Hawthorne's novel environs in Salem spotlight this year

Email|Print| Text size + By Betty Lowry
Globe Correspondent / January 16, 2005

SALEM -- ''You're sure Nathaniel Hawthorne didn't write 'The Scarlet Letter' on a beach in the Bahamas?" my adult daughter Robin asks.

Pretend this is reality TV, I say. He wrote his classic novel in the winter of 1849-50, specifically on the third floor of 14 Mall St. in Salem when, thanks to a Democratic defeat in Washington, he was out of a job.

All but one of the witch-oriented sites here are closed, but the places connected to the Golden Age of American literature -- the places we have come to see -- are open. Winter is a good time to come here: little traffic, easy parking, off-season hotel rates. Without tourists, Salem appears more 19th than 21st century.

This month through June is the second half of the bicentennial year of Hawthorne (1804-64), who was born here when Salem was a leading maritime city. The houses where he lived still stand. His ancestors going back to 1630 still lie in Charter Street Cemetery (a.k.a. ''the burying point"). Even the view from the Custom House where he worked as the port surveyor (inspector of cargoes) would have been familiar. Below, moored at Derby Wharf, is the replica of ''Friendship," a square-rigged 1797 Salem East Indiaman.

We take the self-guided walking tour of the National Park Service with a few variations. We wander back streets and add ''The House of the Seven Gables" historic site which, in addition to the brooding mansion of his famous novel, includes the house where Hawthorne was born, along with other 17th- and 18th-century structures moved here for preservation.

Also pertinent and open year round is the Salem Witch Museum with its dramatic reconstruction of the 1692 hysteria. One of the least lovable characters is the ''Hanging Judge" who never missed an event on Gallows Hill and was the only magistrate who refused to repent or admit error. He was John Hathorne (1641-1717), Nathaniel's great-great-grandfather, and if his descendant added a W to his surname in 1827, one can hardly blame him for wanting to differentiate himself.

''When you think of where he was coming from, you expect Stephen King," Robin says.

She doesn't wonder that Hawthorne suffered from writer's block when the only space available in the smallest house on beautiful Chestnut Street was the nursery of his infant son.

Growing up in the Manning house on Herbert Street, a place he called ''Castle Dismal," he was surrounded by 20 resident kin but could at least write in the attic. When Nathaniel was 4, his father, a ship captain on his first command, died of typhus in Sumatra, leaving a pregnant wife and two children nearly destitute. Salem's population was 7,000, including 400 widows.

Our free 30-page brochure is subtitled ''Literary Salem in the Early Nineteenth Century" and though it is mostly about the city's favorite son, it recognizes his circle as well. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were Hawthorne's neighbors in Concord and visited him in Salem. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was his classmate at Bowdoin College, as was Franklin Pierce, 14th president of the United States and Hawthorne's best friend. Margaret Fuller and Louisa May Alcott were part of the group. Herman Melville dedicated ''Moby-Dick" to Hawthorne.

The tour takes us past the Forester House on Derby Street where Hawthorne's richest relatives lived opposite Derby Wharf, which they also owned. We pass the home of his first love, Mary Silsbee (1809-87), and the Salem Lyceum (now the Lyceum Bar & Grill) where, as corresponding secretary, he booked his friends Emerson and Thoreau for lectures.

He met his future wife, Sophia Peabody (1809-71), at 35 Charter St. The Brown Building at 104 Essex where she lived as a baby is the location of the new boutique, ''Sophia's of Salem," where imports reflect the places Sophia visited and loved: Italy, France, England. She painted lampshades to augment their income, and shopowner Marie Cardillo plans to hang the work of local artists on the walls.

The Custom House dominates the historic waterfront. When it was built in 1819, cost overruns left the top floor unfinished and used for storage. It is here Hawthorne pretends to find the scrap of cloth bearing the red ''A" that leads to the story of ''The Scarlet Letter." His long introductory chapter ''The Custom House" was considered mean-spirited by the townspeople, and he avoided their wrath by leaving Salem permanently after the novel's publication in 1850.

In 155 years he has been forgiven. A bronze statue of Hawthorne centers the Hawthorne Memorial on Hawthorne Square on Hawthorne Boulevard. The Hawthorne Hotel, 80 years old this year, has a restaurant named Nathaniel's. Follow the shoreline he loved to walk and you come to the Hawthorne Cove Marina. Today the Heritage Trail is marked on the sidewalks with a scarlet stripe, and you can buy crimson T-shirts bearing an ''A" logo.

''The Scarlet Letter" is the ''A" that stood for ''adulteress," and the novel is a castigation of Puritan attitudes as well as the story of a young woman wronged. It became an instant bestseller, making the author famous if not exactly rich. ''The House of Seven Gables," published the following year, was another success.

We lingered longest at the Peabody Essex Museum, the oldest continuously operating museum in the United States and originally established so seafaring men could store the ''curiosities" brought back from faraway places. East India Marine Hall (1825) is only one part of the new museum complex, but President John Quincy Adams presided at the opening, and Hawthorne proudly showed it off to Longfellow and Thoreau.

Yet it is the cursed House of Seven Gables (a.k.a. Turner-Ingersoll House) that is most recognized by latter day Hawthorne fans. Built in 1668, it is the oldest mansion surviving in New England and has a secret stairway. It was sold to the Ingersolls, cousins to the Hawthornes, and occupied by a reclusive spinster cousin. Nathaniel spent a lot of time there as he grew up, and a chair, said to have been his favorite, is marked.

Today the house-museum has more than 2,000 artifacts, 40 portraits and artwork, not to mention busloads of high school students regularly deposited in the parking lot. Costumed guides lead tours here and through Hawthorne's birthplace.

''Whoa," says Robin. ''He called the Manning house 'Castle Dismal' but this place is downright eerie."

I tell her the curse of the house covers the family and descendants, and she asks if cold onetime English majors get a pass.

Never mind, I say. We are here to identify with the times. Today's shops and private dwellings are marked with identifying plaques. As for the immediate past, the 1779 home of Penn Townsend, Mariner, still has a Christmas wreath on the door, and the 1800 home of Captain William Lane sports a banner celebrating the Boston Red Sox. The West India Goods Store is part of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site.

When it begins to snow, we stop for mulled cider by the fireside at Finz on Pickering Wharf. Robin reads triumphantly from the walking tour guide that Hawthorne called Sunday in the meetinghouse on Lower Washington Street ''the frozen purgatory of my childhood."

In January that's the way it was.

Betty Lowry is a freelance writer in Wayland.

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