Let us now look more closely at the local setting. To understand Hawthorne’s youth and his following development, we must at once transport ourselves into another period, and imagine a very different kind of life from the one we know best. It hardly occurs to readers, that an effort should be made to imagine the influences surrounding a man who has so recently passed away as Hawthorne. It was in 1864 that he died — little more than a decade since. But he was born sixty years before, which places his boyhood and early youth in the first quarter of the century. The lapse since then has been a long one in its effects; almost portentously so. The alterations in manners, relations, opportunities, have been great. Restless and rapid in their action, these changes have multiplied the mystery of distance a hundred-fold between us and that earlier time; so that there is really a considerable space to be traversed before we can stand in thought where Hawthorne then stood in fact. Goldsmith says, in that passage of the Life of Parnell which Irving so aptly quotes in his biography of the writer: “A poet while living is seldom an object sufficiently great to attract much attention. . . . When his fame is increased by time, it is then too late to investigate the peculiarities of his disposition; the dews of morning are past, and we vainly try to continue the chase by the meridian splendor.” The bustle of American life certainly does away with “the dews of morning” very promptly; and it is not quite a simple matter to reproduce the first growth of a life which began almost with the century. But there are resources for doing so. To begin with, we shall view Salem as it is. Vigorous and thriving still, the place has fortunately not drifted so far from its moorings of seventy years since as to take us out of our bearings, in considering its present aspect. Pace its quiet, thoroughfares awhile, and you will find them leading softly and easily into the past.
You arrive in the ordinary way, by railroad, and at first the place wears a disappointingly commonplace aspect. It does not seem impressively venerable; hacks and horse-cars rattle and tinkle along the streets, people go about their affairs in the usual way, without any due understanding that they ought to be picturesque and should devote themselves to falling into effective groups posed in vistas of historic events. Is antiquity, then, afraid to assert itself, even here in this stronghold, so far as to appear upon the street? No. But one must approach these old towns with reverence, to get at their secrets. They will not yield inspiration or meaning save to an imaginative effort. Under the influence of that, the faded past, traced in sympathetic ink, as it were, revives and starts into distinctness. Passing down Essex Street, or striking off from its modest bustle a little way, we come upon shy, ungainly relics of other times. Gray gambrel-roofed houses stand out here and there, with thick-throated chimneys that seem to hold the whole together. Again you pass buildings of a statelier cast, with carved pilasters on the front and arched doorways bordered with some simple, dainty line of carving; old plaster-covered urns, perhaps, stand on the brick garden-wall, and the plaster is peeling off in flakes that hang long and reluctant before falling to the ground. There are quaint gardens everywhere, with sometimes an entrance arched with iron gracefully wrought by some forgotten colonial Quentin Matsys, and always with their paths bordered by prim and fragrant box, and grass that keeps rich and green in an Old World way, by virtue of some secret of growth caught from fresher centuries than ours. If your steps have the right magic in them, you will encounter presently one of the ancient pumps like to the Town Pump from which Hawthorne drew that clear and sparkling little stream of revery and picture which has flowed into so many and such distant nooks, though the pump itself has now disappeared, having been directly in the line of the railroad. But, best of all, by ascending Witch Hill you may get a good historic outlook over the past and the present of the place. Looking down from here you behold the ancient city spread before you, rich in chimneys and overshadowed by soft elms. At one point a dark, strong steeple lifts itself like a huge gravestone above the surrounding houses, terminating in a square top or a blunt dome; and yonder is another, more ideal in its look, rising slight and fine, and with many ascents and alternating pauses, to reach a delicate pinnacle at great height in the air. It is lighted at intervals with many-paned and glittering windows, and wears a probable aspect of being the one which the young dreamer would have chosen for the standpoint of his “Sights from a Steeple”; and the two kinds of spire seem to typify well the Puritan gloom and the Puritan aspiration that alike found expression on this soil. Off beyond the gray and sober-tinted town is the sea, which in this perspective seems to rise above it and to dominate the place with its dim, half-threatening blue; as indeed it has always ruled its destinies in great measure, bringing first the persecuted hither and then inviting so many successive generations forth to warlike expedition, or Revolutionary privateering or distant commercial enterprise. With the sea, too, Hawthorne’s name again is connected, as we shall presently notice. Then, quitting the brimming blue, our eyes return over the “flat, unvaried surface covered chiefly with wooden houses, few or none of which pretend to architectural beauty,” with its “irregularity which is neither picturesque nor quaint, but only tame”; and retracing the line upon which Hawthorne has crowded the whole history of Salem, in “Main Street,” [Footnote: See The Snow Image, and other Twice–Told Tales.] we fall to pondering upon the deeds that gave this hill its name. At its foot a number of tanneries and mills are grouped, from which there are exhalations of smoke and steam. The mists of superstition that once overhung the spot seem at last to have taken on that form. Behind it the land opens out and falls away in a barren tract known from the earliest period as the Great Pastures, where a solitude reigns almost as complete as that of the primitive settlement, and where, swinging cabalistic webs from one to another of the arbor-vitae and dwarf-pine trees that grow upon it, spiders enough still abide to furnish familiars for a world full of witches. But here on the hill there is no special suggestion of the dark memory that broods upon it when seen in history. An obliging Irish population has relieved the descendants of both the witches and their exterminators from an awkward task, by covering with their own barren little dwellings the three sides of the height facing the town. Still, they have not ventured beyond a certain line. One small area at the summit is wholly unencroached upon. Whether or not through fear of some evil influence resting upon the spot, no house as yet disturbs this space, though the thin turf has been somewhat picked away by desultory sod-diggers. There is nothing save this squalid, lonely desolation to commemorate the fact that such unhappy and needless deaths were here endured. It is enough. Mere human sympathy takes us back with awful vividness to that time when the poor victims looked their last from this, upon the bleak boundary-hills of the inland horizon and that hopeless semicircle of the sea on the other side. A terrible and fitting place for execution, indeed! It looms up visible for many miles of lower country around; and as you stand upon the top, earth seems to fall away with such a fatal ease around it!
The stranger is naturally drawn hence to the Court House, where, by calling a clerk from his routine in a room fairly lined and stuccoed with bundles of legal papers, he may get a glimpse of the famous “witch-pins.” These are the identical little instruments which the afflicted children drew from different parts of their dress, in the trial-room, declaring that some one of the accused had just caused them to be sharply inserted into their persons. The pins are kept in a small glass bottle, and are thin and rudely made; and as one looks at the curious, homely little relics, it is hard to know whether to laugh at the absurdly insignificant sight, or shudder at the thought of what deadly harm they worked in the hands of the bewitched. So, while one is hesitating, one gives the bottle back to the clerk, who locks it up speedily, and at the next instant is absorbed in the drawing up of some document; leaving the intruder free to pursue his search for antiquities elsewhere. But the monuments and remains of the past are nowhere large enough, in our American towns, to furnish the pilgrim a complete shelter and make an atmosphere of their own. The old Curwin Mansion, or “Witch House,” to be sure, with its jutting upper story, and its dark and grimy room where witch-trials are rumored to have been held, is a solid scrap of antique gloom; but an ephemeral druggist’s shop has been fastened on to a corner of the old building, and clings there like a wasp’s nest — as subversive, too, of quiet contemplation. The descendants of the first settlers have with pious care preserved the remains of the First Church of Salem, and the plain little temple may still be seen, though hidden away in the rear of the solid, brick-built Essex Institute. Yet, after all, it is only the skeleton of the thing, the original framework set into a modern covering for protection — the whole church being about as large as a small drawing-room only. Into this little space a few dumb and shrinking witnesses of the past have been huddled: the old communion-table, two ancient harpsichords, a single pew-door, a wooden samp-mortar, and a huge, half-ruinous loom; and some engraved portraits of ancient ministers hang upon the walls. When I visited the place, a party of young men and women were there, who hopelessly scattered any slight dust of revery that might have settled on me from the ancient beams, and sent the ghosts fleeing before their light laughter. The young women fingered the old harpsichords, and incontinently thrummed upon them; and one cried, “Play a waltz!” She was a pretty creature; and, as her gay tone mingled with the rattle of protesting strings in the worn-out instrument, one might easily have divined how dire a fate would have been hers, in the days when men not only believed in bewitchment, but made it punishable. Then a young man who had clung for guidance amid her spells to the little printed pamphlet that describes the church, read aloud from its pages, seriously: “‘Nowhere else in this land may one find so ancient and worshipful a shrine. Within these walls, silent with the remembered presence of Endicott, Skelton, Higginson, Roger Williams, and their grave compeers, the very day seems haunted, and the sunshine falls but soberly in.’”
“O don’t!” besought the siren, again. “We’re not in a solemn state.”
And, whether it was the spell of her voice or not, I confess the sunshine did not seem to me either haunted or sober.
Thus, all through Salem, you encounter a perverse fate which will not let you be alone with the elusive spirit of the past. Yet, on reflection, why should it? This perverse fate is simply the life of today, which has certainly an equal right to the soil with that of our dreams and memories. And before long the conflict of past and present thus occasioned leads to a discovery.
In the first place, it transpires that the atmosphere is more favorable than at first appears for backward-reaching revery. The town holds its history in reverence, and a good many slight traces of antiquity, with the quiet respect maintained for them in the minds of the inhabitants, finally make a strong cumulative attack on the imagination. The very meagreness and minuteness of the physical witnesses to a former condition of things cease to discourage, and actually become an incitement more effective than bulkier relics might impart. The delicacy of suggestion lends a zest to your dream; and the sober streets open out before you into vistas of austere reminiscence. The first night that I passed in Salem, I heard a church-bell ringing loudly, and asked what it was. It was the nine-o’clock bell; and it had been appointed to ring thus every night, a hundred years ago or more. How it reverberated through my mind, till every brain-cell seemed like the empty chamber of a vanished year! Then, in the room where I slept, there was rich and ponderous furniture of the fashion of eld; the bed was draped and canopied with hangings that seemed full of spells and dreamery; and there was a mirror, tall, and swung between stately mahogany posts spreading their feet out on the floor, which recalled that fancy of Hawthorne’s, in the tale of “Old Esther Dudley,” [Footnote: See also American Note–Books, Vol. I.; and the first chapter of The House of the Seven Gables.] about perished dames and grandees made to sweep in procession through “the inner world” of a glass. Such small matters as these engage the fancy, and lead it back through a systematic review of local history with unlooked-for nimbleness. Gradually the mind gets to roving among scenes imaged as if by memory, and bearing some strangely intimate relation to the actual scenes before one. The drift of clouds, the sifting of sudden light from the sky, acquire the import of historic changes of adversity and prosperity. The spires of Salem, seen one day through a semi-shrouding rain, appeared to loom up through the mist of centuries; and the real antiquity of sunlight shone out upon me, at other times, with cunning quietude, from the weather-worn wood of old, unpainted houses. Every hour was full of yesterdays. Something of primitive strangeness and adventure seemed to settle into my mood, and the air teemed with anticipation of a startling event; as if the deeds of the past were continually on the eve of returning. With all this, too, a certain gray shadow of unreality stole over everything.
Then one becomes aware that this frame of mind, produced by actual contact with Salem, is subtly akin to the mood from which so many of Hawthorne’s visions were projected. A flickering semblance, perhaps, of what to him must have been a constant though subdued and dreamy flame summoning him to potent incantation over the abyss of time; but from this it was easy to conceive it deepened and intensified in him a hundred-fold. Moreover, in his youth and growing-time, the influence itself was stronger, the suggestive aspect of the town more salient. If you read even now, on the ground itself, the story of the settlement and the first century’s life of Salem and the surrounding places, a delicate suffusion of the marvellous will insensibly steal over the severe facts of the record, giving them a half-legendary color. This arises partly from the imaginative and symbolic way of looking at things of the founders themselves.
John White, the English Puritan divine, who, with the “Dorchester Adventurers,” established the first colony at Cape Ann, was moved to this by the wish to establish in Massachusetts Bay a resting-place for the fishermen who came over from Dorchester in England, so that they might be kept under religious influences. This was the origin of Salem; for the emigrants moved, three years later, to this spot, then called Naumkeag. In the Indian name they afterward found a proof, as they supposed, that the Indians were an offshoot of the Jews, because it “proves to be perfect Hebrew, being called Nahum Keike; by interpretation, the bosom of consolation.” Later, they named it Salem, “for the peace,” as Cotton Mather says, “which they had and hoped in it”; and when Hugh Peters on one occasion preached at Great Pond, now Wenham, he took as his text, “At Enon, near to Salim, because there was much water there.” This playing with names is a mere surface indication of the ever-present scriptural analogy which these men were constantly tracing in all their acts. Cut off by their intellectual asceticism from any exertion of the imagination in literature, and denying themselves all that side of life which at once develops and rhythmically restrains the sense of earthly beauty, they compensated themselves by running parallels between their own mission and that of the apostles — a likeness which was interchangeable at pleasure with the fancied resemblance of their condition to that of the Israelites. When one considers the remoteness of the field from their native shores, the enormous energy needful to collect the proper elements for a population, and to provide artificers with the means of work; the almost impassable wildness of the woods; the repeated leagues of hostile Indians; the depletions by sickness; and the internal dissensions with which they had to struggle — one cannot wonder that they invested their own unsurpassed fortitude, and their genius for government and war, with the quality of a special Providence. But their faith was inwoven in the most singular way with a treacherous strand of credulity and superstition. Sometimes one is impressed with a sense that the prodigious force by which they subdued the knotty and forest-fettered land, and overcame so many other more dangerous difficulties, was the ecstasy of men made morbidly strong by excessive gloom and indifference to the present life. “When we are in our graves,” wrote Higginson, “it will be all one whether we have lived in plenty or penury, whether we have died in a bed of downe or lockes of straw.” And Hawthorne speaks of the Puritan temperament as “accomplishing so much, precisely because it imagined and hoped so little.” Yet, though they were not, as Winthrop says, “of those that dreame of perfection in this world,” they surely had vast hopes at heart, and the fire of repressed imagination played around them and before them as a vital and guiding gleam, of untold value to them, and using a mysterious power in their affairs. They were something morbid in their imaginings, but that this morbid habit was a chief source of their power is a mistaken theory. It is true that their errors of imagination were so closely knit up with real insight, that they could not themselves distinguish between the two. Their religious faith, their outlook into another life, though tinged by unhealthy terrorism, was a solid, energetic act of imagination; but when it had to deal with intricate tangles of mind and heart, it became credulity. That lurking unhealthiness spread from the centre, and soon overcame their judgment entirely. The bodeful glare of the witchcraft delusion makes this fearfully clear. Mr. Upham, in his “Salem Witchcraft,”— one of the most vigorous, true, and thorough of American histories, without which no one can possess himself of the subject it treats — has shown conclusively the admirable character of the community in which that delusion broke out, its energy, common-sense, and varied activity; but he points out for us also the perilous state of the Puritan imagination in a matter where religion, physiology, and affairs touched each other so closely as in the witchcraft episode. The persecution at Salem did not come from such deep degeneration as has been assumed for its source, and it was not at the time at all a result of uncommon bigotry. In the persecution in England in 1645–46, Matthew Hopkins, the “witch-finder-general,” procured the death, “in one year and in one county, of more than three times as many as suffered in Salem during the whole delusion”; several persons were tried by water ordeal, and drowned, in Suffolk, Essex, and Cambridgeshire, at the same time with the Salem executions; and capital punishments took place there some years after the end of the trouble here. It is well known, also, that persons were put to death for witchcraft in two other American colonies. The excess in Salem was heightened by a well-planned imposture, but found quick sustenance because “the imagination, called necessarily into extraordinary action in the absence of scientific certainty, was . . . exercised in vain attempts to discover, unassisted by observation and experiment, the elements and first principles of nature,” [Footnote: Upham, I. 382] and “had reached a monstrous growth,” nourished by a copious literature of magic and demonology, and by the opinions of the most eminent and humane preachers and poets.
The imagination which makes beauty out of evil, and that which accumulates from it the utmost intensity of terror, are well exemplified in Milton and Bunyan. Doubtless Milton’s richly cultured faith, clothed in lustrous language as in princely silks that overhang his chain-mail of ample learning and argument, was as intense as the unlettered belief of Bunyan; and perhaps he shared the prevalent opinions about witchcraft; yet when he touches upon the superstitious element, the material used is so transfused with the pictorial and poetic quality which Milton has distilled from the common belief, and then poured into this image of the common belief, that I am not sure he cared for any other quality in it.
“Nor uglier follow the night-hag, when, call’d
In secret, riding through the air she comes,
Lured by the smell of infant blood, to dance
With Lapland witches, while the laboring moon
Ellipses at their charms.”
Paradise Lost, II. 662.
Again, in Comus:—
“Some say, no evil thing that walks by night,
Blue meagre hag, or stubborn, unlaid ghost
That breaks his magic chains at curfew time,
No goblin, or swart faery of the mine,
Hath hurtful power o’er true virginity.”
How near these passages come to Shakespere, where he touches the same string! And is it not clear that both poets exulted so in the beauty born among dark, earthy depths of fear, that they would have rejected any and every horror which failed to contribute something to the beautiful? Indeed, it may easily be that such high spirits accept awful traditions and cruel theologies, merely because they possess a transmuting touch which gives these things a secret and relative value not intrinsically theirs; because they find here something to satisfy an inward demand for immense expansions of thought, a desire for all sorts of proportioned and balanced extremes. This is no superficial suggestion, though it may seem so. But in such cases it is not the positive horror and its direct effect which attract the poet: a deeper symbolism and an effect both aesthetic and moral recommend the element to him. With Milton, however, there follows a curious result. He produces his manufactured myth of Sin and Death and his ludicrous Limbo of Vanity with a gravity and earnestness as convincing as those which urge home any part of his theme; yet we are aware that he is only making poetic pretence of belief; so that a certain distrust of his sincerity throughout creeps in, as we read. How much, we ask, is allegory in the poet’s own estimation, and how much real belief? Now in Bunyan there is nothing of this doubt. Though the author declares his narrative to be the relation of a dream, the figment becomes absolute fact to us; and the homely realism of Giant Despair gives him a firmer hold upon me as an actual existence, than all the splendid characterization of Milton’s Beelzebub can gain. Even Apollyon is more real. Milton assumes the historic air of the epic poet, Bunyan admits that he is giving an allegory; yet of the two the humble recorder of Christian’s progress seems the more worthy of credit. Something of this effect is doubtless due to art: the “Pilgrim’s Progress” is more adequately couched in a single and consistent strain than the “Paradise Lost.” Milton, by implying veracity and then vaporing off into allegory, challenges dispute; but Bunyan, in humbly confessing himself a dreamer, disarms his reader and traps him into entire assent. Certainly Bunyan was not the greater artist: that supposition will not even bear a moment’s contemplation; but, as it happened, his weakness was his strength. He had but one chance. His work would have been nothing without allegory, and the simple device of the dream — which is the refuge of a man unskilled in composition, who feels that his figures cannot quite stand as self-sufficient entities — happens to be as valuable to him as it was necessary; for the plea of unreality brings out, in the strong light of surprise, a contrast between the sincere substance of the story and its assumed insubstantiality. Milton had many chances, many resources of power to rely on; but by grasping boldly at the effect of authenticity he loses that one among the several prizes within his reach. I do not know that I am right, but all this seems to me to argue a certain dividing and weakening influence exerted by the imagination which uses religious or superstitious dread for the purposes of beauty; while that which discourses confidently of the passage from this to another life, with all the several stages clearly marked, and floods the whole scene with a vivid and inartificial light from “the powers and terrors of what is yet unseen,” affects the mind with every atom of energy economized and concentred.
Leaving the literary question, we may bring this conclusion to bear upon the Puritans and Salem, as their history affected Hawthorne. I have said that a gradual suffusion of the marvellous overspreads the comparatively arid annals of the town, if one reviews them amid the proper influences; and I have touched upon the two phases of imagination which, playing over the facts, give them this atmosphere. Now if what I guess from the contrast between Milton and Bunyan be true, the lower kind of imagination — that is, imagination deformed to credulity — would be likely to be the more impressive. This uncanny quality of superstition, then, is the one which insensibly exudes from the pages of New England’s and perhaps especially of Salem’s colonial history, as Hawthorne turns them. This is the dank effluence that, mingling with the sweeter and freer air of his own reveries, has made so many people shudder on entering the great romancer’s shadowy but serene domain.
And just here it is advisable to triangulate our ground, by bringing Milton, Bunyan, and Hawthorne together in a simultaneous view. Wide apart as the first two stand, they seem to effect a kind of union in this modern genius; or, rather, their influence here conjoins, as the rays from two far-separated stars meet in the eye of him who watches the heavens for inspiration. Something of the peculiar virtue of each of these Puritan writers seems to have given tone to Hawthorne’s no less individual nature. In Bunyan, who very early laid his hand on Hawthorne’s intellectual history, we find a very fountain-head of allegory. His impulse, of course, was supremely didactic, only so much of mere narrative interest mixing itself with his work as was inseparable from his native relish for the matter of fact; while in Milton’s poetry the clear aesthetic pleasure held at least an exact balance with the moral inspiration, and, as we have just seen, perhaps outweighed it at times. The same powerful, unrelaxing grasp of allegory is found in the American genius as in Bunyan, and there likewise comes to light in his mind the same delight in art for art’s sake that added such a grace to Milton’s sinewy and large-limbed port. In special cases the allegorical motive has distinctly got the upper hand, in Hawthorne’s work; yet even in those the artistic integument, that marvellous verbal style, those exquisite fancies, are not absent: on the contrary, in the very instances where Hawthorne has most constantly and clearly held to the illustration of a single idea, and made his fiction fit itself most absolutely to the jewelled truth it holds — in these very causes, I say, the command of his genius over literary resources is generally shown by an unusual splendor of means applied to the ideal end in view. It is here that, while resembling Bunyan, he is so unlike him. But more commonly we find in Hawthorne the two moods, the ethical and the aesthetic, exerted in full force simultaneously; and the result seems to be a perfection of unity. The opposing forces, like centripetal and centrifugal attractions, produce a finished sphere. And in this, again, though recalling Milton, he differs from him also. In Milton’s epic the tendency is to alternate these moods; and one works against the other. In short, the two elder writers undergo a good deal of refinement and proportioning, before mixing their qualities in Hawthorne’s veins. However great a controversialist Milton may be held, too, the very fact of his engaging in the particular discussions and in the manner he chose, while never to be deplored, may have something to do with the want of fusion of the different qualities present in his poetry. We may say, and doubtless it is so, that Hawthorne could never have written such magnificent pamphlets as the “Eikonoklastes,” the “Apology,” the “Tetrachordon”: I grant that his refinement, though bringing him something which Milton did not have, has cost him something else which Milton possessed. But, for all that, the more deep-lying and inclusive truths which he constantly entertained, and which barred him from the temporary exertion of controversy, formed the sources of his completer harmony. There is a kind of analogy, too, between the omnipresence of Milton in his work, and that of Hawthorne in his. The great Puritan singer cannot create persons: his Satan is Milton himself in singing-robes, assuming for mere argument’s and epic’s sake that side of a debate which he does not believe, yet carrying it out in the most masterly way; his angels and archangels are discriminated, but still they are not divested of his informing quality; and “Comus” and “Samson Agonistes,” howsoever diverse, are illustrations of the athletic prime and the autumnal strength of the poet himself, rather than anywise dramatic evolutions of his themes. Bunyan, with much less faculty for any subtle discrimination of characters, also fails to give his persons individuality, though they stand very distinctly for a variety of traits: it is with Bunyan as if he had taken an average human being, and, separating his impulses, good and evil, had tried to make a new man or woman out of each; so that there is hardly life-blood enough to go round among them. Milton’s creatures are in a certain way more vital, though less real. Bunyan’s characters being traits, the other’s are moods. Yet both groups seem to have been cast in a large, elemental mould. Now, Hawthorne is vastly more an adept than either Milton or Bunyan in keeping the creatures of his spirit separate, while maintaining amongst them the bond of a common nature; but besides this bond they are joined by another, by something which continually brings us back to the author himself. It is like a family resemblance between widely separated relatives, which suggests in the most opposite quarters the original type of feature of some strong, far-back progenitor. These characters, with far more vivid presence and clear definition than those of the other two writers, are at the same time based on large and elementary forces, like theirs. They are for the most part embodied moods, or emotions expanded to the stature of an entire human being, and made to endure unchanged for years together. Thus, while Hawthorne, as we shall see more fully further on, is essentially a dramatic genius, Bunyan a simple allegorist, and Milton an odic poet of unparalleled strength — who, taking dramatic and epic subjects and failing to fill them, makes us blame not his size and shape, but the too minute intricacies of the theme — there is still a sort of underground connection between all three. It is curious to note, further, the relation of Milton’s majestic and multitudinous speech, the chancellor-like stateliness of his wit, in prose, to Hawthorne’s resonant periods, and dignity that is never weakened though admirably modified by humor. Altogether, if one could compound Bunyan and Milton, combine the realistic imagination of the one with the other’s passion for ideas, pour the ebullient undulating prose style of the poet into the veins of the allegorist’s firm, leather-jerkined English, and make a modern man and author of the whole, the result would not be alien to Hawthorne.
Yet that native love of historic murkiness and mossy tradition which we have been learning to associate with Salem would have to be present in this compound being, to make the likeness complete. And this, with the trains of revery and the cast of imagination which it must naturally breed, would be the one thing not easily supplied, for it is the predisposition which gives to all encircling qualities in Hawthorne their peculiar coloring and charm. That predisposition did not find its sustenance only in the atmosphere of sadness and mystery that hangs over the story of Salem; bygone generations have left in the town a whole legacy of legend and shudder-rousing passages of family tradition, with many well-supported tales of supernatural hauntings; and it is worth while to notice how frequent and forcible a use Hawthorne makes of this enginery of local gossip and traditional horror, in preparing the way for some catastrophe that is to come, or in overshooting the mark with some exaggerated rumor which, by pretending to disbelieve it, he causes to have just the right effect upon the reader’s mind. Some of the old houses that stand endwise to the street, looking askant at the passer — especially if he is a stranger in town — might be veritable treasuries of this sort of material. Gray, close-shuttered, and retiring, they have not so much the look of death; it is more that they are poor, widowed homes that have mournfully long outlived their lords. One would not have them perish; and yet there is something drearily sad about them. One almost feels that the present tenants must be in danger of being crowded out by ghosts, or at least that they must encounter strange obstacles to living there. Are not their windows darkened by the light of other days? An old mansion of brick or stone has more character of its own, and is less easily overshadowed by its own antiquity; but these impressible wooden abiding-places, that have managed to cling to the soil through so many generations, seem rife with the inspirations of mortality. They have a depressing influence, and must often mould the occupants and leave a peculiar impress on them. We are all odd enough in our way, whatever our origin or habitation; but is it not possible that in a town of given size, placed under specified conditions, there should be a greater proportion of oddities produced than in another differently circumstanced? Certainly, if this be so, it has its advantages as well as its drawbacks; a stability of surrounding and of association, which perhaps affects individuals in the extreme, is still a source of continuity in town character. And Salem is certainly remarkable for strong, persistent, and yet unexhausted individuality, as a town, no less than for a peculiar dignity of character which has become a pronounced trait in many of its children. But, on the other hand, it is fecund of eccentricities. Though many absorb the atmosphere of age to their great advantage, there must be other temperaments among the descendants of so unique and so impressionable a body of men as the early settlers of this region, which would succumb to the awesome and depressing influences that also lurk in the air; and these may easily pass from piquant personality into mere errant grotesqueness. Whether from instinctive recognition of this or not, it has never seemed to me remarkable that people here should see apparitions of themselves, and die within the year; it did not strike me as strange when I was told of persons who had gone mad with no other cause than that of inherited insanity — as if, having tried every species of sane activity for two or three hundred years, a family should take to madness from sheer disgust with the monotony of being healthy; nor could any case of warped idiosyncrasy, or any account of half-maniacal genius be instanced that seemed at all out of keeping. One day I passed a house where a crazy man, of harmless temper, habitually amused himself with sitting at a window near the ground, and entering into talk, from between the half-closed shutters, with any one on the sidewalk who would listen to him. Such a thing, to be sure, might easily be met with in twenty other places; but here it seemed natural and fitting. It was not a preposterous thought, that any number of other men in the neighborhood might quietly drop into a similar vein of decrepitude, and also attempt to palm off their disjointed fancies upon the orderly foot-passengers. I do not by this mean to insinuate any excessive leaning toward mental derangement on the part of the inhabitants; but it is as if the town, having lived long enough according to ordinary rules to be justified in sinking into superannuation, and yet not availing itself of the privilege, but on the contrary maintaining a life of great activity, had compensated itself in the persons of a few individuals. But when one has reached this mood, one remembers that it is all embodied in “The House of the Seven Gables.” Though Hawthorne, in the Preface to that romance, takes precautions against injuring local sentiment, by the assurance that he has not meant “to describe local manners, nor in any way to meddle with the characteristics of a community for whom he cherishes a proper respect and a natural regard,” the book is not the less a genuine outgrowth of Salem. Perhaps the aspect under which Salem presents itself to me is tinged with fancy, though Hawthorne in the same story has called it “a town noted for its frugal, discreet, well-ordered, and home-loving inhabitants, . . . but in which, be it said, there are odder individuals, and now and then stranger occurrences, than one meets with almost anywhere else.” But it is certain that poor Hepzibah Pyncheon, and the pathetic Clifford, and quaint Uncle Venner, are types which inevitably present themselves as belonging preeminently to this place. Not less subtle is the connection with it of the old wizard Maule, and the manner of his death at the witchcraft epoch; for it is hinted in the romance that old Colonel Pyncheon joined in denouncing the poor man, urged by designs on a piece of land owned by Maule; and Mr. Upham’s careful research has shown that various private piques were undoubtedly mixed up in the witchcraft excitement, and swelled the list of accusations. Young Holgrave, the photographer, also, represents in a characteristic way the young life of the place, the germ that keeps it fresh, and even dreams at times of throwing off entirely the visible remains of the past.
It may be mentioned, at this point, as a coincidence, even if not showing how Hawthorne insensibly drew together from a hundred nooks and crannies, and formulated and embodied his impressions of this his native place in “The House of the Seven Gables,” that the name of Thomas Maule (the builder of the house, and son of the Matthew brought to his death by Colonel Pyncheon) appears in Felt’s “Annals of Salem” as that of a sympathizer with the Quakers. He was also author of a book called “Truth Held Forth,” published in 1695; and of a later one, the title of which, “The Mauler Mauled,” shows that he had humor in him as well as pluck. He seems to have led a long career of independent opinion, not altogether in comfort, however, for in 1669 he was ordered to be whipped for saying that Mr. Higginson preached lies, and that his instruction was “the doctrine of devils”; and his book of “Truth Held Forth,” which contained severe reflections on the government for its treatment of the Quakers, was seized and suppressed. It is not improbable that at some time Hawthorne may have read of this person. At all events, he serves as a plausible suggestion of the Maule who so early in the romance utters his prophecy of ill against Colonel Pyncheon, that he “shall have blood to drink.”
Another minor coincidence, and yet proper to be noted, is that of the laboring-man Dixey, who appears in the opening of the story with some comments upon Aunt Hepzibah’s scheme of the cent-shop, and only comes in once afterward, at the close, to touch upon the subject in a different strain. At first, unseen, but overheard by Miss Pyncheon, he prophesies to a companion, “in a tone as if he were shaking his head,” that the cent-shop will fail; and when Clifford and Hepzibah drive off in their carriage, at the end, he remarks sagaciously, “Good business — good business.” It certainly is odd that this subordinate in the romance should find a counterpart in one William Dixy, appointed ensign of the Salem military company which John Hawthorne commanded, in 1645.
The name Pyncheon, also, on which the imaginary Colonel and Judge cast such a doubtful light, was a well-known name in old New England, and became the source of some annoyance to Hawthorne, after he had written the “Seven Gables”; but of this we shall hear more, further on. It is enough, now, to recall these coincidences. I do not suppose that he searched the names out and founded his use of them upon some suggestion already connected with them; indeed, he expressly declared, when remonstrated with on his use of the Pyncheons, that he did not know of any person of that title connected with Salem history of that time; but the circumstance of his using the other names is interesting as showing that many minute facts must have gone to make up the atmosphere of that half-historic and half-imaginative area whereon so many of his short tales and two of the romances were enacted. Maule and Dixey were very likely absorbed into his mind and forgotten; but suddenly when he chanced to need these characters for the “Seven Gables,” they revived and took shape with something of the historic impress still upon them. That their very names should have been reproduced finds explanation in the statement once made by Hawthorne to a friend, that the most vexatious detail of romance-writing, to him, was the finding of suitable names for the dramatis personae. Balzac used to look long among the shop-signs of Paris for the precise name needed by a preconceived character, and the absolute invention of such titles is doubtless very rare; few fictionists are gifted with Dickens’s fertility in the discovering of names bearing the most forcible and occult relations to the fleshless owners of them. And it is interesting to find that Hawthorne — somewhat as Scott drew from the local repertory of his countrymen’s nomenclature — found many of his surnames among those of the settlers of New England. Hooper, Prynne, Felton, Dolliver, Hunnewell, and others belong specially to these and to their descendants. Roger Chillingworth, by the by, recalls the celebrated English divine and controversialist, William; and Bishop Miles Coverdale’s name has been transferred, in “Blithedale,” from the reign of Edward VI. to the experimental era of Brook Farm.
It has been urged as a singular deficiency of Hawthorne’s, that he could not glorify the moral strength and the sweeter qualities of the Puritans and of their lives. But there was nothing in the direction of his genius that called him to this. As well urge against him that he did not write philanthropic pamphlets, or give himself to the inditing of biographies of benevolent men, or compose fictions on the plan of Sir Charles Grandison, devoted to the illumination of praiseworthy characters. It is the same criticism which condemns Dickens for ridiculing certain preachers, and neglecting to provide the antidote in form of a model apostle, contrasted in the same book. This is the criticism which would reduce all fiction to the pattern of the religious tract. Certain men have certain things before them to do; they cannot devote a lifetime to proving in their published works that they appreciate the excellence of other things which they have no time and no supreme command to do. Nothing, then, is more unsafe, than to imply from their silence that they are deficient in particular phases of sympathy. The exposition of the merits of the New England founders has been steadily in progress from their own time to the present; and they have found a worthy monument in the profound and detailed history of Palfrey. All the more reason, why the only man yet born who could fill the darker spaces of our early history with palpitating light of that wide-eyed truth and eternal human consciousness which cast their deep blaze through Hawthorne’s books, should not forego his immortal privilege! The eulogy is the least many-sided and perpetual of literary forms, and unless Hawthorne had made himself the eulogist of the Puritans, he would still have had to turn to our gaze the wrongs that, for good or ill, were worked into the tissue of their infant state. But as it is, he has been able to suggest a profounder view than is permitted either to the race of historians or that of philosophers. It does not profess to be a satisfactory statement of the whole, nor is there the least ground for assuming that it does so. Its very absorption in certain phases constitutes its value — a value unspeakably greater than that of any other presentation of the Puritan life, because it rests upon the insight of a poet who has sounded the darkest depths of human nature. Had Hawthorne passed mutely through life, these gloomy-grounded pictures of Puritanism might have faded from the air like the spectres of things seen in dazzling light, which flit vividly before the eye for a time, then vanish forever.
But in order to his distinctive coloring, no distortion had to be practised; and I do not see why Hawthorne should be reckoned to have had no sight for that which he did not record. With his unique and penetrating touch he marked certain salient and solemn features which had sunk deep into his sensitive imagination, and then filled in the surface with his own profound dramatic emanations. But in his subtle and strong moral insight, his insatiable passion for truth, he surely represented his Puritan ancestry in the most worthy and obviously sympathetic way. No New–Englander, moreover, with any depth of feeling in him, can be entirely wanting in reverence for the nobler traits of his stern forefathers, or in some sort of love for the whole body of which his own progenitors formed a group. Partly for his romantic purposes, and merely as an expedient of art, Hawthorne chose to treat this life at its most picturesque points; and to heighten the elements of terror which he found there was an aesthetic obligation with him. But there is even a subtler cause at work toward this end. The touches of assumed repugnance toward his Puritan forefathers, which appear here and there in his writings, are not only related to his ingrained shyness, which would be cautious of betraying his deeper and truer sentiment about them, but are the ensigns of a proper modesty in discoursing of his own race, his own family, as it were. He shields an actual veneration and a sort of personal attachment for those brave earlier generations under a harmless pretence that he does not think at all too tenderly of them. It is a device frequently and freely practised, and so characteristically American, and especially Hawthornesque, that it should not have been overlooked for even a moment. By these means, too, he takes the attitude of admitting the ancestral errors, and throws himself into an understanding with those who look at New England and the Puritans merely from the outside. Here is a profound resort of art, to prepare a better reception for what he is about to present, by not seeming to insist on an open recognition from his readers of the reigning dignity and the noble qualities in the Puritan colony, which he himself, nevertheless, is always quietly conscious of. And in this way he really secures a broader truth, while reserving the pride of locality and race intact; a broader truth, because to the world at large the most pronounced feature of the Puritans is their austerity.
But if other reason were wanted to account for his dwelling on the shadows and severities of the Puritans so intently, it might be found in his family history and its aspects to his brooding mind. His own genealogy was the gate which most nearly conducted him into the still and haunted fields of time which those brave but stern religious exiles peopled.
The head of the American branch of the Hathorne, or Hawthorne family, was Major William Hathorne, of Wigcastle, Wilton, Wiltshire, [Footnote: This name appears in the American Note–Books (August 22, 1837) as Wigcastle, Wigton. I cannot find any but the Scotch Wigton, and have substituted the Wilton of Wiltshire as being more probable. Memorials of the family exist in the adjoining county of Somerset. (A. N. B., October, 1836.)] in England, a younger son, who came to America with Winthrop and his company, by the Arbella, arriving in Salem Bay June 12, 1630. He probably went first to Dorchester, having grants of land there, and was made a freeman about 1634, and representative, or one of “the ten men,” in 1635. Although a man of note, his name is not affixed to the address sent by Governor Winthrop and several others from Yarmouth, before sailing, to their brethren in the English Church; but this is easily accounted for by the fact that Hathorne was a determined Separatist, while the major part of his fellow-pilgrims still clung to Episcopacy. In 1636, Salem tendered him grants of land if he would remove hither, considering that “it was a public benefit that he should become an inhabitant of that town.” He removed accordingly, and, in 1638, he had additional lands granted to him “in consideration of his many employments for towne and countrie.” Some of these lands were situated on a pleasant rising ground by the South River, then held to be the most desirable part of the town; and a street running through that portion bears the name of Hathorne to this day. In 1645, he petitioned the General Court that he might be allowed, with others, to form a “company of adventurers” for trading among the French; and in the same year he was appointed captain of a military company, the first regular troop organized in Salem to “advance the military art.” From 1636 to 1643 he had been a representative of the people, from Dorchester and Salem; and from 1662 to 1679 he filled the higher office of an assistant. It was in 1667 that he was empowered to receive for the town a tax of twenty pounds of powder per ton for every foreign vessel over twenty tons trading to Salem and Marblehead, thus forestalling his famous descendant in sitting at the receipt of customs. Besides these various activities, he officiated frequently as an attorney at law; and in the Indian campaign of 1676, in Maine, he left no doubt of his efficiency as a military commander. He led a portion of the army of twelve hundred men which the colony had raised, and in September of this year he surprised four hundred Indians at Cocheco. Two hundred of these “were found to have been perfidious,” and were sent to Boston, to be sold as slaves, after seven or eight had been put to death. A couple of weeks later, Captain Hathorne sent a despatch: “We catched an Indian Sagamore of Pegwackick and the gun of another; we found him in many lies, and so ordered him to be put to death, and the Cocheco Indians to be his executioners.” There was some reason for this severity, for in crossing a river the English had been ambuscaded by the savages. The captain adds: “We have no bread these three days.” This early ancestor was always prominent. He had been one of a committee in 1661, who reported concerning the “patent, laws, and privileges and duties to his Majesty” of the colonists, opposing all appeals to the crown as inconsistent with their charter, and maintained the right of their government to defend itself against all attempts at overthrow. Two years later he was charged by Charles’s commissioners with seditious words, and apologized for certain “unadvised” expressions; but the committee of 1661 reported at a critical time, and it needed a good deal of stout-heartedness to make the declarations which it did; and on the whole William Hathorne may stand as a sturdy member of the community. He is perhaps the only man of the time who has left a special reputation for eloquence. Eliot speaks of him as “the most eloquent man of the Assembly, a friend of Winthrop, but often opposed to Endicott, who glided with the popular stream; as reputable for his piety as for his political integrity.” And Johnson, in his “Wonder–Working Providence,” naming the chief props of the state, says: “Yet through the Lord’s mercy we still retain among our Democracy the godly Captaine William Hathorn, whom the Lord hath indued with a quick apprehension, strong memory, and Rhetorick, volubility of speech, which hath caused the people to make use of him often in Publick Service, especially when they have had to do with any foreign government.” It is instructive to find what ground he took during the Quaker persecutions of 1657 to 1662. Endicott was a forward figure in that long-sustained horror; and if Hathorne naturally gravitated to the other extreme from Endicott, he would be likely, one supposes, to have sympathized with the persecuted. The state was divided in sentiment during those years; but James Cudworth wrote that “he that will not whip and lash, persecute, and punish men that differ in matters of religion, must not sit on the bench nor sustain any office in the commonwealth.” Cudworth himself was deposed; and it happens that Hathorne’s terms of service, as recorded, seem at first to leave a gap barely wide enough to include this troublesome period. But, in fact, he resumed power as a magistrate just in time to add at least one to the copious list of bloody and distinguishing atrocities that so disfigure New England history.
Sewel relates [Footnote: History of the Quakers, I. 411, 412.] that “Anne Coleman and four of her friends were whipped through Salem, Boston, and Dedham by order of Wm. Hawthorn, who before he was a magistrate had opposed compulsion for conscience; and when under the government of Cromwell it was proposed to make a law that none shall preach without license, he publicly said at Salem that if ever such a law took place in New England he should look upon it as one of the most abominable actions that were ever committed there, and that it would be as eminent a Token of God’s having forsaken New England, as any could be.” His famous descendant, alluding to this passage, [Footnote: See “The Custom House,” introductory to “The Scarlet Letter.”] says that the account of this incident “will last longer, it is to be feared, than any record of his better deeds, though these were many.” Yet it should not be overlooked that Hathorne is the only one among the New England persecutors whom Sewel presents to us with any qualifying remark as to a previous more humane temper. Sole, too, in escaping the doom of sudden death which the historian solemnly records in the cases of the rest. So that even if we had not the eminent example of Marcus Aurelius and Sir Thomas More, we might still infer from this that it is no less possible for the man of enlightened ability and culture, than for the ignorant bigot, to find himself, almost of necessity, a chief instrument of religious coercion. Doubtless this energetic Puritan denouncer of persecution never conceived of a fanaticism like that of the Friends, which should so systematically outrage all his deepest sense of decency, order, and piety, and — not content with banishment — should lead its subjects to return and force their deaths, as it were, on the commonwealth; as if a neighbor, under some mistaken zeal, were to repeatedly mix poison with our porridge, until his arrest and death should seem our only defence against murder. Perhaps he was even on the dissenting side, for a time, though there is no record of his saying, like one Edward Wharton of Salem, that the blood of the Quakers was too heavy upon him, and he could not bear it. Wharton received twenty lashes for his sensitiveness, and was fined twenty pounds, and subjected to more torture afterward. But, whatever Hathorne’s first feeling, after five years of disturbance, exasperation was added to the responsibility of taking office, and he persecuted. It is easy to see his various justifications, now; yet one cannot wonder that his descendant was oppressed by the act. That he was so cannot be regretted, if only because of the authentic fact that his reading of Sewel inspired one of his most exquisite tales, “The Gentle Boy.”
William Hathorne, however — whatever his taste in persecution — makes his will peacefully and piously in 1679–80: “Imprimis, I give my soul into the hands of Jesus Christ, in whom I hope to bind forevermore my body to the earth in hope of a glorious resurrection with him, whom this vile body shall be made like unto his glorious body; and for the estate God hath given me in this world. . . . I do dispose of as followeth.” Then he bequeaths various sums of money to divers persons, followed by “all my housing and land, orchard and appurtenances lying in Salem,” to his son John. Among other items, there is one devising his “farm at Groton” to “Gervice Holwyse my gr. ch. [grandchild] if he can come over and enjoy it.” Here, by the way, is another bit of coincidence for the curious. Gervase Helwyse is the name of the young man who appears in “Lady Eleanor’s Mantle,” [Footnote: Twice–Told Tales, Vol. II.] bereft of reason by his love for the proud and fatal heroine of that tale. [Footnote: In the English Note–Books, May 20, 1854, will be found some facts connected with this name, unearthed by Mr. Hawthorne himself. He there tells of the marriage of one Gervase Elwes, son of Sir Gervase Elwes, Baronet of Stoke, in Suffolk. This Gervase died before his father; his son died without issue; and thus John Maggott Twining, grandson of the second Gervase through a daughter, came into the baronetcy. This Twining assumed the name of Elwes. “He was the famous miser, and must have had Hawthorne blood in him,” says Mr. Hawthorne, “through his grandfather Gervase, whose mother was a Hawthorne.” He then refers to William’s devise, and says: “My ancestor calls him his nephew.” The will says, “gr. ch.”; and I suppose the mistake occurred through Mr. Hawthorne’s not having that document at hand, for reference.] Captain Hathorne must have been well advanced in years when he led his troops against the Indians at Cocheco in 1676; for it was only five years later that he disappeared from history and from this life forever.
His son John inherited, together with housing and land, a good deal of the first Hathorne’s various energy and eminence. He was a freeman in 1677, representative from 1683 to 1686, and assistant or counsellor, from 1684 to 1712, except the years of Andros’s government. After the deposition of Andros, he was called to join Bradstreet’s Council of Safety pending the accession of William of Orange; a magistrate for some years; quartermaster of the Essex companies at first, and afterward, in 1696, the commander of Church’s troops, whom he led against St. John. He attacked the enemy’s fort there, but, finding his force too weak, drew off, and embarked for Boston. As his father’s captaincy had somehow developed into the dignity of major, so John found himself a colonel in 1711. But in 1717 he, too, died. And now there came a change in the fortunes of the Hathorne line. Colonel John, during his magistracy, had presided at the witchcraft trials, and had shown himself severe, bigoted, and unrelenting in his spirit toward the accused persons. Something of this may be seen in Upham’s volumes. One woman was brought before him, whose husband has left a pathetic record of her suffering. “She was forced to stand with her arms stretched out. I requested that I might hold one of her hands, but it was declined me; then she desired me to wipe the tears from her eyes, and the sweat from her face, which I did; then she desired that she might lean herself on me, saying she should faint. Justice Hathorne replied she had strength enough to torment these persons, and she should have strength enough to stand. I repeating something against their cruel proceedings, they commanded me to be silent, or else I should be turned out of the room.” [Footnote: Chandler’s American Criminal Trials, I. p. 85.] It is not strange that this husband should have exclaimed, that God would take revenge upon his wife’s persecutors; and perhaps he was the very man whose curse was said to have fallen upon the justice’s posterity.
From this time, at all events, the family lost its commanding position in Salem affairs. Justice Hathorne’s son Joseph subsided into the quiet of farm-life. The only notable association with his name is, that he married Sarah Bowditch, a sister of the grandfather of the distinguished mathematician, Nathaniel Bowditch. But it is in the beginning of the eighteenth century that the Hathornes begin to appear as mariners. In the very year of the justice’s death, one Captain Ebenezer Hathorne earned the gloomy celebrity attendant on bringing small-pox to Salem, in his brig just arrived from the Barbadoes. Possibly, Justice John may have died from this very infection; and if so, the curse would seem to have worked with a peculiarly malign appropriateness, by making a member of his own family the unwilling instrument of his end. By and by a Captain Benjamin Hathorne is cast away and drowned on the coast, with four other men. Perhaps it was his son, another Benjamin, who, in 1782, being one of the crew of an American privateer, “The Chase,” captured by the British, escaped from a prison-ship in the harbor of Charleston, S. C., with six comrades, one of whom was drowned. Thus, gradually, originated the traditional career of the men of this family — “a gray-headed shipmaster in each generation,” as the often-quoted passage puts it, “retiring from the quarter-deck to the homestead, while a boy of fourteen took the hereditary place before the mast.” But the most eminent among these hardy skippers is Daniel, the son of farmer Joseph, and grandfather of the author.
Daniel Hathorne lived to be eighty-five, and expired only on April 18, 1796, eight years and a little more before his famous grandson came into the world. Something of the old prowess revived in him, and being a stout seafarer, and by inheritance a lover of independence, he became commander of a privateer during our Revolution; indeed, it is said he commanded several. His guns have made no great noise in history, but their reverberation has left in the air a general tradition of his bravery. The only actual account of his achievements which I have met with is the following ballad, written by the surgeon of his ship, who was perhaps better able than any one else to gauge the valor of his countryman and commander, by the amount of bloodshed on his piratical craft:—
BRIG “FAIR AMERICAN”: DANIEL HATHORNE, COMMANDER.
The twenty-second of August, before the close of day,
All hands on board our privateer, we got her under weigh.
We kept the Eastern shore on board for forty leagues or more,
When our departure took for sea, from the Isle of Monhegan
Bold Hathorne was commander, a man of real worth,
Old England’s cruel tyranny induced him to go forth;
She with relentless fury was plundering all the coast,
And thought because her strength was great, our glorious cause
Now farewell to America — farewell our friends and wives,
We trust in Heaven’s peculiar care, for to protect their lives,
To prosper our intended cruise upon the raging main,
And to preserve our dearest friends till we return again.
The wind it being leading and bore us on our way,
As far unto the Eastward as the Gulf of Florida,
When we fell in with a British ship hound homeward from the main;
We gave her two bow-chasers, and she returned the same.
We hauled up our courses and prepared for fight;
The contest held four glasses,[*] until the dusk of night;
Then having sprung our mainmast, and had so large a sea,
We dropped astern, and left our chase till the returning day.
[* The time consumed in the emptying of a half-hour glass four times, — two hours.]
Next day we fished our mainmast, the ship still being nigh,
All hands was for engaging, our chance once more to try;
But wind and sea being boisterous, our cannon would not bear;
We thought it quite imprudent, and so we left her there.
We cruised to the Eastward, near the coast of Portuigale:
In longitude of twenty-seven we saw a lofty sail.
We gave her chase, and soon perceived she was a British scow
Standing for fair America with troops for General Howe.
Our captain did inspect her with glasses, and he said:—
“My boys, she means to fight us, but be you not afraid;
All hands repair to quarters, see everything is clear;
We’ll give him a broadside, my boys, as soon as she comes near.”
She was prepared with nettings, and her men were well secured,
And bore directly for us, and put us close on board,
When the cannons roared like thunder, and the muskets fired amain;
But soon we were alongside, and grappled to her chain.
And now the scene is altered — the cannon ceased to roar;
We fought with swords and boarding-pikes one glass and something more;
The British pride and glory no longer dared to stay,
But cut the Yankee grappling, and quickly bore away.
Our case was not so desperate, as plainly might appear,
Yet sudden death did enter on board our privateer;
Mahany, Clew, and Clemmans, the valiant and the brave,
Fell glorious in the contest, and met a watery grave!
Ten other men were wounded, among our warlike crew,
With them our noble captain, to whom all praise is due.
To him and all our officers let’s give a hearty cheer!
Success to fair America and our good privateer!
This ballad is as long as the cruise, and the rhythm of it seems to show that the writer had not quite got his sea-legs on, in boarding the poetic craft. Especially is he to be commiserated on that unhappy necessity to which the length of the verse compels him, of keeping “the Eastern shore on board for forty leagues,” in the first stanza; but it was due to its historic and associative value to give it entire.
Perhaps, after all, it was a shrewd insight that caused the Hathornes to take to the sea. Salem’s greatest glory was destined for a term to lie in that direction. Many of these old New England seaports have magnificent recollections of a commercial grandeur hardly to be guessed from their aspect today. Castine, Portsmouth, Wiscasset, Newburyport, and the rest — they controlled the carrying of vast regions, and fortune’s wheel whirled amid their wharves and warehouses with a merry and reassuring sound. Each town had its special trade, and kept the monopoly. Portsmouth and Newburyport ruled the trade with Martinique, Guadaloupe, and Porto Rico, sending out fish and bringing back sugar; Gloucester bargained with the West Indies for rum, and brought coffee and dye-stuffs from Surinam; Marblehead had the Bilboa business; and Salem, most opulent of all, usurped the Sumatra, African, East Indian, Brazilian, and Cayenne commerce. By these new avenues over the ocean many men brought home wealth that literally made princes of them, and has left permanent traces in the solid and stately homes they built, still crowded with precious heirlooms, as well as in the refinement nurtured therein, and the thrifty yet generous character they gave to the town. Among these successful merchants was Simon Forrester, who married Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great-aunt Rachel, and died in 1817, leaving an immense property. Him Hawthorne speaks of in “The Custom House”; alluding to “old King Derby, old Billy Gray, old Simon Forrester, and many another magnate of his day; whose powdered head, however, was scarcely in the tomb, before his mountain-pile of wealth began to dwindle.” But Nathaniel’s family neither helped to undermine the heap, nor accumulated a rival one. However good the forecast that his immediate ancestors had made, as to the quickest and broadest road to wealth, they travelled long in the wake of success without ever winning it, themselves. The malediction that fell on Justice Hathorne’s head might with some reason have been thought to still hang over his race, as Hawthorne suggests that its “dreary and unprosperous condition . . . for many a long year back” would show. Indeed, the tradition of such a curse was kept alive in his family, and perhaps it had its share in developing that sadness and reticence which seem to have belonged to his father.
It is plain from these circumstances how the idea of “The House of the Seven Gables” evolved itself from the history of his own family, with important differences. The person who is cursed, in the romance, uses a special spite toward a single victim, in order to get hold of a property which he bequeaths to his own heirs. Thus a double and treble wrong is done, and the notion of a curse working upon successive generations is subordinate to the conception of the injury which a man entails to his own descendants by forcing on them a stately house founded upon a sin. The parallel of the Hathorne decline in fortune is carried out; but it must be observed that the peculiar separateness and shyness, which doubtless came to be in some degree a trait of all the Hathornes, is transferred in the book from the family of the accursed to that of Maule, the utterer of the evil prophecy. “As for Matthew Maule’s posterity,” says the romancer, “to all appearance they were a quiet, honest, well-meaning race of people”; but “they were generally poverty-stricken; always plebeian and obscure; working with unsuccessful diligence at handicrafts; laboring on the wharves, or following the sea as sailors before the mast”; and “so long as any of the race were to be found, they had been marked out from other men — not strikingly, nor as with a sharp line, but with an effect that was felt, rather than spoken of — by an hereditary character of reserve. Their companions, or those who endeavored to become such, grew conscious of a circle round about the Maules, within the sanctity or the spell of which, in spite of an exterior of sufficient frankness and good-fellowship, it was impossible for any man to step.” The points of resemblance here may be easily distinguished. In the “American Note–Books” occurs an anecdote which recalls the climax of the romance. It concerns Philip English, who had been tried for witchcraft by John Hathorne, and became his bitter enemy. On his death-bed, he consented to forgive him; “But if I get well,” said he, “I’ll be damned if I forgive him!” One of English’s daughters (he had no sons) afterward married a son of John Hathorne. How masterly is the touch of the artist’s crayon in this imaginative creation, based upon the mental and moral anatomy of actual beings! It is a delicate study of the true creative art to follow out this romantic shape, and contrast it with the real creatures and incidents to which it has a sort of likeness. With perfect choice, the artist selects, probably not consciously, but through association, whatever he likes from the real, and deviates from it precisely where he feels this to be fitting; adds a trait here, and transfers another there; and thus completes something having a unity and inspiration of its own, neither a simple reproduction nor an unmixed invention, the most subtile and harmonious product of the creative power. It is in this way that “The House of the Seven Gables” comes to be not merely fancifully a romance typical of Salem, but in the most essentially true way representative of it. Surely no one could have better right to thus embody the characteristics of the town than Hawthorne, whose early ancestors had helped to magnify it and defend it, and whose nearer progenitors had in their fallen fortunes almost foreshadowed the mercantile decline of the long-lived capital. Surely no one can be less open to criticism for illustrating various phases of his townsmen’s character and exposing in this book, as elsewhere, though always mildly, the gloomier traits of the founders, than this deep-eyed and gentle man, whose forefathers notably possessed “all the Puritanic traits, both good and evil,” and who uses what is as much to the disadvantage of his own blood as to that of others, with such absolute, admirable impartiality.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55