Once upon a time – but whether in the time past or time to come is a matter of little or no moment – this wide world had become so overburdened with an accumulation of worn-out trumpery, that the inhabitants determined to rid themselves of it by a general bonfire.
And the first things thrown on the fire? All the rubbish of the Herald’s Office – the blazonry of coat armor; the crests and devices of illustrious families; pedigrees that extended back, like lines of light, into the mist of the dark ages…
Yes, today’s story is a satire. After all, they next throw in the scepters and regalia from all the world’s monarchies.
There is little context to this piece beyond the opening paragraph. The ones who set up the fire are the reformers, determined to purge the humanity of all its encumbrances in the hopes that their new society be perfect. After kings, they destroy all alcohol, and weapons, and tobacco. At the end of each category there is one dissident who asks what the harm was in their vice’s existence, and each time they are ignored. But when the reformers begin to burn all books – Is not Nature better than a book? Is not the human heart deeper than any system of philosophy? Is not life replete with more instruction than past observers have found it possible to write down in maxims? – the fool’s errand of the reformers becomes clear.
While the satire (especially its denouement) is enjoyable, the real pleasure comes from the language. I love the sumptuous detail Hawthorne gives as every new category of items is burned, the prose reveling in each new artifact’s destruction. For example, he reveals that the more ephemeral a book is the faster it burns, letting him spend a few pages detailing which books lasted well (The English standard authors made excellent fuel, generally exhibiting the properties of sound oak logs) and those that did not (There was not a quarto volume of the last century – nor, indeed, of the present – that could compete […] with a child’s little gilt-covered book, containing Mother Goose’s Melodies.)
Earth’s Holocaust by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Availability: free online (out of copyright), print
Word count: 7,600
First published: Graham’s Lady and Gentleman’s Magazine, May 1844
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The End of the World: Classic Tales of Apocalyptic Science Fiction, edited by Michael Kelahan, 2010, Fall River Press