On the vital value of ambiguities.
It would be a fool’s errand to try to assess which of the literally countless current American debates is the most prominent or significant: but in any case high on multiple lists, including both historical arguments and conflicts over how we define our essential national identity, would have to be the ongoing debates over how we remember and view the American Revolution and its key events and actors. Whether we’re talking about the scholarly and educational contrasts between the 1619 Project and the 1776 Commission, the hotly contested efforts to remove statues of Revolutionary leaders like George Washington, or any number of other unfolding conflicts, Revolutionary memory is at the heart of many 2021 controversies. But while those debates might be more ubiquitous than ever before, they are anything but new, as illustrated by a striking early 19th century American short story: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” (1831).
Published amidst the ongoing 50th anniversary of the Revolution, the period in which some of the most foundational Revolutionary memories and commemorations were first established, Hawthorne’s historical fiction depicts mid-18th century Boston in a moment of pre-Revolutionary fervor, something akin (as I wrote in this post) to the outrage against Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson. Hawthorne’s youthful protagonist, Robin, is related to (and spends the whole story seeking out) the titular, fictional English authority figure against whom the angry colonists have directed their fury, which makes the story’s climactic depiction of the brutal tarring and feathering of Molineux a fraught and ambiguous moment to be sure—and one that’s followed by an even more complex and ambiguous coda dealing with Robin’s enigmatic perspective and uncertain potential future in the aftermath of that outburst of Revolutionary violence. Any reader who has followed the character’s journey, and doubly so any American aware of the story’s Revolutionary echoes, is likely to be frustrated by those ambiguous concluding depictions of the Revolution’s tones and meanings.
And I think that both that frustration and those ambiguities are very valuable and vital effects indeed. For one thing, as I’ve written about multiple times in this space, we tend not to remember at all the large and complex Loyalist community—Americans who likewise had decidedly mixed feelings about the Revolution and its aftermaths (often, of course, overtly negative feelings, but likely mixed as well for many of them as the war wore on). And for another thing, Revolutionary memory in the early 19th century was just as contested as it is in our 21st century moment, just as open to different interpretations and arguments, different perspectives on the worst as well as the best of its meanings and legacies. Hawthorne’s story helps us push past the most simplified Revolutionary myths to consider those multiple layers of contest and conflict—while also creating, as do so many of the best short stories, an ambiguous and affecting reading experience all its own.
Next short story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Short stories (or other works) you especially love?