poh, poh, my good fellows!” said a dark-complexioned personage, who now joined the group,—his complexion was indeed fearfully dark, and his eyes glowed with a redder light than that of the bonfire; “be not so cast down, my dear friends; you shall see good days yet. There is one thing that these wiseacres have forgotten to throw into the fire, and without which all the rest of the conflagration is just nothing at all; yes, though they had burned the earth itself to a cinder.”

“And what may that be?” eagerly demanded the last murderer.

“What but the human heart itself?” said the dark-visaged stranger, with a portentous grin. “And, unless they hit upon some method of purifying that foul cavern, forth from it will reissue all the shapes of wrong and misery—the same old shapes or worse ones—which they have taken such a vast deal of trouble to consume to ashes. I have stood by this livelong night and laughed in my sleeve at the whole business. O, take my word for it, it will be the old world yet!”

This “dark-complexioned personage” is of course the devil, who is entirely right. No amount of social reform in the name of progress, no destruction of the past, can ever solve the true problem of man—the sinfulness inherent in every human heart. Hawthorne was not a Christian, so he did not go the next step and point out that the only solution to this problem comes through the atoning work of Christ on the cross. Nevertheless his analysis of “modern” attempts at solving the problem of sin is spot on. The solution to the problems of the present is not the destruction of the past, because the problems of past and present alike are found in the one thing that social and moral reform cannot touch: the human heart. And that particular organ is desperately sick beyond the help of even Obamacare. In this dark, enjoyable, and entertaining story Hawthorne gives a diagnosis that I sincerely hope more Americans take up and read.

 

You can find an excellent collection of Hawthorne’s short stories here as well as in the original volume Mosses from an Old Manse, though most of them are available for free online. “Earth’s Holocaust” is available for free here.

 

Dr. Coyle Neal is an Assistant Professor of Political Science in Bolivar, MO, where he has yet to see the aforementioned fire, but is ready with his marshmallows just in case. 


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