American Gloom

Category: Nathaniel Hawthorne

Hawthorne’s Use of Light (My Kinsman, Major Molineux)

by Ezekiel Fry

The backdrop for “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” is a “moonlight evening”, Hawthorne states initially, and it is into this scene that the country youth, Robin strides (30). This ubiquitous moonlight slowly works upon Robin by “creating, like the imaginative power, a beautiful strangeness in familiar objects,” and clouds his thoughts like a wizard’s charm (Hawthorne 41, 39). Even so, from the first moments, when Robin is illuminated in detail by the light of the ferryman’s lantern, there is a contrasting light that may have its own special properties. By this artificial, or human, light, as represented here in the form of the ferryman’s lantern, the reality of Robin, from head to toe, is revealed (Hawthorne 30). There is nothing enchanted or stilted about the description that is given of the young man beneath the lantern’s glow. Human light cuts through the ambiguity of the bewitching moonlight giving a clear picture of the young man. The “moonlight evening” casts a spell over Robin’s perception that only the presence of human light can penetrate to reveal truth.
Under the spell of the “moonlight evening” Robin, filled with his own assumptions about the nobility of his search, first approaches an old man. Robin accosts this man on the street and the encounter plays out “just when the light from the open door and windows of a barber’s shop, fell upon both their figures” (Hawthorne 31). This spotlighting of the interview works to place Robin on display, just as he has been from the opening appraisal of his figure by the ferry-man, under the microscopic and unfeeling vision of a human light. This brief glimpse of stark light does not help Robin discern truth immediately, but instead forces him to flee the scene in shame (Hawthorne 32). In turning away from the light Robin returns to the enchanted world of moonlight where he is free to construct a fanciful explanation for the harshness of that moment under the scrutinizing light (Hawthorne 32). In the course of his flight he finds himself at the door of an inn, where he must once again face the lamp of humanity.
Within the smoky light of the inn, Robin, reassured of himself through his solitary explanation, once again asserts himself in his search. His perception of the events that are transpiring around him is half-formed, as hazy as the atmosphere of the room. He believes that the innkeeper treats him politely, not with “superfluous civility,” but due to “a family likeness” with Major Molineux (Hawthorne 34). As he ventures deeper down the road of his moonlit logic and he announces his desire to find Major Molineux the tone within the room drastically shifts. The smoke seems to clear and every eye becomes focused on him. It is in this moment that Robin once again stands on the edge of perceiving a piece of truth concerning his situation, but faced once again with the jarring intensity of human light he leaves before the truth found in the room can be fully discerned. He finds himself back in the province of moonlight. Here, when removed from the intensity of examination beneath the human light, Robin again creates his own theory of the events that have just occurred (Hawthorne 35). Within the shadows and magic of the moon, Robin may, in addition to diverting himself from what may have occurred earlier, venture on the spot explanations for anyone—or anything—he encounters where human light does not fall.
One such occasion of an interview lit by moonlight alone arises when Robin calls on what he allows himself to believe is the Major’s housekeeper. Robin literally views this woman as she “[comes] forth into the moonlight” (Hawthorne 37). Under the light of the moon Robin sees her as he wants to, as if compelled by “the imaginative power,” and discerns her identity and role in this manner. It is not until the approach of the watchman, and the intrusion of his lantern, that the enchantment of the scene is thrown aside and Robin is forced to see the situation for what it actually is, and thus to flee from the light of humankind once more (Hawthorne 38).
Robin’s perception is heavily dominated by the influence of the moon’s ethereal light, but with each successive intrusion upon his imagined world by the light of mankind the tenor of the moon’s spell begins to change. Each exposure brings a more frantic and ambiguous return to the moonlight. This disconnection from even the most basic aspects of rational perception becomes clear as Robin enters under the “shade” of the church’s steeple (Hawthorne 39). Within this darkest of places, removed from both the moonlight and the light of humankind, Robin discerns the rays of the moon—now removed from his actual being—as they flicker upon a Bible (Hawthorne 42). It is here that Robin’s continued separation from human light, and the shift in focus of the moon’s spell becomes voiced. He yells, “Oh, that any breathing thing were here with me” and with this invocation fades out of his solitary darkly lit world, falling into a dream of sunlit fantasy which rudely returns him to his actual position viewing the ghostly light of the midnight town (Hawthorne 42). This jarring melding of past and present leads to Robin’s vexed cry “Am I here, or there?” (Hawthorne 43). This theme of disconnection, or the increased potency of the moon’s power, is finally brought to a head in Robin’s dreamlike vision of his kinsman staring out of a darkened window (Hawthorne 43). The moon’s power has begun to move towards its zenith, even as the intensity of human light gathers itself to bombard the spell with its garishness.
The defining scene of Robin’s search arises out of the moonlit streets like yet another phantom dream. The torches of the mob push back the enchantment of the moonlight, but they seem only to add to the obscuring properties of the night (Hawthorne 47). However, Robin is now forced to stand against his will and wait for his vision to become clearer. He can no longer evade the approach of truth. It is at this moment that the spell under which he has found himself all through the “moonlight evening” is heightened to its peak, and out of the combined intensity of the torches and the moonlight Robin clearly sees his kinsman in all his tattered shame (Hawthorne 48). The spell that has kept him in blindness—the fallacious viewing of each interaction—has been pushed to its limit in this view of his ruined kinsman, and as the spell is completed, as Robin suffers from “a sort of mental inebriety,” the charm is broken (Hawthorne 49). Robin sees clearly the faces of all the figures he has half encountered during his midnight search and by the consistent light of the torches he realizes the absurd reality of his search (Hawthorne 49). He no longer muses over the nature of his situation. It is quite clear. There are no more half glimpsed images, or flights into darkness, the images of the imagination have become tangible reality in this moment of shame and humiliation. Robin has shed the spell of the moon and within the brutish light of humankind found his kinsman.


The Man of Faith

by Ezekiel Fry

Photo by Madeline Rider

With Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech last night, my thoughts are drawn, as usual, back into the 17th century. Now, this may seem like a jab at the GOP’s draconian view of the world (which in some ways I am sure that it is), but, more than anything, it is an acknowledgement of the paradoxes that shape our country. And to get to the root of these paradoxes, or at the very least to see them for what they are, we need to return to 17th century Massachusetts. When longtime friend Pam Finlayson calls Mitt Romney “a man of faith” we need to contend with what this statement truly means, both in a contemporary sense, and in relationship to our national history. Not the well-meaning and decent man of faith that may pepper our day to day lives, but the archetypal political “Man of Faith” that resides in the annals of New England.

The dour men and women who first came across the Atlantic and settled at Plymouth, Naumkeag (Salem), and the Bay Colony (Boston), for better or worse, have left an indelible mark on our national identity, on the very foundations of our ideology. More than any other faction of early settlers, these grim fundamentalists have shaped us. They loom in the back of our collective consciousness. To truly understand the impact of the Puritans on American politics and culture is more than I can hope to put forth here, I will however point towards several books which shed a cutting light on them: Sacvan Bercovitch’s The American Jeremiad, Philip Gould’s Covenant and Republic, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s introduction to The Scarlet Letter—”The Custom House” sketch. I am by no means a historian, thus these books focus on the relationship of the Puritans to the American word, and one of them is clearly “fictional” on some levels. However, I have always said that the greatest truths reside in the greatest lies. In this way, amongst others, Hawthorne’s “The Custom House” is one of the most important pieces of writing in American history. It may also give us a glimpse of what the Puritan heritage means to us today. Hawthorne writes:

The figure of that first ancestor, invested by family tradition with a dim and dusky grandeur, was present to my boyish imagination, as far back as I can remember. It still haunts me, and induces a sort of home-feeling with the past, which I scarcely claim in reference to the present phase of the town [Salem]. I seem to have a stronger claim to a residence here on account of this grave, bearded, sable-cloaked, and steeple-crowned progenitor,—who came so early, with his Bible and his sword, and trode the unworn street with such a stately port, and made so large a figure, as a man of war and peace,—a stronger claim than for myself, whose name is seldom heard and my face hardly known. He was a soldier, legislator, judge; he was a ruler in the Church; he had all the Puritanic traits, both good and evil. He was likewise a bitter persecutor; as witness the Quakers, who have remembered him in their histories, and relate an incident of his hard severity towards a woman of their sect, which will last longer, it is to be feared, than any record of his better deeds, although these were many. His son, too, inherited the persecuting spirit, and made himself so conspicuous in the martyrdom of the witches, that their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon him. So deep a stain, indeed, that his old dry bones, in the Charter Street burial-ground, must still retain it, if they have not crumbled entirely to dust! I know not whether these ancestors of mine bethought themselves to repent, and ask pardon of Heaven for their cruelties; or whether they are now groaning under the heavy consequences of them, in another state of being. At all events, I, the present writer, as their representative, hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse incurred by them—as I have heard, and as the dreary and unprosperous condition of the race, for many a long year back, would argue to exist—may be now and henceforth removed. (12-13)

Hawthorne, in that way only he can, seemingly discusses his own personal ancestors and his personal relationship to them, but he is truly saying something much larger—something much more insidious. The foundations of the very nation are planted in the many “Charter Street” graveyards. The bones of all the grand ancestors, those reverend dead, are drenched in the blood of the persecuted. The paradox of the grim Puritan armed with “his Bible and his sword” leers forward in time at Hawthorne, and from Hawthorne’s days it glares at us. This “man of faith” is cloaked not in the dark raiment of his sect, but in the blood and gore of 400 years of “his Bible and his sword.” Hawthorne speaks out of the side of his mouth when he hopes to remove the curse. There is no running from the ghosts of the past, but one must face them on new ground. The curse is in the very soil itself, in the bloody dust of the burial-ground. The early Hathorne is the collective American ancestor, our deepest shame, and in the minds of some, our greatest glory—the Man of Faith.

When I hear terms plucked directly out of 17th century sermons I cannot help but think of Hawthorne’s guilt. There are no good old days, no heroic pasts, no brave ancestors. The sooner that we can—if it is possible at all—arrive at a place where we see American ideology for what it truly is, the sooner we will put the ghosts to rest. There is bitter humor in this as well, for as Hawthorne so tellingly intimates, there is always a family resemblance, and who is to say that we are not making the same mistakes ourselves?

NOTE: Pagination for “The Custom House” is from the Library of America edition of The Scarlet Letter

NOTE NOTE: The very concept “We deserve better,” which is essentially Romney’s catchphrase and was brazenly scripted across the cover of USA Today this morning, amongst other things, is heavily reliant on an old piece of 17th century rhetoric which, as Sacvan Bercovitch describes in The American Jeremiad, casts the American people (and this is always a relative few) as God’s chosen, and views their America as a sort of New Jerusalem. This rhetorical device presupposes American superiority and places the chosen few in steadfast opposition to those outside looking in: the other. It is the very germ of American nationalism. But more on that later!

Bill Sienkiewicz and “The Whale.”

by Ezekiel Fry

Bill Sienkiewicz "Moby Dick."

Several years ago I stumbled across a Barnes and Noble edition (I know, not exactly the sexiest publisher) of Moby-Dick with perhaps the best cover art I had yet encountered in relationship to Melville’s monstrous book. I was fascinated by the haunting qualities of the piece, the murkiness of its form. The whale is barely visible, and what is seen is viewed through the darkness of the ocean, or some other subterranean pit. There is little to no definition where the tail ends and the depths begin. The two entities, the whale and the sea, are merged into one. Add to this the clear signs of a hasty descent and it almost appears that this tail, caught in vigorous motion, might well be diving down to the foundations of the earth with Ahab and Fedallah in tow. This could very well be the final, unseen image of Melville’s book. I was, and continue to be, astonished by this dynamic piece of art. As I held the book (which I subsequently purchased and filled with asterisks and marginal notes, and finally, in a drunken outburst, bequeathed the whole damn thing to a wandering sage on the streets of Olympia) in my hands I wondered what type of artist could create such an evocative image, touched so thoroughly with what I believed to be the central mystery of Moby-Dick? I flipped the book over and, sure enough, there was a name I readily recognized: Bill Sienkiewicz. I was both shocked and not surprised. Sienkiwiecz! Of course. How could it be anyone else?

Bill Sienkiewicz, for any of you comic book heroes out there, is a household name. For the rest of the world go read this and then return to this entry:
Back? Okay. So there you have it. An artist about as cutting edge as you can get in the mainstream of comics. And with a handle on the Whale. Something that I do not believe appears in the above-linked wiki profile (although I am sure it has been meticulously documented in the bibliography, if you made it that far) is his work on the “Classics Illustrated” adaptation of Moby-Dick and here is a link to Sienkiewicz’s own website, and a gallery of his work on the Whale: For this reason I was not surprised when I discovered that it was indeed Bill Sienkiewicz who had painted the cover to the book I was holding. He, like Jonah before him, and so many of us wild-eyed pilgrims down through the years, has spent an immense amount of time within the belly of the Whale. There is no other contemporary artist (in fact no artist period that I have ever encountered) with a better grasp of this subject. His work approaches the sublime, in a truly Kantian sense. Sienkiewicz knows the Whale, but that is just one man’s opinion. In preparing this entry I discovered a wonderful piece in Laura@popdesign’s blog “Animalarium” which presents many varied artistic interpretations of Moby Dick in succession (including the Sienkiewicz painting that I have included here). Check it out and decide for yourself what image of the Whale feels best. The presentation, which includes excerpts from the book, is just fantastic. I really enjoyed the whole experience and there are certainly some absolutely mind-blowing representations of the whiteness. Happy hunting!