ABSTRACT

This article considers the authority and social currency given to rumor and viral news in Hawthorne’s “Mr Higginbotham’s Catastrophe.” As previous critics have noted, Hawthorne ridicules the sensational antebellum press that peddles fabricated racial conspiracy for profit. Telling and retelling Higginbotham’s sensational “murder” at the hands of an Irishman and an “Ethiopian,” peddler Dominicus Pike’s oral tale exploits racial and class stereotype to garner attention and sales. I argue that Pike’s identity depends on the ongoing transmission of his “respectable narrative.” The creation and control of a narrative is central to Pike’s idea of a respectable self and desires for cultural capital and social mobility that depend on his story of race and class upheaval being believed, even in the face of compelling competing testimony. Mutating from gossip, to oral story, to print media, Pike’s viral load increases at each occasion until his sense of identity and self-making hinges on Higginbotham’s unmaking, the specter of which haunts him as texts progresses. Hawthorne’s comic short story is a potent reminder of how the individual’s identity is bolstered by—yet also dependent on—the satisfying narratives of rumor and conspiracy.

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