Introduction

customs house
Geoff Rand

Nathaniel Hawthorne, a native of Salem, spent the years 1846 - 1849 running its Custom-House, and ruminating on his ties to the city - his thoughts became the preface to The Scarlet Letter. The moment neatly illustrates primary currents of Salem's development that are still felt today.

First is the witches. Hawthorne's great-great-grandfather was a judge in the infamous trials of 1692, and the legacy of his ancestors weighed on Hawthorne. He wrote "I. . . hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse incurred by them. . . may be now and henceforth removed." Little shame (and perhaps some form of curse?) is evidenced in the relentless exploitation of a 17th century hysteria by today's "witch city."

Second is trade. Hawthorne's ancestors were merchants and mariners; his father died at sea. For a brief period in the early years of the Republic, Salem rivaled Boston for pre-eminence in trade with the East. The piled-up wealth built handsome neighborhoods, and later factories.

Finally, Hawthorne looks at Salem's past with an informed nostalgia. The Derby Wharf he sees "is now burdened with decayed wooden warehouses and exhibits few or no symptoms of commercial life. . ." The book he is writing exhumes Puritan culture. {NH/SL}

In contemporary Salem, the witches may be wiccans or pagans, and the trade is in tourism, but the city is still pretty good at informed nostalgia.

more on Salem. . .