Saturday, January 27, 2007

What Would Hawthorne Say about "Young Goodman Bush"?

OK, so first go read Trevor Seigler's "Young Goodman Bush" (21 Sept. 2004)--I'll wait.

Now, skip this disclaimer. I don't know Trevor Seigler. "YGB" is the only thing of his I've read--although if you want to read more, and more recent, go here or here, or just go straight to his blog, Surf Wax America. I don't read Democratic Underground. When I want to survey what Left Blogistan is thinking about, I'll visit Hullabaloo, TomDispatch, Glenn Greenwald, the talking dog, Orcinus, Pandagon, and firedoglake. More often, I get my political fix through the stylings of The Poor Man Institute, Sadly, No!, Happy Furry Puppy Story Time, Jesus' General, Opinions You Should Have, and (although "often" is not quite the right word) fafblog!. Since I've started CitizenSE, I've been reading its blogroll more regularly than anything else. But I know from experience how tough writing quality political humor is. So I'm sympathetic to what I can see of Seigler's overall project, and I understand "YGB" is one of his earlier efforts at satire,'s so bad that I can't keep trying to ignore it.

OK, forget that "Young Goodman Bush" is terribly written. Or that its plot is a thin and incoherent excuse for making bad jokes about Bush's Yale and Texas years. Or that casting Laura Bush as Faith and Dick Cheney as the Black Man leads nowhere but the obvious, and pointless, literalization of "infidelity." Or that Hawthorne's 1862 essay, "Chiefly About War Matters," with its satirical portrait of Lincoln, may have been a better literary model. No, what's worst about "Young Goodman Bush" is its failure to do anything with its Hawthorne allusions.

Not that it's easy to connect "Young Goodman Brown" to George W. Bush. You have to take your readers away from the Brown of the end of the tale: "A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man" whose "dying hour was gloom" is not the first description of Bush that would spring to one's readers' minds less than two months before the election (unless you were hoping to predict his psychology after a loss to Kerry). You also have to make sure your readers don't think about Brown's despairing comment--'My Faith is gone!' cried he, after one stupefied moment. 'There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil! for to thee is this world given.'--for Bush himself would repudiate this kind of moral relativism. Moreover, the entire problem of specter evidence needs to be dealt with in some way: the devil's words have to contain some truth, but overall be deceptive and manipulative; Bush's reactions have to lead to a radical doubt as to everyone else's capacity to resist the devil's temptations. So if "Young Goodman Brown" is a story about how and where someone goes wrong, the choice of situations to put Bush in is quite crucial. Seigler's story is an object lesson in what not to do.

His first mistake was making Cheney the devil. The devil should be the devil, and Bush, like Hawthorne's Goodman Brown, should be going into the forest in order to face him, repudiate him, and return to Faith, so that, like Hawthorne's narrator, you could condemn Bush's simplistic notions of good and evil at the start of the war on terror (when your cause is just, the ends justify the means; doing evil to fight evil is justified because we're so good and they're so bad that we can never become evil like them): "With this excellent resolve for the future, Goodman Brown felt himself justified in making more haste on his present evil purpose."

Similarly, following the initial plot of Hawthorne's story provides opportunities for making serious accusations about the Bush family and its allies' past and present actions (both Craig Unger's House of Bush, House of Saud and Kevin Phillips's American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush had been out for months when "Young Goodman Bush" was written, so it's not like there was a shortage of material): think especially of the devil's "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."

But where the devil needs to go for the Brown-Bush analogy to really work is to cast his net wider than the Republican Party and insinuate that the Democrats and the American people, like al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, are on his side (you know, where Greater Wingnuttia has been since 9/11). To really be like Goodman Brown, Bush has to be tempted to despair that everyone else has lost faith in America.

This is why Seigler's decision to cast Laura Bush as Faith was so mistaken. Faith needs to be the American people or the American way of life or American traditions. Bush needs to drink the devil's kool aid and really believe everyone's out to get us, even us--or rather, spend the rest of his life doubting whether we are really out to get us or are sufficiently vigilant against the threat we pose to us. This is the only way I can see to make the Brown of the end of Hawthorne's tale relevant to a satire of the Bush administration, although doing so would require more overt attention to the consequences of his administration's profound distrust of American institutions, traditions, and people than Hawthorne gives to Brown's actions at the end of his tale.

So in the end, I don't know if Seigler's story is salvageable, or if the Brown-Bush analogy is really worth trying to establish, but I would be curious to see what a rewrite would look like. Anyone want to take a shot at it? Or offer pointers on doing so?


BikeProf said...

YGB does sound like a bad choice to represent Bush; in fact, I don't know that Hawthorne would work at all, since NH is so much more suspicious of any human endeavor to determine truth, unlike W, who seems to think that whatever he says is truth. No, maybe "The Birthmark" would work better, with Bush as Aylmer, convinced that he has the right path, that only he can destroy the imperfection of terrorism on the bright and beautiful cheek of America (hmm... doesn't quite work, does it?) and blindly pushing forward despite the uncertainties and fears of the country.

The Constructivist said...

bp, it does sound like "B-M" works better for Bush than "YGB." Perhaps Hawthorne's critiques of (for lack of a better term) moral and epistemological perfectionism are perfect for Bush, though?

the whole run-up to the actual invasion of Iraq, I was thinking of Thoreau's critique of the Mexican War and Lincoln's "Spot" resolution.

now I'm wondering if anyone has successfully parodied an antebellum text to offer an even more successful parody of the Bush junta!