Daily Archives: February 20, 2013

A Sentimentalist in Salem

For me (so far), blogging is a remarkably easy, even effortless activity; every post comes from 1) a walk or a drive; 2) a glance at the calendar; 3) reading–either for pleasure or class preparation; 4) looking at art-again, either for pleasure or class prep; and 5) stumbling around the web. Since I do all of these things daily blog posts naturally follow, without much consternation. But there is one more source of inspiration that is a bit less immediate: my digital folders of things (images, articles, news items) that catch my interest but are so singular that they don’t really call to mind some larger topical theme–even one sufficient for a fleeting post. Most of these items have no context, but if you keep collecting them, patterns emerge.

A good case in point is my rather bulging (if digital files could, in fact, bulge) file which I have labeled “Fading Salem”. In this file are a number of items and articles from national periodicals about how far Salem has fallen from the glorious heights of its commercial ascendency at the beginning of the nineteenth century. These items all date from the period 1850-1914:  the end date does not refer to the beginning of World War I (as it would for the rest of the world) but rather to the Great Salem Fire. There are references to crime and poverty, general malaise (one item is even titled “Dull Salem”) and the faded grandeur of “old Salem”. As the century turns, there is definitely an emphasis on the latter:  rather than looking at Salem as in decline, a succession of observers note how well-preserved it is, and how it serves as a bastion of tradition in a rapidly-changing world. There is one article that captures this transition perfectly, written and illustrated by a Canadian-born artist named Charles Henry White and published in Harper’s Monthly Magazine in June of 1908. White (1878-1918) traveled around the country sketching and writing little impressions of a host of American cities for Harper’s in the first decade of the twentieth century; before he came to Salem he had produced articles on New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Charleston, Richmond, New Orleans, Boston and Philadelphia, and his view of Washington D.C., “Queer Folk at the Capital”, came a year after his “Salem” article.  Just before the war broke out, he was off to Europe, where he eventually died in 1918 at age 40.

White starts out with the traditional late-nineteenth century impression of Salem:  As you center Derby Street on your way to the Custom House, where, in more prosperous times, the main current of the commercial life of the city ebbed and flowed, making the streets ring with the cheerful din of business activity, and reach the deserted quays, you feel not unlike a stranger who has wandered into an abandoned theater and walks alone across the stage, picking his way gingerly through the tattered scenery, long after generations of actors who made the place echo with their laughter have departed. 

Frankly, his writing is a little dramatic for me but I do like his accompanying illustrations.

White etching of Salem wharf Harpers 1908

C.H. White, “Deserted Quays once Redolent with Foreign Spices”, 1908.

As he strolls around town, it does not take long for White to discover a more charming Salem. Just a step away from the rotting wharves, he finds himself continually stumbling across eloquent reminders of past splendor in the numerous old mansions of former Salem merchants, still marshalled in broken line, looking seaward, with their graceful porticos tufted with ivy, fluttering in the clear sunlight……and he goes on and on:  the streets, spanned by titanic elms, become cathedral naves; and through the lofty arch of whispering foliage steal at infrequent intervals into the cool depths below shafts of limpid sunlight, sifting across the splendid rows of Colonial mansions….and I could go on and on quoting him, but you get the general idea. And again, I think his etchings are more eloquent.

White etching of streetscape 1908 Harpers

White etching of Essex Street Salem 1908

C.H. White, views of Chestnut and Essex Streets, Salem,  1908.

Fortunately few of the stately mansions that White alludes to throughout his piece were swept away by the fire a few years later; but much later in the century the “titanic elms” were of course decimated by Dutch Elm Disease. So there is an aura of bittersweetness when one reads his words with the benefit of hindsight, knowing what was on the horizon for those trees, for Salem, for the world, and for White himself in five short years.

White etching of Lower Salem Harpers 1908

White etching of Bridge Street Salem Harpers 1908

C.H. White, “Lower Salem” and “An Old Corner”,  Harper’s Monthly Magazine, June, 1908.