Essays and Appreciations in Honor of Michael J. Colacurcio’s 50 Years of Teaching
The Critic on Main Street: Hawthorne and Critical Allegory
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s late short story “Main-street,” first published in 1849 and later included in The Snow-Image, and Other Twice-told Tales (1851), an itinerant showman presents a jerry-rigged version of a moving panorama, a “pictorial exhibition, somewhat in the nature of a puppet-show,” to a small-town audience.1 As the showman turns a crank, propelling wooden figures across a series of painted tableaux, the audience sees a forest clearing gradually transform from a primitive path lightly travelled by Native Americans and early settlers into a bustling town center, revealing along the way a parade of well-known New England historical figures and offering a condensed narrative of the progress of colonial American history. In producing the spectacle, however, the showman encounters a perhaps familiar problem: namely, there’s a heckler in the audience. The showman is only a few minutes into the performance when an audience member interrupts: “The whole affair is a manifest catch-penny,” the critic obtrudes: “The trees look more like weeds in a garden, than a primitive forest; the Squaw Sachem and Wappacowet are stiff in their pasteboard joints; and the squirrels, the deer, and the wolf, move with all the grace of a child’s wooden monkey, sliding up and down a stick” (XI: 52). The showman politely thanks the gentleman for the “candor of [his] remarks,” admits the rudimentary nature of the devices, and then calmly proceeds with the show—that is, until moments later, when the same man interrupts again, dismayed this...
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