Considerations of both donor intent and the importance of place were brushed off pretty quickly by the leadership of the Peabody Essex Museum during the Q&A part of the public forum on the relocation of the Phillips Library last week, in contradiction to some of the museum’s own language on its website. Everything I have ever read about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s life and work stresses the importance of Salem in the latter, whether the dark secrets of his Hawthorne and Manning ancestors, the physical relics of the past all around him, or his daily perambulations all around town. His great-grandson Manning Hawthorne, who donated several boxes of family papers (MSS 69) to the Phillips Library in 1975, remarked that five generations of Salem ancestors and Salem itself were in his blood, nor could he ever rid himself of their influence. He was never particularly happy in Salem, but it was of Salem Hawthorne wrote and to Salem he returned in an article about the author’s early years published in the Essex Institute Historical Collections in 1938.
Hawthorne provides a story for the 1860 fundraising effort on behalf of the indebted Essex Institute; “I should be very glad to write a story, as you request, for the benefit of the Essex Institute, or for any other purpose that might be deemed desirable by my native townspeople”. I wish he was still with us!
The PEM’s own words support the inextricable connection between Hawthorne and Salem: the messaging accompanying the PEM’s bicentennial Hawthorne exhibition in 2004 asserts that: With Salem as the birth and dwelling place of Nathaniel Hawthorne, it is understandable that the Phillips Library is a major hub of Hawthorne scholarship. In addition to the more than four feet of Hawthorne manuscripts, the library holdings include papers of the residents of Salem who were contemporaries and commenters on one of the leading 19th century American literary figures. The C. E. Fraser Clark* Collection of Hawthorniana augments the primary materials, and makes it possible to view all of the American editions and literary criticism of this premier writer. I feel the presence of Hawthorne pretty strongly still in Salem, primarily through extant buildings in which he lived and worked: a short walk around town can bring you to his birthplace, his childhood homes, houses belonging to his mother’s and wife’s families, and of course the House of the Seven Gables. It is difficult to see how an industrial warehouse is going to offer up the same ambiance for Hawthorne scholars, and consequently even more difficult to see the Phillips Library in Rowley continuing to serve as a hub of Hawthorne scholarship. And that’s another loss.
Hawthorne’s stencil from the Salem Maritime National Historic Site; just three Hawthorne houses in Salem: the Manning cottage (which happens to be my very favorite house in Salem) and homestead on Dearborn and a short-term rental on Chestnut.
*It is C.E. Frazer Clark, not C.E. Fraser Clark.
P.S. And speaking of ambiance, here are the two Phillips Libraries, past and future, Salem and Rowley (thanks to Paul Jalbert for the latter!)