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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Earth's Holocaust: Hearts aren't Black and White

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

One hundred years before John Lennon’s anthem, Nathaniel Hawthorne imagined such a world in his short story, “Earth’s Holocaust,” and it was a downer. The short story appears to illustrate that the intention to eradicate all debauchery from society not only fosters unemployment and unhappiness, but is ultimately pointless since there can be no removal of the human heart. Although Hawthorn’s conclusion might be seen as a dismal view of human nature, a closer reading of the story indicates that an equal supply of goodness, as well as depravity, is found within mankind.

“Earth’s Holocaust” then becomes not just one story in a collection of Mosses, but is part of the long debate over man’s inherent virtue that continues today.

In an article called “Hawthorne and Reform,” literary critic Arlin Turner argues that, “what passes as progress achieved through human efforts is sheer delusion—the evil resulting from any reform accomplished balances the good, and mankind is no better off, however sincere and diligent the efforts” (705). Turner apparently agrees with Hawthorn’s most visible thesis: that any reformation cannot last since people are wretched. I doubt, though, that Hawthorne was 100% convinced of his description that the heart is a “foul cavern, [where] from it will reissue all the shapes of wrong and misery."

First, the narrator is one who journeys to the bonfire hoping to find “some profundity of moral truth.” He wants to learn something that can help him become a better person. As the evening progresses, he makes no judgment on the proceedings, though his companion seems to have a grasp on the true futility of the bonfire. “What have you done?” he cries. “This fire is consuming all that marked your advance from barbarism.” The very first person the narrator speaks to is different from the general crowd. Although this alternative voice is quickly silenced, Hawthorne wants the reader to understand that this social movement is by no means a unanimous event.

Second, Hawthorne spends several pages describing the hypocrisy, pride, and wantonness of the individuals at the fire. But why? Why would Hawthorne spend so much time outlining how wretched these people are? Because he knows the reader will feel sick about it. Hawthorne in particular outlines the burning of literature—describing in detail what kind of books and poems were burned and how precisely they decayed. He does this so that his readers will feel intense disgust for this society. Critic Richard Harter Fogle said in his article “Hawthorne and the English Romantic Poets” that, “the whole human past is destroyed . . . for naught [since] all books, of course, go into the fire” (224). According to Fogle, a world without literature is worth nothing, no matter what other kind of progress there may be. Hawthorne is counting on the book-loving hearts of his audience to sympathize with the pages that are in the fire. He is using the goodness of our hearts to make this story poignant.

The story climaxes when the Bible itself is cast into the flame. And it’s pretty shocking. Yet while the narrator is crestfallen, his companion reminds him that, “come tomorrow morning, or whenever the combustible portion of the pile shall be quite burned out, you will find among the ashes everything really valuable that you have seen cast into the flames.”  Moments later, the narrator in fact sees “a copy of the holy scriptures, the pages of which, instead of being blackened into tinder, only assumed a more dazzling whiteness as the finger marks of human imperfection were purified away.” Hawthorne’s sharpest criticism of man doesn’t last an entire paragraph before a resolution! Because people see faith as something with great value, no matter what revolutionist philosophies are in vogue, spiritual guidance will endure.

Literary critic Nina Baym sums up the conclusion of “Earth’s Holocaust” by saying, “the origin of all sin [lies] in the heart . . . where evil remains because the human heart remains” (34). This theme is definitely relayed, but how? Not by the narrator, his companion, or anyone the reader knows. The bearer of this grim message is “a dark-visaged stranger, with a portentous grin.” He has red eyes like a devil and comes out of nowhere to share this idea. Is he a trustworthy source? It’d be like setting up Maleficent of  Sleeping Beauty as the movie's primary source of truth. Hawthorne carefully chose the bearer of this message as someone whose authority is questionable. Even as he’s driving home the conclusion to the story, he wants there to be some doubt.

So while evil may reside in the human heart, plenty of good also lies there. This story includes the inspiration that, “not a truth is destroyed nor buried so deep among the ashes but it will be raked up at last.” No matter what happens, man is so connected to goodness that truth can never really be lost. War, famine, injustice, abuse—yes all of that exists, but so does the desire to be better, find beauty, have compassion, and protest when the reality of an ideal proves harmful. We spend this story watching the narrator come to terms with the duality of the human heart. And while we can’t join Lennon yet to “live as one,” there’s plenty to live for in this world.
Word Count: 930

Baym, Nina. “The Head, the Heart, and the Unpardonable Sin.” The New England Quarterly 40.1 (1967): 31-47.

Fogle, Richard Harter. “Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Great English Romantic Poets.” Keats-Shelley Journal 21.22 (1973): 219-235.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Earth’s Holocaust.” Eng 360: Early American Bestsellers. Provo, UT: Zachary Hutchins, 2011.

Turner, Arlin. “Hawthorne and Reform.” The New England Quarterly 15.4 (1942): 700-714.

1 comment:

  1. The insights in this point were great. I also think though, that "Earth's Holocaust" is a commentary on all the different types of ways that people thought they could be saved during the time period that Hawthorne wrote. This could be his way of saying that no matter what new ways people come up with, the truth and true ways to be saved will always be the same.