From Margaret B. Moore’s The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
University of Missouri Press, pp. 20-22.
One of the more pertinent storytellers for our purposes is that one in "Main-Street."
Here is oral tradition in action, albeit aided by cardboard cutouts and changing
light. The teller is going to relate what he knows about the history of Salem
by using the main street of the town as a unifying theme. As with all such transmission
of stories, the hearer must accept what the teller gives him, and must then use
his own imagination. In oral history there are always two participants: the teller
and the listener. Each has his role to play. If either fails, the storytelling
does not work. And there is the further part that luck or machinery or light or
shadow can play, which is often not under anyone's control, except, of course,
the writer's. Even if the other two presences do their work well, the event of
oral interpretation can fail. In the case of "Main-Street," the wire
breaks and the whole story cannot be told.
Yet the tale incorporates elements of oral tradition. The showman keeps using
the word "specter," a highly charged word for Salemites. The Indian
woman is represented by a "spectral image" (CE 11:51). When the main
body of Puritans come to Massachusetts, the teller says, "You shall behold
their life-like images,--their spectres, if you choose so to call them" (CE
11:60). Governor Winthrop is shown as "our spectral representative"
(CE 11:61). The showman wants to display "the ghosts of his forefathers"
(CE 11:49). He hides the show behind a "mysterious curtain" (CE 11:49).
The past and present curiously intermingle. Wappacowet would have been surprised
to see the East India Marine Society building on the very spot where the white
man would be surprised to see the Indians dancing and shrieking in the woods (CE
11:51). In "The Village Uncle," Hawthorne has his narrator say, "How
strangely the past is peeping over the shoulders of the present" (CE 9:311).
And so it is here. To him that can see, time is many-layered too. There was someone
here before. Unless we see them and see what they did, we shall be like the Puritan
children who have become Americans (unlike their parents who were English), whose
limitation is that "nothing impresses them except their own experience"
This is chimney-corner history told by someone who is very aware of the impact
of the advent of the Quakers; or of the witchcraft summer; or of the severity
of the Puritan faith, which did not travel well in time; or of the pathos of the
Indian whom" Anglo-'Saxon energy" had displaced to the periphery of
the settlers' lives. The narrator is not only knowledgeable but also may have
a vested interest in these stories. Any Salemite, perhaps, would. Certainly someone
like Hawthorne would. His original ancestor had fought the Indian; he had persecuted
the Quaker; his son John had judged the witches. John Hathorne had actually died
in 1717, the year of the great snow. In his sketch "Sir William Phips,"
Hawthorne had lamented that "mew of the personages of past times (except
such as have gained renown in fire-side legends as well as in written history)
are anything more than mere names to their successors. They seldom stand up in
our imaginations like men" (CE 23:59). Hawthorne does indeed have what Caleb
Foote acknowledged in his review of The Scarlet Letter: "a peculiar power
of calling up from the past not only the personages and incidents" of history
but of evoking "their spirit" as well. 22 That is the task of the storyteller.
The task of the audience is not to sit too close, or the spell is broken.
22. [C. Foote], review of “Maine Street,” Salem Gazette, May 18, 1849.
Source: Moore, Margaret B. The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Columbia:
U of Missouri P, 1998.