Posted in Short Stories

Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Celestial Railroad

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People get ready, there’s a train comin’.  Actually, there’s a parody comin’.  In his short story “The Celestial Railroad”, Nathaniel Hawthorne uses John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress for a little social satire.  He’s not so much making fun of Bunyan’s work, which I believe was widely read in Hawthorne’s day, as he is humorously pointing out the effect of new technology, namely the railroad, on the society of his time.

In Bunyan’s allegory, pilgrims carry their burdens on their back up a mountain to Heaven.  Hawthorne’s narrator realizes that now all he has to do is throw his burdens in the baggage car while riding in the lap of luxury on a new-fangled locomotive right into the Celestial City.  While traveling, he and his companion, Mr. Smooth-it-away, get a glance at some of the old-fashioned pilgrims and get a good laugh:

Apollyon (the engineer) also entered heartily into the fun, and contrived to flirt the smoke and flame of the engine, or of his own breath, into their faces, and envelop them in an atmosphere of scalding steam.  These little practical jokes amused us mightily, and doubtless afforded the pilgrims the gratification of considering themselves martyrs.

Some of the narrator’s other companions have names like Mr. Live-for-the-world, Mr. Hide-your-sin-in-your-heart, and Mr. Scaly-conscience.  Whatever indictment Hawthorne is making on his society, it’s definitely a light-hearted one and by no means scathing.  Perhaps new technology can have it’s negative effect on humanity’s spirit, but, based on this story, Hawthorne only seems to be bothered by it a little bit.

3 thoughts on “Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Celestial Railroad

  1. Hi Dale,

    I remember reading somewhere that Pilgrim’s Progress was the most read (or maybe had the most copies in circulation) of any book but the Bible for a very long time. I’ve started it’s few times but never finished it, as I always end up in kind of a Reading Slough of Despond. 🙂

    I’ve read most of Hawthorne, but don’t remember this one. Hawthorne is another author that I need to return to – sooner rather than later. It’s been quite awhile since I read any of his fiction. I did read that great biography a couple years ago, but nothing else recently.


    1. Hi Jay!
      Reading Slough of Despond! ha ha! I seem to recall something along those lines about Pilgrim’s Progress.

      This story was very Twain-esque, but being written in 1843, I think it was a little before Mark Twain’s time. Maybe that makes Twain’s writing Hawthorne-ish?

      I’ve enjoyed the few Hawthorne stories I’ve read. I may go out on a limb and read one of his novels this year. Probably The House of the Seven Gables.

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