Hawthorne’s Critique of Radical American Individualism
In “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” Nathaniel Hawthorne presents his bleak allegorical vision of early America, an America that is simultaneously seductive and destructive.
I highly recommend reading this short ten or so page story before you continue reading.
The story begins from the perspective of an outsider, Robin, ferrying his way over into Boston in the hope of meeting his eponymous relative. Once he arrives, no one seems to have any information regarding his relative.
Robin eventually encounters a lady who tells him that his kinsman resides in her residence and suggestively invites him inside; he declines.
Later, Robin encounters a polite townsman who tells him that his kinsman will be passing here after a few moments. Suddenly, Robin hears horrific cries and what seems to be a drunken parade emerging on the midnight street. At the head of the parade is a tortured and elderly Major Molyneux, who has just been tar-and-feathered. He is shamefully displayed to the town’s inhabitants as they brutally drag him throughout the street.
Robin thus realizes that his relative no longer has any power in this town and he is thus likely going to suffer a deadly punishment soon. He asks the gentleman for any directions that might help him in leaving town.
The gentleman’s response is the most telling: he is, at first, shocked that Robin wants to leave. But then he recovers and tells the youth, “I will speed you on your journey. Or, if you prefer to remain with us, perhaps, as you are a shrewd youth, you may rise in the world, without the help of your kinsman, Major Molineux.”
Those are the final words of the story.
I have already mentioned that the work is an allegory, and what that means is that these events and characters are symbolic of some hidden meaning. If it isn’t already clear, it’s about the promise of early America — the promise that you don’t need to be born into a wealthy family in order to rise in the world. It’s a meritocratic system, not a nepotistic one.
That promise sounds great and all, right?
Well, Hawthorne contends, not if it’s at the expense of your relatives.
That’s why that promise is symbolized as being multi-faceted. It’s the scarlet lady who (futilely) invites the youth into the house as she vanishes into it.
It’s also represented as the nameless double-faced citizen of the town, whose features are described in the following passage: “One side of the face blazed an intense red, while the other was black as midnight, the division line being in the broad bridge of the nose; and a mouth which seemed to extend from ear to ear was black or red, in contrast to the color of the cheek. The effect was as if two individual devils, a fiend of fire and a fiend of darkness, had united themselves to form this infernal visage.”
This horrific personification also happens to be the leader of the tar-and-feathering party: “The single horseman, clad in a military dress, and bearing a drawn sword, rode onward as the leader, and, by his fierce and variegated countenance, appeared like war personified; the red of one cheek was an emblem of fire and sword; the blackness of the other betokened the mourning that attends them.”
He seems to represent both the violence of this majoritarian tyranny and also the regrets of those very actions. Thus, he personifies the essence of Hawthorne’s story: that the radical individualism so valorized by these Americans comes at the cost of violence. It’s a violence dealt to those who have already been in positions of power. Shrewd youths now have the ability to rise in the world, but only if their forefathers have no influence over their rise.
In a sense, two arguments are being set forth here: one is an argument in favor of radical individualism, while the other is against it. I have already mentioned the first argument, namely, that true equality is only possible after a complete equalization, that is, after the erasure of one’s relatives. A relative always has the first hand in influencing a youth’s success and mobility in the world, both spiritually and materially. However, because some individuals receive a much greater advantage from their relatives than others, this already produces inequality. That’s why Hawthorne’s sinister Boston seems to be uneasily bereft of paternal figures. They are not wanted in this radical community.
At the heart of the story is another quite damning argument? It’s an argument from the perspective of the shrewd youth, who sees his kinsman in a state of abject vulnerability. This once wealthy and successful older gentleman has been castigated by his community and is left in such a vulnerable position that he cannot fulfill his desires to help his own nephew. Neither can his nephew help him.
The community has intervened into the realm of family relations and has abnormally twisted them into unrecognizable proportions. When the family is at the power of the community, majoritarian rule becomes its most tyrannical — it’s “as if two individual devils, a fiend of fire and a fiend of darkness, had united themselves to form this infernal visage.”
The fear of unfettered majoritarian rule is at the center of Hawthorne’s allegory of Boston. When the major is paraded through the street, Robin hears a unified monstrous cry and thinks that, “There were at least a thousand voices that went up to make that one shout.” The shout itself is the voice of an unrestrained rule of the majority. This majoritarian rule has the power to create a Utopian society, but at the expense of Robin’s relations.
That’s Hawthorne’s main point. What may look like a paradisiacal way of life to the majority of Boston, looks like an infernal twisting of human relations to individuals like Robin.
The radical individualism of early Boston comes at a steep price: its price is a symbolic violence dealt to families with the ability to pass on their successful legacy to their children. Total equality can only be achieved after the state interferes with families by erasing any form of inheritance.
The suggestion here would be that this process must be repeated with everygeneration. What occurred to Molyneux would, in turn, occur to Robin.
Is that sort of equality permissible? Is it even desirable? Hawthorne doesn’t seem to think so, and I assume most of his readers wouldn’t either. That’s the note Hawthorne leaves us on. These questions are as important as ever, in an America divided by the populists’ fear of ballooning wealth inequality and those, such as Jordan Peterson, who are worried about “equality of opportunity.”
The sinister and polite gentleman tells our protagonist that he can embrace this new American culture that lionizes individualism to the point of erasing one’s predecessors. Or he can take the ferry back to his origins.