America's First Superhero (from The Batmom March 2012)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of English major staples “The Scarlet Letter” and “The House of the Seven Gables,” lived in Salem. I can see the house in which he wrote the former from my kitchen window. It’s pale green and has been divvied up into The House of Seven Condos.

Nattie H. (who added the “w” to the Hathorne family name) not only is my geographic, if not temporal, neighbor, but also created America's first superhero. Seriously!

The Scarlet Letter was originally worn not by adulterous Hester, but by a customs house worker who, at night, donned a cape with the letter “S” and prowled the docks of Salem, protecting the town’s fair citizens from thieving wharf rats and the like.

Not really.

But really - Hawthorne wrote a story, included in his “Twice-Told Tales,” called “The Gray Champion,” in which a ghostly spectre arises to protest a British officer’s abuse of power. He’s not a superhero in the modern sense, but several sources (see below) cite him as the first American superhero.

I can dig it: Mysterious provenance. Inspiring oratory. Protecting the little guys from the Big Bads.

A company called Dozerfleet Comics planned a comic book riff on the Gray Champion, though the books were never published. Or maybe they were. Dozerfleet boasts a confusing array of websites; sound and fury signifying nothing. Google them. You’ll see what I mean.

Let’s end with a superheroish bit from Hawthorne, shall we? It’s rather thick and threatens dull, but it’s majestic, too.

“And who was the Gray Champion? Perhaps his name might be found in the records of that stern Court of Justice, which passed a sentence, too mighty for the age, but glorious in all after-times, for its humbling lesson to the monarch and its high example to the subject. I have heard, that whenever the descendants of the Puritans are to show the spirit of their sires, the old man appears again. When eighty years had passed, he walked once more in King Street. Five years later, in the twilight of an April morning, he stood on the green, beside the meeting-house, at Lexington, where now the obelisk of granite, with a slab of slate inlaid, commemorates the first fallen of the Revolutions. And when our fathers were toiling at the breastwork on Bunker's Hill, all through that night the old warrior walked his rounds. Long, long may it be, ere he comes again! 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, for he is the type of New England's hereditary spirit; and his shadowy march, on the eve of danger, must ever be the pledge, that New England's sons will vindicate their ancestry.”

(From “The Gray Champion,” Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1835)