On Road Trips: Salem Massachusetts and Nathaniel Hawthorne

I’ve mentioned previously how I’ve always wanted to live in Boston. One reason why, apart from the great independent bookstores and cool publishing houses, beautiful architecture, and four distinct seasons, was the seriously great road-tripping opportunities. From beaches to mountains, big cities to quaint towns, New England has it all, so when we finally arrived here my road trip to-do list was about a mile long. (Heh, pun.)

Pretty high on that list—both for reasons of ease and awesomeness—was Salem, Massachusetts, and yes, though The Onion may hilariously mock me for it, I wanted to go in the fall.  I did not, however, want to fend off the flocks of witch-craft enthusiasts, history buffs, and costumed children that head up there every October, as my interests are less Halloween-y and more literary. Specifically, I wanted to check out all things Nathaniel Hawthorne-related.

Salem Custom House

Hawthorne was born and raised in Salem, and his influence is felt everywhere throughout the town (and not just because everything’s named Hawthorne.) He wrote much of The Scarlet Letter from the town’s Custom House, in fact, the building plays a famous role in the opening . He was haunted by his family’s role in the town’s witch trials; his ancestor John Hathorne was the only judge who did not repent for his part in them. And of course, The House of Seven Gables was inspired by… well… a house with seven gables, which still stands in Salem.

The House of Seven Gables

Now, I know that a lot of people can’t stand Hawthorne, mostly because they read The Scarlet Letter in high school and had to sit through weeks of torturous discussions about symbolism. I’ll admit that, while I didn’t hate it, I wasn’t super thrilled with the book the first time I read it either—though in my way of associating with female characters of the demonic variety, I thought Pearl was pretty kickass. I gave him another try a year ago, reading The House of Seven Gables when my need for all things seasonal required a New England Gothic and I had already read my fill of Melville. I’m here to tell you, kids, that I was pleasantly surprised! While, yeah, though book is still rife with symbolism, what I hadn’t noticed in high school, probably because I was scanning the book for all the mentions of red or something, was that Hawthorne is not only super creepy, he’s also very compassionate and incredibly decent. His sympathy for Hester Prynne and Clifford Pyncheon illustrate his obsession with exorcising the viciousness of his ancestors. This year, I’m looking forward to reading The Marble Faun.

Marble Faun

So, literary hero hunting aside, M and I love to try out new pubs and cafes when we travel, but my recent departure from my day job to pursue publishing has made trying every local dish a little unwise. To save some cash, I pack us a picnic. Well fed, we can make a couple stops for drinks around town without breaking the bank.  For our trip to Salem I came up with some hearty sandwiches, in this case a toasted baguette slathered with fig jam, then stuffed full with prosciutto, blue cheese and arugula. We ate them in Salem Common with crisp apples and salty roasted pumpkin seeds. Not bad, right?

Fig, Proscuitto and Blue Cheese Sandwich

By saving a little on lunch we were able to pick up a few things from Derby Square Bookstore, an insane place that is quite literally stacked floor to ceiling with books of all kinds. We also stopped by In A Pigs Eye for a couple pints of Guinness and some terrific local blues.

Derby Books and In A Pigs Eye

All in all a pretty great first road trip. Next up? Rums in Gloucester!

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