MOSSES FROM AN OLD MANSE
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
overburdened 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 of 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 burned.
"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.
"O, 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 bawble 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 ribbons 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 the 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 clapped 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 gray-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
"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-burned 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 burned 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 bawbles, 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 tinselled 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 Hindustan; 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
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 nowadays,—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 burned
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
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
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 hitherto witnessed.
"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 stanch 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 turn 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. Sydney 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 homeopathy, 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,
slyly 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 rescue.
"Patience, my poor girl!" said he, as he drew her 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 burned 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!"
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 gunpowder, 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 millennium was already come; while persons of another stamp, in
whose view mankind was a breed of bulldogs, 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
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 mighty 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
towards 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.
"Ay! ay!" 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
civilization, 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 limped
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 multitude 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 subject 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 bloodstained
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
consecrated class in whose guardianship the world is apt to trust its
benevolence—were found to take the hangman's view of the question.
"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 desolation!"
"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 burden 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 be tried."
"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
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 the connubial tie.
Others hastened to the vaults of banks and to the coffers of the rich—all
of which were opened 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 burned
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 created.
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 glorious blaze!"
"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.
"O, by all means, let them accompany their merchandise," coolly 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 burned red and blue, and
threw an infernal light over the visages of the spectators, converting
them all to the aspect of party-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 Shakespeare 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
"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 afterwards 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."
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 pastil.
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 gentleman 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
"My dear sir," said I to the desperate bookworm, "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."
"O, my books, my books, my precious printed books!" reiterated the forlorn
bookworm. "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 not that we can carry reform to any
"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
"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 embellishment 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 of
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
holy 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 heirloom 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 lamentation 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 check grew pale, and seeing a
like change in the visages 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
"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
burned 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 today. Not a truth is destroyed nor buried so deep
among the ashes but it will be raked up at last."
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 fingermarks 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
"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 burned 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 livelong night and
laughed in my sleeve at the whole business. O, 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
choose 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.