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Moral Ambiguity in the Wake of Market Revolution

The early 19th century was a period of drastic economic, cultural, and social change in America. This Market Revolution was an expansion of infrastructure, financial institutions, and westward expansion enabled by the new technology, such as the steam engine and cotton gin. With these changes came moral questions about the American identity and the future of the unique American landscape, which observers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Thomas Cole represented in their portrayals of the frontier and its settlers. In his work “Roger Malvin’s Burial,” Hawthorne explores the morality of America’s ambiguous past and its future settlement. Thomas Cole also asks the viewer of his painting, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm-The Oxbow, about the future of the American landscape: should it include settlement, cultivation, and industrialization introduced by the Market Revolution. Both author and artist raise questions about the ethics and possibilities of America’s past, present, and future.

Hawthorne’s short story “Roger Malvin’s Burial” questions the morality of America’s concealed past and the idealization of American frontiersmen through the guilt of protagonist Reuben Bourne. As described in the Editor’s Note at the beginning of the work, numerous works glorified Lovell’s Fight, on which Hawthorne’s story is based, for years after “the ‘heroic’ disaster,” even though it occurred under less than chivalrous circumstances: for revenge and for bounty (Hawthorne, 1). Nevertheless, the fight broke the back of the strongest Indian tribe in the area, and, one hundred years later, Henry Longfellow celebrated it in his Ode commemorating the battle, which Longfellow describes as a “jubilee” (“Ode Written for the Commemoration at Fryeburg, Maine, of Lovewell's Fight,” l. 42). When Hawthorne heard the Ode, however, he was not convinced of the frontiersman’s heroism. In the introduction to the story, the narrator describes Lovell’s fight as one “naturally susceptible of the moonlight of romance,” easy to idealize. The narrator continues that, if history obscures some details, as it may be inclined to do by a battle “not unfortunate in its consequences to the country,” imagination “may see much to admire in the heroism of a little band.” The consequences of concealing “certain circumstances” in the past are revealed through the fate of the protagonist when he lies about the fate of Roger Malvin (Hawthorne 1). When Dorcas later asks him the fate of her father, Roger, Reuben lies to her because of “moral cowardice,” “pride, the fear of losing her affection, the dread of universal scorn, forbade him to rectify his falsehood” (Hawthorne 8). Though he admits to leaving Roger in the wilderness, he deceives Dorcas by telling her of his heroic deed of giving Roger a Christian burial. This is similar to the “‘heroism’” of the frontiersmen in Lovell’s Fight, whose motives and deeds were much obscured. While Dorcas, like the nation, believes the story as presented, the secret truth “became like a chain binding down his spirit and like a serpent gnawing into his heart; and he was transformed into a sad and downcast yet irritable man” (Hawthorne 9). His guilt transformed him from an ideal frontiersman who had slayed Indians and escaped to a man torn by guilt. Such is the consequence for concealing the past. The character’s cycle of guilt is not relieved even with his prayer in the final lines of the story, because, though he has been absolved of his sin towards Roger Malvin, he has killed his son to do so, and will therefore carry yet another burden with him. It seems that Reuben’s sin cannot be expiated without causing more sin and therefore more guilt. This inconclusive ending is a metaphor for the possible future of America, which asks the reader to consider their own perception of American history and heroism, and whether this cycle of concealment and consequences will continue.

Hawthorne also questions the idealization of the frontiersman as a hero in Lovell’s fight and of settlement in the American Identity. When Reuben, consumed by guilt, loses his farm, he decides to retreat into the wilderness with his family. This includes his beloved son, Cyrus, who encompasses all the qualities of the younger, guiltless Reuben, and therefore the ideal frontiersman: “his foot was fleet, his aim true, his apprehension quick, his heart glad and high; and all, who anticipated the return of Indian war, spoke of Cyrus Bourne as a future leader in the land” (Hawthorne 10). Though he possesses all of these qualities, Cyrus is accidently killed by the hand of his father: poetic justice as new blood is shed by the grandson to assuage the guilt of his grandfather’s death. There are consequences of hiding the past and the guilt that comes with it. Hawthorne challenges the idealized view of the frontiersmen and settlement. When Reuben kills his frontiersman son, he also kills the hopes and dreams of his family and the settlers who praised him. Settlement also isn’t as easy as Reuben or his family thinks it is going to be. They imagine a “dreamer’s Land of Fantasie,” establishing a naturally wealthy home, producing a “race,” with a patriarch to be “mourn[ed]” and “venerated” at his death and called “godlike.” This idealized vision of settlement is contrasted with the reality of the “tangled and gloomy forest” (Hawthorne 10). The word “gloomy” is repeated several times throughout the story, all referring to the wilderness around the family, and when they enter the forest, even Dorcas, the most naive of the three, senses “something chilling, and yet heart-warming, in the thought of three, united by strong bands of love” (Hawthorne 11). As she attempts to make a home for them, and as she sings a domestic poem, her son is shot, and with him is killed this ideal of settlement. The ideal frontiersman is dead, and the ideal settlement with him. Hawthorne is asking the reader to think critically about settling a wilderness that is already inhabited, and whether a frontiersman that enters that wilderness is heroic.

Hawthorne’s questions about American identity and the future of the American wilderness are a result of the confusion brought about by the Market Revolution. Reuben feels lost when he discovers that he is at the scene of his crime on the anniversary of its occurrence, “rather like a sleep-walker than a hunter,” (Hawthorne 12). The feeling of being asleep and confused is the same sentiment felt by many Americans in this period of social change, the very bewilderment that prompted writers such as Hawthorne and artists such as Cole to question the country’s morality.

In his painting, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm-The Oxbow, Thomas Cole, like Hawthorne, asks the viewer about the future of the American landscape. He believed that industrialization was essential, but questioned where the destruction of natural beauty will end and wilderness will begin: “I contend that beauty should be of some value among us; that where it is not necessary to destroy a tree or a grove, the hand of the woodman should be checked” (Cole 1841). Cole clearly approached his painting The Oxbow with this moral investigation in mind, represented most explicitly through the question mark shapes of both the river and the flock of birds in the distance. The duality of this representation indicates the two sides of the question: wilderness or cultivation, which is underlined by the wild flock of birds in the question mark juxtaposed to the almost domesticated river, submissive to the man-made boats on it. The artist also seems to be questioning the viewer personally, as his self-portrait stares directly at them. He has painted both the wilderness and the modern cultivated land, and asks the viewer, and himself by extension, to judge the morality of the industrialization quickly approaching the wilderness, as is represented in the train, with its plume of smoke, rushing towards the river. The natural elements in the landscape are grouped by hierarchy, according to the degree of human influence. On the Connecticut River itself are humans and boats, making it appear submissive. Next in the geographical and artistic hierarchy is the cultivated land, which, though domesticated, stretches into wilder hills. Above this and in the foreground is the wilderness, with its even wilder hills, and, in the most prominent position, is the broken tree, which rises above all else except the storm and the clouds. The tree has been split in some way, possibly by the power of the storm, indicating its submission to natural disaster, still untouched by humankind. This hierarchy serves to demonstrate the levels of wilderness and beauty in the American landscape that the observer can choose to maintain or sacrifice, depending on their lust for industry. The juxtaposition between the two divided sides, civilized and not, is emphasized through the increased detail and light on the wild side, which are less present on the cultivated side. Through this bifurcation, Cole shows the viewer two different futures of the American landscape, and asks the viewer to think critically about when to preserve or destroy the wilderness, when to value its beauty above its industrial utility (Description of The Oxbow, metmuseum.org).

Both Nathaniel Hawthorne and Thomas Cole investigate the moral ambiguity of the American past and future as they consider the ethics of settling the wilderness in their works. Hawthorne uses of the cycle of guilt and the destruction of the ideal frontiersman to ask whether the moral uncertainty of the past makes the American future equally ambiguous. Cole’s question marks, natural hierarchy, and division between the cultivated and the wild emphasize the different possibilities of an ambiguous future. Both the artist’s and the author’s investigations of America’s morality are products of the confusion that the social, cultural, and economic upheaval the Market Revolution brought about, and ask the audience to think about the identity and future of America.



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