Friday, October 22, 2010

Romancing Hawthorne, or How to Gag Your Non-Writer Companion on All Things Writerly

I had a plan in Salem, Massachusetts. All history, no freak shows. I suppose the "most visited museum in Salem" might have been good for a laugh; and I'm truly happy for the people of this once-dying farming town that they can, albeit unfortunately, now carve a living from tourists seeking that kind of experience. But I found myself strolling past everything that had anything to do with witches or Wiccan gifts or dudes dressed like wizards (and trust me, someone opened the Harry Potter flood gates on this little town). I'd found my history in all things Hawthorne.

Hawthorne has been on our radars since school, right? He's the most-read author in high school curriculums. I knew he'd changed the spelling of his surname to disassociate himself from his grandfather, Judge John Hathorne, who presided over the Salem Witch Trials and is buried along with most of his family in the Burying Point Cemetery in Salem. I knew his contempt with the town resonated in the themes of his writing, but beyond that and a few lesser-known stories I'd read in a college lit class, I didn't really know much about Nathaniel Hawthorne at all.

Just down the road from the now-infamous Bunghole Liquors, is the House of Seven Gables. The people preserving history and literature here do an amazing job. From the engaging tour guides who make climbing the secret staircase the best treat since that tree house when you were ten, to the gift shop that sells an amazing collection of writing craft books alongside classics from famous authors all over this historically-fertile region, the biggest draw has to be the view of Salem Harbor from the waters. Who wouldn't get inspired here?

The romancing part came when I stumbled upon tiny little pieces of him that resonated far beyond the writer-reader relationship: examples of early drafts, scratched through as many times as my own; how a particularly harsh rejection caused him to burn his manuscript; how he made his mother and sister swear to tell no one of his dream to be published and endured the gossip of the townspeople who all thought he should do something instead of wasting away in the house all day and taking isolated strolls along the harbor at dark; the purple sofa where he wrote his most famous work, The Scarlet Letter. Sure, mine isn't nearly as grand, but neither of us feel a desk is where the magic happens. From the moment I knew him as only another writer can, he seemed to follow me all around New England:
Bowdoin College, the house he lived in and raised his children in Concord (left), his grave at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord. And now, on my keychain: "Easy Reading is Damned Hard Writing."

I skipped Walden Pond. Even writers tire of other writers after a time. I'd had my fill, and there were other less-weighty ways to spend an afternoon in Boston. Ben and Jerry's anyone?


Charles Gramlich said...

I loved visited Salem and the house of the seven gables. That would have been a cool house to live in.

Todd Wheeler said...

Excellent post. Didn't know (or don't remember) that Hawthorne attended Bowdoin, but certainly should have since I worked at the college for 3 years!

Glad you made it up to Brunswick; most visitors to Maine don't get past Freeport. ;-)