Astute readers of the CitizenSE Categories will have noticed that I've done as much "Old News" blogging as on Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" and Morrison's Beloved and far more than many other better-known works on the list. Well, I'm on a mission to do the same eventually for another equally obscure Hawthorne tale: "Main-street." Published in 1849, it's one of the few pieces he composed while working in the Salem Custom-House. Despite its humorous frame--the narrator presents an elaborate puppet show, a shifting panorama of historical scenes tracing the history of the main street of Salem, while two members of the audience offer criticisms of both his artistry and his history, until a wire snaps and the march of time comes to a halt--the story is quite ambitious. Not only does it survey the early history of colonial New England, from the days of Squaw Sachem and Wappacowet and the arrival of Roger Conant, the first settler in Naumkeag, to the Great Snow of 1717--stopping along the way to mark the arrival of noted colonists, changes in colonial architecture, shifts in settler-Indian relations, and such major events as King Philip's War and the Salem Witch Trials--it offers serious commentary on the rise and fall of the Puritan errand into the wilderness.
As "Main-street" marks a period in Hawthorne's career--during the 1850s he would turn to novel-length romances--it has received some attention from Hawthorne specialists, but not as much as I would have expected for its significance in his career. When it has been read, it has been read for Hawthorne's attitudes toward Puritan New England and particularly for his take on Puritan constructions of otherness (from Quakers to witches to Indians), as well as for his representation of the artist-audience relationship. It has been read, that is, as a kind of key to his earlier, more important tales of 17th century New England and as a metacommentary on their reception. Perhaps it is best known for the showman's judgment of New England Puritanism: "Let us thank God for having given us such ancestors; and let each successive generation thank him, not less fervently, for being one step further from them in the march of ages." But there is much more to the story than this.
The reason I give it so much attention in my manuscript is that its most perceptive readers have made a strong case that "Main-street" should not only be read for its construction of colonial Puritan history but also as a commentary on the politics as much as on the attitudes to art of Hawthorne's own times. Michael Colacurcio, for instance, has read the story as a sharp critique of popular notions of racial Anglo-Saxonism and American manifest destiny. I pair "Main-street" with "Old News," then, to raise questions about Hawthorne's racial politics in the 1830s and 1840s: how do his attitudes toward African Americans and American Indians relate? was he more "progressive" on Indian affairs than the peculiar institution--as willing to criticize Indian removals as he was abolitionism? what was his response to the ideology and mythology of the "vanishing American"? how does his fiction relate to his political Jacksonianism? In the course of answering such questions, I link "Main-street" to earlier tales and later novels, by Hawthorne and others.
Just as my pursuit of racial politics in "Old News" led me into considerations of racialized aesthetics, so, too, does my similar aim for "Main-street" lead me to examine Hawthorne's turn toward the panorama and the weather and its relation to similar moves by his contemporaries. In the manuscript, I'm trying to decide whether I have enough material and arguments for a stand-alone chapter or whether it belongs in the same chapter with "Old News." In my teaching, I'm curious as to whether my students see it as strengthening or weakening the case for considering Hawthorne as a postcolonial writer. So as the opportunity arises in the coming weeks, I'll share some of my new thinking and research on "Main-street."