Nathaniel Hawthorne’s granddaughter Hildegarde (1871-1952), a prolific author of ghost stories, garden books, biographies and travel narratives as well as an ardent feminist and suffragist, returned to her ancestral city the year after its great fire (which she mistakenly dates to 1913 rather than 1914) so that she might gather material for her forthcoming book, Old Seaport Towns of New England. With “Sister” in tow, she disembarks into a bustling city which she clearly does not find as charming as Newburyport to the north or Newport to the south. The “insistent present” is bothersome in Salem, and she feels much closer to the spirit of her illustrious grandfather when she looks at the “tenements” of Union Street than the new House of the Seven Gables, “which used to belong to some relatives of ours”. She does, of course, love Chestnut Street.
Chestnut Street and the Beverly Bridge, Salem Side, by John Albert Seaford, from Old Seaport Towns of New England (1916)
And there’s lots more to see obviously, BUT (it seems like there is a but hanging over every sentence) new Salem or invented Salem seems to be intruding on old Salem too much: You can easily spend a couple of days looking up the houses where famous men were born in this solid old city (for a feminist, she doesn’t seem to care about the house of famous Salem women). They seem to have had had an extraordinary hankering for the place. Not but what Salem must have been a particularly beautiful place in the days when these notable births were most common. It is now, in many spots, though it has lost much of its looks with advancing age. For, oddly enough,as it becomes older it becomes younger, and the youth is not an improvement. After two days in town, Hildegarde left Salem at sunset, over the Beverly Bridge, vaguely disturbed by the conflicting impressions of her noisy, commercial present, that will not let you be, and the obstinate power of her past, equally insistent. It seems to me as if these last lines could have been written in 2016 as easily as 1916.
Two of Hildegarde’s other titles; Hildegarde, second from left, at the New York Womens’ Suffrage Parade, 1913, ©Paul Thompson, Getty Images.