Holocaust by Nathaniel Hawthorne
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
overburthened with an accumulation of worn-out trumpery, that the
inhabitants determined to rid themselves of it by a general bonfire.
The site fixed upon, at the representation of the insurance companies,
and as being as central a spot as any other on the globe, was 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. Having a taste for sights of this
kind, and imagining, likewise, that the illumination of the bonfire
might reveal some profundity or moral truth, heretofore hidden in mist
or darkness, I made it convenient to journey thither and be present. At
my arrival, although the heap of condemned rubbish was as yet
comparatively small, the torch had already been applied. Amid that
boundless plain, in the dusk of the evening, like a far-off star alone
in the firmament, there was merely visible one tremulous gleam, whence
none could have anticipated so fierce a blaze as was destined to ensue.
With every moment, however, there came foot-travellers, women holding
up their aprons, men on horseback, wheelbarrows, lumbering baggage
wagons, and other vehicles, great and small, and from far and near,
laden with articles that were judged fit for nothing but to be burnt.
"What materials have been used to kindle the flame?" inquired I of a
bystander, for I was desirous of knowing the whole process of the
affair from beginning to end.
The person whom I addressed was a grave man, fifty years old, or
thereabout, who had evidently come thither as a looker-on; he struck me
immediately as having weighed for himself the true value of life and
its circumstances, and therefore as feeling little personal interest in
whatever judgment the world might form of them. Before answering my
question, he looked me in the face, by the kindling light of the fire.
"Oh some very dry combustibles," replied he, "and extremely suitable
to the purpose—no other, in fact, than yesterday's newspapers, last
month's magazines, and last year's withered leaves. Here, now, comes
some antiquated trash, that will take fire like a handful of shavings."
As he spoke, some rough-looking men advanced to the verge of the
bonfire, and threw in, as it appeared, 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, together with stars, garters,
and embroidered collars, each of which, as paltry a bauble as it might
appear to the uninstructed eye, had once possessed vast significance,
and was still, in truth, reckoned among the most precious of moral or
material facts, by the worshippers of the gorgeous past. Mingled with
this confused heap, which was tossed into the flames by armfuls at
once, were innumerable badges of knighthood, comprising those of all
the European sovereignties, and Napoleon's decoration of the Legion of
Honor, the ribands of which were entangled with those of the ancient
order of St. Louis. There, too, were the medals of our own society of
Cincinnati, by means of which, as history tells us, an order of
hereditary knights came near being constituted out of the king-quellers
of the Revolution. And besides, there were the patents of nobility of
German counts and barons, Spanish grandees, and English peers, from the
worm-eaten instruments signed by William the Conqueror, down to the
bran-new parchment of the latest lord who has received his honors from
the fair hand of Victoria.
At sight of these dense volumes of smoke, mingled with vivid jets of
flame that gushed and eddied forth from this immense pile of earthly
distinctions, the multitude of plebeian spectators set up a joyous
shout, and clapt their hands with an emphasis that made the welkin
echo. That was their moment of triumph, achieved, after long ages, over
creatures of the same clay and the same spiritual infirmities, who had
dared to assume the privileges due only to Heaven's better workmanship.
But now there rushed towards the blazing heap a grey-haired man, of
stately presence, wearing a coat from the breast of which a star, or
other badge of rank, seemed to have been forcibly wrenched away. He had
not the tokens of intellectual power in his face; but still there was
the demeanor—the habitual, and almost native dignity—of one who had
been born to the idea of his own social superiority, and had never felt
it questioned till that moment.
"People," cried he, gazing at the ruin of what was dearest to his
eyes with grief and wonder, but nevertheless, with a degree of
stateliness; "people, what have you done! This fire is consuming all
that marked your advance from barbarism, or that could have prevented
your relapse thither. We—the men of the privileged orders—were
those who kept alive, from age to age, the old chivalrous spirit; the
gentle and generous thought; the higher, the purer, the more refined
and delicate life! With the nobles, too, you cast 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, but its steadfastness—"
More he would doubtless have spoken, but here there arose an outcry,
sportive, contemptuous, and indignant, that altogether drowned the
appeal of the fallen nobleman, insomuch that, casting one look of
despair at his own half-burnt pedigree, he shrunk back into the crowd,
glad to shelter himself under his new-found insignificance.
"Let him thank his stars that we have not flung him into the same
fire!" shouted a rude figure, spurning the embers with his foot. "And,
henceforth, let no man dare to show a piece of musty parchment as his
warrant for lording it over his fellows! If he have strength of arm,
well and good; it is one species of superiority. If he have wit,
wisdom, courage, force of character, let these attributes do for him
what they may. But, from this day forward, no mortal must hope for
place and consideration by reckoning up the mouldy bones of his
ancestors! That nonsense is done away."
"And in good time," remarked the grave observer by my side, in a low
voice, however—"if no worse nonsense comes in its place. But, at all
events, this species of nonsense has fairly lived out its life."
There was little space to muse or moralize over the embers of this
time-honored rubbish; for, before it was half burnt out, there came
another multitude from beyond the sea, bearing the purple robes of
royalty, and the crowns, globes, and sceptres of emperors and kings.
All these had been condemned as useless baubles, playthings, at best,
fit only for the infancy of the world, or rods to govern and chastise
it in its nonage; but with which universal manhood, at its full-grown
stature, could no longer brook to be insulted. Into such contempt had
these regal insignia now fallen, that the gilded crown and tinseled
robes of the player-king, from Drury-Lane Theatre, had been thrown in
among the rest, doubtless as a mockery of his brother-monarchs on the
great stage of the world. It was a strange sight to discern the
crown-jewels of England, glowing and flashing in the midst of the fire.
Some of them had been delivered down from the time of the Saxon
princes; others were purchased with vast revenues, or, perchance,
ravished from the dead brows of the native potentates of Hindostan;
and the whole now blazed with a dazzling lustre, as if a star had
fallen in that spot, and been shattered into fragments. The splendor of
the ruined monarchy had no reflection, save in those inestimable
precious stones. But enough on this subject. It were but tedious to
describe how the Emperor of Austria's mantle was converted to tinder,
and how the posts and pillars of the French throne became a heap of
coals, which it was impossible to distinguish from those of any other
wood. Let me add, however, that I noticed one of the exiled Poles
stirring up the bonfire with the Czar of Russia's sceptre, which he
afterwards flung into the flames.
"The smell of singed garments is quite intolerable here," observed
my new acquaintance, as the breeze enveloped us in the smoke of a royal
wardrobe. "Let us get to windward, and see what they are doing on the
other side of the bonfire."
We accordingly passed around, and were just in time to witness the
arrival of a vast procession of Washingtonians—as the votaries of
temperance call themselves now-a-days—accompanied by thousands of the
Irish disciples of Father Mathew, with that great apostle at their
head. They brought a rich contribution to the bonfire; being nothing
less than all the hogsheads and barrels of liquor in the world, which
they rolled before them across the prairie.
"Now, my children," cried Father Mathew, when they reached the verge
of the fire—"one shove more, and the work is done! And now let us
stand off and see Satan deal with his own liquor!"
Accordingly, having placed their wooden vessels within reach of the
flames, the procession stood off at a safe distance, and soon beheld
them burst into a blaze that reached the clouds, and threatened to set
the sky itself on fire. And well it might. For here was the whole
world's stock of spirituous liquors, which, instead of kindling a
frenzied light in the eyes of individual topers, as of yore, soared
upwards with a bewildering gleam that startled all mankind. It was the
aggregate of that fierce fire which would otherwise have scorched the
hearts of millions. Meantime, numberless bottles of precious wine were
flung into the blaze, which lapped up the contents as if it loved them,
and grew, like other drunkards, the merrier and fiercer for what it
quaffed. Never again will the insatiable thirst of the fire-fiend be so
pampered! Here were the treasures of famous bon-vivants— liquors that
had been tossed on ocean, and mellowed in the sun, and hoarded long in
the recesses of the earth—the pale, the gold, the ruddy juice of
whatever vineyards were most delicate—the entire vintage of
Tokay—all mingling in one stream with the vile fluids of the common
pot-house, and contributing to heighten the self-same blaze. And while
it rose in a gigantic spire, that seemed to wave against the arch of
the firmament, and combine itself with the light of stars, the
multitude gave a shout, as if the broad earth were exulting in its
deliverance from the curse of ages.
But the joy was not universal. Many deemed that human life would be
gloomier than ever, when that brief illumination should sink down.
While the reformers were at work, I overheard muttered expostulations
from several respectable gentlemen with red noses, and wearing gouty
shoes; and a ragged worthy, whose face looked like a hearth where the
fire is burnt out, now expressed his discontent more openly and boldly.
"What is this world good for," said the last toper, "now that we can
never be jolly any more? What is to comfort the poor man in sorrow and
perplexity?—how is he to keep his heart warm against the cold winds
of this cheerless earth?—and what do you propose to give him in
exchange for the solace that you take away? How are old friends to sit
together by the fireside, without a cheerful glass between them? A
plague upon your reformation! It is a sad world, a cold world, a
selfish world, a low world, not worth an honest fellow's living in,
now that good fellowship is gone for ever!"
This harangue excited great mirth among the bystanders. But,
preposterous as was the sentiment, I could not help commiserating the
forlorn condition of the last toper, whose boon-companions had dwindled
away from his side, leaving the poor fellow without a soul to
countenance him in sipping his liquor, nor indeed any liquor to sip.
Not that this was quite the true state of the case; for I had observed
him, at a critical moment, filch a bottle of fourth-proof brandy that
fell beside the bonfire, and hide it in his pocket.
The spirituous and fermented liquors being thus disposed of, the
zeal of the reformers next induced them to replenish the fire with all
the boxes of tea and bags of coffee in the world. And now came the
planters of Virginia, bringing their crops of tobacco. These, being
cast upon the heap of inutility, aggregated it to the size of a
mountain, and incensed the atmosphere with such potent fragrance that
methought we should never draw pure breath again. The present sacrifice
seemed to startle the lovers of the weed more than any that they had
"Well, they've put my pipe out," said an old gentleman, flinging it
into the flames in a pet. "What is this world coming to? Everything
rich and racy,—all the spice of life—is to be condemned as useless.
Now that they have kindled the bonfire, if these nonsensical reformers
would fling themselves into it, all would be well enough!"
"Be patient," responded a staunch conservative; "it will come to
that in the end. They will first fling us in, and finally themselves."
From the general and systematic measures of reform, I now turned to
consider the individual contributions to this memorable bonfire. In
many instances these were of a very amusing character. One poor fellow
threw in his empty purse, and another a bundle of counterfeit or
insolvable bank notes. Fashionable ladies threw in their last season's
bonnets, together with heaps of ribbons, yellow lace, and much other
half-worn milliner's ware; all of which proved even more evanescent in
the fire than it had been in the fashion. A multitude of lovers of both
sexes—discarded maids or bachelors, and couples mutually weary of one
another—tossed in bundles of perfumed letters and enamored sonnets. A
hack politician, being deprived of bread by the loss of office, threw
in his teeth, which happened to be false ones. The Rev. Sidney
Smith,—having voyaged across the Atlantic for that sole
purpose—came up to the bonfire with a bitter grin, and threw in
certain repudiated bonds, fortified though they were with the broad
seal of a sovereign state. A little boy of five years old, in the
premature manliness of the present epoch, threw in his playthings; a
college graduate, his diploma; an apothecary, ruined by the spread of
homoeopathy, his whole stock of drugs and medicines; a physician, his
library; a parson, his old sermons; and a fine gentleman of the old
school, his code of manners, which he had formerly written down for the
benefit of the next generation. A widow, resolving on a second
marriage, slily threw in her dead husband's miniature. A young man,
jilted by his mistress, would willingly have flung his own desperate
heart into the flames, but could find no means to wrench it out of his
bosom. An American author, whose works were neglected by the public,
threw his pen and paper into the bonfire, and betook himself to some
less discouraging occupation. It somewhat startled me to overhear a
number of ladies, highly respectable in appearance, proposing to fling
their gowns and petticoats into the flames, and assume the garb,
together with the manners, duties, offices, and responsibilities, of
the opposite sex.
What favor was accorded to this scheme, I am unable to say; my
attention being suddenly drawn to a poor, deceived, and half-delirious
girl, who, exclaiming that she was the most worthless thing alive or
dead, attempted to cast herself into the fire, amid all that wrecked
and broken trumpery of the world. A good man, however, ran to her
"Patience, my poor girl!" said he, as he drew here back from the
fierce embrace of the destroying angel. "Be patient, and abide Heaven's
will. So long as you possess a living soul, all may be restored to its
first freshness. These things of matter, and creations of human
fantasy, are fit for nothing but to be burnt, when once they have had
their day. But your day is eternity!"
"Yes," said the wretched girl, whose frenzy seemed now to have sunk
down into deep despondency; "yes, and the sunshine is blotted out of
It was now rumored among the spectators that all the weapons and
munitions of war were to be thrown into the bonfire, with the exception
of the world's stock of gunpower, which, as the safest mode of
disposing of it, had already been drowned in the sea. This intelligence
seemed to awaken great diversity of opinion. The hopeful philanthropist
esteemed it a token that the millenium was already come; while persons
of another stamp, in whose view mankind was a breed of bull-dogs,
prophesied that all the old stoutness, fervor, nobleness, generosity,
and magnanimity of the race would disappear; these qualities, as they
affirmed, requiring blood for their nourishment. They comforted
themselves, however, in the belief that the proposed abolition of war
was impracticable, for any length of time together.
Be that as it might, numberless great guns, whose thunder had long
been the voice of battle—the artillery of the Armada, the
battering-trains of Marlborough, and the adverse cannon of Napoleon and
Wellington—were trundled into the midst of the fire. By the continual
addition of dry combustibles, it had now waxed so intense that neither
brass nor iron could withstand it. It was wonderful to behold how these
terrible instruments of slaughter melted away like playthings of wax.
Then the armies of the earth wheeled around the might furnace, with
their military music playing triumphant marches, and flung in their
muskets and swords. The standard-bearers, likewise, cast one look
upward at their banners, all tattered with shot-holes, and inscribed
with the names of victorious fields, and, giving them a last flourish
on the breeze, they lowered them into the flame, which snatched them
upward in its rush toward the clouds. This ceremony being over, the
world was left without a single weapon in its hands, except, possibly,
a few old king's arms and rusty swords, and other trophies of the
Revolution, in some of our state armories. And now the drums were
beaten and the trumpets brayed all together, as a prelude to the
proclamation of universal and eternal peace, and the announcement that
glory was no longer to be won by blood; but that it would henceforth be
the contention of the human race to work out the greatest mutual good,
and that beneficence, in the future annals of the earth, would claim
the praise of valor. The blessed tidings were accordingly promulgated,
and caused infinite rejoicings among those who had stood aghast at the
horror and absurdity of war.
But I saw a grim smile pass over the seared visage of a stately old
commander—by his war-worn figure and rich military dress, he might
have been one of Napoleon's famous marshals—who, with the rest of the
world's soldiery, had just flung away the sword that had been familiar
to his right hand for half a century.
"Aye, aye!" grumbled he. "Let them proclaim what they please; but,
in the end, we shall find that all this foolery has only made more work
for the armorers and cannon-founders."
"Why, sir," exclaimed I, in astonishment, "do you imagine that the
human race will ever so far return on the steps of its past madness as
to weld another sword, or cast another cannon?"
"There will be no need," observed, with a sneer, one who neither
felt benevolence, nor had faith in it. "When Cain wished to slay his
brother, he was at no loss for a weapon."
"We shall see," replied the veteran commander. "If I am mistaken, so
much the better; but in my opinion—without pretending to philosophize
about the matter—the necessity of war lies far deeper than these
honest gentlemen suppose. What! Is there a field for all the petty
disputes of individuals, and shall there be no great law-court for the
settlement of national difficulties? The battle-field is the only court
where such suits can be tried!"
"You forget, general," rejoined I, "that, in this advanced stage of
civilisation, Reason and Philanthropy combined will constitute just
such a tribunal as is requisite."
"Ah, I had forgotten that, indeed!" said the old warrior, as he
The fire was now to be replenished with materials that had hitherto
been considered of even greater importance to the well-being of
society, than the warlike munitions which we had already seen consumed.
A body of reformers had travelled all over the earth, in quest of the
machinery by which the different nations were accustomed to inflict the
punishment of death. A shudder passed through the mulititude, as these
ghastly emblems were dragged forward. Even the flames seemed at first
to shrink away, displaying the shape and murderous contrivance of each
in a full blaze of light, which, of itself, was sufficient to convince
mankind of the long and deadly error of human law. Those old implements
of cruelty—those horrible monsters of mechanism— those inventions
which it seemed to demand something worse than man's natural heart to
contrive, and which had lurked in the dusky nooks of ancient prisons,
the suject of terror-stricken legend—were now brought forth to view.
Headsmen's axes, with the rust of noble and royal blood upon them, and
a vast collection of halters that had choked the breath of plebeian
victims, were thrown in together. A shout greeted the arrival of the
guillotine, which was thrust forward on the same wheels that had borne
it from one to another of the blood-stained streets of Paris. But the
loudest roar of applause went up, telling the distant sky of the
triumph of the earth's redemption, when the gallows made its
appearance. An ill-looking fellow, however, rushed forward, and,
putting himself in the path of the reformers, bellowed hoarsely, and
fought with brute fury to stay their progress.
It was little matter of surprise, perhaps, that the executioner
should thus do his best to vindicate and uphold the machinery by which
he himself had his livelihood, and worthier individuals their death.
But it deserved special note, that men of a far different
sphere,—even of that class in whose guardianship the world is apt to
trust its benevolence—were found to take the hangman's view of the
"Stay, my brethren!" cried one of them. "You are misled by a false
philanthropy!—you know not what you do. The gallows is a
Heaven-ordained instrument! Bear it back, then, reverently, and set it
up in its old place; else the world will fall to speedy ruin and
"Onward, onward!" shouted a leader in the reform. "Into the flames
with the accursed instrument of man's bloody policy. How can human law
inculcate benevolence and love, while it persists in setting up the
gallows as its chief symbol? One heave more, good friends, and the
world will be redeemed from its greatest error!"
A thousand hands, that nevertheless, loathed the touch, now lent
their assistance, and thrust the ominous burthen far, far, into the
centre of the raging furnace. There its fatal and abhorred image was
beheld, first black, then a red coal, then ashes.
"That was well done!" exclaimed I.
"Yes, it was well done," replied—but with less enthusiasm than I
expected—the thoughtful observer who was still at my side; "well
done, if the world be good enough for the measure. Death, however, is
an idea that cannot easily be dispensed with, in any condition between
the primal innocence and that other purity and perfection, which,
perchance, we are destined to attain, after travelling round the full
circle. But, at all events, it is well that the experiment should now
"Too cold! too cold!" impatiently exclaimed the young and ardent
leader in this triumph. "Let the heart have its voice here, as well as
the intellect. And as for ripeness—and as for progress—let mankind
always do the highest, kindest, noblest thing that, at any given
period, it has attained the perception of; and surely that thing cannot
be wrong, nor wrongly timed."
I know not whether it were the excitement of the scene, or whether
the good people around the bonfire were really growing more enlightened
every instant; but they now proceeded to measures, in the full length
of which I was hardly prepared to keep them company. For instance, some
threw their marriage certificates into the flames, and declared
themselves candidates for a higher, holier, and more comprehensive
union than that which had subsisted from the birth of time, under the
form of of theconnubial tie. Others hastened to the vaults of banks,
and to the coffers of the rich—all of which were open to the first
comer, on this fated occasion—and brought entire bales of paper-money
to enliven the blaze, and tons of coin to be melted down by its
intensity. Henceforth, they said, universal benevolence, uncoined and
exhaustless, was to be the golden currency of the world. At this
intelligence, the bankers, and speculators in the stocks, grew pale;
and a pickpocket, who had reaped a rich harvest among the crowd, fell
down in a deadly fainting-fit. A few men of business burnt their
day-books and ledgers, the notes and obligations of their creditors,
and all other evidences of debts due to themselves; while perhaps a
somewhat larger number satisfied their zeal for reform with the
sacrifice of any uncomfortable recollection of their own indebtment.
There was then a cry, that the period was arrived when the title-deeds
of landed property should be given to the flames, and the whole soil of
the earth revert to the public, from whom it had been wrongfully
abstracted, and most unequally distributed among individuals. Another
party demanded that all written constitutions, set forms of government,
legislative acts, statute-books, and everything else on which human
invention had endeavored to stamp its arbitrary laws, should at once be
destroyed, leaving the consummated world as free as the man first
Whether any ultimate action was taken with regard to these
propositions, is beyond my knowledge; for, just then, some matters were
in progress that concerned my sympathies more nearly.
"See!—see!—what heaps of books and pamphlets!" cried a fellow,
who did not seem to be a lover of literature. "Now we shall have a
"That's just the thing," said a modern philosopher. "Now we shall
get rid of the weight of dead men's thought, which has hitherto pressed
so heavily on the living intellect that it has been incompetent to any
effectual self-exertion. Well done, my lads! Into the fire with them!
Now you are enlightening the world, indeed?"
"But what is to become of the Trade?" cried a frantic bookseller.
"Oh, by all means, let them accompany their merchandise," cooly
observed an author. "It will be a noble funeral pile!"
The truth was, that the human race had now reached a stage of
progress so far beyond what the wisest and wittiest men of former ages
had ever dreamed of, that it would have been a manifest absurdity to
allow the earth to be any longer encumbered with their poor
achievements in the literary line. Accordingly, a thorough and
searching investigation had swept the booksellers' shops, hawkers'
stands, public and private libraries, and even the little book-shelf by
the country fireside, and had brought the world's entire mass of
printed paper, bound or in sheets, to swell the already mountain-bulk
of our illustrious bonfire. Thick, heavy folios, containing the labors
of lexicographers, commentators, and encyclopedists, were flung in,
and, falling among the embers with a leaden thump, smouldered away to
ashes, like rotten wood. The small, richly gilt French tomes of the
last age, with the hundred volumes of Voltaire among them, went off in
a brilliant shower of sparkles, and little jets of flame; while the
current literature of the same nation burnt red and blue, and threw an
infernal light over the visages of the spectators, converting them all
to the aspect of parti-colored fiends. A collection of German stories
emitted a scent of brimstone. The English standard authors made
excellent fuel, generally exhibiting the properties of sound oak logs.
Milton's works, in particular, sent up a powerful blaze, gradually
reddening into a coal, which promised to endure longer than almost any
other material of the pile. From Shakspeare there gushed a flame of
such marvellous splendor that men shaded their eyes as against the
sun's meridian glory; nor even when the works of his own elucidators
were flung upon him did he cease to flash forth a dazzling radiance
from beneath the ponderous heap. It is my belief that he is still
blazing as fervidly as ever.
"Could a poet but light a lamp at that glorious flame," remarked I,
"he might then consume the midnight oil to some good purpose."
"That is the very thing which modern poets have been too apt to do,
or at least to attempt," answered a critic. "The chief benefit to be
expected from this conflagration of past literature undoubtedly is,
that writers will henceforth be compelled to light their lamps at the
sun or stars."
"If they can reach so high," said I. "But that task requires a
giant, who may afterward distribute the light among inferior men. It
is not every one that can steal the fire from heaven, like Prometheus;
but when once he had done the deed, a thousand hearths were kindled by
It amazed me much to observe how indefinite was the proportion
between the physical mass of any given author, and the property of
brilliant and long-continued combustion. For instance, there was not a
quarto volume of the last century—nor, indeed, of the present—that
could compete, in that particular, with a child's little gilt-covered
book, containing Mother Goose's Melodies. The Life and Death of Tom
Thumb outlasted the biography of Marlborough. An epic—indeed, a dozen
of them—was converted to white ashes, before the single sheet of an
old ballad was half consumed. In more than one case, too, when volumes
of applauded verse proved incapable of anything better than a stifling
smoke, an unregarded ditty of some nameless bard—perchance in the
corner of a newspaper—soared up among the stars, with a flame as
brilliant as their own. Speaking of the properties of flame, methought
Shelley's poetry emitted a purer light than almost any other
productions of his day; contrasting beautifully with the fitful and
lurid gleams, and gushes of black vapor, that flashed and eddied from
the volumes of Lord Byron. As for Tom Moore, some of his songs diffused
an odor like a burning pastille.
I felt particular interest in watching the combustion of American
authors, and scrupulously noted, by my watch, the precise number of
moments that changed most of them from shabbily printed books to
indistinguishable ashes. It would be invidious, however, if not
perilous, to betray these awful secrets; so that I shall content myself
with observing, that it was not invariably the writer most frequent in
the public mouth that made the most splendid appearance in the bonfire.
I especially remember, that a great deal of excellent inflammability
was exhibited in a thin volume of poems by Ellery Channing; although,
to speak the truth, there were certain portions that hissed and
spluttered in a very disagreeable fashion. A curious phenomenon
occurred in reference to several writers, native as well as foreign.
Their books, though of highly respectable figure, instead of bursting
into a blaze, or even smouldering out their substance in smoke,
suddenly melted away, in a manner that proved them to be ice.
If it be no lack of modesty to mention my own works, it must here be
confessed, that I looked for them with fatherly interest, but in vain.
Too probably, they were changed to vapor by the first action of the
heat; at best, I can only hope that, in their quiet way, they
contributed a glimmering spark or two to the splendor of the evening.
"Alas! and woe is me!" thus bemoaned himself a heavy-looking
gentelman in green spectacles. "The world is utterly ruined, and there
is nothing to live for any longer! The business of my life is snatched
from me. Not a volume to be had for love or money!"
"This," remarked the sedate observer beside me, "is a bookworm—
one of those men who are born to gnaw dead thoughts. His clothes, you
see, are covered with the dust of libraries. He has no inward fountain
of ideas; and, in good earnest, now that the old stock is abolished, I
do not see what is to become of the poor fellow. Have you no word of
comfort for him?"
"My dear sir," said I, to the desperate book-worm, "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? Be of good
cheer! The great book of Time is still spread wide open before us; and,
if we read it aright, it will be to us a volume of eternal Truth."
"Oh, my books, my books, my precious, printed books!" reiterated the
forlorn book-worm. "My only reality was a bound volume; and now they
will not leave me even a shadowy pamphlet!"
In fact, the last remnant of the literature of all the ages was now
descending upon the blazing heap, in the shape of a cloud of pamphlets
from the press of the New World. These, likewise, were consumed in the
twinkling of an eye, leaving the earth, for the first time since the
days of Cadmus, free from the plague of letters—an enviable field for
the authors of the next generation!
"Well!—and does anything remain to be done?" inquired I, somewhat
anxiously. "Unless we set fire to the earth itself, and then leap
boldly off into infinite space, I know now that we can carry reform to
any further point."
"You are vastly mistaken, my good friend," said the observer.
"Believe me, the fire will not be allowed to settle down without the
addition of fuel that will startle many persons, who have lent a
willing hand thus far."
Nevertheless, there appeared to be a relaxation of effort, for a
little time, during which, probably, the leaders of the movement were
considering what should be done next. In the interval, a philosopher
threw his theory into the flames; a sacrifice which, by those who knew
how to estimate it, was pronounced the most remarkable that had yet
been made. The combustion, however, was by no means brilliant. Some
indefatigable people, scorning to take a moment's ease, now employed
themselves in collecting all the withered leaves and fallen boughs of
the forest, and thereby recruited the bonfire to a greater height than
ever. But this was mere by-play.
"Here comes the fresh fuel that I spoke of," said my companion.
To my astonishment, the persons who now advanced into the vacant
space around the mountain fire, bore surplices and other priestly
garments, mitres, crosiers, and a confusion of Popish and Protestant
emblems, with which it seemed their purpose to consummate the great Act
of Faith. Crosses, from the spires of old cathedrals, were cast upon
the heap with as little remorse as if the reverence of centuries,
passing in long array beneath the lofty towers, had not looked up to
them as the holiest of symbols. The font, in which infants were
consecrated to God; the sacramental vessels, whence Piety received the
hallowed draught; were given to the same destruction. Perhaps it most
nearly touched my heart to see, among these devoted relics, fragments
of the humble communion-tables and undecorated pulpits, which I
recognized as having been torn from the meeting-houses of New England.
Those simple edifices might have been permitted to retain all of sacred
embellishments that their Puritan founders had bestowed, even though
the mighty structure of St. Peter's had sent its spoils to the fire of
this terrible sacrifice. Yet I felt that these were but the externals
of religion, and might most safely be relinquished by spirits that best
knew their deep significance.
"All is well," said I cheerfully. "The wood-paths shall be the
aisles of our cathedral—the firmament itself shall be its ceiling!
What needs an earthly roof between the Deity and his worshippers? Our
faith can well afford to lose all the drapery that even the holiest men
have thrown around it, and be only the more sublime in its simplicity."
"True," said my companion. "But will they pause here?"
The doubt implied in his question was well founded. In the general
destruction of books already described, a holy volume— that stood
apart from the catalogue of human literature, and yet, in one sense,
was at its head—had been spared. But the Titan of innovation—angel
or fiend, double in his nature, and capable of deeds befitting both
characters—at first shaking down only the old and rotten shapes of
things, had now, as it appeared, laid his terrible hand upon the main
pillars which supported the whole edifice of our moral and spiritual
state. The inhabitants of the earth had grown too enlightened to
define their faith within a form or words, or to limit the spiritual by
any analogy to our material existence. Truths, which the heavens
trembled at, were now but a fable of the world's infancy. Therefore, as
the final sacrifice of human error, what else remained to be thrown
upon the embers of that awful pile, except the Book, which, though a
celestial revelation to past ages, was but a voice from a lower sphere,
as regarded the present race of man? It was done! Upon the blazing heap
of falsehood and worn out truth—things that the earth had never
needed, or had ceased to need, or had grown childishly weary of—fell
the ponderous church Bible, the great old volume, that had lain so long
on the cushion of the pulpit, and whence the pastor's solemn voice had
given hold utterance on so many a Sabbath day. There, likewise, fell
the family Bible, which the long-buried patriarch had read to his
children—in prosperity or sorrow, by the fireside and in the summer
shade of trees— and had bequeathed downward, as the heir-loom of
generations. There fell the bosom Bible, the little volume that had
been the soul's friend of some sorely tried child of dust, who thence
took courage, whether his trial were for life or death, steadfastly
confronting both in the strong assurance of immortality.
All these were flung into the fierce and riotous blaze; and then a
mighty wind came roaring across the plain, with a desolate howl, as if
it were the angry lamentations of the Earth for the loss of Heaven's
sunshine, and it shook the gigantic pyramid of flame, and scattered the
cinders of half-consumed abominations around upon the spectators.
"This is terrible!" said I, feeling that my cheek grew pale, and
seeing a like change in the visage about me.
"Be of good courage yet," answered the man with whom I had so often
spoken. He continued to gaze steadily at the spectacle, with a singular
calmness, as if it concerned him merely as an observer. "Be of good
courage—nor yet exult too much; for there is far less both of good
and evil, in the effect of this bonfire, than the world might be
willing to believe."
"How can that be?" exclaimed I impatiently. "Has it not consumed
everything? Has it not swallowed up, or melted down, every human or
divine appendage of our mortal state that had substance enough to be
acted on by fire? Will there be anything left us to-morrow morning,
better or worse than a heap of embers and ashes?"
"Assuredly there will,"said my grave friend. "Come hither to-morrow
morning—or whenever the combustible portion of the pile shall be
quite burnt out—and you will find among the ashes everything really
valuable that you have seen cast into the flames. Trust me, the world
of to-morrow will again enrich itself with the gold and diamonds which
have been cast off by the world of to-day. Not a truth is
destroyed—nor buried so deep among the ashes, but it will be raked up
This was a strange assurance. Yet I felt inclined to credit it; the
more especially as I beheld among the wallowing flames a copy of the
Holy Scriptures, the pages of which, instead of being blackened into
tinder, only assumed a more dazzling whiteness as the finger-marks of
human imperfection were purified away. Certain marginal notes and
commentaries, it is true, yielded to the intensity of the fiery test,
but without detriment to the smallest syllable that had flamed from the
pen of inspiration.
"Yes—there is the proof of what you say." answered I, turning to
the observer. "But if only what is evil can feel the action of the
fire, then, surely, the conflagration has been of inestimable utility.
Yet if I understand aright, you intimate a doubt whether the world's
expectation of benefit would be realized by it."
"Listen to the talk of these worthies," said he, pointing to a group
in front of the blazing pile. "Possibly they may teach you something
useful, without intending it."
The persons whom he indicated consisted of that brutal and most
earthy figure who had stood forth so furiously in defence of the
gallows—the hangman, in short—together with the last thief and the
last murderer; all three of whom were clustered about the last toper.
The latter was liberally passing the brandy bottle, which he had
rescued from the general destruction of wines and spirits. This little
convivial party seemed at the lowest pitch of despondency; as
considering that the purified world must needs be utterly unlike the
sphere that they had hitherto known, and therefore but a strange and
desolate abode for gentlemen of their kidney.
"The best counsel for all of us is," remarked the hangman,
"that—as soon as we have finished the last drop of liquor—I help
you, my three friends, to a comfortable end upon the nearest tree, and
then hang myself on the same bough. This is no world for us any longer."
"Poh, poh, my good fellows!" said a dark-complexioned personage, who
now joined the group—his complexion was indeed fearfully dark, and
his eyes glowed with a redder light than that of the bonfire—"Be not
so cast down, my dear friends; you shall see good days yet. There is
one thing that these wiseacres have forgotten to throw into the fire,
and without which all the rest of the conflagration is just nothing at
all; yes—though they had burnt the earth itself to a cinder?"
"And what may that be?" eagerly demanded the last murderer.
"What but the human heart itself!" said the dark visaged stranger,
with a portentous grin. "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 live-long night, and laughed in my sleeve at the whole
business. Oh, take my word for it, it will be the old world yet!"
This brief conversation supplied me with a theme for lengthened
thought. How sad a truth—if true it were—that Man's age-long
endeavor for perfection had served only to render him the mockery of
the Evil Principle, from the fatal circumstance of an error at the very
root of the matter! The heart—the heart— there was the little yet
boundless sphere, wherein existed the original wrong, of which the
crime and misery of this outward world were merely types. Purify that
inward sphere; and the many shapes of evil that haunt the outward, and
which now seem almost our only realities, will turn to shadowy
phantoms, and vanish of their own accord. But if we go no deeper than
the Intellect, and strive, with merely that feeble instrument, to
discern and rectify what is wrong, our whole accomplishment will be a
dream; so unsubstantial, that it matters little whether the bonfire,
which I have so faithfully described, were what we chose to call a real
event, and a flame that would scorch the finger—or only a phosphoric
radiance, and a parable of my own brain!