Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Salem

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in 1804, as Nathaniel Hathorne. In 1825 or '26, he changed the spelling of his last name, by adding a "W", which his sister also began to use.

Nathaniel Hawthorne as young man

Why would he want to change the spelling of his family name? Well, he had some relatives from generations past from which he wanted to distance himself. One and a half centuries distance was not enough for Nathaniel! He changed his last name's spelling because his distance paternal grandfather, John Hathorne, was the magistrate of the court during the Salem Witch Trials in the 1690's.

John Hathorne

John caused a lot of innocent people to hang for the "crime" of witchcraft. Of course, these women (and a few men) were not witches or in a covenant with the Devil. They were victims of their environment. Superstition was a deeply held belief and the Puritanism was a covenant religion. Either you were for God, or against Him. Either you acted "Holy" and "Pure", or you were evil.

Execution of Anne HibbinsSource: http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/salem/generic.html

If you went for a walk in the woods, you were suspect. Afterall, everyone knows that the woods are the Devil's playground. If you happened to have a skin-tag (as many older people do), you were sure to be hung as a witch, for having a "witches teat"... the mark of a witch. You wouldn't stand a chance.

Rebecca Nurse's graveSource: http://s3.amazonaws.com/findagrave/photos/2001/222/nurserebecca6.jpg

Oh... to live in Salem, Massachusetts in the late 1600's. So, one can understand why Nathaniel added a "W" to his last name. He seemed to feel remorse for what his ancestor had done. So, Hawthorne wrote some short stories and a novel about life in Salem during the 17th century. The theme of those works centers around flawed humanity and sinful nature. Since Puritans believed that we are all born with Original Sin, a person was doomed from the start. Even the most honest person was full of sin.

This was the premise of "The Minister's Black Veil," "Young Goodman Brown" and "The Scarlet Letter." All three stories take place in Salem during the 17th century. In "TMBV", the minister wears a black veil and refuses to take it off. He is a sinner and he chooses to display his sinful nature for all to see. In "YGB," he has a crisis of faith (and a crisis in his marriage to his wife, Faith.) YGB takes a walk in the woods, which, if you remember, is the devil's playground... He is surprised to see fellow neighbors in the woods doing things that are less than holy and pure. I don't want to spoil it for you, but in the end, YGB's life is ruined because he has lost faith in humanity. He can trust no-one. Who is evil? Who is good? Is there any good to be found in human nature, or are we all just hopeless sinners?

In "The Scarlet Letter," Hester refuses to believe that the relationship (and child) she has had with Reverend Dimmesdale is something for which to be ashamed. She loves him and will not be made to feel like a heathen or an adulturer. Her loyalty to him prevents her from speaking his name to the court who demands that she reveal the name of the father of her "out-of-wedlock" child. She refuses, but one is left to wonder why Reverend Dimmesdale stood by and let her be tormented and thrown in prison for refusing to reveal his name. Was his cowardliness stronger than his love for Hester? Hawhtorne leaves the reader to guess.

Salem, MA is so well known for it's witch trial history, so its other attributes get less attention. Salem is a coastal town with a rich mariner history. Salem and Essex were  important trading ports and there is a magnificent museum devoted to the spice trading that took place there centuries ago. It is called the Essex-Peabody Museum.

If you are in New England, I encourage you to take a drive north of Boston to visit Salem. It's a walkable town with so many places to see. The houses there date back 300 years.

Source: http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/snarl/files/2006/10/Salem%20MA%20October%202006%20087.jpgSource: http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/snarl/files/2006/10/Salem%20MA%20October%202006%20087.jpg

It's worth a trip!