Young Goodman Lumish came forth at sunset…
One of the paradigmatic early American short stories is Nathanial Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown (1835). The link above goes to the 1846 edition of the story as published in his collection, Mosses from an Old Manse. What fascinates me, oddly enough, is its potential resonance for diaspora Jewry within recent decades.
Hawthorne, of course, is an icon of American letters and closely associated with his Massachusetts Puritan ancestors as a primary subject of his work. His material is often surreal and dream-like and dark and represents one source of American literary Romanticism that later gave expression to major figures such as Edgar Allen Poe.
Hawthorne’s portrayal of his ancestors’ sense of a pagan and morally foggish world around Boston and Salem fits nicely with historian David D. Hall’s analysis of the Puritans in Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England (Harvard University Press, 1990). Hall describes the Puritan imagination as filled with “wonders” and portents and visions wherein the reality of the Devil and the anger of God is revealed in terrible storms, shipwrecks, and deformed babies born to allegedly immoral mothers.
I hope that I will be forgiven for finding enough universality in Young Goodman Brown to relate it to my own little journey into “the woods,” so to speak. A brief description of his trip may resonate with others.
Goodman Brown’s story begins in Salem village, Massachusetts, as he leaves his wife, Faith, for a necessary trip into the forest in the seventeenth-century.
Young Goodman Brown came forth at sunset, into the street of Salem village, but put his head back, after crossing the threshold, to exchange a parting kiss with his young wife. And Faith, as the wife was aptly named, thrust her own pretty head into the street, letting the wind play with the pink ribbons of her cap, while she called to Goodman Brown.
We do not know why Goodman Brown must head alone into the wood, but he must and so he does.
The story is traditionally understood to have three settings. The first is that of departure from his beautiful wife and the well-ordered and morally-upstanding village of his youth. The second is the realization that the figures he discovers romping in the woods in a most devilish fashion are, in fact, his neighbors and friends. The conclusion represents Goodman Brown’s gloomy disillusionment with the faith of his youth and the friends of his upbringing.
There is a reason that literary classics resonate throughout the centuries. It is the mythic universality of the story. Scholars like Joseph Campbell and Jordan Peterson — not to mention Carl Jung — analyze mythology because mythology and story-telling represent guidelines to human experience. A work like Young Goodman Brown is beautiful not merely because it is so beautifully written, but because it speaks to universal human themes. It is among what Peterson calls Maps of Meaning.
I hope that I am not stretching analogies too far to suggest that the story of Young Goodman Brown nicely reflects the ideological journey of many diaspora Jews.
Most “post-Vietnam” American Jews, such as myself, grew up in an environment that was not particularly antisemitic and generally decent for Jewish people. My folks raised me in Kingston, New York, and Trumbull, Connecticut and my life was filled with a hodge-podge of all sorts of different people. Black people and White people and This people and That people, and we all got along pretty well.
But then, one day, for no good reason whatsoever, I just had to wander off into “the wood.” And there, much to my sadness and dismay, I learned that my friends and neighbors were not necessarily who I thought that they were.
As I wrote my dissertation in twentieth-century American cultural and intellectual history for Penn State University, during the cusp between Bush and Obama, and as a former Green Party member, I got involved in Daily Kos under the nom de blog, Karmafish. Daily Kos was, at the time, and perhaps still is, the most prominent pro-Democratic Party blog in the United States. And it was within the surreal forest-like depths of emerging social media that I learned about progressive-left antisemitic anti-Zionism.
It amazed me in 2010 that when jihadis on the Mavi Marmara screamed for Jewish blood in the ancient cry of “Khaybar! Khaybar! Oh, Jews! The army of Muhammad will return!” that the western press and progressive-left political activists described them as “peace activists.” The traditional “Khaybar” call among Muslims of the jihadist variety is a call for genocide. It is to remember the glory of when Muhammad ordered the beheading of hundreds of Jewish men, and the taking of their wives and children into slavery, sexual and otherwise, in the town of Khaybar on the Arabian Peninsula in 628 CE.
That response by the Western press and “social justice activists” is, in fact, very reminiscent of the recent description of environmental warfare against Israel by Hamas as something akin to peaceful protests. The attempt to burn Jews out of Israel while seeking to invade the border between Israel and Gaza was described as “peaceful.”
It was the realization of the contempt for Jewish self-determination and self-defense that drove me away from them in a satiric farewell entitled, Breaking: Jew Builds Second Bathroom in East Jerusalem. What I discovered during my months of participation on Daily Kos was a toxic loathing for Jewish self-determination and self-defense residing within the heart of the progressive-left. This is not to say that most “progressives” or Democrats are antisemitic, but it is to assert that they have, nonetheless, made a home of themselves for antisemitic anti-Zionists.
And therein lies the dilemma and the problem.
For Young Goodman Brown his return to Salem village meant the end of innocence with no clear road ahead and that, in a sense, is what many American Jews are awakening to.
Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest, and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?
Be it so, if you will. But, alas! it was a dream of evil omen for young Goodman Brown. A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man, did he become, from the night of that fearful dream. On the Sabbath-day, when the congregation were singing a holy psalm, he could not listen, because an anthem of sin rushed loudly upon his ear, and drowned all the blessed strain.