Literary Pilgrimages: Salem, Mass.

Posted June 16, 2019 by Lory in places / 21 Comments

As I prepare to leave New England, at least for the time being, there are lots of places I still haven’t visited and would like to. So I’m making an effort to do some of these long-deferred trips, even if it means putting off some other important tasks.

One of these places is Salem, Massachusetts, site of the infamous Witch Trials in 1692. One can’t help but wonder whether the individuals behind that particular episode of persecution would have done so if they’d known it would cause their town to become a tourist mecca focused on occult pursuits, with spooky museums, crystal readers, and body piercing parlors thronging the streets.

It’s a weird twist on that tortured history, for sure. Such kitschiness was not my personal reason for visiting Salem, however. It’s also the hometown of the great American author Nathaniel Hawthorne and contains many memories of his life and work, including the Custom House described at length in his prologue to The Scarlet Letter, and the original House of the Seven Gables.

The House of the Seven Gables is now a museum and Hawthorne’s birthplace has been moved to the site as well, along with several other historic buildings. A tour took us into the labyrinthine depths of the house and its history, which later owners retrofitted to suit Hawthorne’s invented narrative.

Gables that had been removed over the centuries were restored, a “cent shop” was added to represent a scene in the novel, and a secret staircase was even put in to explain the mysterious comings and goings of one of the characters. Literature imitating life, or vice versa?

It made me think some rereading of Hawthorne might be in order during Witch Week. It occurs to me that his dark imaginative vision would be a wonderful subject for this annual celebration, the theme of which this year is Villains.

I also wanted to go to the Peabody Essex Museum, which is one of those small, slightly under-the-radar museums I enjoy the most. There was a lovely special exhibition of American art along with the regular collection. Here I especially liked seeing two paintings by Sophia Hawthorne, Nathaniel’s wife, which she created as an engagement present. In her fanciful views of Italy she included tiny images of the betrothed couple. She had a vivid imagination as well!

Inside the museum is also an entire house that was brought over from China, showing evidence of its eight generations of history. It really felt like being transported to another world.

There would have been much more to see in Salem, but I ran out of time. Still, I’m glad I got at least a glimpse — and I encourage any visitors to New England to give it a look. There’s much to learn and to explore.

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21 responses to “Literary Pilgrimages: Salem, Mass.

  1. Lizzie Ross

    Salem’s a great place to get a view of our Puritan past — even better than Boston, I believe, since it has no obvious Revolutionary War connections. If Chris and I use your suggested theme for a future Witch Week, I’ll have to make my own pilgrimage to the House of Seven Gables.

  2. We were in that area back in mid 80s but decided not to enter Salem once we noticed all the approach roads had advertising for with related stuff. Send like not much has changed.

  3. BJ

    It sounds like it was a wonderful trip to Salem! The visit to the Peabody Essex Museum sounds very interesting. I found that house brought over from China especially interesting– there is something about the eight generations of history that appeals to me. Just think about how much life changed in eight generations. I’m glad you were able to make time to stop and visit. 🙂

    • It was quite unique as a house that was really lived in with belongings from different phases of its history. The connection with Salem was appropriate as it was a center of the China trade.

  4. So glad you made it! I’ve been to Salem twice but have yet to make it inside the House of the Seven Gables or to the Peabody. I enjoy walking around old town and admiring the architecture. Hope to make it this coming fall or winter after reading The House of the Seven Gables which is on my Classics Club list. Will have to try to watch the movie, too! I didn’t know there was one. Have you seen it?

    • I didn’t get to do a lot of walking around the town but both those places were definitely worth the visit. Hope you get there soon too.

      I have not seen the movie and don’t know if it’s available — there was a whole wall of posters from Hawthorne film adaptations, some of them looking quite lurid and hilarious. Perhaps they screen some at the museum from time to time?

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