Professor of Constitutional Law Garrett Epps has applied one of my favorite Nathaniel Hawthorne stories to our current political predicament. As Donald Trump shreds one democratic norm after another while steering us towards autocracy, could we become disillusioned Goodman Browns? Will we no long believe in the American promise? Will our perspective darken and our dying hour be one of gloom?
In “Young Goodman Brown,” the protagonist abandons his pink-ribboned wife, allegorically named Faith, to look at the dark side of humanity. Encountering the devil as he plunges into the forest, he discovers that all the supposedly saintly people around him are hopelessly corrupt.
And not only his contemporaries. Looking back through history, he discovers that his forebears have participated in Quaker beatings, Indian massacres, and other atrocities.
Epps quotes the passage where Brown learns
how hoary-bearded elders of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households; how many a woman, eager for widows’ weeds, has given her husband a drink at bedtime and let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom; how beardless youths have made haste to inherit their fathers’ wealth; and how fair damsels—blush not, sweet ones—have dug little graves in the garden, and bidden me, the sole guest to an infant’s funeral … It shall be yours to penetrate, in every bosom, the deep mystery of sin, the fountain of all wicked arts, and which inexhaustibly supplies more evil impulses than human power—than my power at its utmost—can make manifest in deeds. And now, my children, look upon each other.
Epps observes that
Hawthorne is appropriate Halloween reading, and especially this year: American society is living through its Goodman Brown moment, a moment when many of the norms we have been taught to admire have been revealed as a shell game for suckers. As Trumpism took hold in the nation in 2015, it was regarded as a kind of temporary madness. But time has revealed that this vulgar spirit is no aberration. It was there all along; the goodly veneer was the lie.
He then provides a series of instances:
Consider the devolution of Bill Barr, from an “institutionalist” who would protect the Department of Justice to a servant of Donald Trump. Consider the two dozen House Republicans who used physical force to disrupt their own body rather than allow government officials to testify to what they know about President Trump—because to follow the rules of the House, and the strictures of national security, would threaten their party’s grasp on power. Consider the white evangelical leaders who prated to the nation for a generation about character and chastity and “Judeo-Christian morality,” but who now bless Trump as a leader. Consider, if more evidence is needed, the unforgettable moment at the Capitol on September 27, 2018, when Brett Kavanaugh dropped forever the mask of the “independent judge” to stand proudly forth as a partisan figure promising vengeance against his enemies.
In Hawthorne’s story, Brown awakens and wonders whether the night’s journey was all a dream. Epps asks whether we will wonder the same as we look back at the Trump years. Unfortunately, dream or not, Brown never regains the innocent “faith” he once had. Could that be our fate as well, Epps wonders:
Assume new national leadership in 2021. What leader worth voting for would negotiate with Mitch McConnell or Kevin McCarthy and believe either will keep his word; what sane president would turn over sensitive documents to Republican-led committees; what Democratic president would simply accept that the federal courts are now the property of the opposition, and submit issues of national policy to them, in the confidence of receiving a fair shake? After this night in the forest, can I, or any sane person, ever believe in these people and institutions again?
Or as Hawthorne puts it:
But, alas! it was a dream of evil omen for young Goodman Brown. A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man, did he become, from the night of that fearful dream. On the Sabbath-day, when the congregation were singing a holy psalm, he could not listen, because an anthem of sin rushed loudly upon his ear, and drowned all the blessed strain. When the minister spoke from the pulpit, with power and fervid eloquence, and with his hand on the open Bible, of the sacred truths of our religion, and of saint-like lives and triumphant deaths, and of future bliss or misery unutterable, then did Goodman Brown turn pale, dreading lest the roof should thunder down upon the gray blasphemer and his hearers. Often, awaking suddenly at midnight, he shrank from the bosom of Faith, and at morning or eventide, when the family knelt down at prayer, he scowled, and muttered to himself, and gazed sternly at his wife, and turned away.
Dark though our situation is, I see a ray of hope. Because America has seesawed between optimism and disillusion throughout its history, we may become optimistic once again. Optimism, after all, is one of America’s defining characteristics.
Europeans, who have a longer and bloodier history, sometimes shake their heads at what they see as our naïve hopefulness, regarding us almost as adolescents. Yet they find something engaging about it as well. Although, like adolescents, we sometimes come to see everything as phony (to quote Holden), like adolescents we also demonstrate remarkable resilience.
That one of our greatest authors described our double nature so well almost 200 years ago shows that it is built into our very core. Looking back, Hawthorne saw John Winthrop proclaiming a “city on a hill” in the new world, even as he also described America failing to live up to the promise. Each generation of Americans has grappled with the battle between faith and disillusion, whether the occasion was slavery, Indian wars, anti-immigrant fever, American expansionism, Jim Crowe, recession and depression, etc., etc.
I teach “Young Goodman Brown” in my American fantasy course because it points to a dark phantasmagorical strain that runs from Hawthorne and Poe to Charles Chestnutt, Henry James (Turn of the Screw), H. P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, George Martin and beyond. It is the coin side of America’s light fantasy tradition, which includes the Jack tales, the Paul Bunyan tales, the Oz books, Walt Disney, and D.C. and Marvel comics. The dark side is always hovering at the edges of the light side and vice versa.
In short, Epps is not wrong when he uses “Young Goodman Brown” to predict what we can expect in a post-Trump America. It’s just that, if history is any guide, Brown doesn’t stay gloomy forever.