I’m not sure whether fallout from Halloween or the occasional jokes about being North Salem (N.Y.) witches inspired the Brawny Sherpa and me to take a road trip to Salem, Mass., but we ended up learning so much more than we intended to. We were there to see what was up with the witches, but on a meandering walk from the Salem Inn to the Howard Street Cemetery, we happened upon some very old headstones outside St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. While in Salem, we’d already found out that author Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was so embarrassed that a forebear was involved as a judge in the Salem witch hunt and was unrepentant about it, actually changed the spelling of his surname to distance himself from his unworthy ancestor. So interesting that he chose to add a w to Hathorne.
What we learned outside the church, though, was that there really was a Jonathan Pue, who is not just a fictional character in The Scarlet Letter. He really worked at the Customs House and is buried at St. Peter’s. I am a long distance from 9th grade English class and haven’t had cause to pick up any Hawthorne in years.
After cruising the cemetery, we headed toward Hawthorne’s cousin’s house, which just happens to have seven gables. I’m newly inspired by Hawthorne to take a closer look at my world and am hoping to incorporate seemingly innocuous details into some sort of masterpiece. I need to reread a few of his.
Had I had the opportunity to visit this place when I was 14 or so, literature would have become so much more vibrant than it was to me then. Growing up in the ’70s era of key parties, branding people—or their clothing—for a little adultery seemed a little remote. Although the Cold War wanted to make enemies of Soviets and their satellites, the red menace wasn’t really real to me as a teen as we were a long distance from the McCarthy hearings and blacklisting by that time. The Vietnam War was far away. I wasn’t afraid of Communists or witches and couldn’t really comprehend why some of us were, no matter how many times I read The Crucible.
But accusations of witchcraft, or of communism, or of adultery, or of taxation without representation, I’ve now learned, on many adult field trips, are all about property, or values, or property values. These little dustups over the place next door, or the neighbor, or the surcharge on tea can suddenly spiral out of control. In Salem, I learned a little bit about society and its motivations. By now, I sort of knew. I wish I’d had the opportunity for history to be brought alive back then.