Salem's Favorite Son, Nathaniel Hawthorne


My family’s trip to the Boston area enchanted me in many ways. The rocky Atlantic shore, so different and preferable to the seas of corn we have in the Midwest. The history around every corner. The beautiful colonial and federalist architecture. But the one place that truly touched my core was Salem.

Salem, MA
Salem, Massachusetts, has an interesting feel to it. Part maritime port, part modern-day Wiccan mecca, it operates over an undercurrent of uneasiness. You can feel something terrible happened here. Not everywhere, of course. Larger than I had remembered, the town bustles with every-day activity. Witches dressed in long skirts and pentacles walk the streets alongside tourists, businesspeople, punks, goths, and an occasional local garbed in Puritan attire to add ambiance to The Witch House, the only structure remaining from the times of the Witch Trials.

The Witch House
The Salem Witch Museum reminds visitors of the twenty people that lost their lives in 1692 after being falsely accused of practicing witchcraft. Hundreds more were killed across this county, but the numbers in Europe are estimated at around 100,000. What began as ridiculous teen-aged girls lying to get out of trouble snowballed into hysteria. Alleged witchcraft to so many in Salem also meant an easy way to silence outspoken women or those who would not obey their husbands. Local men saw it as an opportunity to grab more land and power, as well as rid themselves of unnecessary  irritations.

The Salem Witch Museum
It got under my skin, as it most certainly did to Salem’s most famous resident, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was born there in 1804. His great-grandfather, John Hathorne, was one of the three witch trial judges. Nathaniel added the “w” in his last name perhaps to distance himself from his notorious ancestor, but unfortunately the letter could not exorcise his belief, which he wrote in the preface of The House of the Seven Gables. It reads “…the truth, namely the wrongdoing of one generation lives into the successive ones, and, divesting itself of every temporary advantage, becomes a pure and uncontrollable mischief.” (Hawthorne: Collected Novels, The Library of America, 1983, 11th edition).

Nathaniel Hawthorne was an interesting sort. He started writing at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, where he met poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and future president Franklin Pierce. He also spent one year at the experimental transcendentalist community of Bronson Alcott, Brook Farm. He married Sophia Peabody and moved to Concord at the urging of Ralph Waldo Emerson, where he rented the Old Manse. Depending on your perspective, the Hawthornes were either run out of the Old Manse in a dispute or simply left because the owners needed the house. American Bloomsbury alludes to the first explanation.

The Old Manse
Hawthorne’s friendship with Pierce and other members of the Democratic party secured him an appointment as Surveyor in the Salem Customs House, but he lost that post when Zachary Taylor was elected president in 1849. The next year, the family left Salem and moved to Lenox, where they met Oliver Wendell Holmes and Herman Melville. Hawthorne and Melville became friends, and the younger author dedicated his greatest work, Moby Dick, to him.

Salem Customs House
The Hawthornes moved back to Concord and purchased the Alcott’s first home there, Wayside. A few years later, he was appointed American Consul at Liverpool by then President Franklin Pierce and moved to England, after which he toured Europe, meeting other artists, including Robert and Elizabeth Browning.

Hawthorne returned to America and to Concord in 1860. His health began deteriorating a few years later, and he died in his sleep on May 19, 1864, during a trip through Plymouth, New Hampshire.

Hawthorne Family Gravesite (Photo by Karen Wojcik Berner)
His greatest work, The Scarlet Letter, is perhaps the most definitive piece on the effects of adultery and personal desire in American literature.

What’s your favorite Hawthorne piece?


I love this so much. I have never been to Salem (except driving through) and it's been on my list of places to go forever. I especially want to go to every place Hawthorne because he is my favorite writer of all time. I live about 20 minutes from Bowdoin College and have tried to walk in his steps there as well as at his "boyhood home" in Raymond, Maine. As for my favorite Hawthorne story, boy that's tough! I've recently reread many of the short stories and also The Scarlet Letter and read for the first time Fanshawe (his failed first novel that he started while at Bowdoin and then self published!)... I guess right now I'd go with "Young Goodman Brown." Thank you for giving me the highlights of where to go in Salem.
Janel Gradowski said…
We took a family trip to the Boston area, but purposely steered clear of Salem. My kids were only 4 and 5 at the time. We were afraid of the nightmares some of the sights could have produced!
I'm so glad you enjoyed this, Julia. I can't wait to snuggle up with "The House of the Seven Gables" come October. (I'm scheduling an entire month of Gothic and horror books for myself. Should be great fun!)
Janel: I totally understand about young kids and Salem. Mine are much older, and we are a rather dark family, so it was the perfect place for us. :)
Beverly Diehl said…
I think The Scarlet Letter is my favorite, as well.

Am I the only sickie who looks at that portrait of Hawthorne and can totally see him as the romantic hero on a romance novel cover? Of course, we can't see his abs in that shot, but we could Photoshop them in, right?
That's pretty funny, Beverly. He does look good in that portrait. I liked that one better than him as an old guy.
Anonymous said…
I am not too familiar with Hawthorne, but find that whole witch-hunt era absolutely fascinating! There always needs to be an enemy, doesn't there?!

I know what you mean about walking through places that feel uneasy and you just know something awful happened there. You can sense it. Here in London I have always had a strange feeling towards Liverpool Street Station. I have never liked the area, something about it just didn't feel right. Then a few months ago I was reading the paper, and saw that they had been doing renovation works at the station and discovered a mass burial site filled with metres of bodies from Bethlem Asylum (where the term bedlam comes from). Bizarre!!

Hope you have a lovely Friday 13th!
To you as well, Unpublished Life! Interesting about your eerie feelings around that part of London. Looks like you were spot on!
Kelly Hashway said…
I've never been to Salem, but I would love to go one day. My sister loves it there.
It's pretty great, Kelly. Hope you get there someday.

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