This year’s Christmas in Salem house tour, the perennial seasonal fundraiser for Salem’s venerable preservation organization Historic Salem Inc., is Hawthorne-themed in recognition of the 350th anniversary of the House of the Seven Gables and features 15 decorated interiors in the greater Derby Street neighborhood along with a full schedule of associated offerings. The tour is on Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday afternoon, and there are tie-in events (including a food tour, wine-tasting, meet-up of Salem history buffs, lectures on Hawthorne’s Utopian experience and the long history of celebrating Christmas) throughout the weekend. This tour is always a wonderful event for so many reasons: it supports preservation efforts and advocacy, does not exploit the witch trials in any way, and represents true collaboration between Salem’s heritage organizations. It’s a seasonal reminder of just how many beautiful old houses survive in Salem, and a great opportunity for decoration inspiration. I always emerge from the weekend full of empathetic gratitude for those generous homeowners who open their doors to hundreds of people during one of the busiest times of the year: I’ve been there, and done that (twice) and it is always quite the effort!
I like the theme of this particular tour as it harkens back to a time when Salem’s heritage identity was much more civic and civil, more diffuse, and much less commodified and concentrated on 1692. The neighborhood—and Hawthorne himself—are legacies of all of Salem’s history, dark and bright. Salem’s history and landscape gave Hawthorne his material: he always acknowledged his debt to his native city even as he distanced himself from it with obvious determination. In 1860, the Essex Institute had sustained a significant debt from moving their library (cabinet) into its permanent location (well, until the Peabody Essex Museum relocated it out of Salem) in Plummer Hall on Essex Street, and organized a fair to raise funds to pay off the debt. Hawthorne was asked for a story to contribute to the fair’s newsletter, The Weal–Leaf, and he acquiesced promptly, offering up an intense topographical memory rather than a story as his narrative inclinations had deserted him for the moment and he did not wish to be “entirely wanting to the occasion”. The relationship between the Essex Institute and Nathaniel Hawthorne was forged through moments like these, along with the deposit of Hawthorne family papers and the acquisition of additional papers and editions of all of Hawthorne’s works by the Institute, including The Spectator, his self-published (as a teenager!) newsletter.
As Hawthorne evolved into a truly national figure following his death, the Essex Institute enhanced its reputation through its Hawthorne collections, most particularly during the centennial anniversary of his birth in 1904, for which the Institute organized a series of summer events: as this most American of authors was born on the fourth of July. National headlines all summer long focused on the author and Salem, and most particularly on the “ancient” houses associated with Hawthorne, in accordance with the form of heritage tourism that was popular at the time: the literary pilgrimage. Even a century later, the collections of the Essex Institute, now absorbed into the greater Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), were the focus of the bicentennial commemoration of Hawthorne’s birthday: consequently it’s not very difficult to imagine an open Phillips Library in an open Plummer Hall, and an exhibition of Hawthorne texts and papers assembled as a complementary and contextual feature of this weekend’s house tour. But we can only imagine such a scene, as Plummer Hall has been closed since 2011, and the Phillips collections, encompassing nearly all of Salem’s archival history, have been relocated to a vast Collection (not plural–specificity is discouraged) Center in Rowley. Nathaniel Hawthorne is gone.
Boston Herald, May 1904; New York Public Library Digital Gallery.
Sorry—–digression into a rant: the anniversary of PEM’s reluctant admission to the permanent relocation (dislocation) of the Phillips collections approaches (December 6) and so this momentous move is on my mind. I fear that each and every historical occasion in Salem will be impacted by the withdrawal of its archives and the historical disengagement of such a large cultural force in the city. I’m trying to focus on what remains, and this tour provides a great opportunity to do that. The Salem houses in which Nathaniel Hawthorne lived, worked, and was inspired by remain, as well as organizations like Historic Salem, Inc., the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, and the House of the Seven Gables, which are devoted to their preservation—and his memory. We also have more than a century of scholarship on Hawthorne in physical context—and his memorial statue of course, a stark contrast to that dreadful marker to Salem’s other claim to “fame” on the other side of town.
The emphasis on Hawthorne’s “Homes and Haunts” begins with the Prang publication of William Baxter Palmer Closson’s portfolio in 1886 and continues today! Salem: Place, Myth and Memory was edited by my colleagues at Salem State University and includes a great chapter on Hawthorne by Nancy Lusignan Schultz. I haven’t read Milder’s Hawthorne’s Habitations yet, but it sounds like it is more focused on his time in England and Italy. The Smithsonian photograph above, of the newly-installed statue in front of the newly-built Hawthorne Hotel in 1925, was taken by Salem’s great horticulturist and planner Harlan Kelsey.