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Hawthorne’s Virtual Salem

By Melanie Abrams | HUMANITIES, July/August 2004 | Volume 25, Number 4

"It may be . . . that the great-grandchildren of the present race may sometimes think kindly of the scribbler of bygone days," writes Nathaniel Hawthorne at the end of "The Custom House Sketch." Two hundred years after Hawthorne's birth, audiences now have a twenty-first century tool to explore the world of the "scribbler" from New England.

The Hawthorne in Salem website has been developed to help teach high school and college students about Hawthorne. Project director Terri Whitney says an important benefit of the site is that it can "provide a window into the literature for students who sometimes find the nineteenth-century prose daunting."

"What comes across is how utterly normal Hawthorne was," says David Donavel, chair of the English department at Masconomet High School in Topfield, Massachusetts, and a contributor to the website. "He sat at a desk, had a garden, worried about money, married a real woman, drank brandy with Melville, in short did all the very regular human stuff that we all do. The 'great artist,' it turns out, is a regular guy, in most ways. He didn't spend every moment atop a windswept Byronic mountain having inscrutable thoughts. He was just like you and me."

The site is a library of information on Hawthorne's life, work, and the world that surrounded him--a world of puritan ancestors, independent women, and personal isolation in Salem, Massachusetts. The site offers what could once only be found within Hawthorne's hometown: the buildings and artifacts of Salem's past. Now it's possible to call up on a computer screen a nineteenth-century sketch of the childhood house Hawthorne christened "Castle Dismal," and then with another click of the mouse, see how it looks today. For a panoramic view of The House of the Seven Gables, the user drags the mouse across a photograph and watches as the seventeenth-century house, garden, and back cottage sweep across the screen. For those interested in learning about the Custom House there is a video virtual tour, with the chief of visitors services as a guide. The video shows where Hawthorne worked as a surveyor before he penned his descriptive sketch of the building and its inhabitants in the first chapter of The Scarlet Letter. It is in the Custom House that the author tells his audience how he came across a peculiar embroidered letter and the story of Hester Prynne.

"Every inch of Salem figures in his sketches and novels," says Rita Gollin, Hawthorne scholar and editor of a new edition of The Scarlet Letter. Whitney did not originally think of Hawthorne in Salem when she was conceptualizing a teaching project using the Web. "Oddly, my first thought went to historical subjects such as the witch trials," says Whitney. "But it was a short leap to realize that the subject in literature was Hawthorne, since three museums in Salem have important Hawthorne collections." With a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, North Shore Community College collaborated with three museums--the Peabody Essex Museum, The House of the Seven Gables Historic Site, and the Salem Maritime National Historic Site--to build a website geared towards teaching college and high school students about Hawthorne's world. Whitney teaches in the English Department at the community college.

"The New England in which Hawthorne lived is small, and Hawthorne's stories and novels reflect this," explains Donavel. "There's a tight physical space you can feel." Still, many young students do not understand this from the text. "They're visual learners," Donavel continues. "The website can help this feeling come alive."

To get a sense of this physical space, students can click on the Buildings and Houses link to see structures such as the Custom House. Photographs and sketches put pictures to what the students have read. A video highlights aspects of Federal architecture. Video tours of Hawthorne's houses allow a closer look into his world, while interactive maps of Salem, both in Hawthorne's time as well as today, give students a more comprehensive understanding of the town.

Hawthorne's work often deals with moral and spiritual conflicts of New Englanders. His story "Young Goodman Brown" explores the Salem witchcraft frenzy, an episode he felt a personal involvement with. His paternal ancestor Major William Hathorne was known for his persecution of Quakers, and Hawthorne's great-grandfather, John Hathorne, was a magistrate of the court and an interrogator of the accused Salem witches. Transcripts of the witch trials are available on the site; as is a view of Gallows Hill, where the condemned witches were hanged, and photographs of their gravestones. Hawthorne felt an uncomfortable connection to his past in Salem, and went so far as to add the "w" to his name to distance himself from his Hathorne ancestors.

Hawthorne was raised by his mother and surrounded by sisters, and his sympathy for women is seen throughout his work. Characters such as Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter and Zenobia from The Blithedale Romance are complex heroines. His writing often explored the expectations for women in society. He describes the character Phoebe Pyncheon in The House of the Seven Gables as a "true woman" for her ability to nurture and transform the lives of men in the novel. The sections on the website on The House of the Seven Gables and "Lady Eleanor's Mantle" give a sense of what daily life would have been like for Hawthorne's female protagonists. Photographs of the Seven Gables' dark, archaic kitchen reinforce the drudgery of daily life, while photographs of a lady's dressing table, complete with brushes, mirrors, powders, and other necessities, show the beauty rituals of the time.

There are several sketches and paintings depicting Hawthorne's most famous protagonist, The Scarlet Letter's Hester Prynne. An 1881 painting by George Henry Boughton shows Hester, as the website describes, standing "patiently, her bag of needlework in hand, her eyes and composed features testifying to the inner strength which has sustained her." There are photographs of Lillian Gish as Hester in the 1926 film version of the novel and illustrations from several different editions.

With images, videos, documents, and interactive elements, the site becomes a virtual hands-on museum, enabling viewers to discover, excavate, and explore primary sources essential to understanding Hawthorne's work. "This seems especially important for computer-literate young people," says Rita Gollin. "They're able to browse like we used to browse on a library shelf."

Other areas of the site that are particularly helpful to teachers and students are the Scholars' Forum and Explore Section. The Scholars' Forum provides papers, articles, and lectures, most of which are not available elsewhere, while the Explore Section includes student activities and assignments geared towards interpreting and analyzing the site's materials.

These sections continue to grow, as does the rest of the site. "A woman called out of the blue saying she lived in Robert Manning's house," Whitney recalls. Manning was Hawthorne's uncle on his mother's side, who lived in Salem and was important to Hawthorne's childhood. "We now have a video of her giving a virtual tour of her home." North Shore Community College maintains funding for the website, paying for programming and allowing Whitney course-release time. Plans for the site include adding virtual walks through Salem and archiving materials for easier searching.

The website has become a gathering place for Hawthorne news and events--publicizing online literature courses and museum happenings, offering Hawthorne memorabilia, and giving recommendations for Hawthorne biographies. The National Hawthorne Society of Japan links to the site, as does London's Kensal Green Cemetery, where Hawthorne's wife and daughter are buried.

For Hawthorne's two hundredth birthday on July 4, a computer station featuring the website will be installed at The House of the Seven Gables and the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Visitors will be directed to resources that offer background information about the buildings. The website provides details about the birthday celebration in Salem, which includes a weekend conference, symposium, book signings, and a Hawthorne birthday party on lawn of The House of the Seven Gables.

The week before, Whitney and Donavel will give a talk in Concorde on how to use the website to teach high school and college students.

"We thought it was important for students to read Hawthorne in the context of Salem's history and also Salem in Hawthorne's time because the people, events, and places are central to much of his work. By understanding the context, one can better understand Hawthorne," Whitney says.

About the Author

Melanie Abrams is a writer in Washington, D.C.

Funding Information

The North Shore Community College in Danvers, Massachusetts, received $247,600 from NEH to create the Hawthorne in Salem website.