Hawthorne's Early Travels from James R. Mellow's Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times.
Excerpt from Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times by James R. Mellow (courtesy
of Houghton Mifflin Co., 1980)
On Hawthorne's early travels
"Once a year, or thereabouts," Hawthorne boasted to a friend, with uncharacteristic immodesty, "I used to make an excursion of a few weeks, in which I enjoyed as much of life as other people do in the whole year's round." Early in his career, Hawthorne had discovered that the summer was an unfavorable time for writing. He found it difficult to concentrate. His creative instincts, it seemed, needed a touch of frost before they revived. He once confessed that it was only when the autumn leaves began to color that he could bear to settle down to his desk. In the summers, he traveled.
At first, these summer excursions were family affairs. Most often he accompanied his Uncle Samuel on trips that seemed part business and partly a matter of health. Like his brothers, Samuel Manning suffered from an advancing tubercular condition for which travel was considered a restorative. . . .
In his family letters and later, in a series of notebooks, Hawthorne recorded the experiences of his summer travels. In time, the detailed observations of his notebooks were to be used as source material for incidents and characters in his stories. It was clear that his summer excursions were intended to furnish him with materials for his writing. Even his family letters adopted the detailed and droll manner of the literary observer. "We did not leave New Haven till last Saturday. . . " he wrote Louisa on the return trip to Salem with his Uncle Samuel, "and we were forced to halt for the night at Cheshire, a village about fifteen miles from New Haven. The next day being Sunday we made a Sabbath day's journey of seventeen miles and put up at Farmington. As we were wearied with rapid travelling, we found it impossible to attend divine service, which was (of course) very grievous to us both." He added slyly, "In the evening, however, I went to a Bible class with a very polite and agreeable gentleman, whom I afterward discovered to be a strolling tailor of very questionable habits."
Much of Hawthorne's pleasure during these summer jaunts came from his observations of odd village types, of gentlemen of "questionable habits," most of whom were to be encountered at the local taverns. It was obvious that Uncle Samuel enjoyed the congeniality of a saloon--and Hawthorne was seldom loath to join him. He would not "marvel much," Hawthorne informed his sister, "if your Uncle Sam pushes on to Canada, unless we should meet with two or three bad taverns in succession."
But it was also the freedom of the road, the release from familial constraints, that Hawthorne enjoyed. Strangers in small towns, during this period, were certain to attract attention, and Hawthorne, with his handsome looks, his air of amusement and amiability,
appears to have attracted more than the usual curiosity.
A young man in new circumstances, it seemed, acquired all sorts of strange identities:
I meet with many marvelous adventures [he wrote Louisa]. At New Haven, I observed a gentleman staring at me with great earnest- ness, after which he went into the bar-room, I suppose to inquire who I might be. Finally ,he came up to me and said that as I bore a striking resemblance to a family of Stanburys, he was induced to inquire if I was connected with them. I was sorry to be obliged to answer in the negative. At another place they took me for a lawyer in search of a place to settle, and strongly recommended their own village. Moreover, I heard some of the students at Yale College conjecturing that I was an Englishman, and to-day, as I was standing without my coat at the door of a tavern, a man came up to me, and asked me for some oats for his horse.
Not all of his summer excursions can be determined from surviving letters. A few, like a month's sojourn at Martha's Vineyard, possibly in the summer of 1830, or a brief stay in Swampscott in 1833, can be inferred from later sketches and stories, such as "Chippings with a Chisel" and "The Village Uncle," and from the recollections of his sister Elizabeth. A journey through New Hampshire with his Uncle Samuel in August 1831 is confirmed by a letter. Occasionally, it appears, Hawthorne found it difficult to pry his uncle loose from the hospitality of the road. "One of your Uncle Sam's old acquaintances keeps the tavern at Concord," Hawthorne wrote Louisa, "so that it was like the separation of soul and body to get him away ."
At Canterbury, New Hampshire, where there was a prosperous settlement of
Shakers, Hawthorne developed a distinct interest in the Shaker way of life
and its literary possibilities. This visit was to result in two notable early
stories, "The Shaker Bridal" and "The Canterbury Pilgrims." Observing some
of the Shaker rites, he formed a favorable opinion of the thirty or forty
Shaker women, some of whom he pronounced "quite pretty." The Shaker costume,
however--light dresses, with muslin kerchiefs crossed over the women's breasts,
stiff muslin caps--made them look "pretty much as if they had just stept out
of their coffins." His view of the Shaker men was caustic; there was nothing
remarkable about them "except their stupidity, and it did look queer to see
these great boobies cutting all sorts of ridiculous capers with the gravest
countenances imaginable." Still, he conceded, the Shakers had "a good and
comfortable life, and if it were not for their ridiculous ceremonies, a man
might not do a wiser thing than join them." Perhaps it was the influence of
a tumblerful of superb cider -- ''as much as a common head could cleverly
carry"-- that encouraged such thoughts. "I spoke to them about becoming a
member of the Society ," Hawthorne advised Louisa, "but have come to no decision
on that point." For some months afterward, he was apt to tease his sisters
with his intention of adopting the celibate life of the Shaker community.
In the summer of 1832, Hawthorne planned an extensive trip to northern New York and on into Canada. An outbreak of cholera in Canada, though, made him defer his plans. In June, he wrote to his friend Franklin Pierce, in New Hampshire, expressing his disap- pointment. "I was making preparations for a northern tour," he wrote, "when this accursed Cholera broke out in Canada. It was my intention to go by way of New York and Albany to Niagara, from thence to Montreal and Quebec. . . " With a touch of irony, he added, "I am very desirous of making this journey, on account of a book by which I intend to acquire an (undoubtedly) immense literary reputation." (48-50)