This prompt reminded me immediately of a little-known story by Nathanial Hawthorne, ‘Earth’s Holocaust.’ Originally published in Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine in May 1844, it was collected into Mosses from an Old Manse two years later.

In this story, set interestingly “once upon a time – but whether in the time past or time to come is a matter of little or no moment,” when the residents of the world decided to rid them selves of the “accumulation of wornout trumpery.” So, it was decided to burn it all. Already, a hundred and fifty years ago when the story was written, giant corporations played a major role in social affairs: “The site fixed upon at the representation of the insurance companies 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…” This assessment, despite the fact that humans DID live on those prairies. Those of us with Native heritage are still here!

The story lists many of the “trumperies” (reader: I did NOT make this word up!) that were consigned to the flames starting with yesterday’s newspapers and last months magazines. Then came the social commentary. Heaped upon the flames went the accoutrements of the aristocracy: crests and family shields, “stars, garters and embroidered collars,” along with “badges of knighthood,” ribbons and medals, and “patents of nobility;” all being worthless due to the equality of every member of the human race.

Some among the crowd of onlookers objected to the fire “consuming all that marked your advance from barbarism…” They could not perceive that equality, with equal education and opportunity for all, will result in a far higher level and quality of civilization than anything the human race has ever dreamt of.

All kinds of alcoholic liquids were also consigned to the flames. Those dependent on them were not so pleased. Next into the flames went tea, coffee and tobacco. These were followed by patent medicines which did no one any good anyway. Some women, “highly respectable in appearance,” proposed throwing their clothes, which were impractical for any usefulness, so they could wear more useful garments and be able to engage in practical, functional activities. They saw their fashionable costumes as an enforcement of their inequality and a handicap. Social norms in the century since have proved this true.

The next great contribution to the fire were all the weapons of the world. At the conclusion of that, peace was proclaimed to all the earth. This came with, “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 world rejoiced.

A military commander privately mused that the world would invent new means of war in little time. Others countered that as the human race matures, other means will be found and used to settle conflicts. Since the writing of this story, the world has proved this true. Steps have been taken.

Religious paraphernalia were also included. They are just the outward forms of what should be an inner condition, but often people confuse the two.

Literature was also burned, but this burning went differently. Some volumes burnt quickly as if their content had little or no value. Other volumes took more time, indicating their substance. The loss of literature bothers me the most. It is literature, beginning with the revealed Word of God, in its many forms, that have formed the foundations of human society. The pure Word of God, directly from the Savior/Manifestation/Messenger, not commentary, has been the propellent of the increasing spiritualization of the human race. Abuses have come afterwards. And it was the Word of God, though Hawthorne limited that to the Christian Bible, which did not burn. Instead it was purified of “human imperfections.”

At the end, a strange looking man observed that, despite all that had been consumed in this world conflagration, human society would soon return to its former state because the one thing that had not been consigned to the flames was the human heart. That, he asserted, was the real source of the world’s problems.

In the age in which I live, I would consign to the flames the human ego. We need the qualities of the heart, but not the ego.

One thought on “Hawthorne’s Earth’s Holocaust by Duane L. Herrmann

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