Chapter 9




The quaint old Custom-house on Derby Street, looking down on Derby wharf, is the link connecting the commercial with the literary history of Salem. Here for three long years Hawthorne sat and dreamed and wrote, seeing in its officers and habitués prototypes of his most distinctive characters, and finally discovering in its rubbish room the suggestions for his most famous romance.

The building is a large, two-storied brick structure, surmounted by a cupola and eagle, not old dating only from 1819 but with an air of age. Entering the hail by a broad flight of several steps, on your right is a bulletin board filled with nautical notices, and on the left and right, further on, two doors, the first opening into the Deputy Collector’s room, the second into the office where the customs business is transacted. One regards its railed periphery with more interest when one reflects that over eleven millions of dollars have passed over it into Uncle Sam’s coffers, together with the clearances and invoices of some ten thousand vessels. We found the Custom-house attaches pleasant,


 In Olde Massachusetts

and disposed to facilitate our seeing everything of interest in the building. A gentleman in blue led us across the hail and into the room of the Deputy Collector, which, from 1846 to 1849, had been occupied by the great romancer. That officer kindly showed us the place where Hawthorne’s desk and armchair had stood, and the stencil-plate with which he put his name on packages; then, opening his desk, he took out for our inspection a package of yellow documents, manifests, orders, and the like, with the author’s autograph in red ink upon them. No other relics remain. The Custom-house was refurnished in 1873, and Hawthorne’s desk was then removed to the Essex Institute, where it is still preserved. From this room our guide led us up-stairs and through the Collector’s parlors to a little ante-chamber, which he said in Hawthorne’s day was used for storing old papers and rubbish. It was in this room the weird genius tells his readers that he found the manuscript of the "Scarlet Letter." Our guide was very skeptical on this point. "I don’t believe he did," said he; "I think he made it all up himself." But we forbore expressing an opinion. A little later we climbed alone to the cupola. It is a small room under the gilded eagle, commanding a charming view of Salem, the shipping, and the sea beyond. Hither the author loved to climb and coin the airy fancies that later found expression in the "Scarlet Letter" and the "House of the Seven Gables."



Another View of Salem

There are many well-preserved old men in the town who remember Hawthorne as Surveyor of the Port. One a portly, comfortable-looking old gentleman, who, when the author was filling his sinecure position in the Custom-house, was fitting with rigging and sails the numerous craft turned out of Salem ship-yards now rich and retired, had nothing better to do than to accompany me up the street and point out two ancient buildings quite intimately connected with our author’s history. "The Hawthornes are an old family in Salem," he remarked, as we began our walk, "and well thought of. Major William Hawthorne, who came with Governor Winthrop in the Arabella, founded the stock, and there have been notable and thrifty men among them ever since. This is No. 21 Union Street, a quaint old structure, with huge chimney and dormer roof, as you see. Well, in the upper northeast corner room, there, Nathaniel Hawthorne was born. It was an auspicious day July 4, 1804. There he lived until 1808, when his father died, and he, with his mother, went to live with his maternal grandfather, Richard Manning, on Herbert Street. It was not a far remove, for, as you see, the back yards of the two houses join each other. Most of his early years in Salem were spent in the latter. When he came back here from Concord in 1840 he went to live in his father’s house on Union Street, where much of his literary work of that period was done. You may



In Olde Massachusetts

remember an allusion of his to this old house I think in one of his Note-books: ‘Here I sit,’ he wrote, ‘in my old accustomed chamber where I used to sit in days gone by. Here I have written many tales. If ever I have a biographer, he ought to make mention of this chamber, in my memoirs, because here my mind and character were formed, and here I sat a long, long time waiting patiently for the world to know me, and sometimes wondering why it did not know me sooner, or whether it would ever know me at all at least until I was in my grave."

There are other houses in town of interest from their association with great men. William H. Prescott was born in 1796, in a house that stood on the present site of Plummer Hall. The old mansion in which Mr. Joshua Ward entertained President Washington on his visit to Salem in 1789 was pointed out on Washington Street. The birthplace of Timothy Pickering was an old mansion on Broad Street, and that of Nathaniel Bowditch on Brown Street. Story and Rogers, the sculptors, were also natives here.