Literary Pilgrimages: Salem, Mass.

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.