The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"The Gray Champion" (1835)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“The Gray Champion” was written by Nathaniel Hawthorne and first appeared in New England Magazine (Jan. 1835). Hawthorne (1804-1864) was one of the two or three most important American writers of fiction in the first half of the nineteenth century. “The Gray Champion” gained Hawthorne positive publicity on publication; from a twenty-first century perspective, “The Gray Champion” is the first American superhero story.
“The Gray Champion” (1835) is set in New England in 1689, at a time when King James II “sent a harsh and unprincipled soldier to take away our liberties and endanger our religion."1 When British soldiers confront a crowd of natives who are afraid of what the soldiers intend to do, someone cries out “O Lord of Hosts. . . provide a Champion for thy people!”2 The response is quick:
Suddenly, there was seen the figure of an ancient man, who seemed to have emerged from among the people, and was walking by himself along the centre of the street, to confront the armed band. He wore the old Puritan dress, a dark cloak and a steeple-crowned hat, in the fashion of at least fifty years before, with a heavy sword upon his thigh, but a staff in his hand to assist the tremulous gait of age.3
The Champion confronts the British soldiers and their leader and drives them away with the threat, “Back, thou that wast a Governor, back! With this night thy power is ended -- to-morrow, the prison! -- back, lest I foretell the scaffold!"4 When the soldiers are gone, the Champion disappears–literally–only to be seen again decades later, during the American Revolution: "His hour is one of darkness, and adversity, and peril. But should domestic tyranny oppress us, or the invader's step pollute our soil, still may the Gray Champion come."5
Hawthorne’s purpose in writing “The Gray Champion” was not, as has traditionally been the critical position, to uncomplicatedly provide a tribute to the revolutionary spirit of New England. Rather,
Hawthorne’s belief that Puritan character had declined in the later seventeenth century conflicted with his desire...to praise Puritans as the embodiment of American political independence. If the second and third generations lacked the religious courage and political sagacity of the first, who could they display their presumed spirit of independence in action? “The Gray Champion”...attempts to resolve this problem. Because Hawthorne’s re-creation of the revolt against Andros had to be faithful both to historical fact and to his own sense of generational decline, Hawthorne could only graft an unrelated legend upon history in order to explain how the moribund spirit of independence had led to an act of revolt.6
Hawthorne, then, creates “a symbolic embodiment of timeless Puritan virtues”7 in fiction that can’t be substantiated in the history books.
Perhaps of more interested to modern readers–some of them, at any rate–is the story’s status as the first American superhero story. There are, essentially, two kinds of superheroes: the Costumed Avenger, “any character who wears a recognizable and consistent costume while fighting crime or evil;”8 and the Übermensch, “any character who has abilities which are impossible in our world, from various psychic abilities to greater-than-human physical abilities to magic powers.”9 Variations of these heroic archetypes can be seen throughout the history of human popular culture, from Enkidu in “The Epic of Gilgamesh” (circa 2100 B.C.E.) to the present, but they became prevalent following the growth of the superhero genre in the late 1930s. “The Gray Champion” was an important work in the development of the superhero genre twice-over, as the story of a Costumed Avenger and as the story of an Übermensch. As mentioned, he is the first American superhuman superhero:
he combines the costume, the mission, the code name, and the superpower, in ways that no characters since the Arthurian epics had. He is not the first dual-identity Costumed Avenger, a character type that properly requires both identities to be established–and the Gray Champion’s never is–for the Masque [see Klosterheim] and Abällino’s Count Rosalvo got there before the Gray Champion did. But he is the first to be both Übermensch and Costumed Avenger. And thanks to Hawthorne’s prominence and influence we can say that the Gray Champion was in all likelihood read by the dime novel writers who later created the Costumed Avengers that directly influenced the pulp and comics writers. As far as direct transmission of the concept of the Costumed Avenger Übermensch is concerned, the Gray Champion is the beginning of it in America.10
Print: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Twice-Told Tales. New York: Modern Library, 2001.
1 Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Gray Champion,” Twice-Told Tales (Philadelphia: D. McKay, 1889), 5.
2 Hawthorne, “The Gray Champion,” 9.
3 Hawthorne, “The Gray Champion,” 9-10.
4 Hawthorne, “The Gray Champion,” 12.
5 Hawthorne, “The Gray Champion,” 13-14.
6 John McWilliams, Hawthorne, Melville, and the American Character: A Looking-Glass Business (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 1985), 54.
7 McWilliams, Hawthorne, Melville, and the American Character, 56.
8 Nevins, The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger, 13.
9 Nevins, The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger, 13.
10 Nevins, The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger, 100-101.