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Hawthorne is to The Rolling Stones as “Young Goodman Brown” is to “Sympathy for the Devil
February 16, 2012 by | Posted in English, General Topics, Subjects

Mick Jagger cannot be duplicated. And in his early days, everyone knew those Lips and studied how he slung them around his lyrics in sync with his moves. Whether or not you are old enough to be a Rolling Stones fan, your students will enjoy watching a video of this young 60s icon as they learn the theme of one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s best short stories.

The early classics of American Literature are increasingly obscure to today’s students. Most of them would prefer a mediocre film over a book any day. But Hawthorne’s short story, “Young Goodman Brown,” as dense and difficult as it is, redounds with ideas that are as important now as when they were written in 1835. And Jagger’s “Sympathy for the Devil” makes the central idea outright obvious. Plus, it leads to a good writing assignment.

The story is best read aloud so the kids do not get boggled by arcane language and the complex sentence structure that college English majors love.

On the third page of the story, or thereabouts, depending upon the edition you read, a dialogue ensues between Goodman Brown and “the figure of a man” that the young protagonist meets walking in the forest at night. Brown claims to be a part of the race of honest men and good Christians and swears that if he were to continue along the path with this shady traveler, he would be the first of his line to visit the Dark Side. The traveler thinks this is a hoot: “Ha! Ha! Ha!” he says, “. . . prithee, don’t kill me with laughing.” The traveler who sports “grave and decent attire” but uses a twisted walking stick which bears “the likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent,” proceeds to tell Goodman Brown about the malicious deeds done by people of good reputation, some related to Brown himself.

Sometimes I interrupt the story here and play a video of The Rolling Stones performing “Sympathy for the Devil.” Other times I begin with the video and let the class search, as in a puzzle, for a connection between the iconic bit of rock and roll they have just seen and the idea Hawthorne, a devoted recusant, communicates.
I like to distribute a printout of the lyrics of the song and ask the kids what they know of history that makes sense of the words. Through sharing information, they all can see connections between the violent deeds mentioned in the story and those in the lyrics.

Then comes the assignment. Jagger’s lyrics constitute a monologue spoken by the devil, slick as he is. Hawthorne’s words constitute a dialogue between a naive young man and, apparently, the devil. I give the students a choice: write a monologue, coming from a character you create, referring to events from our times that show hypocrisy; or, write a dialogue that reveals events from our times and the hypocrisy behind the actions. They struggle at first and then usually write remarkably interesting pieces. The discussion that follows recitation by some students of the product of their labors makes us see that all of are sometimes, to some degree, culpable in the progress of evil. “After all,” as Jagger says, “it was you and me.”

We’ve put this and more into a Snippet Lesson Plan Comparing Hawthorne’s "Young Goodman Brown" with The Rolling Stones’ "Sympathy for the Devil".

Once you see how well rock and roll works to teach an idea (or at least to open minds to learning an idea) you can check out TWM’s Snippet Lesson Plan on Determining Theme — Using a Film Clip from "Pink Floyd: The Wall".
To keep our work in perspective, every teacher needs to watch "We don’t Need No Education" at least once a year.

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