Hawthorne’s Witches and a Secret History of Salem

She might be Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Muse.

A century and a half after the Salem witch trials, they still lived in the mind of a young Salem writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864). From his fiancee’s window, if he had a good arm, he could have thrown an ink bottle at the headstone of his ancestor John Hathorne, a leading judge in the trials, in the adjacent Charter Street cemetery.

Visit the official Hawthorne in Salem website.

Some contemporary literary critics characterize his writing as “dark romanticism,” along with Edgar Allan Poe’s. Others place some of his work in the Gothic-fiction genre, comparing him to Matthew “Monk” Lewis, one of the creators of Gothic horror.

Is this not one of the most Goth sentences ever written? “Years, many years, rolled on; the world seemed new again, so much older was it grown since the night when those pale girls had clasped their hands across the bosom of the corpse.”

Poe (1809–1849), Hawthorne’s contemporary, did not much care for the story in which it appears, “The White Old Maid,” a  (sort of) ghost story published in 1835.

In an 1847 critical essay, he praised Hawthorne’s writing (“purest style . .. . the most touching pathos, the more radiant imagination”) even when it was not always popular but suggested that he needed to “escape from the mysticism of his Goodman Browns and Old White Maids into the hearty, genial . . . Indian-summer sunshine.”((Edgar Allan Poe, “Tale Writing—Nathaniel Hawthorne,” in The Complete Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne (New York: Doubleday, 1959), 9–10. Originally published in Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book, November 1847.))

Hawthorne was both impressed and horrified by his Puritan ancestors. He admired their courage and enterprise as settlers, but was repelled by their dogmatism, suppression of individuality, and most of all by their mass execution of accused witches in 1692 (as well as sporadic earlier trials).

Henry James (1843–1916) wrote that Hawthorne had a “feeling for the latent romance of New England” and praised his handling of “the ingrained sense of sin, of evil, and of responsibility” in a world marked by pressing moral anxiety [and] the restless individual conscience.” Hawthorne sought out and delineated “the laws secretly broken, the impulsive secretly felt, the hidden passions, the double lives, the dark corners, the closed rooms, the skeletons in the cupboard and at the feast,” creating “a mystery and a glamour where there were otherwise none very ready to [his] hand.”((Henry James, “Nathaniel Hawthorne,” in The Complete Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne (New York: Doubleday, 1959), 2.))

In other words, he is fascinated by the psychic and psychological history of New England, and how events like the witch trials create a kind of inter-generational curse or psychic poisoning — this is part of the back story in his novel The House of the Seven Gables, of which one critic wrote,

But as the Pynchon story [the Pynchons are the house’s owners in the novel—CSC] is an historical chronicle stretched over two centuries, the treatment of witchcraft changes with the changing times. Hawthorne shows scrupulous fidelity to both historic fact and oral tradition in recording the transformation from the Puritan to the contemporary version of folk belief. Just as the Puritan faith was relaxed and liberalized in the Unitarian and Transcendental periods, so too folk faith in witchcraft transformed itself to accord with the new spirit of the age.((Daniel G. Hoffman, “Paradise Regained at Maule’s Well,” in The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Seymour L. Gross, Norton Critical Edition (New York: W. W. Norton, 1967), 476.))

You can almost think of his writing as a “secret history” of Salem and the surrounding towns.

His witchy-est story, “Young Goodman Brown” (1835), takes place in a witchcraft-haunted fictional New England much like the setting of the 2015 film The VVitch., although it is, with heavy-handed allegory, a story about a Christian man’s loss of faith. Sarah Cloyce, an actual Salem village woman who was accused of witchcraft but never tried (played by Vanessa Redgrave in the 1985 production Three Sovereigns for Sarah), becomes in Hawthorne’s story a priestess of Satanism, even though Brown knows her as the one who taught him his Christian catechism, for he discovers that most of the “best people” are secret devil-worshipers. (Shades of Michelle Remembers!)

Now we stand only slightly farther apart in time, say 150–180 years, from Hawthorne’s writing. At a time when the Salem witch trials were seen as an embarrassment and the actual execution site forgotten, Hawthorne did keep the “witch city” meme alive.

But who else passed it along after Hawthorne’s death? There are two obvious candidates, and others not so obvious. I will be returning to the most obvious soon.

2 thoughts on “Hawthorne’s Witches and a Secret History of Salem

  1. I hadn’t read any of Hawthorne until I saw a short film of “Young Goodman Brown” made by Don Fox, a student at a cinematography school in LA. Fox had already made the cover of “American Cinematographer” for an earlier student film, “Omega,” which featured brilliant, low-budget special effects. Fox did the same for “Young Goodman Brown” and made a haunting, if slightly confusing, movie of the Hawthorne tale, using the services of Lynnwood Dunn’s company Film Effects of Hollywood, which did the effects for Star Trek, among other shows. I met him in person in the mid-1970’s when I visited LA, then lost track of him as special effects went from analog to digital. I always wondered what became of him, a quiet, shy person in the glaring lights and artificiality of the film industry.

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