A few nights ago, a huge throng gathered and made merry in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1831 short story “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” though, a scene of nocturnal celebration is nowhere near as amiable.
The story shows structural similarities with Hawthorne’s more widely-known piece, “Young Goodman Brown”: night-time wandering, ominous encounters, the ultimate disillusionment of the protagonist. Here, a young man named Robin travels from his remote rural home to the heart of a New England colony, to seek a position with his titular kinsman. But the townspeople repeatedly answer his inquiries as to Molineux’s whereabouts with anger and derision. Among these is a devilish fellow whose “forehead bulged out into a double prominence,” and who is later seen sporting a red-and-black-painted face. Apparently, hell is other people, especially those who have united in enmity.
In the story’s climax, Robin encounters a mad pageant–a riotously-dressed mob wielding torches and playing “fearful wind-instruments.” The fantastic scene makes it seem “as if a dream had broken forth from some feverish brain, and were sweeping visibly through the midnight streets.” Eventually, Robin discovers that his unfortunate relation has been tarred and feathered and is being parade around in public shame. The colonists no doubt enjoy this torture and ridicule of a governmental figure loyal to the British crown, but as a reader it is hard to ignore the horror of the situation. Robin observes that the elderly Molineux’s “eyes were red and wild, and the foam hung white upon his quivering lip. His whole frame was agitated by a quick, and continual tremor.”
Hawthorne’s story illustrates how popular dissent can easily descend into mob violence, how America’s political independence has its roots in the American Gothic. Once more shining a light on the darker elements of the country’s early history, Hawthorne reminds us that tar and feathers precede the Stars and Stripes.