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The Martyr's Path

"Travels Along the Erie Canal" From James R. Mellow’s Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times.

[p. 53]

Traveling south, below Utica he embarked on a dirty canal barge that would take him westward along the Erie Canal, the great man-made waterway that had been promoted by De Witt Clinton and officially opened only seven years before. Hawthorne touted Clinton as an "enchanter" who had "waved his magic wand from the Hudson to Lake Erie, and united them by a watery highway ." Towns had sprung up, cities of brick and stone with churches and theaters, luxuries and refinements, where there had been nothing before. There were "gay dames and polished citizens" where once there had been only remote cabins and backwoods men. In his travels, Hawthorne was sensitive to the incursions of the future; he imagined a time when " the wondrous stream may flow between two continuous lines of buildings, through one thronged street, from Buffalo to Albany."

Still, there were, along the route, remote stretches of dense forests with here and there a rude cabin beside fields of blackened tree stumps. From one of these, a woman, sallow-faced, stared wearily out of her window, looking "like Poverty personified, half clothed, half fed, and dwelling in a desert, while a tide of wealth was sweeping by her door." As the three dray horses plodded along the tow-path, Hawthorne, seated on deck, enjoyed the varied traffic along the waterway: double-ended barges carrying salt and flour eastward to Albany; three glum Indians, in a poorly constructed boat, staring fixedly and silently at the passing canal boat. "Perhaps," Hawthorne mused, "these three alone, among the ancient possessors of the land, had attempted to derive benefit from the white man's mighty projects, and float along the current of his enterprise." (p. 53)

[p. 55]

One night -- traveling the "long level," the seventy miles between Utica and Syracuse--Hawthorne witnessed an eerie scene. They were passing through what had been an immense swamp, now drained into the canal. What remained were pools of stagnant water and the bleached, ashen trunks of dead and decaying trees. "In spots where destruction had been riotous," Hawthorne noted, "the lanterns showed perhaps a hundred trunks, erect, half overthrown, ex- tended along the ground, resting on their shattered limbs or tossing them desperately into darkness." The scene was "ghostlike--the very land of unsubstantial things, whither dreams might betake themselves, when they quit the slumberer's brain." It was an image of future ruin. The wild nature of America, Hawthorne claimed, "had been driven to this desert place by the encroachments of civilized man." In the older societies of Europe, he suggested, "decay sits among fallen palaces; but here, her home is in the forests." (p. 55)

Source: James R. Mellow. Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston. 1980. Excerpts from pages 53 and 55. Used with the author’s permission.

Page citation: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/11898/

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