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Indians in "Main Street" Introductory Page

Indians in "Main-Street" by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Materials prepared by:

Cathy Eaton, Department of English
New Hampshire Technical Institute, Concord, NH

Joseph R. Modugno, Department of English
North Shore Community College, Danvers, MA

The Squaw Sachem Sells Her Land to John Winthrop
The Squaw Sachem Sells Her Land to John Winthrop (courtesy of the Town of Winchester, MA)
In "Main-Street" Nathaniel Hawthorne recounts a reasonably accurate record of 17th century Salem. His portrayal of the changing role of Indians in this one-hundred-year period is romanticized and sometimes close to caricatures as first he describes Indians as noble savages and later as stumbling drunks.

"Main-Street" is a narrative history of the metamorphosis of a pathway through a primordial, untouched forest barely trodden by moccasined Indians into a busy main-street thoroughfare that winds through a large, bustling town trodden by increasingly sophisticated white settlers. In the story a showman turns the crank of a picture show that captures a 100- year history of a single spot in New England to an audience which includes a critical viewer who mocks the poor workmanship of the cardboard people and buildings while he belittles the story-teller's condensed portrayal of people important to the region.

Hawthorne romanticizes the "majestic and queenly" Squaw Sachem and her husband, the chief Wappacowet, as noble redmen who naively imagine that their life styles and forested homes will endure forever. Then Hawthorne recounts the decline and disappearance of the Indian who appear originally as the majestic inhabitants of the wilderness before they become trappers who sell animal skins to the white settlers and who finally deteriorate into being drunken Indians who have succumbed to firewater. Hawthorne celebrates nature, laments its disappearance, and hints that eventually wilderness may return and reclaim the industrialized town.

According to Margaret Moore in The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne (16-17), Hawthorne read voraciously about the past. She believes his historical account to be based on thorough research.

Hawthorne's sketch, "Main-Street," illustrates his grasp of that history. One of the few pieces he wrote while he was surveyor at the Salem Custom House, it first appeared in Elizabeth Palmer Peabody's Aesthetic Papers in 1849 and was collected in The Snow Image and Other Twice Told Tales in 1851. All can be documented in the historical record. Hawthorne had learned it from Thomas Hutchinson or William Bentley, or from Joseph Barlow Felt. His retelling of that history should not be overlooked (Moore 17). (courtesy of University of Missouri Press)

In "Main Street" (1852) Hawthorne repeats the theme that Indians will gradually disappear as the white race takes over the wilderness which will also vanish.

In his Journal of 1837, at 33, Hawthorne wrote:

Our Indian races having reared no monuments, like the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, when they have disappeared from the earth their history will appear a fable, and they misty phantoms.
(from The Heart of Hawthorne's Journals, Edited by Newton Arvin)(courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Co.)

Page citation: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/11408/

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