Lately, I have been focusing on the Africanist presence in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil,” and this exploration has led me to consider it in other texts written by Hawthorne, specifically “My Kinsman, Major Molineux.” This examination intrigues me because while doing preliminary research, I have not seen many scholars address how Hawthorne explores concepts of race and even slavery in his early texts. Reading Larry J. Reynolds’ Devil and Rebels (2008), the scholarly focus appears to be more on Hawthorne’s views later in the 1850s and even during the Civil War, centering on his pacifism and apparent indebtedness to the Democrats.
These earlier texts, on around the time of the early 1830s when the abolitionist movement started calls for immediate emancipation of enslaved individuals and also around the time of Nat Turner’s Rebellion need to be looked at within these contexts. Reynolds does this some with “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” but he does not address “The Minister’s Black Veil.” As well, he does not look at “My Kinsman” in connection to Nat Turner, something that warrants further exploration.
This post is part of a larger project I am working on, so I will not delve into everything here; however, I will focus on “My Kinsman” and how we can, and should, read the story in relation to he fears of slave rebellion and more specifically fears of slaves or free people of color joining forces with Native Americans to topple the wealthy, white landowners and elites who controlled the nation.
Set in Colonial New England, “My Kinsman” exists during a period that saw American authors mining the past to create a distinctly American literature that would separate itself from Europe. As such, one way of reading “My Kinsman” is through the lens of the Colonial and Revolutionary period, as we can also do with “Young Goodman Brown,” The Scarlet Letter, and more of Hawthorne’s texts. When we do this, we sometimes overlook crucial elements of this history that can help us illuminate what Hawthorne has to say about issues of race within his texts that, on the surface, apparently have nothing to do with the issue at all.
For “My Kinsman,” the fear of the lower classes, notably Blacks and Native Americans, joining together to topple the elite was a constant fear of some during the Colonial, Revolutionary, and Antebellum periods. This fear becomes embodied in “My Kinsman” through the old man that Robin sees in the inn and that he later sees outside the church. The old man tells Robin to wait outside of the church for an hour and he will see his kinsman, Major Molineux, pass by. As he gazes at the man, Robin notices the man’s features.
The forehead with its double prominence the broad hooked nose, the shaggy eyebrows, and fiery eyes were those which he had noticed at the inn, but the
man’s complexion had undergone a singular, or, more properly, a twofold change. One side of the face blazed an intense red, while the other was black as midnight, the division line being in the broad bridge of the nose; and a mouth which seemed to extend from ear to ear was black or red, in contrast to the color of the cheek. The effect was as if two individual devils, a fiend of fire and a fiend of darkness, had united themselves to form this infernal visage.
The man appears as a fearful being that Robin looks at “with dismay and astonishment.” Apart from the ghoulish, almost devilish features, the complexion of the man’s face is important. The red and black of the man’s face bring together the Native American and Black presence within the story. The man, as the leader of the mob that drives Major Molineux, tarred and feathered, out of town, becomes the embodiment of the fears that those in power held.
During the Colonial and Revolutionary periods, “whites,” as James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton note, “treated . . . interracial [Black and Native American] as African Americans.” This was the case with Paul Cuffe who was the son of an African father and a Wampanoag mother and Crispus Attucks, the first person killed during the Boston Massacre, who had African American and Natick ancestry. Cuffe and Attucks represented what could occur through interracial relationships, and this scared elite whites. Throughout his life, Cuffe, as Horton and Horton show, “affirmed his dual ancestry” by fighting for the rights of both Native Americans and Blacks.
Even after the Revolutionary period, the specter of Blacks and Native Americans joining forces continued to swirl in the heads of the elite. These constant fears led to the Seminole Wars during the early part of the nineteenth century, wars that focused on keeping runaway slaves (Maroons) from Georgia and Seminole Indians from banding together to rebel against the elite landowners in the South. Coming on the heels of the Haitian Revolution, wealthy, white landowners, and others, feared the impact of the Caribbean rebellion on their own way of life.
United States General, Thomas Sidney Jesup saw the Seminole Wars as a war to against Blacks and runaway slaves not against Native Americans. Jesup stated, “Should the Indians [Seminoles] remain in this territory, the negroes among them will form a rallying point for runaway negroes in adjacent states.” While the government sought to relocate the Seminole, the main focus was to protect the institution of slavery and to make sure that runaway slaves did not band together with the Seminole wreak destruction upon slaveholders in Georgia and adjoining states.
Hawthorne wrote and published “My Kinsman” within the context the Seminole Wars which started in 1816, within the context of the historical accounts of individuals such as Paul Cuffe and Cripus Attucks, within the context of the Indian Removal Act, and within the context of Nat Turner’s Rebellion. “My Kinsman” pulls on these threads and creates a Gothic tale that plays upon the fears of readers, fears that their power and privilege will get usurped by those beneath them.
Unlike Poe, I wonder if Hawthorne thinks this reversal is such a bad thing. At this point, I would say no. Reynolds argues that “My Kinsman” traces Robin’s “metamorphosis . . . from innocent youth to almost savage adult” as he falls in line with the mob and laughs at his own kinsman. While I see this, I tend to see Robin opening up to the idea that everyone, no matter position or skin color, should be equal. At the end of the story, Robin asks a man to point him to the ferry, and the man asks, “You have then adopted a new subject of inquiry?” Throughout the story, Robin seeks Major Molineux for financial and worldly gain; however, he knows, after seeing the Major run out of town, that these dreams are no more.
Robin’s answer to the man’s question are telling. He responds, “I have at last met my kinsman, and he will scarce desire to see my face again.” This statement, in some ways, recalls Hooper’s condemnation of those who gather around his deathbed in “The Minister’s Black Veil.” Robin has seen what his kinsman has done, and he disapproves, choosing to leave rather than stay. The end sees the man telling Robin that one day “[he] may rise in the world, without the help of [his] kinsman, Major Molineux.” I am not, at this time, totally sure what to make of this, but I do think it is a telling comment.
There is more that I want to say here, but I want to save those discussions for later. For now, what are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.