Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64) has long been recognized as one of the greatest of American writers, a moralist and allegorist much preoccupied with the mystery of sin, the paradox of its occasionally regenerative power, and the compensation for unmerited suffering and crime. His most famous works are The Scarlet Letter, a classic inquiry into the nature of American Puritanism and the New England conscience, and The House of the Seven Gables, a study in ancestral guilt and expiation, also deeply rooted in New England and his own lurid family history. His work invariably appears on reading lists at schools and universities in the United States and for many his is the quintessential American literary voice of the 19th century: “the best of it was that the thing was absolutely American” – said Henry James of Hawthorne’s writing – “it came out of the very heart of New England”. What is perhaps less well known about Hawthorne is that he had an abiding interest in the supernatural and some of his finest works were his ghost stories. Hawthorne, it was said, was haunted by a paranormal presence throughout his life (although its identity, as we shall see, remains something of a mystery). Not only that, the ‘Hawthorne ghost’, some say, is still around to this day, lurking in the vicinity of the original ‘House of the Seven Gables’ in Hawthorne’s birthplace in Massachusetts.
That the supernatural played a major role in Hawthorne’s life should perhaps not be such a surprise when one factors in that he was born in Salem, Massachusetts, also known as ‘Witch City, USA’ these days. He was a descendant of Major William Hathorne, one of the Puritan settlers in America, the ‘grave, bearded, sable-cloaked and steeple-crowned progenitor’ whose portrait is drawn in the introductory chapter of The Scarlet Letter. While this ancestor of Hawthorne was remembered for his persecution of the Quakers, another, John Hathorne, was equally notorious for his persecution of the so-called Witches of Salem. It is perhaps for this reason that Hawthorne adopted a different spelling of the family name, to distinguish himself from his infamous New England forebears. Nathaniel himself spent a solitary childhood with his mother, a widowed recluse, during which he read widely. Although he was initially slow to earn his living as a writer, he eventually gained widespread recognition – Herman Melville once compared him to Shakespeare and his other acquaintances and admirers included Abraham Lincoln, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and D H Lawrence. While Hawthorne is primarily remembered today for his dark romances, he also wrote a considerable body of Gothic fiction, including Alice Doane’s Appeal and Graves and Goblins.
Perhaps Hawthorne’s most famous ghost story, however, is The Ghost of Dr Harris (click to read!), which was inspired by ‘true’ events. When Hawthorne was a bachelor (probably in the 1830s), he used to spend a significant amount of his free time reading at the Athenaeum, Dorchester. Among the many men he frequently saw there, he took particular note of one Reverend Dr Harris, the Unitarian minister of Dorchester’s First Parish Church. Doctor Harris would spend his time in the Athenaeum’s reading room with the Boston Post, the local Democrat newspaper. He and Hawthorne never spoke, and were never formally introduced. One day, a friend of Hawthorne’s remarked that Dr. Harris had passed away. But when Hawthorne went to the Athenaeum that day, he saw Dr. Harris still sitting in his customary seat, reading the newspaper (which probably contained his obituary notice)! Hawthorne was the only person in the room who seemed to see Dr. Harris and he continued to see him every day, reading the newspaper, for the space of several weeks. Towards the end of this period, he noticed the ghost began to watch him expectantly, as if he had a message for him from beyond the grave. Interestingly, although Hawthorne did not accept this implicit invitation to speak to the ghost, he was inspired to write about the experience.
Even more intriguingly Dr Harris’s ‘ghost’ is not the only one to be associated with Hawthorne. The birth home of the great writer, Turner-Ingersoll Mansion, located at 54 Turner Street, Salem (also known as the real life ‘House of the Seven Gables’) is rumoured to be haunted by at least one, perhaps two supernatural presences. For years, supposedly ‘paranormal’ happenings have been recorded there – photographs of apparitions, ghostly voices, rumblings, knockings and so on. It is believed that the ‘ghost’ in question is either Hawthorne or his son Julian. This is because the most commonly reported supernatural sighting at Turner Street is said to be a little boy dressed in 19th century garb. The trouble is that neither Hawthorne nor his son died as children, indeed they both lived fairly long lives by the standards of those times, so why would their ‘ghosts’ appear as children? One theory put forward is that Hawthorne’s father died at sea when he was just four years old, no doubt traumatizing the young boy and thereby perhaps explaining why a ghost or memory of him remains in his ancestral home to this day. Whilst this is an intriguing theory, it is difficult to prove because no pictures of the young Hawthorne exist (although there are pictures of Julian, which is what has given rise to the alternate theory that it is his ghost rather than his father’s that haunts the mansion). We may never know the truth – unless of course there are further clues in the great man’s writing, waiting to be unearthed.