“Young Goodman Brown” at McCain-Palin Rallies: Nathaniel Hawthorn’s Famous 1835 Short Story and the “Obama is a Terrorist” Hysteria Today

If you haven’t noticed, a certain subsection of the McCain-Palin “base” is hysterically convinced that Barack Obama is not what he appears to be.

He may come across in public as a calm, intelligent man with a nice and low-key patriotic demeanor, but this is strictly for media consumption.

Underneath, he is a one-man terror cell, a traitor, a secret Muslim, a hooligan, and a coke-snorting socialist.

Oh, and his wife, beneath that mother-of-two Ivy League lawyer persona, is Pam Greer, circa 1971, with a machine gun.

And for those in the McCain-Palin base who believe these things about Obama and his wife, their day-to-day lives are wrecked, because they are constantly obsessing—and angry—about the Obama-phenomenon.

In other words, when they step into the daylight each morning, the world seems poisoned to them, for their world is inhabited by devils.

There is a story of Nathaniel Hawthorn’s—titled “Young Goodman Brown”—that tracks a similar narrative. The story explores the Puritan psyche, and its resonances strike me as particularly informative of Election 2008.

In that story a young man, Goodman Brown, is surrounded by a pretty well functioning Christian community.

And he has a beautiful wife named Faith, with whom he has been married for just three months.

But something about the world just doesn’t seem quite right to him, and he decides to take a night journey, alone, into the town’s adjoining forest and see what’s out there, in those woods, that he doesn’t know about yet—but might need to.

On entering the woods, his first fear is of the “terrorists” of his day—the “Indians”—who might be lurking behind the dark trees.

But to Goodman Brown’s surprise, what he discovers are not outside “terrorists,” but inner ones (and Hawthorne leaves it ambiguous as to whether Goodman Brown is just dreaming or having a real experience). 

Those inner “terrorists” belong to a Satanic coven that meets by night, led by the devil himself, and consists of all the good people with whom Goodman Brown associates by day—including the local minister—and even his wife!

That’s right. Young Goodman Brown’s very own wife participates in the secret coven scene!

Think of Stanley Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut, which seems to be, in part, a play on Hawthorn’s story.

Needless to say, this revelation that people are not as they appear, unbalances Goodman Brown, and agitates and poisons his every waking hour, making him despise life, and those around him.

This, in spite of the fact that he actually goes on to have children and grandchildren and lives to a ripe old age.

Yet all of those years go largely unenjoyed, for he has poisoned his psyche with suspicion and conspiratorial obsession.

Here’s one of the concluding paragraphs of Hawthorn’s story:

The next morning young Goodman Brown came slowly into the street of Salem village, staring around him like a bewildered man. The good old minister was taking a walk along the graveyard to get an appetite for breakfast and meditate his sermon, and bestowed a blessing, as he passed, on Goodman Brown. He shrank from the venerable saint as if to avoid an anathema. Old Deacon Gookin was at domestic worship, and the holy words of his prayer were heard through the open window. “What God does the wizard pray to?” quoth Goodman Brown. Goody Cloyse, that excellent old Christian, stood in the early sunshine at her own lattice, catechizing a little girl who had brought her a pint of morning’s milk. Goodman Brown snatched away the child as from the grasp of the fiend himself. Turning the corner by the meeting-house, he spied the head of Faith, with the pink ribbons, gazing anxiously forth, and bursting into such joy at sight of him that she skipped along the street and almost kissed her husband before the whole village. But Goodman Brown looked sternly and sadly into her face, and passed on without a greeting.

And the concluding paragraph of the story offers us this sad ending:

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 ears 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 death 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, waking 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. And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grandchildren, a goodly procession, besides the neighbors not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom.

This strikes me as the great tragedy of young Goodman Brown—a life that might have been open and happy, but lived rigid and unhappy—and the old Goodman Browns in the McCain-Palin base, who are tormenting their middle-aged and retirement years watching FOX News and worrying themselves over (largely imaginary) threats:

And I think that “Young Goodman Brown” also gives us an insight into Sarah Palin, and why one of her ministers, Thomas Muthee, would so earnestly rebuke “witchcraft” from her presence:

Witch hunting and the “War on Terror” are all of a piece. It is a part of the Puritan psyche to see the world as ultimately dangerous, unredeemed, and suffused with devils, both within the congregation, and without.

It is life as constant cultural warfare and suspicion of one’s intellectual opponents, without sensible recognition of nuance and proportion.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to “Young Goodman Brown” at McCain-Palin Rallies: Nathaniel Hawthorn’s Famous 1835 Short Story and the “Obama is a Terrorist” Hysteria Today

  1. Turn off the stupid music. It’s low class, disruptive, and counter-theme–turns off thought.

  2. Pingback: See Here the Batman v. Penguin Debate Clip That Forshadows Obama v. McCain Debate #3 « Prometheus Unbound

  3. Pingback: Toward Muslim American Citizens, Sarah Palin Plays the Dolchstoss Card (the Dagger Thrust from the Enemy Within) « Prometheus Unbound

  4. Pingback: The Last Exorcism: The Blair Witch Project Meets Marjoe and Nathaniel Hawthorne « Prometheus Unbound

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