The New York City Council has voted to remove the statue of Thomas Jefferson from the council chambers at City Hall. A group of iconoclastic lawmakers argued that the likeness was “a constant reminder of the injustices that have plagued communities of color since the inception of our country” and that Jefferson embodied some of the most “shameful parts of our country’s history.” The progressive movement to remove statues is not going anywhere. What began with Confederate statues was never going to stop with them—because in many ways, the modern iconoclasts are not angry with the Confederacy so much as with the history of imperfect humanity itself.
The search for social utopia has long been an American temptation, and a certain type of iconoclasm has always haunted the intellectual, political, and social institutions of the American republic. Nathaniel Hawthorne recognized this disposition among the transcendentalists he cavorted with in the 1840s. His sojourn at the experimental, utopian Brook Farm scared him enough that he broke with transcendentalism altogether. He wrote several literary rejections of American utopianism, but none more ominous than his short story “Earth’s Holocaust” (1844).
Hawthorne set this story of a great cosmic bonfire “on one of the broadest prairies of the West, where no human habitation would be endangered by the flames, and where a vast assemblage of spectators might commodiously admire the show.” In the 1840s, western prairie meant the Midwestern states of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, or Missouri, in what we might now call the American Heartland. In the story, a group of citizens (the reader infers that they are Americans) decides that the world has become “overburdened with an accumulation of worn-out trumpery.” They determine “to rid themselves of it by a general bonfire.” The unnamed narrator of the story is a mere spectator, and notes at the beginning that “the heap of condemned rubbish was as yet comparatively small,” and “there was merely visible one tremulous gleam, whence none could have anticipated so fierce a blaze as was destined to ensue.”
There are many good reasons to think that Confederate statuary should be removed. And if that were all our society wanted to expunge from the American body politic, our modern iconoclastic moment might have remained only one tremulous gleam of a toppled Confederate general here and there. But as Hawthorne knew, the iconoclastic impulse is ultimately ungovernable. In his story and in our own historical moment, the would-be societal purifiers’ appetite for destruction proves to be insatiable. In “Earth's Holocaust,” the bonfire that starts with “some very dry combustibles…and extremely suitable to the purpose,—no other, in fact, than yesterday’s newspapers, last month’s magazines, and last year’s withered leaves,” grows to encompass the whole of Western history, liberty, and society.
The socio-cultural arsonists in the tale burn the story of Western political development by torching what they see as the benighted history of the medieval kings. They burn marks of nobility and preferment. Even the Society of Cincinnati, for veterans of the American Revolution, is not spared. Ridding society of these marks of perceived inequalities is universally cheered—only one aged aristocrat does not join in. Horrified by the growing fire, he shouts that casting off the history of nobility means also casting off “the poet, the painter, the sculptor,—all the beautiful arts; for we were their patrons, and created the atmosphere in which they flourish. In abolishing the majestic distinctions of rank, society loses not only its grace.” The crowd cuts him off, unwilling to hear his pleas. So ancient hierarchies are turned to ash, along with their artistic and cultural legacies.
It is not simply hierarchy and culture that modern puritans want to put to the flames. It is the governing apparatus of modern society itself. The city of Minneapolis’s utopian dreams led it to propose the abolition of policing altogether. Hawthorne’s radicals likewise seek to rid their world of police, militaries, criminal punishments, and all other violence in pursuit of perfect societal peace. But they eventually conclude that society needs to be rid of more than politics to be pure. They burn all of the Western literary canon, from Mother Goose to Lord Byron. Religion and particularly Christianity’s supposedly baneful influence have to be destroyed as well. Into the fire go surplices and robes, “a confusion of Popish and Protestant emblems.” Medieval Cathedrals and New England’s spartan houses of worship are both fed to the flames: all of Christianity’s cultural influence burned. The last thing thrown into the great conflagration is the Bible.
The iconoclasts of Hawthorne’s story rest believing that they will be able to finally build a perfect world on the ashes of the old. But a mysterious figure appears at the end of the story, warning the revolutionary incendiaries that they forgot to throw the one thing that really mattered into the fire: the human heart.
“And, unless they hit upon some method of purifying that foul cavern, forth from it will reissue all the shapes of wrong and misery—the same old shapes or worse ones—which they have taken such a vast deal of trouble to consume to ashes. I have stood by this livelong night and laughed in my sleeve at the whole business. O, take my word for it, it will be the old world yet!”
Anger at so-called historic inequities, moral impurities, and “national sins” in the United States is often really anger at the narrative of human history. Our age-old iconoclastic, puritan impulse cannot abide commemorating, memorializing, or showing respect to any institution or person who does not conform to the perfectionist moral paradigm of the moment. This is not a hatred of inequality or moral imperfection, but a hatred of our historically flawed but nonetheless beautiful humanity. This presents a dilemma to every American would-be reformer: You can pick humanity, or the dream of utopia. You can’t have both.
Miles Smith is visiting assistant professor of history at Hillsdale College.
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