Harshbarger, "National Demons: Robert Burns, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the Folk in the Forest"
Sullen Fires Across the
Essays in Transatlantic Romanticism
National Demons: Robert Burns,
Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the Folk in the Forest
Scott Harshbarger, Hofstra University
As Carol McGuirk has demonstrated, Robert Burns’ influence on nineteenth-century American culture (literary and otherwise) was pervasive. She goes so far as to compare Burns to Elvis, in that "mere celebrity has been transcended and cult status achieved" (137). This essay compares one of Burns’ most popular poems, "Tam O’Shanter," with one of Hawthorne’s most famous stories: "Young Goodman Brown." Hawthorne’s interest in Burns, the possible date of composition of "Young Goodman Brown," and the striking similarities between story and poem suggest direct influence. A comparison of the two works also sheds light on the strategies the authors developed in adapting folk materials in a critical milieu which regarded such appropriation as intrinsically bound up with literary nationalism. If literary nationalism is often intended to celebrate the native glory of an exceptional people, these works, drawing on the content and technique of folk legend, reveal the flipside of that project, illuminating with a devilish light the complex relationship between demons, demonizers, and cultural nation-making.
Although no critic to my knowledge has considered "Tam O’Shanter" a precursor of "Young Goodman Brown," there are several indications of direct influence. To start, all four volumes of Burns’ poetry and songs were checked out to the Hawthorne household in November of 1828 (Hawthorne’s Reading 46), the earliest conjectured year for the composition of "Young Goodman Brown" (Newman 333). Several similarities between the two works also suggest direct influence. Both Goodman Brown and "Honest" Tam O’Shanter ignore their wives’ warnings and, heading into the night, witness a demonic rite performed by witches and presided over by the devil himself. While setting and action are similar, so are other thematic and narrative elements: journey, isolation, initiation, and a kind of strategic ambiguity, manifested on one level as a blurring of dream and reality. Wavering between skepticism and belief, the narrators of both tales leave it up to the reader to decide what really happened to Tam or Brown.
There is no doubt that both authors were regularly attracted to folk material in fashioning their respective works. Born into a mid-eighteenth-century rural peasant class, Burns achieved a mastery of folk legend and song that positioned him to take advantage of a thriving Scottish nationalism. Set in motion by the Act of Union in 1707, Scotland’s national yearnings, writes Marilyn Butler, help explain "why an apparently local writer using a provincial idiolect at once found a receptive audience, and why the conditions were right for him to become a national, that is a Scottish poet" (103). In many ways, Burns seems an embodiment of the developing eighteenth-century conception of The Bard, "a figure who," writes Katie Trumpener, "represents the resistance of vernacular oral traditions to the historical pressures of English imperialism and whose performances brings the voices of the past into the sites of the present" (33).
Presented to the literate elite in December of 1786 by Henry Mackenzie with what Manning calls "an air of patriotic duty" (162), Burns would become the rustic darling of Scottish nationalists: "Burns’ subsequent exertions as a song collector in his own right sprang from a similarly motivated antiquarian and editorial desire to preserve and restore native Scot culture" (Fragments 162). Referring specifically to the Act of Union, Burns published one of his most angry songs in 1791, a year after composing "Tam":
O would or I had seen the day
That treason thus could sell us,
My auld grey head had lien in clay,
Wi’ Bruce and loyal Wallace!
But pith and power, till my last hour,
I’ll mak this declaration;
We’re bought and sold for English gold,
Such a parcel of rouges in a nation! (17 - 24)
Burns’ resentment of English rule would only be exacerbated by the repressive measure taken by the central government to stifle dissent, including the banning of native dress as well as the deportation of resistance leaders.
Nevertheless, Burns was skeptical of the decades-old movement which, suffering military disaster in 1745, continued to call for armed struggle against the English:
Ye Jacobites by name, give an ear, give an ear,
Ye Jacobites by name, give an ear;
Ye Jacobites by name
Your fautes I will proclaim,
Your doctrines I maun blame, you shall hear . . . .
What makes heroic strife, fam’d afar, fam’d afar?
What makes heroic strife fam’d afar?
What makes heroic strife?
To whet th’ Assassin’s knife,
Or hunt a Parent’s life
Wi’ bluidy war? (1-5, 13-18)
Though clearly opposed to English rule, Burns directs his wrath at his own countrymen: those who were bribed into allowing Scotland to become a province of Great Britain, as well as those who persisted in a movement that, receiving new inspiration from the French Revolution, encouraged violent resistance. Although Burns would always retain his faith in the Scottish "folk," he found himself increasingly at odds with both the political elite and its militant opposition. As Leth Davis and others have argued, Burns' ambivalent nationalism found expression in much of his poetry and songs, including "Tam O’Shanter."
Much has been written on the longstanding connection between Scottish and American intellectual and political culture. Though writing decades later, Hawthorne, like Burns, came of age in a country dominated by nationalist ideology. Whereas Burns’ national sensibility was conditioned by Scotland’s political domination by an imperial power, Hawthorne’s was influenced by an America that, emerging victorious from the War of 1812, set about expanding the franchise and enlarging the country. However, democratic empowerment would be limited to white males, and annexation of territory was accomplished through a brutal "Indian Removal" policy. "The metaphor of a peaceful nation which now turned its face toward the West is historically sound," writes George Dangerfield in The Awakening of American Nationalism: 1815-1828, adding a qualifier evocative of "Young Goodman Brown": "but only if one concedes that this nation was constantly looking over its shoulder" (12).
Born on the Fourth of July, Hawthorne would have many occasions to reflect on the uncritical celebration of the nation. Moreover, he would never forget that he was the descendent of two imposing figures of American history who brought the spirit of persecution to public service, one famous for violently driving a Quaker woman out of Salem, the other for helping to preside over the Salem witchcraft trials. Hawthorne’s attitude toward the national government would perhaps find its most direct expression in his description, appearing at the beginning of The Scarlet Letter, of the "truculent" and "unhappy" national symbol presiding over the entrance to Salem‘s Custom-House. Though occasioned by his political removal as Inspector in 1848, the statement has a vividness that suggests the boiling over of feelings that had been simmering for quite some time: "She has no great tenderness, even in her best of moods, and, sooner or later,—oftener sooner than later,—is apt to fling off her nestlings with a scratch of her claw, a dab of her beak, or a rangling wound from her barbed arrows" (2-3).
Hawthorne’s suspicion of public authority was complemented by an awareness that "the people" were susceptible to a variety of moods and manipulations, a fact evident in the many disturbing crowd scenes that appear in his fiction, from "My Kinsman Major Molineux" to The Marble Faun. Using Hawthorne‘s work as prime example, Nicolaus Mills notes that "In the midst of an era of nationalism and expansion [the classic American novel] reflects an abiding fear that in America democratic men are the enemy of democratic man" (12). Given his family history and the current national proclivities, it is perhaps not surprising that, while his closest friends became prominent politicians, Hawthorne himself cultivated an almost pathological privacy.
Like eighteenth-century Scotland, early nineteenth-century America sought to define its national culture by turning to apparently indigenous American folk sources. Influenced by Herder, such prominent writers as James Kirke Paulding, William Cullen Bryant, John Neal, Rufus Choate, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow were among the those calling for an original American literature (Bland 78; Doubleday 450). Delivering the oration at Hawthorne’s graduation from Bowdoin in 1825 , Longfellow remarked,
We are thus thrown upon ourselves: and thus shall our native hills become renowned in song, like those of Greece and Italy. Every rock shall become a chronicle of storied allusions: and the tomb of the Indian prophet be as hallowed as the sepulchers of ancient kings, or the damp vault and perpetual lamp of the Saracen monarch. (qtd. in Bland 78).
Indeed, around the time Hawthorne may have composed "Young Goodman Brown," Paulding, Bryant, and Neal attempt to create an authentic American literature by drawing on witch lore and legend.
Although not embedded in the world of oral tradition in the same way Burns was, Hawthorne did have a deep and abiding interest in folklore and storytelling. Coleman Tharpe has argued that the oral narrators who appear in Hawthorne’s novels, "represent a unique refinement of Hawthorne’s earlier artistic experiments with the oral folk tradition, particularly his experiments with the oral folk narrator" (205). From his projected story collection, "The Story-Teller," to the evocatively titled "Twice-Told Tales," to the oral aspects of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne consistently evinced a fascination with folk tradition, and the power of the spoken word in its many forms. As Lauren Berlant writes in her discussion of Hawthorne‘s construction of a "national symbolic," "[the] early tales can illuminate the later national tales and novels: first, because they all center on a scene of oral transmission that demonstrates the tangled relations between discursive power and ‘native’-historical knowledge" (35).
Like "Tam O Shanter," "Young Goodman Brown" portrays the tangled relations between the author, the folk material he has chosen to adapt, and the literary nationalism very much in the air. However, as Frank Doubleday saw years ago, Hawthorne made a "significant departure" from the program of literary nationalism laid out by such writers as Rufus Choate:
[Hawthorne] will not use the past only to glorify and idealize it. Choate’s motives are worthy enough; he believes that historical fiction would foster a corporate imaginative life and reassemble "the people of America in one fast congregation": ‘Reminded of our fathers, we should remember that we are brethren.’ He urges a selection from the varied materials of history to achieve artistic unity; but he urges, too, a selection in which all that is regrettable in Puritan society be suppressed. (451)
Doubleday sees in Hawthorne’s story "P’s Correspondence" the author’s ultimate rejection of Sir Walter Scott’s celebratory form of literary nationalism: "Were he still a writer," avers the narrator of Hawthorne’s story, "and as brilliant a one as ever, he could no longer maintain anything like the same position in literature. The world, nowadays, requires a more earnest purpose, a deeper moral, and a closer and homelier truth than he was qualified to supply it with" (qtd. in Doubleday 453). Hearing the calls for a nationalist literature, Hawthorne would turn from Scott and, following a course closer to Burns’, compose tales which reflect and comment on the problematic and ambiguous nature of nationalism itself.
While some interpreters of nationalism regard it as a product of the Enlightenment and French and American Revolutions, and others find its roots in the Renaissance or earlier, most acknowledge the various contradictory and problematic strands of what would come to be one of the most potent and vexing forces of the modern world. While Herder and other eighteenth-century writers had advocated the progressive aspects of a folk-based organic nationalism, the subsequent histories of many nationalist movements have proven to be much more troubling. Regardless of their political motivations or consequences, nationalist movements require narrative, a story that endows the "nation" with some kind of authentic native authority. Several interpreters of nationalism have stressed the fictive aspects of such narratives. Writes Ernest Gelner: "The cultural shreds and patches used by nationalism are often arbitrary historical inventions. Any old shred and patch would have served as well" (66). However, as Anthony Smith points out, such "shreds and patches" only serve the nationalist story if they have emotional resonance. Their appeal, writes Smith, "has nothing to do with their ‘innovative qualities,' let alone their truth-content, and everything to do with the traditions of popular ethnic myths, symbols and memories which nationalisms habitually evoke, and invoke" (83). By focusing on "the analogy between political Union and personal integration" Manning also relates political to personal identity: "In both cases, ‘union’ is about narrative—telling a single story of nation or self—and about how the mind stabilizes conditions of flux sufficiently to realise the continuities on which such a story would depend" (Fragments 11). Burns and Hawthorne, I would argue, are less concerned with the literal truth of such legends than they are with their "emotional resonance," and the role such resonance plays in entwining the political with personal, for good or ill.
In "Tam" and "Brown," Burns’ and Hawthorne’s explorations of the dark side of folk nationalism begin with their protagonists’ ignoring their wives’ prophetic warnings. Tam’s wife Kate "prophesied that late or soon / Thou would be found deep drown’d in Doon; / Or catch’d wi’ warlocks in the mirk, / By Alloway’s auld haunted kirk." (558). "’Dearest heart,' whispered [Faith], softly and rather sadly, when her lips were close to his ear, ‘pr’y thee, put off your journey until sunrise, and sleep in your own bed tonight. A lone woman is troubled with such dreams and such thoughts, that she’s afeard of herself, sometimes'" (74). Just as women play a key role in both tales so have they been crucial to the development of the nation state. Foya Anthias and Nira Yuval-Davis identify several ways in which "women have tended to participate in ethnic and national processes and in relation to state practices," in particular, as "transmitters of culture," "biological reproducers of members of ethnic collectivities," and "reproducers of the boundaries of ethnic/national groups" (7). The women in both tales represent an aspect of the social story associated with wives’ tales, young or old, their warnings pregnant with the events to come. Representing the homely, the familiar, the domestic on the one hand, and the wild and disturbing on the other, wives and witches symbolize the boundaries both men will cross on their wayward journeys. Writes Manning: "Goodman Brown’s unstable allegorizing mind is polarized; to him his wife Faith is purity. He cannot allow her (in his mind) to have any connection with evil" (Puritan-Provincial 99). Faith’s admission "that she’s afeard of herself, sometimes" hints at her role in collapsing the boundaries of Brown’s dichotomized world at the heart of Hawthorne’s story.
Impelled originally by the antiquarian Francis Grose’s request that Burns contribute to a volume that would record for national posterity the various stories associated with Aloway Kirk, Burns dramatizes the profound effect of such stories by having Tam ride by various reminders of local legend:
By this time he was cross the ford. . . past the birks and meikle stane, Whare drunken Charlie brak’s neck-bane; And thro’ the whines, and by the cairn, Whare hunteres fand the murder’d bairn [child]; And near the thorn, aboon the well, Whare Mungo’s mither hang’d hersel.—(89-96)
The evocative specificity of these rural legends helps ground the story in local and personal associations: having come from an extended stay in the Tavern, Tam should be especially affected by the mention of drunken Charlie’s legendary demise. The fact that such legends keep alive the victims of these rural tragedies suggests the kind of cultural haunting that Manning equates with tradition itself: "Tradition, like a ghost, is a mnemonic and an admonition to the present. A kind of platonic anamnesis, or reminiscence of former existence, it attempts to create and sustain a communal cultural memory in potentially hostile circumstances" (Fragments 167). Local, particular, and tragic, the incidents that Burns memorializes through Tam’s ride foreshadow the even darker legend to come.
While Burns seeks to reclaim a national tradition posed against "the potentially hostile circumstances" of English hegemony, Hawthorne uses the stuff of history and legend to formulate what Lauren Berlant, following Foucault, calls "counter memory": "the residual material that is not identical with the official meanings of the political public sphere—for instance, the material of popular memory in which public or national figures, bodies, monuments, and texts accrue a profusion of meanings" (6). What Mary Ellen Brown remarks of Burns and "Tam O’Shanter" can be applied to Hawthorne as well: "Burns not only used legend content, he also recreated in the poem aspects of the legend context, the situation of legend exchange" (65). The power of such exchange hinges on intimacy and the potential for identification between speaker and audience. Such intimacy and identification is underscored by the narrator’s observation that the figure Brown had arranged to rendezvous with in the forest, bore "a considerable resemblance to him, though perhaps more in expression than features. Still, they might have been taken for father and son" (76).
The invoking of kinship ties suggests a parodic inversion of the ancestral genealogy underlying many "proto-" or "primordial" nations. This figure, though "simply clad as the younger, and as simple in manner too" but having "an indescribable air of one who knew the world" serves as intermediary between the common man represented by Brown and the world of nations represented by "King William’s court" (76). Manning finds such "familial analogies" essential to account for the personal and political dynamic involved in Scottish and American nationalism: "In both Scottish and American contexts, England-as-parent was the prior given which made it inevitable that separate identity would be articulated in resistance and reaction" (Fragments 22). In a post-colonial American context, such a father figure may represent the ghostly memory of the British monarch, or it could suggest the birth of an analogous authoritarian system. That he is not only a father but also a devil, intent on passing his snake-like staff down to Brown, suggests that Hawthorne is suspicious of any process that attempts to bind the common and the elite in intimate community through ties of blood, real or imaginary.
Ironically, and subversively, the intimacy the devil wishes to establish with Brown is based on stories and events that, while evoking Hawthorne’s ancestral story, suggests nationalism’s persecuting spirit. Some historians have attempted to understand this dimension by contrasting a liberal "civic" nationalism with its illiberal "ethnic" counterpart, the former characterized by "inclusive tolerance," the latter by "conflict" and "exclusion" (Marx viii). However, as Anthony Marx has argued, even apparently inclusive "civic" nationalism typified by England and America has its roots in state manipulation of religious conflict, involving the exclusion of a demonized other. To help explain this phenomenon, Marx turns to the political scientist Arthur Stincombe:
[nationalism] is a wish to suppress internal divisions within nation and to define people outside the group as untrustworthy as allies and implacably evil as enemies . . . It is on the one hand a generous spirit of identification . . . a love of compatriots . . . But it is on the other hand a spirit of distrust of the potential treason of any opposition within the group and a hatred of strangers (qtd. in Marx 23).
In short, "To legitimate state rule requires cohesion of those included as a nation, against some other" (23). A "conceptual structure of polarities," characteristic of Calvinism and "the psychological state it induces in the believer," (Manning, Puritan-Provincial 7) would also encourage a nationalism predicated on the conceptual necessity of a damned other. In "Tam" and "Brown" Burns and Hawthorne explore and critique this powerful narrative means of forging group identity through demonization.
Responding to Brown’s claim that he was first in his family to rendezvous with the devil, this figure observes: "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" (77). Hawthorne uses legend-telling—a process which Choate and others wished would be used to buttress national glory—to enshrine the process by which societies cohere around the persecution of various others, here, Quakers and Indians. By having the Devil avow the role he has played in the Puritan settlement since its founding, Hawthorne is able to foreshadow the climax of the story by hinting at the kernel of social truth revealed through legend telling.
Again, moving beyond the mere borrowing of folk material, Hawthorne explores the rhetoric of legend at the heart of nation-making, a rhetoric which is most effective when insinuating, rather than imposing, belief. What would become a hallmark of Hawthorne’s mature style—what Mathiessen referred to as his "device of multiple choice" (276)—can be viewed as deriving from the story teller’s anticipation, and manipulation, of responses from a diverse oral audience. Brown cycles through a number of interpretations and responses, from naive skepticism to cynical certainty, while the narrator invites the reader to judge the ultimate reality of the story in any number of ways: "Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest, and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?" (89) This medley of interpretation highlights the social construction and negotiation of "truth" within the various interpretive communities in which legends—and nations—develop.
His faith in the wholesomeness of the community narrative seriously threatened by his encounters in the forest—not only with the devil, but with Deacon Gookin, the minister, and Brown’s Sunday School teacher—Brown perceives a dark mass floating overhead. Full of "confused and doubtful voices," this cloud becomes a symbol of legend itself, along with the forms of belief it engenders:
Once, the listener fancied that he could distinguish accents of town’s-people of his own, men and women, both pious and ungodly, many of whom he had met at the communion-table, and had seen others rioting at the tavern. The next moment, so indistinct were the sounds, he doubted whether he had heard aught but the murmur of the old forest, whispering without a wind. Then came stronger swell of those familiar tones, heard daily in the sunshine, at Salem village, but never, until now, from a cloud of night. (82)
Brown’s perception of and participation in this dark cloud of voices reflects the content of folk tradition—familiar and strange, homely and sinister—as well as the unreliable but effective process by which it survives.
A number of folklorists have argued that folktales are largely the product of communal projections. The same process by which an audience responds personally to folktale helps explain Brown’s response to the murmuring cloud. Into this murky mass of imagined voices Brown projects his greatest fear of all: "There was one voice, of a young woman, uttering lamentations, yet with an uncertain sorrow, and entreating for some favor, which, perhaps, it would grieve her to obtain" (82). Brown’s fate is sealed when his call for Faith brings "a scream, drowned immediately in a louder murmur of voices, fading into far-off laugher, as the dark cloud swept away . . . . something fluttered lightly down through the air, and caught on the branch of a tree. The young man seized it, and beheld the pink ribbon" (82). The aural counterpart of the "specter evidence" represented by the pink ribbon, the dark cloud of murmuring voices is used by Hawthorne to dramatize how conviction of utmost certainty can arise from the nebulous murmurs of the social imagination. More specifically, this incident foreshadows the loss, in Brown, of his faith in official community, and the narratives that support it.
Hawthorne underscores the intensity of Brown’s growing alienation from the communal story by making him audience to a gathering symphony of perverse utterance—real or imagined—quite different from the whisperings of Faith that begin the tale: From the devil’s laughter to the strange mumblings of the Sunday School teacher; to the "solemn old tones" of the minister and Deacon Gookin "talking so strangely in the empty air"; to the voice of a young woman "uttering lamentations, yet with an uncertain sorrow"; to Brown’s response, mocked by the echoing forest, "crying—‘Faith! Faith!' as if bewildered wretches were seeking her, all through the wilderness"—all contribute to Brown’s mental and social bewilderment (81-82). Brown’s despairing exclamation that "there is no good on earth; and sin is but a name" (83) is followed by his own nihilistic laughter, which, echoing the devil’s, prompts nature to respond in kind: "The whole forest was peopled with frightful sounds; the creaking of the trees, the howling of wild beasts, and, the yell of Indians; while, sometimes, the wind tolled like a distant church-bell, and sometimes gave a broad roar around the traveler, as if all Nature were laughing him to scorn . . . ." In a perverse form of call and response, Brown rises to nature’s profane challenge: "’Ha! ha! ha!’ roared Goodman Brown, when the wind laughed at him. ‘Let us hear which will laugh loudest!’" (83). The forest having become an echo chamber of his social despair, Brown is ready for his encounter with the remaining folk in the forest.
Perhaps the most spectacular example of powerful legendary belief having no basis in actual fact is the conviction, held in Scotland, England, the Continent, and Colonial America that those dedicated to Evil meet on a regular basis to plot and celebrate the overthrow of all things good and holy. Writes Robin Briggs: "The stories of the [witch’s] sabbat represented a fusion between the persecuting stereotypes elaborated by clerics and judges and the various older folkloric traditions of the peasantry" (32). She continues:
The idea of secret meetings where orgies take place and evil is planned must be one of the oldest and most basic human fantasies. Charges of nocturnal conspiracy, black magic, child murder, orgiastic sexuality and perverted ritual were nothing new in Europe when they were applied to witches. . . . The stereotype is obvious; it consisted of inverting all the positive values of society, adding a lot of lurid detail (often borrowed from earlier allegations), then throwing the resulting bucket of filth over the selected victims. (32)
If nationalism derives much of its power by tapping into the same ideas and emotions associated with other forms of worship, the Witch’s sabbath can be viewed as a demonic version of the national religion. It is, at once, the opposite of the ruling national order as well as the projected, symbiotic enactment of the other on which that order is based.
Indeed, the witchcraft persecutions have been correlated with the rise of the nation state. Supported by the nationalist combination of elite claims and popular sentiment, the crime of witchcraft, as Christina Larner has pointed out, "went on the statute books, or became otherwise the responsibility of secular powers, at a time when jurisdictions were becoming more centralized and more rationalized . . . ." (205). The link between the rise of nationalism and the witchcraft of hysteria of the sixteenth and seventeenth century supports Anthony Marx‘s contention that early forms of nationalism require the identification and persecution of a reviled other. Although British nationalism was formed primarily by demonizing Catholics, "Sometimes, such attacks were directed instead against ‘witches,’ with any form of heresy, non-conformity, or effect of blood seen as inviting of intolerance and treatment as scapegoats" (96). Through the witch persecutions, the role of women in the nation state as definers of national boundaries would be used to define the categorically unacceptable.
In Scotland there would be even greater opportunity for using "witches" as scapegoats. Writes Manning: ". . . after the departure of James VI to the English throne in 1603 had deprived the people of a divinely ordained focus for their loyalties, the periodic witch hunts became a way of reaffirming defensively the precarious theocratic solidarity of the Scottish nation" (The Puritan-provincial Vision, 21). While Calvinism’s polarizing tendencies referred to earlier would encourage a nationalism predicated on the damned and the elect, its foundational focus on original sin would also create lingering misgivings about any form of social organization rooted in "the people."
As Katherine Briggs observes, "In Scotland we find tales of the witches’ Sabat and more instances than in England of the diabolic compact" (326). Accordingly, Burns is able to provide a fully fleshed-out account of the sabbat Tam encounters:
And, vow, Tam saw an unco sight!
Warlocks and witches in a dance;
Nae cotillion brent new frae France,
But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels,
Put life and mettle in their heels . . .
There sat auld Nick, in shape o’beast;
A toozie tyke, black, grim, and large,
To gie them music was his charge:
He screw’d the pipes and gart them skirl,
Till roof and rafter a’ did dirl— (114-118; 120-24)
Employing the vernacular, Burns presents an emphatically Scottish scene, the Devil himself providing the appropriate folk music. In this depiction, the Scottish instruments, music, and the dance they inspire are put into service of a devilish celebration, wherein the national mind projects a parallel tradition of evil—the feared yet necessary other—through which the imagined community of Scotland may cohere.
If, as Tom Nairn writes, "through nationalism the dead are awakened" (4), the process of such awakening often involves memorializing the hideous manner in which such deaths were effected. The role that folk tradition can play in such awakening is suggested by Burns’ catalogue of gruesome details:
Coffins stood round, like open presses,
That shaw’d the dead in their last dresses;
And by some devilish cantraip slight
Each in its cauld hand held a light.—
By which heroic Tam was able
To note upon the haly table,
A murderer’s banes in gibbet airns;
Twa span-lang, wee, unchristen’d bairns [children];
A thief, new-cutted frae a rape [rope],
Wi’ his last gasp his gab did gape,
Five tomahawks, wi’ blude red-restued;
Five scymitars, wi’ murder crusted;
A garter, which a babe had strangled;
A knife, a father’s throat had nabled,
Whom his ain son o’ life bereft,
The grey hairs yet stack to the heft’
Wi’ mair o’ horrible and awefu’,
Which even to name wad be unlawfu’. (125-142)
Illumined by the coffined dead, the scene reveals the grisly content of many a folk tale or song—murder, execution, infanticide, parricide—along with the bloody implements by which these violent acts were accomplished. Examples of the kind of "cultural haunting" that, for Manning, suggests the disciplinary function of tradition (Fragments 167), such stories arouse and make available a variety of shades of fear and loathing, ready to inspire nationalist purposes not imagined by Herder.
It is at this point that the heroes of both tales focus their attention on the female celebrants, or in Brown’s case, inductee. Here the gendered aspect of the witchcraft hysteria comes to the fore, supporting the theory that the rise of the nation involves the reestablishment of patriarchy. The patriarchal demand for submissive women is reinforced by imagining its opposite: sex with the devil, one of the most striking legendary sabbat practices. As Anthia and Yval-Davis point out, "Women are controlled [by the state] not only by being encouraged or discouraged from having children who will become members of the various ethnic groups within the state. They are also controlled in terms of the ‘proper’ way in which they should have them" (314). In projecting one version of the ultimate other, the nationalist mind imagines a form of diabolical sexual behavior—the ultimate in female insubordination—most threatening to the patriarchal order.
Although sex with the devil would have to qualify as something "Which even to name wad be unlawful" (Grose’s volume was intended for a respectable middle-class audience), Burns does eroticize Tam’s encounter with the Sabbath witches. In doing so he creates an ironic version of this aspect of the witch’s sabbath, thereby revealing his ambivalent attitudes toward the nationalist project to create an unredeemable other. Drawing closer, Tam observes a particular young witch, whose short skirt turns him from shocked witness, to voyeur, to prospective participant:
There was ae winsome wench and wawlie,
That night enlisted in the core . . .
Her cutty sark [short shirt] , o’ Paisley harn,
That while a lassie she had worn,
In longitude tho’ sorely scanty,
It was her best, and she was vauntie [in high spirits]. . .
And how Tam stood, like ane bewitch’d,
And thought his very een enrich’d;
Even Satan glowr’d, and fidg’d fu fain,
And hotch’d and blew wi’ might and main:
Till first ae caper, syne anither,
Tam tint his reason a’ thegither,
And roars out, "Weel done, Cutty-sark!!" (164-174; 183-189)
In a Burnsian twist on the sabbath legend, a mere witness to the sexually charged satanic ritual becomes a potential participant, the teasing techniques of legend-telling becoming a kind of foreplay leading to Tam’s ejaculatory "Weel done!" Burns reveals his ambivalence to the nationalist project—or its mirror opposite—by having his hero be by turns repelled and seduced.
Suggesting his own ambivalence toward the nationalistic uses of a folk-inspired other, Hawthorne also has his hero witness or imagine his own Satanic gathering. Like Tam’s encounter, Brown’s is bathed in a diabolic light: "the mass of foliage, that had overgrown the summit of the rock, was all on fire, blazing high into the night, and fitfully illuminating the whole field" (86). The burning bush makes visible a "numerous congregation," which alternately shines forth and disappears into the shadows—the visual equivalent of the ambiguity of legend-telling. Hawthorne’s sabbath is also filled with music, although here, instead of Scottish jigs, we hear Puritan hymns, but with a twist: "Another verse of the hymn arose, a slow and mournful strain, such as the pious love, but joined to words which expressed all that our nature can conceive of sin, and darkly hinted at far more. Unfathomable to mere mortals is the lore of fiends" (85). Like the strains of Burns’s sabbath, this music provides a familiar means to a diabolical end. Although they may not seem as spirited as Scottish jigs, the Puritan hymns, when combined with "words which expressed all that our nature can conceive of sin," become a powerful "anthem" (86) composed of the sacred and the profane. Brown’s encounter with the folk in the forest is analogous to Hawthorne’s encounters with the light and dark of the folk imagination, a microcosm of proto-nationalist forces created and revealed through the "lore of fiends."
Such heterogeneous mixing is echoed in the motley crew that makes up Hawthorne’s black sabbath:
Irreverently consorting with [the] grave, reputable, and pious people, these elders of the church, these chaste dames and dewy virgins, there were men of dissolute lives and women of spotted fame, wretches given over to all mean and filthy vice, and suspected even of horrid crimes. It was strange to see, that the good shrank not from the wicked, nor were the sinners abashed by the saints (85).
To suggest the nature of such sins, Hawthorne details his own catalogue of crime, reminiscent of Burns’: "how many a woman, eager for widow’s weeds, had given her husband a drink at bed-time, 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" (287). Again, we find a kind of "counter-nation," the symbiotic partner of the nationalist project, fueled by "lore," to which all are invited: "Welcome, my children . . . to the communion of your race" (86).
Whereas Both Burns and Hawthorne used the stories of the folk in their writing, and did not shrink from including the grisly and the grotesque, their attitudes toward such dark tales, revealed by the tone of their narrators, seem significantly different. Burns’ tale emerges toward the end of a career characterized by multiple uses of folk tales legends, and song. That Burns in many respects felt at home in this tradition is reflected in the rollicking denouement of the poem:
The carlin [old woman] caught her [Tam’s horse] by the rump,
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump.
Now, wha this tale o’ truth shall read,
Ilk man and mother’s son take heed:
Whene’er to drink you are inclin’d,
Or cutty-sarks run in your mind,
Think, ye may buy the joys o’er dear,
Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare. (117-224)
Tam’s tussle with the witches can be seen as parallel to Burns' encounters with the nationalistic implications of folktale: anxious, exciting, and frightening, the tradition had left its mark: and thereby hangs, or does not hang, a tail/tale. Nevertheless, that Burns could forswear his encounters with the folk is as likely as that Tam could swear off drink or cutty-sarks.
While both authors were to contribute to nation-making by drawing on folklore, the nature of such folklore, and the hysteria it could inspire, inspired Hawthorne to create his own subversive tale, but with a difference: though Brown, like Tam, snaps the spell with an impulsive shout—"’Faith! Faith!’ . . . ‘Look up to Heaven, and resist the Wicked One!’"—his is less an ejaculation and more a form of national interuptus. With his shout, the imagined community predicated on the exclusions of a distinct other ceases to exist. Since this is the only community Brown seems capable of conceiving, he becomes a "stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man," so that, at the end of his life, "they carved no hopeful verse upon his tomb-stone; for his dying hour was gloom" (90).
Whereas Burns seems content to play with the dichotomies upon which the Scottish nation might be constructed—his hero comically impervious to any attempt to define a detestable other—Hawthorne seems much more worried by any project which might rest on such a strategy. As mentioned, such wariness was no doubt informed by the role played by his ancestor in the trial and execution of dozens of people during the Salem witchcraft hysteria as well as the dark forces of a truculent American eagle unleashed by a gathering Jacksonian nationalism. Hawthorne does respond to the call to use folk culture to propel a national literary project, but in a way that demonstrates an understanding of that culture far beyond that possessed by those calling for its simple exploitation. If, as Nairn writes, "the substance of nationalism as such is always morally, politically, humanly ambiguous" so are the folk whose stories can be manipulated to propel nationalist literary projects. Any writer’s attempt to forge national worship through folk legend and belief is considerably complicated, and, perhaps, subversively inspired, by the strange and mournful tales of "folk" themselves—whether we find them in the jolly tavern, the Scottish Kirk, or a New England forest.
1 For a summary of conjectured sources, see Newman, 333-336. While most of the sources Newman summarizes are literary, he also points to oral tradition: "The witch folklore transmitted through oral tradition is difficult to document, yet during the course of growing up in the environs of Salem, Hawthorne had to have been exposed to some of the local folk beliefs" (333).
2 Writes the folklorist Mary Ellen Brown: "Burns’ focus in his early work on local topics, his frequent use of traditional material, his acceptance of the fluidity of texts, his stress on audience and the oral socialization of his own works, and his articulated views on the function of composition—all suggest Burns’ strong and largely intuitive ties to the traditional and particularly oral matrix of late eighteenth-century Ayrshire" (6).
3 "The pacification of the Highlands involved deliberate attempts to eradicate traditional forms of culture in order to root out remaining sources of indigenous identity and national pride" (Trumpener 29).
5 See, for example, Manning: "Scotland underwent—debated, theorized, experienced, resisted, imagined—union before the American colonies; the literature that emerged from this experience inevitably proved potent when the colonists began to formulate their own responses to a crisis in their relationship with England" (Fragments 4).
6 See also Larry J. Reynolds’ account of the effect that European history had on Hawthorne’s attitude toward revolutionary "mobs."
7 "A nation’s formal literature needs to be based on the creative accomplishments of its folk, regardless of how crude that body of materials may seem to the sophisticated classes of society . . . . the sense of nationality is derived from the unsophisticated folk poetry of the people" (Herder, qtd. in Bluestein 5).
10 "Beneath the decline of sacred communities, languages and lineages, a fundamental change was taking place in modes of apprehending the world, which, more than anything else, made it possible to ‘think’ the nation" (Andersen 22).
12 In a letter to Francis Grose (401 summer 1790) Burns recounts three of "the many Witch Stories I have heard relating to Aloway Kirk" (22).
13 Smith cites Walker Connor’s view that "nations, like ethnic groups, are phenomena of mass psychology and ultimately of felt kinship" (72).
14 See Dundes: "Projection is one of a number of psychological defense mechanisms which provides an unconscious screen or arena for display of the causes of anxiety and it is for this reason that folkloristic projections are so indispensable" (45).
15 In "Shadows of Doubt: Specter Evidence in Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown,'" Levin shows how Brown, and perhaps the reader, falls for the same kind of "ocular deceptions" used to convict witches during the Salem trials.
16 Smith argues that nations can be traced to "popular participation in large-scale cults and rituals, in the performance of ethical and religious obligations which bind a community of presumed ancestry into a community of faith and worship, in the sense of community evoked by symbols and myths of ethnic origins and election, and in shared memories of ancestors and heroic deeds" (Smith 111).
17 Manning calls the Devil’s oration in "Young Goodman Brown" "a demonic inversion of Dimmesdale’s Election Day sermon in The Scarlet Letter" (Puritan-Provincial 101).
18 Writes Larner: "A witch was, by definition, an abnormal person. The execution of a witch was a demonstration of group solidarity. It removed the provocative deviant and redefined the boundaries of normality to secure the safety of the virtuous community . . . . Witchcraft was more than crime for the practitioner was an enemy and witch process was directed against the eradication of public enemies" (206).
19 Writes Marianne Hester: "The accusation of women was not merely a reflection of an age-old stereotype, not merely the by-produce of a patriarchal society; the witch-hunts were a part of, and one example of, the ongoing mechanisms for social control of women within a general context of social change and the reconstruction of a patriarchal society" (276).
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