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"History Time": Henry James connects in Salem

Posted by Marjorie Nesin  May 11, 2011 10:00 AM

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Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Some of the smallest boys in Cass & Daley Shoe Co., Salem, Mass. 1911.

By Ben Railton, Globe Correspondent

When Henry James visited Salem in 1904, he had an experience familiar to many a modern tourist. Here for the first time in decades and feeling lost, the writer asked a passer-by for directions to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “House of the Seven Gables.” Nostalgically, and for reasons of temperament, James was seeking not only to visit the site itself, but longed for “communion with the indigenous spirit” and thus for a direct, emotional connection to the town’s storied past.

When the man turned out to be “a flagrant foreigner, … a remorseless Italian” with no apparent interest in the history of the place in which he had made his new home, the “particular shock” of the encounter served to encapsulate for James just how far the town had moved away from its history. While James recognized that the man has most likely experienced only “six months of Salem,” he nonetheless admits that “on that spot, in that air,” such an encounter caused “a particular shock.”

The shock continued throughout his visit. The whole place, James found, presented “no appearances [of the past] at all,” leading him to “recognize ruefully that we are forever condemned to know it only after the fact.”

James’ 1904 trip to the United States, taken after decades of absence, would provide the material for his book The American Scene, published in 1907. Wherever he traveled, he found similar ruptures between present and past, between the Gilded Age’s industrial and urbanized realities and the nation that he had known in the 1850s and 60s of his youth.

Even in Salem, which James had defined through Hawthorne and “the Witch House,” he came to recognize that it was “the large untidy industrial quarter that had sprung up since” his prior visit which constituted the town as experienced by “the active Salemite of to-day.”

James’s Salem shock illustrates two significant changes of the 19th century’s closing decades: the rise of industrial quarters and the surge in immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe. By one estimate roughly 25,000 Italian immigrants came to the United States between 1830 and 1870; more than twice that many arrived in the next decade alone, and more than a million between 1880 and the turn of the century.

While a majority of these new arrivals gathered in places like New York and Boston, many also moved beyond those starting points and settled in new industrial towns such as Salem. For an Anglophile like James, these waves of immigrant arrivals represented a pivotal and deeply unsettling element of the Gilded Age, and he responded throughout Scene with much the same xenophobia displayed here.  

Yet a closer reading of Hawthorne’s work, a lens through which James viewed Salem’s and the nation’s past, would seriously challenge that perspective.

The House of the Seven Gables (1851) includes in a brief but prominent role an Italian American organ grinder, a young man Hawthorne calls “one of those Italian boys (who are rather a modern feature of our streets).” Moreover, the novel as a whole foregrounds precisely the immigrant arrivals and status of the first European Salemites.  Those Puritan settlers, whose contests over land (both in town and, by an “Indian deed,” to significant holdings in Maine) were the immigrants which set the novel’s events in motion.

James was right: Salem and America of 1904 had changed from those of a half- or even quarter-century before. Yet it can be seen that those changes, linked to communities of immigrant arrivals, represented the town’s and nation’s most enduring identity.

Change and immigration form a defining thread connecting Puritan arrivals, Hawthorne’s organ-grinder, James’s passer-by, and the 11% of Salem’s population who self-identified, on the 2000 census, as Hispanic or Latino.

The sites and meanings of our national past are most clearly seen in such changing–and yet continuously connective–American scenes. As Henry James saw, “The American Scene” is made of just such connective threads.

Ben Railton is Associate Professor of English and Coordinator of American Studies at Fitchburg State University. He has published Redefining American Identity: From Cabeza de Vaca to Barack Obama (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) and Contesting the Past, Reconstructing the Nation: American Literature and Culture in the Gilded Age, 1876-1893 (University of Alabama, 2007). He maintains a daily American Studies blog at http://americanstudier.blogspot.com. For information on joining the Salem History Society, go to http://salemhistorysociety.org.

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