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Living Literary History at Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables

October 19, 2012 in American Authors, American History, American literature, Dark New England, Famous Museums, Gothic Literature, Halloween, Holidays Literary Traveler, Massachusetts, Massachusetts Travel, New England Travel, Travel

Located on the waterfront in Salem, Massachusetts, The House of the Seven Gables is a higgledy-piggledy pile of secret staircases, parlors and garrets – an eccentric collage architectural styles that has borne the stamp of every owner who lived there. But the strangest thing about the house is that, since the publication of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous novel of the same name in 1851, The House of the Seven Gables has been gradually evolving to look more like the house of Hawthorne’s imagination.  As our fabulous and knowledgeable tour guide, Jeff Horton, explains, “in a sense, the fictional novel saved the real house.”

It’s clear that, for Horton, associate to the group tour coordinator of The Gables, this is not just a job, but a personal passion.  Upon learning that we are literature enthusiasts, he insists on running to his car to procure his own 1922 edition of Hawthorne’s book, animatedly pointing out that it was edited by a high school teacher from Somerville, Massachusetts,  Literary Traveler’s home-base.

Horton is extremely well-versed in all aspects of the Turner-Ingersoll House (the official name of The Gables), as well as the Nathaniel Hawthorne House, where the author was born.  The latter was located across town until 1958, when, to the delight of certain Hawthorne enthusiasts, it was transported on a flat bed truck to its present location next door to The Gables.

Originally built in 1668, the Turner-Ingersoll House is the oldest wooden mansion still standing in New England.  Upon the start of the tour we are struck by the low ceilings, built to conserve heat.  Horton segues into an overview of the hardships of seventeenth century living, which far exceed ducking through doorways, and than swiftly recovers our spirits with a little historian humor: “we love history – it’s like The Hunger Games everyday of your life.”

One of the most surprising things that we learn on our tour is that Nathaniel Hawthorne never knew the seven gabled house that he wrote about. Its first owner was the wealthy merchant family Turner, which accumulated a fortune through its involvement with the ‘Triangle Trade’ in China.  In what was to become a tradition of great wealth lost and gained, the house passed from the Turner family to the Ingersoll family, after the third generation Turner squandered the family fortune. The Ingersoll family, in an attempt to adapt the house to a Federalist style, removed four of the seven gables. It was only through his Ingersoll cousin Susanna’s descriptions of the house that Hawthorne conceived of the uncanny seven gabled house of his novel.

And it’s Hawthorne’s book that is the reason the house is preserved today. A fan of the author’s work, Caroline O. Emmerton, who acquired the house in 1908, founded The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association to commemorate the literature of Nathaniel Hawthorne and educate the community. If Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables house was once haunted by the uneasy ghosts of family (his ancestors were involved in the Salem witch trials), the resident ghost today seems to have the philanthropic and busy spirit of Miss Emmerton. Emmerton replaced the remaining gables, turned the back room of the house into a sweet-shop like the one in Hawthorne’s novel, and used the profits from tours to educate local Polish immigrant children. The Settlement Association still works within the Dominican community to help immigrants today.

With the assistance of the architect Joseph Everett Chandler, who was known for his controversial restorations, Miss Emmerton hammed up the house’s Gothic credentials by restoring the staircase embedded in the house’s chimney as a ‘secret’ one, complete with false paneling and a concealed lever to open the secret door. This staircase was designed as a literal representation of how the novel’s character, Clifford Pyncheon, moved from room to room without being seen. Thus the house’s Gothic elements were, within less than a century of Hawthorne’s death, no longer fearful evidence of the house’s bad karma, but of great literary worth.

As we finish up the tour, I wonder whether this strange house – like so many other mansions before it – has been fixed in this perfected, seemingly final state, nevermore to evolve. As a national tourist site, it would seem so.

However, Horton gives us a more nuanced impression.  In the famous accounting room, typically closed in October due to the heavy flow of tourists, he shows us a map – a battered, old looking artifact that seems to fit perfectly into the room’s furnishings next to an authentic wooden chair.  But we soon learn that the map was created by a museum employee, who baked it in his oven to create its time-worn, weathered look. Horton’s advice says a lot about both the house and our view of history: “You have to be careful when you come to museums”, he warns, “things aren’t always what they seem.”

Independence Day, Then and Now: How to Party like it’s 1776

July 3, 2012 in American History, History, Independence Day, Massachusetts, Massachusetts Travel, New Orleans, Philadelphia Travel

On the eve of the first Independence Day, John Adams wrote in a letter to his wife, Abigail:

“I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival… It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

The following day, July 4th 1776, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence and, while it did not become a federal holiday until 1941, the 4th of July has been celebrated consistently for over two hundred years with “pomp and parade” that would do our second president proud.  Looking to partake in the festivities?  If you are not afraid of enthusiastic crowds and a little holiday traffic, there are quite a few large scale celebrations happening “from sea to shining sea.”

In 1776, the earliest celebrations took the form of public readings of the Declaration of Independence.  The first took place on July 8th 1776 in Philadelphia and copies of the document were also sent on horseback to the remaining states, where public readings occurred in each as they were received.  Many cities, including Philadelphia, will present reenactments of these public readings in homage.  If you are in the Philadelphia area on July 8th, commemorate the anniversary and lend an ear alongside park rangers in period costumes who will be handing out free copies of the illustrious document.

History buffs will especially enjoy celebrating Independence Day in Philadelphia, the birthplace of the United States, where America’s forefathers originally put their John Hancock to the document, birthing the nation and the idiom.  Philadelphia is also where the spirited celebration of the 4th of July began to resemble the festivities we know today.  In 1777,  the one year anniversary of the Declaration of Independence was marked with the first organized and extensively planned celebrations of the day, which included the first authorized fireworks display, setting the stage for future generations.  236 years later, fireworks will once again illuminate the sky during Philadelphia’s annual Wawa Welcome America Festival, which also includes concerts and a parade, as well as many other family friendly activities.

Also a popular choice for 4th of July revelry and, not-so-coincidentally, another hotbed of Revolutionary history, is Boston. The first town to designate the 4th of July a holiday in 1783, it remains one of the premier destinations for Independence Day celebration, so well known in fact that the website for the festivities is July4th.org.  The annual fireworks display over the Charles River features a performance from the renowned Boston Pops Orchestra.  Coinciding with the 4th of July events is OpSail, which will bring the Tall Ships back to Boston in celebration of the USS Constitution, which is berthed in Charlestown.  Take a tour of the vessels and watch as the USS Constitution makes its annual turnaround from the Charlestown Navy Yard through Boston Harbor. While a much loved Boston institution, this is done for more than show.  In order for the ship to maintain active in the US Navy, law requires the ship to travel one nautical mile per year.  This annual tradition maintains Old Ironsides’ title as the oldest active warship in the Navy.

Those on the west coast, fear not, celebrations will be happening across the country.  If you are in the vicinity, head to San Diego for a pyrotechnic display proclaimed “the greatest fireworks show in the west.”  With five barge locations, the 12th annual “Big Bay Boom” will be bigger than ever. With 500,000 revelers in attendance last year, that is saying something.

Looking to celebrate down south? New Orleans has always known how to throw a party, and with 2012 commemorating the bicentennial of Louisiana’s statehood, the celebration will be doubly enthusiastic.  NOLA’s festive “Go 4th on the River” celebration will feature a fireworks display from dueling barges over the Mississippi River.  For the whole experience, watch from a riverboat such as the Creole Queen, which offers evening cruises that boast prime viewing locations for the fireworks show.

So next week, before you light the BBQ and crane your neck upwards at a beautiful pyrotechnic display, crack open a Sam Adams lager and toast to its namesake and the rest of our founding fathers.  Happy 236th Birthday America!

Boston Has Fewer Bookstores Than Columbus, Ohio

July 13, 2011 in Harvard Square, Massachusetts

Pangloss and Schoenhof's bookstores, January 1983. Image courtesy of HarvardSquare.com

In the past few months, two bookstores in my neighborhood have closed their doors. This might not be a surprise, considering the dire state of brick-and-motor stores around the country, but I happen to live in one of the most academic regions in the United States, where reading is second only to breathing. Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a historical hotbed of the bookstores, should be a natural habitat of the printed word. Unfortunately, it seems that even here, there is no sanctuary from competing online retailers.

This wasn’t always the case. Back in the 1950’s, Harvard Square was home to over 20 different independent booksellers that specialized in everything from obscure poetry to children’s books. Now, independently owned shops like the Harvard Bookstore, Raven Bookstore, Schoenhof’s Foreign Books, and Grolier Poetry Book Shop are far and few between. And while you can buy almost anything at the Harvard Coop, it is owned by Barnes & Noble (the antithesis of a cooperative), thus making it a disappointing substitute for the Square’s former tenants.

According to The Boston Globe, the most recent closures are the direct result of the economy and the increased digitalization, which has hit publishing even harder than most industries. The Globe Corner Bookstore, which specialized in travel books and narratives, will now be operated solely online, and the Curious George & Friends bookshop (the only one of its kind in the world) has also been forced to shut down to the dismay of its many fans.  And as Brian McGrory wrote in the article, Vanishing ink in Hub’s core, the damage is not limited to the Cambridge side of the Charles River; the closure of the Borders location at Downtown Crossing highlights this “stunning fact:”

After Borders is gone, it will leave Boston, the literary capital of the United States, with exactly one major bookstore within the city limits. That store is the Barnes & Noble in the Prudential Center, and who knows how long it will be around.To put this in perspective, Columbus, Ohio, has more major bookstores than Boston — many more. So do San Diego and San Jose and just about any other city you can name. It wasn’t that long ago when the Harvard Bookstore stood on Newbury Street across from the massive Waterstone’s, not far from the Brentano’s in the Copley Mall.

While the closures have been met with sadness, it seems like there’s nothing to do about the dearth of bookstores in the area. Hillel J. Stavis and Donna T. Friedman, co-owners of the Curious George bookshop, have plead repeatedly for funds to keep their business going, but no one stepped forward. “From the perspective of a viable business, a Cambridge landmark and as a viable non-profit, we hope that an angel contributor will step forward,” Stavis said at a City Council meeting earlier this year.

As a Cambridge resident, I share the disappointment of many locals who consider bookstores a valuable part of our cultural and physical landscape. Instead of mourning the loss of two great establishments, however, I’ve decided to view this as a reminder. Retailers like Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble have their uses—there is no better place to buy up-to-date text books or trashy and disposable paperbacks—but it’s important to support local business. Instead of spending my money online, I’m going to make a concerted effort to visit the few shops we have left in the flesh, starting with the Harvard Square Bookshop. 

After all, this can be a very effective way to change the course of events—and recent trends shows that it does work. Earlier this year, Rodney’s Bookstore, located in Central Square, announced their going out of business sale. Prices were slashed 50% on all stock, and the entire area mourned the loss of a landmark business. Every time I walked by on my way to the train, I felt an uneasy mix of sadness and greedy excitement at the thought of all those half-priced hardcovers. However, when the fateful day finally came, Rodney’s announced that, thanks to their many fans, they were able to raise enough funds to stay in business. Now I feel a certain satisfaction when I walk by the quirky shop. Maybe my purchases, driven by my desire for discounted books, helped save Rodney’s. At least, that’s what I like to think.

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