Part I in a weekly series of articles about young Nathaniel Hawthorne, written by Rae Padilla Francoeur in conjunction with The House of the Seven Gables.
At dusk, Young Goodman Brown sets off on “a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest.” As the sun sets in Salem’s woods, the young man worries, “What if the devil himself should be at my very elbow!” Frightened, he glances back. It looks like the tangled, narrow path is closing in behind him. And yet on he stumbles, as if compelled. As if obsessed.
This is what the 17th-century Salem Village of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s imagination looked like. “Young Goodman Brown,” one of the author’s most popular stories, is about a young newlywed who plunges into a nightmare. We don’t know why. We don’t even know if we can trust what happens. We do know that Nathaniel is a writer who stalks dark territory. It looks like Salem’s woods. It feels like the human psyche.
How did the writer find himself exploring troubling themes like greed, evil, sin and guilt? Salem’s most acclaimed native son came of age surrounded by echoes of a terrible past — the 1692 witchcraft trials — in which his own great-great-grandfather served as chief examiner. Nineteen people, found guilty of practicing witchcraft, were hanged and one man was tortured to death. From the trial transcripts we learn that John Hathorne — known as ‘the hanging judge’ — was a harsh interrogator. How did Nathaniel, known to be a sensitive boy, grapple with so great a burden? All he had to do was walk a few blocks to the Charter Street Cemetery to see what everyone else saw — the gravestone of a notorious Hathorne.
As a clever, curious boy, young Nathaniel must have conjured dark Salem scenes many times. After graduating from Bowdoin College in Maine, he confronted the Hathorne legacy head on. He changed his last name from Hathorne to Hawthorne. With that small gesture he empowered a ‘w’ to represent the author he had decided to become. What followed were the novels, the short stories and the notebooks that wrestled famously with all he had inherited.
Not a lot of details are known about Hawthorne as a boy, but we know enough to connect his young spirit with the work to come. His acclaimed short story, “Young Goodman Brown,” is one of his mysterious narratives that, like Hawthorne himself, is rife with clues yet lean on answers. Maybe he liked withholding or maybe he disdained tidy endings. Maybe what the historians and literary critics say is true: Hawthorne’s ambiguity was no fluke. There are no easy answers.
Nathaniel was born in a second-story bedroom in a house that was, much later, moved from 27 Union St. to Derby Street, adjacent to The House of the Seven Gables. Hawthorne’s father, a sea captain who sailed other men’s ships, had been at sea seven months when his son was born.
Nathaniel Hawthorne grew up in Salem. The house in which he was born and spent his first formative years is located at the House of the Seven Gables National Historic District property on 115 Derby St. Next week: Early losses.
On Jan. 14, 6:30 p.m., readers are invited to talk about Hawthorne’s delightful short book, “Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa,” in the first of two Gables’ online book club meetings. The second discussion, on March 11, takes up Hawthorne’s “Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys.” Call The Gables at 978-744-0991 or go to the visit/events page at www.7gables.org to sign up.