Friday, January 15, 2010

Post #4 - Hawthorne

Today I’m going to briefly write about a great American author who grew up only a few miles from where I now make my home. One day when I was exploring the side streets of Salem off of the Salem Common I discovered one of his homes, a modest wooden frame house with a placard on it listing the name Nathaniel Hawthorne and the years he lived there. It lies less than a mile from the famous Customs House where he worked as the Surveyor from 1845-1848.

I’ve never read a formal biography of Hawthorne, just the introductory essays that appear as the prefaces to collections of his stories. What I remember of these biographical bits always struck me as being somewhat unsatisfactory. Off to the semi-wilds of Maine to Bowdoin College – how did Bath, Maine compare to what must have been a relatively sophisticated and worldly Salem – then home again to write a novel which is a failure and then not to be heard from again for years and years, holed up at home – to emerge like a butterfly from his chrysalis, to write beautiful and moving novels and short stories. Of course, it has to be more complicated than this, but this is the story I carry around inside my head, and it has a lot of empty space in it.

Well, now due to the Internet and all of the material made available to the public, an inquisitive person can learn all he wants to about Hawthorne, or of course anyone or anything else. I didn't know, or had forgotten, that he spent part of his childhood in what would have been a wilder part of Maine near Lake Sebago. And also that he was at an earlier age the surveyor at the Boston Customs House. And that he attended Bowdoin because it was less expensive than other colleges (yes that was a long time ago!). And that he was one of those curious creatures, a political animal, a lifelong Democrat and beneficiary of his college buddy Franklin Pierce. Writing these cursory thoughts has increased my curiosity about Hawthorne's life, I feel inspired now to look for a real book written by a real honest to God autobiographer to learn something of the "real" story.

I don't have anything in particular to add at this time to all of the other thoughts out there about the Scarlet Letter and his other writings, but I do like imagining what it may have been like to have lived in Salem and New England during his time. Many of the same houses still exist, as do the streets, and the sea looks the same as do the clouds and sky and the weather. Of course there are many changes, but maybe there is still more of the landscape left than one would think on first blush.

To put myself in Hawthorne's place I propose to walk in his footsteps, even if it is but a short walk. This coming Sunday I'm going to drive over to Salem and find a place to park, then walk from his former house on Mall Street over to the Customs house, following a route I hope he walked. I will try to get a few pictures. Capping off my walk will be a visit to the great A&J King Bakery, to enjoy a chocolate croissant and a cup of coffee. I think he would approve.

And one final thought: did he ever meet Fitz H. Lane? They were born the same year and died only a year apart. Both lived in Boston, and on the North Shore during much of the same time period, and it was a smaller world then...or so it would seem from this end of the time-scope.

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