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Hawthorne’s Puritan Patriot Phantom–The Gray Champion

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s reputation depends almost not at all upon the first selection from Twice-Told Tales. “The Gray Champion” records a dramatized account of the revolt against colonial rule by Sir Edmund Andrus during 1686 through 1689. As Andrus marches his troops through town in a show of force, the grumbling colonists, uncertain as to the resolve of their rebellion, waver until an unknown character, the titular hero, appears after someone in the crowd calls upon heaven for a champion:

Suddenly, there was seen the figure of an ancient man, who seemed to have emerged from among the people, and was walking by himself along the centre of the street, to confront the armed band. He wore the old Puritan dress, a dark cloak and a steeplecrowned hat, in the fashion of at least fifty years before, with a heavy sword upon his thigh, but a staff in his hand to assist the tremulous gait of age.

This mysterious figure, rather like a vision of a returning King Arthur saving Britain in an hour of deadly peril, stops the advancing government forces with a word before launching into an ominous series of prophetic utterances that focus on the already-accomplished Glorious Revolution and Andros’ imminent disgrace.

After the troops and their leaders are sent uneasily slinking back through the streets of Boston, the Gray Champion disappears, only to reappear in times of American need.

When eighty years had passed, he walked once more in King Street. Five years later, in the twilight of an April morning, he stood on the green, beside the meeting-house, at Lexington, where now the obelisk of granite, with a slab of slate inlaid, commemorates the first fallen of the Revolutions. And when our fathers were toiling at the breastwork on Bunker’s Hill, all through that night the old warrior walked his rounds.

In short, Hawthorne places his mysterious Puritan hero at the Boston Massacre, in the Battle of Lexingon, and at Bunker Hill.

What does all of this mean? For those who see in Hawthorne simply the lampooner of all things Puritan, this early work drives a first nail in their theory’s coffin. In later works, the Puritan legacy is shown for the problematic product of humanity that it truly was, but here Hawthorne introduces it as a matter of patriotism and pride.

So who was the Gray Champion? Is he to be taken as an appearance of Christ (at the most extreme) or the irruption of a semi-dormant community spirit drawing on the best qualities of the Puritans (at the most modest)? Hawthorne leaves that question open, but what he does not leave open is the question of hostility toward Puritanism in general.

Posted in American Literature, Romanticism.

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