Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Celestial Railroad” retells Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, using Bunyan’s religious ideals to satirize the easy, liberal, modern Christianity Hawthorne saw all around him. While it is widely anthologized, most scholars read it as a quirky but unrepresentative piece in Hawthorne’s oeuvre—a fairly blunt allegory, “The Celestial Railroad” can disappoint 21st century readers who come to literature expecting narrative subtlety or symbolic nuance. During my dissertation research, however, I uncovered a history of extensive printing, reprinting, and commentary of and about the story in the years immediately after its first publication in early 1843. The quirky story resonated in profound ways with contemporary readers—including devout readers who were less likely to encounter Hawthorne otherwise—and may have influenced mid-nineteenth century culture more than many of the subtler tales that modern scholars privilege.
I first became aware of this wider influence while digging through copies of the Midnight Cry! and Signs of the Times, two newspapers printed between 1842-44 by the apocalyptic evangelical group known as the Millerites or Adventists. My dissertation investigates apocalyptic figures and rhetoric in antebellum religious literature and fiction, and I was reading these papers because the Millerites were the most famous apocalyptic group of the period—50,000 Americans countenanced Baptist pastor William Miller’s claim that the world would end in 1843 and then, when that initial claim didn’t pan out, on October 22, 1844.
Most of the content in Adventist papers reflected their eschatological concerns: articles describing ominous natural events, charts illustrating biblical prophecy, sermons unpacking apocalyptic passages. I was surprised, then, when I saw the following—
—on the front page of the July 13, 1843 edition of the Cry; inside the paper is a complete reprinting of Hawthorne’s story. Quickly opening the Signs of the Times folio just beside me, I soon found “The Celestial Railroad” printed there as well, on July 26 of the same year. I was, in short, surprised; there isn’t much fiction in these papers, and nothing by any writer modern readers would recognize. I suddenly had new research questions: why did this story resonate with this groups of readers? Did other religious readers also see “rich stores of instruction” in Hawthorne’s allegory?
And so I started digging, beginning with the Morning Star, published by the Freewill Baptists—from whom the Midnight Cry claimed to have copied the story—and this small breadcrumb pointed me toward a deep history of printing, reprinting, and public reception for Hawthorne’s story. Following this and subsequent breadcrumbs, I have since uncovered 32 reprintings of “The Celestial Railroad” in the years between its initial publication in the Democratic Review in 1843 and the end of the Civil War [working database of my findings]. Most of these are unaccounted for in bibliographies of Hawthorne’s work, the most authoritative of which were published before the American Periodicals Series Online, Cornell’s Making of America Collection, and Google Books made broad-ranging initial research into such questions simpler.
Reprintings of the “Celestial Railroad” appeared in period newspapers and pamphlets; the American Sunday School society issued tract versions—with commissioned illustrations—of the story under the title A Visit to the Celestial City in both English and German for the edification of America’s children. There are even two novelistic rewritings of the piece, including the behemoth, two-volume Modern Pilgrims: Showing the Improvements in Travel, and the Newest Methods of Reaching the Celestial City by George Wood.
More than half of “The Celestial Railroad’s” reprintings come from religious or denominational periodicals, published by a wide range of religious groups, including Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Quakers, and even Oneida Perfectionists. Denominational editors often modified Hawthorne’s text; some, in fact, deleted and/or added large sections of text to help the story better fit with the theological viewpoint of their publications, and many provided short introductions or glosses suggesting to readers just how the story should be read or interpreted. The texts of these reprintings have never been collected, collated, or compared, however—which is just what this website hopes to remedy.
This site will aim to allow scholars, teachers, and students to follow the rich history of “The Celestial Railroad’s” publication and editing. This site will provide both images and the text of each printing of the story, highlighting significant amendments or deletions, as well as any editorial introductions appended to the texts. I’ll use the Juxta collation software to compare the editions. The first steps in this process, which I hope to complete in the Summer of 2009, will be collecting, digitizing, transcribing, and collating the many printings of “The Celestial Railroad” made in books and periodicals between 1843 (the year of its first authorized publication) and at least 1864 (the year of Hawthorne’s death), with a special focus on its circulation in religious periodicals.